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The Purity of Sin

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xxx

Well, Lance thought as he struggled to control the rising panic, they were not joking about the sacrifice bit.

Or, at least he could assume as such given the predicament he currently found himself in. Strapped down to a giant stone table? Check. Dressed in some freaky, badly-fitting clothes? Check. Huge looming statute that must be the goddess they mentioned looming over said table? Check. And let him not forget the hundreds upon hundreds of cloaked bobcat looking creatures, all standing around, holding paws and chanting below their breath.

He futilely tried tugging on the ropes holding his hands immobile, ocean eyes darting around the cavernous room for any hope of escape or some friendly soul. But all of the Mackans appeared fully committed to their chant with an almost feverish desperation shining from their eyes. The supposed head of their clan, the High Priest, dressed in white robes against the sea of green, approached Lance then with a large ceremonial knife in his paw.

Dios, he was going to actually die, wasn't he? Lance renewed his struggles for all the good they were doing him. He tried to speak to them around the gag, "We're Paladins of Voltron, damnit! Stop!" but he was only capable of muffled noises.

The knife drew closer.

Keith? Where was Keith? He looked again about the sea of creatures as if expecting the Red Paladin turned Black to make one of his grand entrances. Last minute as always, right? But no welcome mullet came into view.

The head Mackan was at the table now, standing just behind Lance's head to where if he tipped his back he could catch the underside of the furry chin. The creature raised the knife and Lance flinched, thoughts both running amuck and freezing as he watched literal death descend.

But to his immense relief the knife halted, hovering just above his face and the quiet chanting went silent as if a switch was flipped. He waited with baited breath, chest heaving.

"Brothers and Sisters," intoned the High Priest, sharp teeth flashing in a grin. "It is time for the Purity of Sin so our sacrifice will be acceptable to our goddess, Lady Leora." Cheers greeted his statement and Lance felt the last little piece of hope shrivel and die as the yellow slitted eyes met his in the reflection of the blade. "Let us begin."

xxx

A few hours earlier:

"This will be such a grand opportunity," Allura exclaimed, hands clasped in front of her. "We require more allies in our fight against the Galra Empire and now we have the ability to gain two powerful ones from the same quadrant."

"I don't like the idea of us splitting up," Keith said bluntly. "It's dangerous."

"Says the guy who chased Lotor into an unknown planet atmosphere and left us all in the dust," Lance added in his two cents. Purple eyes flashed to him and Lance held up his hands. "Just pointing it out, Mr. Kettle."

Keith ground his teeth. "I still don't think it's a good idea."

"We cannot delay any more time," Allura said. "The longer we remain in one place the more likely we are to run into Lotor or other Galran cruisers. Splitting up so we can reach both locations makes the most sense. Besides, the Macka were once great allies to Altea and I am certain the Sabobids will be just as welcoming. We have nothing to fear."

"And the ship really needs repairs," Hunk added, patting the arm of his chair consolingly. "It got banged up pretty bad in that last escape. And if the Sabobids are as technologically advanced as Allura says they can really help us out."

"Besides," Pidge said, stars practically dancing in her eyes, "it's a whole planet made of technology, Keith. How amazing is that?" She and Hunk exchanged grins of pure delight.

"What, the magic planet doesn't get you excited too?" Lance teased.

Pidge frowned. "While I am willing to accept at this point in time there is something out there that can't be fully explained by science, I am not so willing to be a part of it."

"Your loss," Lance grinned. "I bet the whole place is like Hogwarts and they run around with magic wands and don't ever have to lift a finger to clean things."

"Hogwarts?" Keith repeated, puzzled.

"You know, Hogwarts. Harry Potter. Magical boy wizard, the chosen one?" Keith continued to look at Lance like he'd sprouted two heads. "Dude, you are so culturally illiterate it's painful. Pidge, we need to find copies out here somewhere stat. Space mall?"

Allura coughed. "Unless this Harry Potter will be coming to assist us in battle we do not have time to dawdle." She fixed her gaze on Lance while Pidge and Hunk snickered. "Is Harry Potter an ally we can count on?"

"Uh, no, Princess," Lance rubbed the back of his head. "He's fictional."

"Then moving on. We will need a diplomatic envoy for each planet. Lance, I am entrusting this position to you for Macka."

Lance's jaw dropped. "I'm sorry, what? You want me to be our representative?"

"Of all of the Paladins you have a certain… charm," Allura said, "that is required of a diplomat. That does not mean," she said, eyes narrowing, "that you are to flirt or make a joke of this alliance. I am expecting you to represent Voltron with dignity and respect."

Lance's expression grew more serious. He knew what a responsibility this was and the fact that Allura was trusting him, him, was not something he was going to screw up. "I won't let you down," he promised.

She gave him a soft smile. "I do not doubt it. You are Voltron's right-hand now and I know you will do us all proud."

Lance felt a blush steal across his face and he ducked it down to hide his pleasure. It wasn't too often he was on the receiving end of compliments and hearing it from Allura made him feel warm all over.

"That said, you will be accompanying Keith as the leader of Voltron for this meeting while I will accompany the others to Sabobid."

"Just the two of us?" Keith said, shooting Allura a look. "Wouldn't it be better to split the teams evenly if we have to split up at all?"

Lance swung an arm about Keith's shoulders. "Keith, my man, you've got the amazing Lancey Lance on your team. We'll be just fine so long as you listen and do everything I tell you."

Keith sent a beseeching look to Allura trying to communicate "look what you've done."

"I admit I do wish the teams could be split equally, but this is the best configuration," Allura said. "Coran is intrinsic to the Sabobid party as he knows all the ins and outs of the castle and both Pidge and Hunk are needed for their technological expertise. We also know that the Macka were once allies of Altea and worked very closely with our alchemists. While all intelligence points that Sabodid is a neutral party at this point in the war it would be better to have more forces in case we did encounter resistance."

"Fine," Keith sighed, recognizing when to accept defeat and move on. "I still don't like it."

"Duly noted," the princess said. "If that is all settled, we should be reaching the midpoint in the next varga. Keith and Lance, you will take the Black and Red Lions down while the rest of us will continue on in the castle. We will meet back at the drop-off point – Pidge, please add the coordinates to the flight log – in two quintants. If all goes well we will then return to Sabodid as a group and finish any repairs needed."

She looked around to each of the gathered humans, jeweled eyes filled with pride. "The addition of these two allies will help us exponentially in this fight. I know I am placing a lot of responsibility on you, but I know that all of us are capable of rising to the occasion."

Lance broke into applause, earning him an exasperated but fond look from the princess. "Off with you all now," she said. "Except you, Lance."

"Ooh, somebody's in trouble!" Pidge whispered as she passed him, although her smile gave her away.

The room cleared within the dobash, leaving the two alone. Lance shifted on his feet as Allura went to the main console hub where she stored flight logs, transmission scans and plan drafts.

"I drafted a letter last night for you to present the Mackans, specifically their High Priest or Priestess who last I knew of was the authority figure for them," she said, gesturing him over as she pulled it free from underneath a few wayward sheets of castle logistics. "I know this will be your first diplomatic mission, so I wanted to go over a few things before you head out."

"First?" Lance repeated. She couldn't mean…

"You have a natural gift for connecting with people, Lance," she said, meeting his gaze. "It is not something to be taken lightly, especially in times like these. With Shiro gone…" her hands clenched the parchment with a crinkle.

"We'll find him," Lance said softly.

"I know," she said just as quietly. She shook her head then, wiping the sad expression away. "I am relying on you to keep Keith in check. He has improved since our first encounter with Lotor, but he is still impulsive and we do not wish to unintentionally offend potential allies. He will be the leader for the mission, as he is for Voltron, but you will take the lead in all negotiations."

"About that—"

"The letter explains a bit more in detail, but essentially we are here to offer our resources and protection in exchange for their assistance. Primarily we would be hoping to once more use their magic in combination with our alchemy and gain an advantage over the Druids and their magic. Right now we have little that can effectively stop them, so the magic of the Mackans will invaluable.

"It is my hope that given our previous alliance and the threat the Galra Empire poses to the entire universe that the Mackans will be open to forming a union with us. You may use whatever means you have necessary to convince them to join us, but I caution you," and here Allura's expression became more serious, "do not make any promises you cannot keep. Use your best judgment and read the situation. But above all, make sure you are safe. Keith has very good instincts in that regard. Please listen to him if he makes such a call."

Lance nodded. "I understand."

"Good. Then in addition to the letter please stop by the kitchens and pick up a bottle of bullarum – it's a rare Altean beverage for celebratory occasions – to bring with you as well as a gift."

Lance blanched. "It doesn't taste like nunvil, does it?"

Allura huffed. "I do not understand humans' aversion to nunvil. It is the nectar of the Gods themselves!" Lance just stared. "It is not similar in taste to nunvil," she acquiesced. "It is very sweet and has a bubbly texture."

"So long as they like it I guess," Lance said. "Anything else then, Princess?"

"Nothing in particular comes to mind. Just…" Allura placed a slender hand on Lance's shoulder. "Be careful. Have fun. And try as best you can to not antagonize Keith. I know you have your differences, but both of you have grown tremendously in these last few necafebes and I know you will support each other as true friends should."

"Don't you worry," Lance grinned. "We're going to have a great time and get Voltron a new ally and I promise, scout's honor, to be on my best behavior."

And he would. This was one of his first big responsibilities since becoming the Red Lion's Paladin and subsequently the right-hand of Voltron and he was not going to screw it up.

He would make them all proud.

xxx

"It's so hot," Lance moaned, trekking after Keith across the dusty ground of Macka. "Why is it so hot?"

The planet resembled a desert although without the sand. Instead, giant plains of yellow and red and brown rocks stretched as far as the eye could see before jutting into cliffs. There wasn't a breeze to speak of and the only vegetation they'd yet encountered were spindly orange plants that sort of looked like seaweed but upon touching them they felt like coral.

The only positive thing about the planet's ecosystem was that the air was breathable to humans. Both Paladins were carrying their helmets under their arms as the heat had been near unbearable and their breath was fogging up the glass. Sweat was already beading both of their hairlines and at this rate Lance was a little worried for their water supply as both had grabbed a small canteen. They'd left the rest of their resources in the Lions with the plans to retrieve them once they had found the Mackans.

The planet wasn't overly large, but it was still large enough. Allura had given them coordinates as to where she believed the Mackans' civilization to be, but they were apparently a little outdated as the two had been walking for near a varga now with no sign of life anywhere.

"We'll go a half varga more," Keith decided for them. "If we don't see anything we'll turn around and go back to the Lions, regroup, and head in a different direction."

"Best thing you've ever said," Lance said. "Seriously though, where are these guys?" His voice dropped. "You don't think they… you know…"

"I have no idea what you're trying to say," Keith sighed. "What is it?"

"Died," Lance whispered, looking all around them as the back of his neck prickled. "I mean, it's been ten thousand years, yeah? What if the Galrans got them? Or they were wiped out by this heat? Maybe their land was once thriving and then a giant meteor hit it like the dinosaurs and they're just boom!" he punctuated it with a hand clap, "Extinct and there's just nothing left at all."

"Then we'll find out eventually," Keith replied. "But we're not going back until we've searched the whole planet."

Lance groaned. "I knew you'd say that."

They made it a few more minutes in silence, Lance idly kicking a small rock in front of him like a soccer ball, when Keith came to a sudden stop. "I hear something."

Lance cocked his head, listening. "I don't," he said after a few ticks. A grin widened his face. "Must be that Galran side, huh? I always figured that their big fuzzy ears had to—"

"Quiet," Keith hissed.

Lance's neck prickled again and he shifted so he was standing next to Keith, his hand lighting on his bayard. The ground in front of them curved around a rock face, blocking their direct line of sight. As they stood there Lance was able to pick out the slight sound of scuffing on the ground.

A few seconds later a group of figures rounded the bend and Lance felt a smile tugging on his face. Allura had told them they had feline features but this… they were so cute!

The Mackans were a little shorter than Pidge, but wider and looked like bobcats but with smaller ears. They were covered it what looked like super soft downy brown and gray fur and walking on their hind feet only. They were wearing little robes in forest green and Lance barely held back his squeak of joy that the fact these adorable creatures were wizards too.

The three Mackans jumped back a few paces in obvious surprise as they spotted the Paladins, their ears clearly not as adept as Keith's.

"Hello," Lance called, moving his hand away from his bayard and spreading them out in front of him in what he hoped was the universal sign of peace. He set his helmet gently on the ground. "You must be Mackans. My name is Lance and I'm here with Voltron."

The Mackans did not release their defensive posture.

"We were sent here by Princess Allura of Altea," Lance continued, taking a cautious step towards them. "I know it's been about ten thousand years, but Macka and Altea were allies then and we're here to help you and hope you can help us."

"Lance," Keith said lowly as the Cuban continued to advance. He didn't like this. Something felt wrong.

"It's fine, it's fine," Lance assured. He had a job to do and Keith was going to have to trust him on this. He shot a winning smile at the creatures, who were slowly lowering their arms from where they'd flung them up. And look at that, he was right. Nothing to be worried about. "We're looking to talk to your High Priest or Priestess," he continued. "Can you take us to them please?"

The Mackans started to speak amongst themselves then, a language that neither human recognized. Then as one – and Lance would admit, it was a little freaky – all of their heads turned to focus directly on Lance, yellow slitted eyes meeting his dead on and went silent.

"Is that a yes?" Lance smiled. "We—"

"Naráz," the middle Mackan said, voice a cross between a purr and a growl. And before Lance could blink a bright green light was flying from the creature's paws at him.

It collided solidly with his left shoulder and Lance gasped as it felt like an icicle had just stabbed into his arm and his entire limb fell limp at his side.

"Hey, hey," he cried, backpedaling while he heard Keith drawing his bayard behind him. "We're friendly. We're here to help you. We don't want to fight."

"Naráz," the Mackan said again and this time Lance managed to avoid the hit, diving to the side. He overbalanced though as his entire left arm was deadweight and what should have been a graceful roll ended up with him sprawled on the ground.

And then suddenly all three of the Mackans were yelling out the same word – magic, Lance realized with equal parts excitement and fear – that morphed more into the latter as the creatures rushed at him, claws out and fangs bared. They didn't look so cuddly anymore.

Then Keith was there, leaping over Lance with all the grace of an actual lion, landing and deflecting the spells with his bayard and shield.

"Get up," Keith roared, barely managing to intercept one of the spells before it hit Lance. "We have to go!"

"Right," Lance gasped, struggling to his feet and drawing his bayard awkwardly in just his right hand. He set it to stun. This was probably some big misunderstanding and it would look really, really bad for negotiations if they severely injured them.

They could retreat to the Lions for now and figure out a better plan to approach that didn't get them fired upon immediately. Although that was going to be easier said than done.

Their exchange though had apparently brought reinforcements. Mackans were appearing from all sides now, each chanting the same word and bolts of light were coming in from every direction. Lance yelped as one managed to hit his right foot and he went down with a grunt as the entire limb seemed to freeze.

He took out a few with his bayard, each shot flying straight and true, while Keith focused more on covering them both as his short-range sword was not helpful with the attacks being launched from yards away and he unable to dive into the thick of things without leaving Lance behind. Lance felt a wash of guilt at that, but it couldn't be helped.

The Mackans realized quickly though which weapon was a bigger threat as Lance picked them off one by one with stunningly accurate headshots.

Lance couldn't help the scream that tore its way up his throat as they launched a coordinated barrage that broke through his front shield and the spell bolts slammed into him.

It was like ice was burning in his veins, catching every piece of him alight with agony that didn't end. He could hear his scream die as the ice wound its way into his lungs, freezing them, while the rest of his body sang with fire as it tipped over and slammed into the ground.

Keith was yelling behind him, a desperation that Lance didn't think he'd ever heard before and he could feel the magic blasts flying thick around them. Keith's cry turned to one of pain and Lance was vaguely aware of his fellow Paladin falling next to him while the Mackans descended in a flurry of claws and yellow-amber orbs and grinning canines.

And then he knew no more.

xxx

 

Chapter Text

 

Lance came to with the terrible feeling of pins and needles stabbing every limb. He groaned, burying his face into his raised shoulder. Had he fallen asleep in the hangar again watching Hunk work?

No, he decided. Hunk would most certainly have moved him. His eyes narrowed. Pidge. This would be something she would do, the little gremlin. Payback for taking the last garlic biscuit Hunk had made at dinner the other night. A smirk twitched his lips up even as he moaned at the reawakening limbs. It had been delicious.

Knowing that the best way to wake up his sleeping body was to move, Lance rolled over, half-expecting to see the cavernous hanger ceiling and the Green Lion and a smug Pidge looming over him. Instead though there was intricate stonework in shades of brown and red and a glowing red light that looked like an energy barrier.

Lance sat up with a jerk as he remembered why he was in this position. The Mackans had attacked him and Keith and – Keith! Where was Keith? Swiveling his head left and right, Lance let out a soft breath as he spotted his fellow Paladin a few feet away, still unconscious and with the same energy barrier surrounding him but looking unharmed.

Keith had been stripped of his outer armor and after a glance down Lance realized his was gone too. Along with his bayard. Great. Nothing like being absolutely defenseless with a pack of wizard bobcats that had sharp teeth on top of magic. Lance bit back the shiver of fear.

"Positives," he told himself, tapping his cheeks lightly. "Think about those." Okay, well, positives. They were alive. That was good. And other than the painful tingling that was slowly subsiding as he bounced his legs on the ground neither he nor Keith appeared injured.

They were clearly at the Mackans' base, which they had been trying to find. That was good too. And maybe here they could meet with the leader and figure all of this out. Obviously there had been a giant misunderstanding and the Mackans had taken them to be enemies. Well, as soon as Lance spoke with them he was sure they could iron everything out. Allura did say he had charm and he was certain he could turn this around.

Carefully standing, Lance stomped his feet to return them to feeling. The energy barrier was taunting him and although Lance knew it probably wouldn't work he couldn't stop himself from reaching out a tentative finger to touch it.

He yelped as a sizzle of energy shocked him and he stuck the burning digit in his mouth, eyes narrowing. Okay, so as figured no strolling out of here. He couldn't even reach Keith either, as both of them seemed to be contained in their own energy force field prison, sharing a front energy wall but divided down the middle keeping them separated. He looked again at said mullet in question, reassuring himself that he did indeed see Keith breathing and that meant he was alive.

He wondered how long it had been; there was no window in this room not that he knew the first thing about this planet's daylight cycle. Hopefully not too long, he hoped. His stomach wasn't growling yet and he considered it a pretty good indicator of meal times, so maybe two hours at most?

Keith let out a soft groan and twitched on the ground, breaking Lance from his evaluation of his stomach.

"Hey man, you waking up?" Lance called out.

Keith made another garbled noise. One bright purple eye flicked open. Unlike Lance he seemed to realize immediately what had happened and pushed himself to sitting.

"Don't touch it," Lance advised as those amethyst orbs looked at the barrier. "It'll shock you."

Lance didn't know why he tried as Keith pushed his whole hand against it, only to remove it a tick later with a tiny hitch of his breath. "Told you," he sighed. "What are you, a masochist or something?"

"What the quiznack?" Keith muttered, ignoring Lance and also rising to his feet. Lance was secretly jealous of how quick he had shaken off the pins and needles that were still plaguing his hands. But hey, he'd take that any day over the absolute pain as he felt all of his insides freeze. Just thinking about it made him wince.

At that moment the door across the chamber opened and in strode three Mackans, the lead one in a white robe while one in green and one in silver flanked it. The one in white seemed to be in charge, as in addition to the different colored robe a series of jewels hung from its ears and a ceremonial sash angled outside the robes, which contrasted against its near black fur. Lance would bet an entire week of cryo-pod cleaning that this was the High Priest.

"Hey there," Lance greeted as cheerfully as he could, raising a hand up in a wave. "There seems to have been some misunderstanding here. I was hoping we could talk about it."

"Sáta buiy schio nadoá," the Mackan in white replied in what sounded like a cross between a purr and a growl.

"Sorry," Lance apologized. "I'm not following."

The Mackan cleared its throat. "It seems you speak the universal tongue," it said, voice less accented by growls now and very masculine, and Lance started in surprise. "That is convenient."

"The universal tongue?" Lance repeated.

The Mackan inclined his head. "What you are speaking."

Lance's eyes widened and he turned to Keith. "Keith! Did you know English was the universal tongue? How crazy is that? Wow, no wonder we've never had trouble communicating with all of the different aliens!"

Keith was not as amused. "Why did you attack us?" he demanded.

"What my buddy here means to say," Lance interjected as the Mackans bristled, "is there seems to be a misunderstanding. We're Paladins of Voltron and came here to ask for your assistance and offer our own. I think we got off on the wrong foot."

"The Paladins of Voltron?" the Mackan repeated.

Lance nodded. "Yeah, I'm Lance, the Blue Paladin… er, well, I suppose I'm the Red Paladin now because I pilot the Red Lion but I still wear the blue armor… or, well, I was wearing it but it looks like you guys borrowed it for a bit. Keith here is the Black Paladin and the leader of our team, but he wears red so I guess he's also the Red Paladin."

Lance looked at Keith, confusion crossing his features. "How exactly are we introducing ourselves now? I mean, Allura pilots Blue but she wears pink armor and there's definitely no Pink Lion and the Pink Paladin sounds kind of lame, no offense to her."

Lance could hear Keith's teeth grinding and he grinned at him. Good. At least if Keith was getting irritated with him then he wasn't getting angry at the Mackans because Lance really, really needed Keith to not go off on their captors-soon-to-be-turned-gracious-hosts. He shot a wink at the grumpy mullet and Keith gave a slow nod back, yielding for now.

"Anyways," Lance said, turning back to the trio and giving off a mega-watt smile that had always made the alien girls blush. "We're here representing the Paladins of Voltron and also Princess Allura of Altea. The universe is currently at war with the Galra Empire and we were hoping that based on your old alliance with Altea ten thousand years ago you would join forces with us once again. We'd love to discuss it with you some more, so if you'll just let us out of here…" He nodded helpfully at the barrier.

But to Lance's surprise the Mackan shook his head. "We know of no such war, Paladin of Voltron. Our Lady Leora protects and provides for us and we seek nothing further."

"Could we speak with Lady Leora?" Lance asked. "I'm sure if—"

"How dare you speak our goddesses' name so freely!" exclaimed the silver-robed Mackan, lilt giving her away as female.

Lance held up his hands placatingly. "I apologize," he said, tipping his head in deference. "I meant no disrespect."

"Our goddess is a supreme being," the black Mackan said. "She will not converse with outsiders. As High Priest I speak in her place and will say this: we have no desire to get involved in outside matters. I know not of this old alliance you speak of, but Macka will not partake in such things again."

"I understand," Lance said. "But, please, listen. The Galra Empire will not simply bypass Macka. It seeks to overtake all planets in the universe and yours will eventually be in grave danger. We would like to help you."

"And help us you shall," the Mackan said, a grin showing sharp incisors. "You have come at a wonderful time, Paladins of Voltron. It is nearly time for us to cast a Purity of Sin ritual and if what you say is true, then Lady Leora will require additional strength to repel these invaders."

"The Purity of Sin?" Lance repeated. "That sounds… very interesting. Perhaps we might be permitted to watch?" After all, the more time he had with them the more Lance was certain he could show them how truly dangerous the Galra Empire was and how an alliance with Voltron would benefit them. He didn't want to fail on his first diplomatic mission.

"Oh, Paladin of Voltron, you shall do more than watch." The grin widened and Lance suppressed a shiver at the look that seemed to steal across the Mackan's face. "You shall be the sacrifice."

Lance stared, for the first time in his life at a loss for words.

"You will release us now," Keith snarled, stepping right up to the edge of his barrier. "And that is not a request."

"I cannot do that," the Mackan said, although he did not look apologetic at all. "The Lady Leora requires a sacrifice for her protection. And while we all accept when we are chosen and go forth to accept Purity with joy, why should we offer up one of our own when two kits have so generously offered themselves? We accept your offer to help us with much thanks."

"I'm not sure we're on the same page as to the word 'help,'" Lance said, trying to keep his voice even despite the pit that was growing in his stomach. "See, where we come from it doesn't involving sacrifice rituals and the like. And as much as we would really like to assist you, um, well… you can't kill us," he finally said. "It's terrible manners to murder your guests, after all."

"You are not guests," the Mackan responded. "You have graciously offered your help and we with great thanks accept it so we may spare the life of one of our own kin. You shall both henceforth be considered sacrifices for Lady Leora."

"Dude, that is not cool," Lance protested. "Seriously. We'll leave peacefully if you aren't interested in the alliance, but this is a bit extreme."

The head Mackan merely smiled and turned his back to them, the other two Mackans copying him and huddling to speak quietly in their own language. Lance exchanged a glance with Keith, and he was relieved to see that rather than the fear that was plaguing him Keith didn't look scared. Keith looked pissed.

"Any ideas, oh fearless leader?" Lance murmured, hoping his voice didn't tremble as much as he imagined it to.

"They'll have to lower the barriers," Keith said just as quietly. "We'll rush them then."

Lance barely held back a squeak. "That's your plan?" he hissed. "They have magic. And claws and teeth. I don't know about that Galran half of yours, but there is no way I'm overpowering even one of them."

"Then distract one and I'll take care of the rest," Keith said bluntly.

"With what?"

Because while Lance knew Keith's hand to hand skills were nearly unrivaled this was more than a one-sided battle. The Mackans may be relatively small in height, but Lance had no qualms that their stockiness was from muscle and they weren't above using their predatory features. Meanwhile he and Keith were unarmed and as far as Lance knew being half-Galran had not imbued Keith with super-strength even if he did have insane reflexes.

"Trust me," Keith said.

Lance gave a slow nod. "All right."

Because Lance did. For all his faults and how he hated the mantle of leader, Lance knew Keith would not hesitate to protect all of them. And, as Allura had pointed out, he did have excellent instincts. Instincts he should have listened to when Keith first warned him about the Mackans, Lance thought bitterly. But there was nothing to be done about it now. Now he just had to listen to what Keith said so they could both get out of this.

The Mackans seemed to have finished up their whispered conversation as well and the head Mackan approached again. "It has been decided," he said. "The tall one shall be our first sacrifice." To Lance he said, "I commend you, Paladin of Voltron, for this honor. And thank you." He bowed low.

"I'd really rather decline," Lance told him to no reaction as the High Priest turned to face Keith.

"We shall keep you alive, Paladin of Voltron, until our next no-moon cycle where you too will then become bathed in Purity and sacrificed to our Lady Leora." He bowed again to Keith.

Lance braced his feet as they turned to look at him. This was it. Any second now the barrier holding him captive would fall and ignoring every self-preservation instinct he had he was going to rush a wizard bobcat alien. He was ready. Sort of. Not really. But Keith was counting on him to do something and Lance knew that he could at the very least provide a distraction while Keith did whatever he was planning. Although all of this was sort of banking on Keith's barrier being lowered too, but it was a little late for anything else and Lance just crossed his fingers that something went right for them.

The black Mackan raised his paws and they glowed a red that matched the barriers. Lance took a deep breath, preparing himself. "Nována," the Mackan said.

But the barrier did not fall.

Instead agony unlike anything Lance had ever experienced exploded across his senses as the barrier turned to a ring of fire and shrunk inwards and collided with him. Lance screamed, crashing to the floor. He was on fire. Literal fire, tongues of flame racing across his skin and angrily devouring every bit it could find.

He scream turned into a shriek as the flames seemed to sink inside him and his insides were alight with lava. He could dimly hear Keith screaming his name over his own cries and the sizzling of flesh meeting the unyielding barrier.

Lance managed to turn his head in the throes of pain beyond description and locked eyes with Keith, surprised to see actual tears sparkling in the overly bright eyes as Keith pounded his fists against the spelled wall.

He was going to die. The horror was dulled by the absolute anguish taking over his body, but that thought remained clear. He was going to be burned to death without even so much as a good bye.

It hurt. Dios, it hurt. Another screech of agony was torn from him, even as he fought to hold Keith's gaze for as long as he could, desperately seeking some sort of comfort, peace.

He screamed and cried until he had nothing left to him except never-ending pain. And then finally, blackness crept across the hellish red and bore him away from all of the suffering.

Keith's scream turned inhuman as Lance's eyes slipped closed – you killed him, his mind whispered, you let him die –and the fire continued to feast around the prone body. He screamed until he wasn't sure he had a voice left, his hands bleeding and raw from the barrier. The Mackans looked on indifferently while the head one kept his glowing paws outstretched.

Keith slumped down against the wall, the sting against his cheek and hands not even registering as he stared at what was once Lance. How had… how had this happened? Lance couldn't be… couldn't be…

Lance had trusted him. He'd looked to Keith to get them out and Keith had failed. He'd beyond failed. His incompetence had just gotten one of his team killed.

A tear trekked down his cheek, hitting the barrier with a hiss. No, Keith amended. Teammate was too impersonal now, had been for a while even if he refused to acknowledge it. Friend, he realized. Lance was a friend. And he'd just gotten him killed.

"Lance," he rasped, throat aching from abused vocal chords. It wasn't supposed to be like this. He just lost Shiro. He couldn't… he couldn't have lost Lance too.

The Mackan spoke another word, a spell, and the flames went out without even a whoosh. And Keith's eyes widened at what they'd left behind, a tiny ember of hope flickering in his heart.

There was no burnt corpse on the ground, no flaking pieces of ash and white bone. Lance was there, whole and solid, mocha skin untouched and not a hair seemingly disturbed on his head. The only thing that appeared to have suffered was his under armor, lying in mounds of burnt leftovers and leaving Lance without a stitch on. But he drew breath, his shoulder rising ever so slightly from Keith's limited line of sight.

Keith released the sob that had been building. He was alive. Lance was alive.

"His body has been purified by the Fire of Sin," the High Priest intoned, drawing Keith's attention. "We shall now prepare his soul for the Purity of Sin."

The other two Mackans stepped forward, each grabbing one of Lance's limp arms to heft him forward.

"Don't touch him," Keith growled, rising back to full height and mustering the deadliest glare he could, which wasn't too hard as if he had the ability they would all combust on the spot, relief giving way to burning anger.

"We are doing you a great service, Paladin of Voltron," the head Mackan smiled. "We are freeing you from your bodies of mortal sin and allowing you to ascend to enlightenment. This war you speak of will no longer weigh heavily on you for it is no longer your burden to bear."

"Get back here!" Keith yelled as all three turned and exited, dragging Lance between them. He pounded uselessly on the barrier to no effect, screaming at them long after the door slammed shut.

Okay, calm down, he told himself, taking a shuddering breath and then another. He couldn't help Lance like this. Patience yields focus as Shiro always said. Breathe, wait, listen.

Take inventory. He was still in his under armor, bayard and communications systems gone. Still... His hand lighted on his lower back, feeling the sheath of his knife pressing uncomfortably just above his tailbone. His luxite blade. He normally carried it while in full Paladin armor in a sheath that the armor had made for him on his leg opposite his bayard.

He wasn't sure what it was, maybe that feeling of unease he'd had since Allura had announced the mission, but he had chosen not to display it and kept it hidden instead. He had never been so grateful for whatever had prompted such a decision.

The room they had been kept was reduced now to just his energy barrier, the one that had encircled Lance gone. The room did not appear to have any technology, but given the use of magic Keith was not surprised. He couldn't say for sure whether or not they had a different way of observing him though.

His eyes lighted on a small green orb that hovered in the far right corner near the ceiling. It wasn't a light source, as that was provided by the torches in brackets around the room, and Keith didn't see any others. That must be their camera system, he concluded, baring his teeth at it.

He prowled around his cage like a captive lion. He tried calling out to Black and even Red, but no welcoming presence touched his mind. Whether they were too far away or the Mackans had done something was anyone's guess though.

Time was of the essence and he felt that he was wasting it trying to think of a better plan than hit the barrier with his blade. He had no idea how long this ritual would take and Lance didn't have time for him to dawdle. They called him reckless, he knew, but nothing else was coming to mind.

Decision made, Keith managed to worm the sheath free from under the shirt. As soon as it was in his hand he felt a wave of reassurance that even canceled out the sharp sting as the handle met abused flesh. Perhaps he shouldn't have pounded so hard on the barrier in hindsight, but he still had full mobility and the grip wasn't too painful.

He channeled his power into it and the blade grew into the chosen near-scimitar short sword. Keith gave it a few seconds, waiting to see if anyone was going to charge in now that that he had a weapon, looking defiantly at what was the presumed camera.

After near thirty ticks he decided that was enough. Without any further hesitation he swung the blade straight into the barrier.

And to his absolute shock it bounced off, sending him stumbling forward with the momentum.

"What the quiznak?" he gasped, eyes darting between the barrier and the sword. Luxite was one of the most powerful elements in the entire universe. There should be nothing it couldn't cut through.

Keith tried for a stabbing motion, but the sword skittered lengthwise along the barrier. He attacked it then in a flurry of hits, desperation growing as not a single one made so much as a hairline crack. No wonder no one had come, he thought bitterly. They knew he couldn't escape.

And if he couldn't break himself free with even a luxite blade then he wasn't breaking out at all. And then… then Lance would die. For real, this time, as if being burned to death in front of him hadn't been scarring enough. Keith knew he'd likely be saved; when they didn't come back in two quintants Allura would know something was wrong and they'd come down and bust him out.

But Lance didn't have two days. Keith didn't even know if he had two varga. Or even two dobashes, although he liked to think a ritual as big as the one they were describing would at least take some degree of preparation.

What did he do?

He wished Shiro was here. Shiro would know what to do, he was sure of it. But no, it was just him. Lance was relying on him, Keith, the impulsive hothead whose plan of attack was generally just attack. And a lot of good that had done him, he thought bitterly, eyeing the impenetrable magic wall.

Think. Think. What would Lance do in this situation? Keith snorted at the picture that popped up of Lance flirting with the Mackans. Yeah, charm had already clearly not worked and he knew any attempts by him would fall flat anyways. He distinctively lacked ability in that department.

Thinking in terms of Pidge or Hunk didn't help either as small stature, brute strength and technological skills would be useless here given the fact there was no tech to hack. Possibly Shiro's arm could have cut through it, but otherwise Shiro's approach of calm discussion would be useless as well because Lance had covered that angle quite well and it had failed too.

What did he, Keith, have? A reckless abandon for his own safety and a sword, that's what.

Reckless abandon and a sword, huh? A sharp grin crossed his face.

He could work with that.

xxx

 

Chapter Text

 

Keith's hands were shaking in both anticipation and a slight thrill of fear. This was either going to work or it was going to backfire horribly.

He forced himself to take a steadying breath, willing the tremble to cease. He couldn't afford any extra movement. Not when luxite was entirely unforgiving and one wrong twitch would literally be the death of him.

He turned to face what he had determined was the Mackans version of a camera system and slowly raised his blade, shrunk back to carrying size, to his neck. And then very deliberately he pressed it against his flesh.

Immediately the blade tasted blood and he felt a trickle make its way down his neck to land in the collar of his undershirt. He made no other movement except to glare at the glowing orb, daring someone to stop him.

After thirty more ticks he pressed the blade once more flush and felt another warm trail descend.

His logic was actually pretty sound, he thought. The Mackans needed him alive so they could sacrifice him. If he threatened his own life they would have no choice but to react. And given the way he was holding the knife they couldn't be reckless in their attempts to subdue him as one wrong turn and they'd lose their precious sacrifice.

Keith's grin sharpened as the door to the chamber burst open and a single Mackan hurried in, paws already glowing with a purple light. This one appeared younger than the others and dressed in brown robes over the green or white. Perhaps a novice assigned to the boring task of guard duty, Keith surmised. Excellent.

"Careful," Keith smirked, although it was addressed more to himself as a reminder. "You wouldn't want to make me slip, would you?"

"Lower your weapon immediately," the Mackan growled, voice young, and Keith picked up the fear behind it and his smile widened. Got him.

"Lower the barrier," Keith replied.

In answer the Mackan's paws glowed brighter. Keith responded by pressing the blade even more into his neck, unable to hide the wince as more blood flowed.

"Stop!" cried the Mackan. "Don't do that!"

"Lower the barrier now," Keith demanded. "Or I swear I'll do it."

He could see the Mackan thinking, brow furrowed even as he kept his paws forward. Keith could even imagine the creature's thoughts as he often did the same when sizing up an enemy. If the Mackan lowered the barrier and moved quickly he could disable Keith and pull the knife away. His species gave him the advantage in terms of speed and strength and the addition of magic would solidify his position. Then, he could stall Keith until reinforcements arrived as no doubt someone else was already scurrying down.

Keith's expression turned near feral with delight as the Mackan gave a hesitant nod. "I will lower the barrier," he said. "Do not move, Paladin of Voltron."

Keith didn't bother that ridiculous comment with a reply. He remained still though as the barrier shimmered around him before it faded away, not trusting some trick. He honestly couldn't believe it had worked so well this far.

"Now hand over your knife," the Mackan ordered, stepping forward.

"Take it." And quicker than lightning he whipped the knife from his throat and at the Mackan.

The creature let out a yowl as the blade slammed into its chest, propelling it backwards across the chamber. Keith wasted no time, dashing forward and delivering a powerful kick to the bobcat's head that sent it crashing into the floor, unconscious.

Keith bent down and yanked the blade free, wiping the orange colored blood on the Mackan's robes with a grimace.

He converted it back into a sword then and hacked off a piece of said robes that were still clean and very quickly tied it about his neck, wincing at the sting of cloth against his self-inflicted injuries. But it had worked and that's what mattered.

And now it was time to save Lance.

"Hang on," he muttered, taking off through the wide open door and into the unknown. "I'm coming."

xxx

"Let us begin."

The declaration sent all of the Mackans into wild cheering while Lance could only squirm uselessly against the restraints, praying for some divine intervention. And not from their Lady Leora, no thank you. Preferably in the design of a giant fireball that wiped them all out and somehow left him alive, just like the extinction event he'd described to Keith earlier.

His body still ached with remembered pain of flames, but somehow he had awoken unhurt. Although waking up strapped to a giant stone table as a sacrifice really wasn't all that much better.

"We thank the Paladin of Voltron for his offering to our great goddess Lady Leora," the High Priest continued, the cheers silencing at the sound of his voice. "The Paladin of Voltron speaks the universal tongue and as a thank you for his great sacrifice we shall perform the ritual rites so that he may understand the glory that he will soon be."

Lance tried to speak, plead, around the rope gag once more, but his words were but noises. He wasn't even sure what he was trying to say at this point, fear rending him inarticulate. He just knew this wasn't how it was supposed to end. If he had to go he had wanted it to be in a blaze of glory, protecting his friends, saving the universe.

He hadn't even gotten to say good bye. A sob wrenched up his throat. Not to his friends, not to Hunk… his dreams of coming home a hero, diving into his mamá's arms for the best hug of his life were over. His life was over. And what a terrible, terrible way to go.

"This Paladin of Voltron's body has been cleansed by the Fires of Sin," the white robed Mackan said, stalking about the stone table as Lance tried to keep him in sight, knowing it did no good but it gave him something to focus on. At least when death came he would see it.

"Now, it is time to cleanse the Paladin of Voltron's soul with the Purity of Sin so he might become an acceptable sacrifice for Lady Leora," the Mackan continued. "We of Macka subscribe to the fundamental belief that Sin must be eradicated in all of its forms: the Sin of Speech, the Sin of Sight and the Sin of Sound."

The Mackan may have been speaking so Lance could understand, but he could barely concentrate on the words over the fear gripping his heart. Dios, por favor he prayed, ayúdame. Por favor.

The Mackan raised his paws skyward. "Speaketh, seeth, heareth," he intoned.

"Speaketh, seeth, heareth," the assembled Mackans chanted back.

"Ladrás, maras, sentas," he called then.

"Ladrás, maras, sentas."

The chant built in intensity and Lance winced at the sheer volume, still somehow able to hear his own pulse beating wildly in his head. He pulled again on the restraints even though he knew nothing would gisve. But something in him said he had to keep trying, even if it was useless. He wasn't a quitter. There had to be some way out of this.

Every other tight situation he'd gotten himself into he'd always had help or a last minute rescue, like Keith saving him from the airlock when the ship had gone haywire. He'd thought that had been the most terrifying moment of his life, but this took its place easily now. He had never been so scared or felt so helpless.

Tears pricked his eyes, dripping down his cheeks as the chanting somehow still grew and his attempts went nowhere, only chaffing his wrists more. And then just like last time it cut off, Lance's ears ringing in the sudden silence.

The head Mackan approached Lance then, his paws glowing blue and extending all the way along the length of the blade, each jewel glowing with the same brilliance in the hilt.

"We thank you for your sacrifice, Paladin of Voltron," he murmured, and there was no hostility in his voice, but nor was there regret. This was just another sacrifice to them, Lance realized as his heart leapt into his throat. It was a part of their lifestyle, their culture. They did not want to kill him maliciously, there was no evil intent.

Somehow that made it worse.

He whimpered behind the gag as the Mackan forced his right hand to open from his clenched fist and placed the blade the full length of his palm.

"No," he tried to say. "Please. Stop."

"Ladrás novia mesto scolars," the Mackan said, voice a low growl. "Ladrás!"

Blue light exploded from the blade and Lance's scream was lost to the wave of noise as every single Mackan cried out "Ladrás!" and the word echoed over and over in the chamber. His hand was weeping blood, the knife not quite severing it but cutting deep enough to hit bone, while his throat felt like someone had just shoved liquid fire down it.

His vision was blurry with tears, but Lance could make out the head Mackan placing the bloodied knife against the table, head bowed in deference to the statue and murmuring, while the other Mackans continued their cry of Ladrás over and over, eyes glowing the same blue that had enveloped the knife.

And then he saw something. Something was different on the far end of the room, a form leaping high above the chanting and swaying Mackans. His breath hitched, but this time with a sob of relief. Keith. Keith was here.

He was literally using the Mackans as stepping stones, leaping agilely across them to cover the expanse in a matter of ticks and leaving confusion in his wake as those stepped upon came out of their near-trance, eyes fading back to amber.

Keith landed on the table with a thump, sword slicing through the ropes holding Lance's left leg and arm to the table and repeating the same slice on the other side. "Get up!" he yelled, desperation making his voice sharp as Lance weakly scrambled to sitting, hand crying out as it pressed on the rough stone.

Keith ended up yanking Lance roughly by his left arm and dragging him forward, diving back into the masses of Mackans that were realizing something was amiss and the chanting slowly dying away. Lance lacked Keith's natural grace to use the aliens as springboards, so he had no choice but to allow Keith to cut a path through the crowd, screams and yelps splitting the air as Keith's sword met flesh, stumbling behind.

The head Mackan had come out of his bow and was screaming now, although his words were lost in both translation and distance as Keith propelled them out of the crowd and into an offshoot of a hallway. They had no pursuers yet, but as soon as the Mackans reoriented themselves Lance knew they'd be in real trouble.

He tried to ask Keith were they were going, but the rope gag still held his voice in check. He couldn't even try to pull it off either as Keith had an iron grip on his left forearm and his right hand was still crying out in its own agony to where he knew he could not force it to pull the rough rope free.

It's not like it really mattered. Anywhere was better than where they came from. And not even a dobash later Lance could see sunlight streaming in from up ahead and he put on an extra burst of speed, nearly bypassing Keith, who let go of his arm in surprise.

"This way," Keith shouted, picking a path that led away from a series of stone arches that looked to go to a courtyard and instead headed towards never-ending plains and outcroppings of stone. Lance wasn't in any position to argue for the sake of picking the opposite and followed, left hand unsuccessfully trying to pull the gag free as they continued their sprint.

His feet started to ache shortly thereafter, sharp pebbles and rough stone digging into his bare flesh while Keith still in full under armor and footwear did not have the same hindrance. Lance risked a glance behind them as they plowed on, eyes widening at the dots of red that were staining the ground from both his feet and still freely bleeding hand.

He knew that the Mackans' hearing didn't appear to be anything special, but they did resemble bobcats and Lance knew that those had a keen sense of smell and their sight had to be halfway decent. All of this running was going to be for nothing if they just tracked them following a conveniently laid blood crumb trail.

Finally he was able to wrench the gag down over his lower lip and then off his chin so it pooled about his neck. "Keith, wait!" he shouted.

Or, well, should have shouted. No sound passed his lips.

Lance coughed to clear his throat, but even that noise was absent. His left hand flew to the base of his neck, panic starting to build as further attempts to speak, yell and even whisper were met with same haunting silence.

"Sin must be eradicated," he could hear the Mackan saying. "The Sin of Speech…"

No. No no no no no. He swallowed thickly, trying once more, screaming for Keith to stop but the smaller boy just kept going with no indication he'd heard anything.

"Keith!" he cried, throat aching at the attempt but still nothing. "Keith! Wait! Please!"

Nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing.

Keith was getting further and further away, not noticing that Lance had practically stopped, left hand frozen against his neck. What did he do? What did he do?

Not panic, his brain told him, adding in a 'duh' for good measure. Okay, not panicking was great. How did he do that?

His mind helpfully suggested breathing exercises, meditation, counting backwards from one hundred and or curling up on the ground and rocking himself. Yeah, no, none of those were going to be useful right now while he was running for his life. Other than not panicking what should be maybe be doing?

Getting Keith to stop running would be a good start. He nodded. That was an excellent idea. Just how did he do that when Keith was well ahead by now and he clearly wasn't able to yell for him to stop? Lance looked around wildly for inspiration. He spotted one of the pieces of seaweed-coral plants and broke a piece off, shrugged, and then chucked with all his might.

His aim wasn't as good with his left hand, but it was good enough. He allowed himself a small smile; he was so the team's sharpshooter. The plant smashed into the back of Keith's shoulder and prompted the former Red Paladin to whirl around, sword sweeping in an arc that would have likely lobbed off the head of any Mackan.

Seeing only Lance he jogged over. "What the hell?" he demanded, voice a hushed hiss.

He spotted the blood droplets a few seconds later, eyes widening in realization. His own hand went to his neck, but the quickly made bandage he'd applied while damp was not dripping. His gaze dropped to Lance's feet and the blood trickling off Lance's long fingers to hit the ground with little plops and he winced in sympathy.

"We have to hurry," Keith said, shooting a nervous look past Lance for pursuers, who was in turn staring at Keith and strangely silent. "Take off your shirt; we'll pad your feet and get a bandage for your hand."

Keith turned back to Lance and watched as the boy's mouth opened and he distinctly saw his name uttered, but no sound came out. Lance did it again and Keith was alarmed to see tears gathering in ocean blue eyes.

"Lance?" he asked, slightly worried by the unusual silence. "What is it?"

Lance pressed his left hand to his throat and Keith zeroed in on the rope. "Enchanted rope?" he guessed, raising an eyebrow. "Come here, I'll cut it off." He leaned forward and the luxite blade responded to its master's wishes and shrunk.

The rope fell away and Lance tried again to say something, but still no words came out.

"We don't have time for this," Keith said, not unkindly but time was not something they had to waste. "We'll discuss it later. Shirt. Now."

Lance blinked back his tears, knowing that Keith was right and now was not the time to explain that apparently the Mackans had stolen his voice in their magic ritual. Besides, crying was not on his list of ways to stop panicking and he was pretty sure this was only making it worse. Still, he'd sort of been holding out to the slim hope though that something was just wrong with his hearing and he couldn't hear himself from all of the chanting, but Keith had shot that down immediately.

His voice really was gone.

He mechanically stripped out of the ill-fitting shirt, which had barely skimmed the top of his midriff and was apparently made for a much smaller subject. Likely one of their own, he thought bitterly. What a messed up culture.

Lance found though that he couldn't get a good grasp on tearing it and with an impatient sigh Keith pulled it from his hand, making several strips. "Hand," he said, balling up a piece and pressing it on the gaping wound, Lance hissing silently and jerking back. Keith didn't pause and tied it with another strip.

"Sit," he commanded and Lance did as asked, going none too gracefully down as his feet informed him they really, really hurt now.

Keith wrapped more of the shirt about each foot. It wouldn't be the most comfortable thing to walk on as it was rather bulky in the middle, but it had to be better than bare ground. Keith did feel a stirring of guilt that he hadn't even taken Lance's clothing condition (or lack thereof) into account before he'd started on his all out sprint, but really what else could he have done?

That done, Keith stuffed the remaining bit of cloth into the empty sheath holder that he now had strapped to his lower back as there was no way he was putting his sword away any time soon.

Keith lowered his hand for Lance to take and his fellow Paladin gave him a small, watery smile at the action, allowing Keith to pull him back to his feet. Well, the smile was better than the tears, Keith supposed, and he returned it with what he hoped was an encouraging one of his own.

"We came in on the northern side," Keith said, gesturing to the three suns that lit the planet. They had sunk in the sky quite a bit, but Keith could still pinpoint where they had begun. "We'll head for the Lions and then get the hell out of here. Let's go; they're going to be catching up soon."

Lance inclined his head and the two broke back into a run. His feet still ached with every smack on the ground, but it was infinitely better than before. And no blood trail to be seen.

Keith changed their trajectory a few times, often cursing under his breath as cliffs rose out from nowhere and forced them to go a good distance around. The half-Galran's breath was starting to come out in harsh gasps from the exertion combined with the heat, but Lance was still quiet.

He looked behind him as they scaled a small hill and Lance was clearly panting, sweat dripping down his forehead, but still not a sound. Keith's brow furrowed. He'd thought that Lance hadn't been able to speak due to some combination of fear and possible enchantment – and the word still made him shake his head – on the gag. But this? This obviously wasn't the result of words failing from terror. Magic? The thought made his neck prickle uncomfortably.

It didn't matter right now, he decided as Lance doggedly followed his handholds, blood already staining the hasty bandage and dripping down his arm. They just needed to get the Lions and they'd figure everything out then.

They kept up a steady clip for nearly a half varga more, but Lance was starting to flag and Keith's own legs and lungs were burning. He was honestly surprised Lance hadn't demanded they halt yet, and then realized with a start that Lance might not actually be able to if there was some weird magic affecting his voice. He cursed quietly at himself. A good leader should be keeping an eye on all of his team and adjusting accordingly.

"I recognize this, I think," he told Lance quietly, crouching down on the ground behind a small outcropping, allowing both of them to rest and he saw the relief in Lance's face as he near collapsed to his knees. "The Lions aren't much farther. Think you can make it?"

Lance opened his mouth, Keith saw the 'yes' form but again not even a whisper was heard. Lance swallowed thickly at that, left hand lightly touching his throat in a way that suddenly made him look, so, so young and scared. Keith hated it.

"Come on," he said brusquely to hide his own growing concern, standing up from his crouch. "We're almost there."

And several minutes later Keith was beyond pleased to note that his directional skills were not challenged as the Lions appeared around a bend. However…

A full contingent of Mackans were parading in front of the Lions, little groups of them spotting the ground from not even fifty feet of the two Paladins. Both Lions had put up their protective barriers and it appeared the Mackans had enacted some of the same, the familiar red enclosure that had kept both of them captive in the prison chamber.

Keith tried to reach out to Black from here, but it was like a literal wall was between their connection and he scowled at the glowing barriers. It was official. He hated magic.

"Come on," he repeated to Lance, backing carefully away from the ridge. "This isn't safe."

Lance pulled himself off the ground with a silent groan where he'd all but fallen when Keith had stopped.

He didn't want to move. He was exhausted and his feet hurt and his hand had not stopped aching and he just wanted to rest for a few minutes, but he recognized that Keith was trying to keep them both safe. Allura had said Keith had good instincts and Lance agreed. So despite his own pain he forced himself to follow to wherever Keith was headed now. He also noted that it might be a good idea to get back to training; all but Keith had slacked off now that Shiro was absent.

Keith led them back the way they had come and down an embankment to another set of cliffs that stretched for at least a good mile or so. They continued in silence, which had it been anyone else wouldn't have unnerved Keith the way it did with Lance.

He looked behind him at his companion, noting how Lance had both arms wrapped about his bare torso and was shivering slightly as sweat cooled in the evening air. The three suns were orange now on the horizon and it wouldn't be long until they disappeared entirely.

And unfortunately, Keith was realizing, this desert planet acted just as they did back on earth; beyond scorching during daylight hours and frigidly cold at night. Worse even, given the fact there were three suns beating down on it which would make it that much more cold when they disappeared. He still had yet to spot any type of water source and the only possible food was the weird seaweed plants, but they were so brittle Keith doubted they had much to them.

While he was rather comfortable in his under armor, Lance at this point was wearing only the pair of pants that the Mackans had bestowed, and due to his height they more resembled a pair of capris. Otherwise he had nothing and Keith felt a faint shiver of fear go through him at just how unprepared they were out here.

They kept going, but Keith finally had to call a halt as he heard a thump and turned to find Lance had stumbled over his own feet and faceplanted on the ground. Blood was leaking through the scraps tied about his feet and even from here Keith could see the lines up and down Lance's arm and chest where he'd been holding his hand.

"Come on," he said gently, more than he was aware he was capable of, and knelt next to Lance, who was struggling and in clear pain to get back to his feet. "We're just going to go… right over there," he nodded at a bend in the cliff face. It shielded them from anyone approaching from the direction they'd come from while giving them a clear line of sight everywhere else.

He slung a lanky arm about his shoulders and stood, pulling an unprotesting Lance up, whose feet were clearly hurting if the way he practically tiptoed forward was any indication. Keith felt another surge of guilt that Lance was so hurt while he was relatively unscathed, minus the own damage he'd done to his hands against the barrier and even that was more superficial than anything.

"There, sit," Keith said, lowering him against the wall. Lance tipped his head back, eyes closed and lines of pain etched into his features that no amount of bravado could wipe away.

Keith tried to control the sudden roll of his stomach. In that instant he was reminded too much of Shiro when he'd rescued him following the bad wormhole jump. Shiro had looked the same; pale and shaking while his hands covered the wound Haggar had inflicted. At least then they'd had Black and the emergency medical supplies stored inside of her until help had come. Right now they had nothing and that could kill them quicker than the Mackans.

"Stay here," Keith ordered, "I'm going to scout and see if I can locate a water source." He made to get up from his crouch, but Lance's left hand shot out and gripped his forearm with a surprising strength.

There was a sheen of panic swimming in his eyes and Keith sucked in a harsh breath at the vulnerable emotion that he had only seen once on Lance; back when he'd been trapped in the airlock and pounding on the glass as the timer behind him counted down the seconds till certain death. He shook his head to clear the memory away.

"We only have a little daylight left," he explained, although did not move to release Lance's death grip. "We need water and you're in no condition to keep moving. I'll be back in twenty dobashes tops, all right?"

Lance mouthed something then and it was too quick for Keith to pick up, but he did not miss the despair that crossed Lance's face as yet again no sound issued forth.

Keith wanted answers to that, but right now dehydration was a much more pressing concern after their several hour-trek across Macka in the insane heat. If they didn't solve that problem then it wouldn't matter that Lance had lost his voice because they'd both be dead from exposure. He still had no idea how to handle to dropping temperatures, but one thing at a time.

"I'll be right back," he assured, prying Lance's fingers from his arm. "I promise."

Lance frowned at him but then brightened ever so slightly and held out his left hand, littlest finger extended. Keith stared at it.

"What?" he asked, uncomfortable as Lance bobbed it up and down.

And for once he was glad that his lack of cultural norms was absent because the look of absolute feigned horror that changed Lance's face from scared to scandalized was a welcome sight indeed.

He tentatively held his own hand out in a similar fashion. He remembered reading somewhere that drinking tea with the pinky extended was considered high class, but he didn't think that's what Lance was going for. And nope, definitely not he decided as Lance pushed his hand forward and grasped Keith's pinky with his own, giving it a firm shake.

"Uh, what?"

Lance mouthed something at him. Keith tried to sound it out. "Pin…oh, pinky… swear? Pinky swear?"

Lance nodded, looking pleased. And while Keith did not understand the importance, it clearly meant something to Lance. So he nodded and shook their conjoined fingers. "Okay, pinky swear. I'll be back soon."

Only then did Lance release him, leaning back against the rock face with what should have been a tired sigh but only silence echoed around them. Lance realized it too if the downcast expression that took over his face meant anything.

"I'll be right back," Keith promised. "Just… hang tight."

He clambered to his feet, making a mental note of the cliff outline so he could find his way back. And before they could lose any more of their meager daylight, Keith hurried away.

Meanwhile, Lance gave another silent sigh and shivered, curling himself up into an unassuming ball in an attempt at self-comfort and to conserve heat.

And then he waited.

xxx

 

Chapter Text

 

It had been twenty dobashes now. Lance knew that for certain because he'd counted out every second, trying to keep his mind off the tiny little problem of the fact he couldn't speak. And yup, even the tiny thought of it crossing his thoughts now made his lungs seize with a fresh wave of panic.

The suns had just about set, only a faint scattering of light washing the dry landscape. Lance peered into the approaching darkness, straining for any sign of Keith and trying to focus on just that and nothing else.

Where was Keith? Had something happened? Did he need help?

Lance snorted, even that sound silent. What help would he be, honestly? He'd only be a hindrance at this point. He could barely walk, his right hand he could tell was really, really bad off and he didn't dare look at the blood-soaked bandage to find out how bad, which meant he was down to a single left hand to throw stuff with. Oh, and he couldn't talk. Couldn't make any noise from his facial features and really couldn't even clap or stomp his feet due to the earlier aforementioned injuries. Absolutely useless.

It didn't stop him from trying though. He was desperate to make a sound, any sound. The silence was unnerving. There wasn't even the hum of insects or a breeze. Just dead silence and it was sending his hair prickling.

Or that could have been the cold. He wasn't really sure anymore as another shiver wracked him. The ground, which had been at least somewhat warm, was starting to lose its sun-soaked heat and the temperatures were steadily dropping. Lance was no expert, but thanks to his upbringing anything other than a nice balmy eighty was too cold and the low seventies that Allura liked to keep the castle was severely pushing it on most days.

Just thinking of the sandy beaches and azure ocean waves of Cuba made him feel even colder and he huddled more into a pathetic ball.

He needed to man up, he scowled at himself. Going to pieces like that when Keith tried to leave to find them water. Seriously, he wasn't a child. He was the right-hand of Voltron now, damn it. He needed to start acting like one rather than whatever that had been.

But he supposed he was a little right in panicking. Keith had taken with him their only means of defense and excuse him, but he had just faced down death twice in a matter of hours. He felt phantom flames again and rather than warming him they just made him feel colder.

He'd almost died. Twice. He still had no idea how he survived burning alive – and Dios, the pain – but if Keith hadn't come when he had he would have actually died, strapped down and helpless. Tears that he couldn't afford to shed stung his eyes and he blinked them back.

The faintest scuffing sound had him jerking upright, scrambling onto tortured feet. It's not like he could really do anything if that was a Mackan, but he at least wouldn't be found huddled liked some child.

The noise was getting closer and Lance's left hand closed tightly on a loose stone. A rock versus magic. He already knew who was winning this fight.

But to his great relief it was no Mackan that stepped into view, but Keith. He nearly collapsed with relief, but pride kept him standing on trembling legs.

"Sit down," Keith hissed as he got closer, arms full of… the seaweed plants? "You'll hurt yourself more."

Lance glared, knowing Keith was right but not wanting to follow the order just because it was Keith. He needed to make up for all of that wishy-washy behavior earlier. But his feet were throbbing and hurting himself against common sense just made any protest seem juvenile. So he sat, tucking his legs underneath him.

"Here," Keith thrust one of the plants at him. "It's full of water. Drink."

Lance accepted it in his left hand as Keith very carefully propped the remaining plants up against the cliff face before sitting down across from him, body angled so he could keep an eye out even though with the encroaching darkness it would not be for long. Lance peered at the plant and saw that they were hollow inside. Interesting.

He took a small sip, face scrunching up at the taste. It was water, sure, but it tasted like it had been fermenting with onions.

"Drink," Keith repeated, taking sips out of his own and somehow maintaining a neutral expression. Either his taste buds were dead or he'd already had some while gathering it that it didn't bother him as much. Lance shook his head. Taste buds had to be dead; no one could ever get used to this taste.

Wrinkling his nose, Lance took another drink, surprised and not that he couldn't even hear the water sloshing into his mouth.

"I followed the cliffs down," Keith said, breaking the quiet. "Figured if there was going to be a water source it'd have to be out of the sunlight. Couldn't find any food though; just the seaweed plants. No idea if they taste good."

Lance's eyes widened as he realized that Keith was rambling. Keith was rambling. He felt a little spark of warmth fill him that in his own awkward way Keith was trying to make him feel better. Keith was now going on about how the pool wasn't too large so it likely wasn't a main source for the Mackans and would likely be safe to return to and Lance nodded along.

"Okay," Keith said after a few more moments, setting his empty plant flask aside and voice returning to a more serious tone. "We're clearly in some trouble."

Lance raised an eyebrow. You think? He tried to convey, ruining the attempt by shivering and Keith's brow furrowed.

"Give me your hand," Keith said, holding out his own expectantly. "We need to treat it before it gets infected and while we can still see."

Lance held his hand close to his chest and shook his head. He didn't want to see it. He knew it was ridiculous and Keith was right, but his mind insisted that if he didn't look at it then it really wasn't that bad. Just a scratch and no use worrying over it.

That and the blood. Lance grimaced. He had made no secret of it; he was not a fan of bloody, gory wounds on anyone. He would support his teammates and be there for them no matter what, but he would not, would not, look at, touch or acknowledge any type of major injury if someone else was able to do that instead. And fortunately he had yet to find himself in a situation where he had to be the medic.

"Lance," Keith said, drawing him from his thoughts and Lance had to blink because for a second Keith had sounded exactly like Shiro. "Hand. Now."

And with a deep breath Lance tentatively held it out, already anticipating Keith's rough grab. But unlike the first time where Keith had been in a hurry, his touch was gentle and he carefully unwound the blood-soaked bandage as Lance looked pointedly away.

Still though, he couldn't help but look at what his hand had become. Lance whimpered as the injury was exposed and pain that had been somewhat dulled flared back to life. Even in the darkening light he could see it more clearly than he had earlier.

The cut extended from the very base of his pinky finger diagonally across his palm to end right below his thumb. Fresh blood was welling up in the very center where the cut was deepest and he couldn't hold back the cry as Keith dabbed at it with the edges of the bandage. Not that it mattered, as not a single sound of his agony could be heard.

Keith looked up though from his inspection and his hard eyes softened as he met Lance's tear-lined ones.

"I'm going to rinse it out," Keith said, already reaching for one of the water tubes. Lance tried to pull it back to him – couldn't they just rebandage it and be done? – but Keith tightened his grip on Lance's wrist. "It needs cleaned," Keith said firmly, holding his gaze.

Lance let out a shuddering sigh and inclined his head. Keith angled the tube and carefully poured it over Lance's hand.

The Cuban yelped and tried vainly to wrench it back, but Keith's hold was iron tight. He could only sit there and suffer quietly as Keith upended the entire tube, blotting at the wound with a clean piece of cloth he pulled from his sheath.

Keith folded a clean strip to act as a gauze pad and pressed it firmly along the wound. Lance whimpered and tried to jerk his hand back again, no longer able to stop the tears from painting his cheeks. Dios, it hurt. It hurt almost as much as when the Mackan had first sliced him open.

"Lance, please," Keith said gently, "just let me do this. It'll feel better, I promise."

Lance couldn't recall a time when Keith had ever been this nice to him and that scared him as much as it comforted him. He managed a nod and kept his eyes averted as Keith took another strip from their dwindling stack and tied it all together.

"All done," Keith murmured, releasing Lance's hand and watching as Lance tucked it protectively up against his chest, his other hand reaching up to wipe away his tears. Keith said nothing, already feeling that he may have overstepped his bounds with the previous comment.

He was no good at comforting people. He knew that. The only one he'd ever felt remotely able to assist was Shiro and that was because Shiro understood him and all his awkwardness. It's not that he didn't like people or care about them. It was just that he had been hurt far too many times while trying to show his feelings that he didn't trust anyone completely to not hurt him again.

He had gotten a little better, with the family he'd made for himself in Team Voltron. But he knew he was still more outside than he should have been and Lance was his indicator of that. Lance threw himself at and over anyone; hanging off Hunk like he was his own personal jungle gym or getting all up in Pidge's personal space when she'd told him no for the hundredth time.

He cuddled right up to Coran, often throwing the older Altean's arm about his shoulders and while he was still a complete flirt with Allura and she often pushed him away because of it, he'd seen the two of them develop a closeness following Shiro's absence, Allura no longer always pushing away Lance's hands when he would envelop her own or rejecting his gentle hugs.

But Lance didn't do that with Keith. He'd clap him on the back sometimes, or teasingly drag him around and poke fun at Keith's height by using him as a crutch, but there was always a caution to it, like one snap and Lance would jump back, pleading innocence.

Keith knew that was his fault. He'd hated when Lance had done that at first and had made his feelings clear that he didn't like the familiarity. He didn't know how to handle such open kindness and love and although the two of them were on friendly terms again, Keith knew that something was still missing and it was his own doing.

So now, when he wanted to show that he was actually really concerned, he was afraid Lance was going to read it the wrong way; take it as pity or some test of strength. Still though, he had to try.

Watching Lance 'die' earlier had brought out a fierce feeling or protectiveness that apparently wanted to showcase itself by being, abnormally for him, outward with his feelings. God, he needed Shiro right now to explain what a normal person would do in this situation. He was torn between wanting to give Lance an awkward hug or kill every Mackan he came across so they couldn't hurt Lance ever again.

"How're your feet?" Keith asked instead, choosing the practical route for now.

In answer Lance lifted up one foot and thrust it into Keith's face, wiggling his toes and Keith bit back the smile, pleased that at least Lance had lost that melancholy look.

"That's disgusting."

Lance gave him a small smirk, but it still did not quite reach his eyes.

In all seriousness though, Lance's feet were not looking so great. The parts where the cloth had slipped were raw and studded with small bits of rock and dripping blood. Even the parts that were covered were rather damaged and Keith winced in tandem with Lance as unwrapping the bandages revealed more raw and bleeding flesh.

They didn't have enough left of what had once been Lance's shirt either. Keith held up the two strips that remained, knowing they wouldn't even make a difference once Lance started walking again.

"We'll rinse them off for now," Keith decided, gesturing for Lance to hand him another plant. "Can you do that? I've got an idea for a bandage."

After a few seconds Lance nodded, although he looked a little green in the barely there light now. While Lance did that, Keith shimmied out of his top, gasping aloud as the cold night air hit him full blast.

He looked at Lance, who was shivering again. This wasn't good. Keith would offer Lance his own shirt if he could, but unlike the outer armor, the black layer didn't conform to fit. It was extremely durable, well made fabric that helped regulate body temperature, but it wasn't Altean made and Keith's smaller shirt would never fit Lance.

Ignoring his own discomfort for the moment, Keith laid his shirt out on the ground and picked up his sword. He could feel Lance's eyes on him, curious, as he hacked away at one of the arm sleeves.

The material would be pretty useless for bandages, he realized, as it really, really did not want to separate and given its ability to wick away moisture it wouldn't hold blood well. But, it was sturdy and that's what he was looking for for Lance's feet.

After a few minutes he finally had the arm hacked into several tube-like pieces and two strips that had been too narrow for his purposes. "Foot," he said, and Lance carefully lifted his right one up.

It was still bleeding slightly, but the worst of the debris had been washed away. Keith propped Lance's foot up over his knee and then grabbed one of the tubes and pulled it over the toes. He wormed it down until he reached Lance's ankle and could not go any further.

Still, he was more than pleased at the result. The sleeve was tight, but not too tight, around Lance's foot and would both put pressure on the wounds and prevent most of it from touching bare ground. The heel unfortunately he could do nothing for, but at least if one part had to be exposed that was the toughest part.

He pulled a second piece down to finish covering the entire front part and then repeated the action to Lance's left foot. Only once both feet were as secure as they could be did Keith allow himself to pull his under layer back on, feeling beyond guilty at the action but knowing there was no point in both of them freezing out of solidarity.

And now that Lance's injuries were taken care of Keith could get some other answers.

Although, he realized a tick later, cheeks heating up, that his plans to talk with Lance about Lance's lack of ability to talk himself would be near impossible as he couldn't actually see Lance very well now. The sun had finally set and while a trio of moons were beginning to faintly shine it was barely enough to see silhouettes let alone anything of detail.

Lance came to the same conclusion, hating how his one way of communicating at this point via Keith's bad lip reading was gone. The observation had him shivering even more than the cold. No matter how many times he told himself to calm down he could feel the fear rising, the remnants of burning pain as his voice was taken from him with a simple word.

He had been so excited to come to this planet and see actual magic. He didn't get the science stuff like Hunk, all of the numbers and jargon going in one ear and out the other. He'd loved the idea that there was something more, something magical and unexplainable out there.

Now though… his naivety was showing itself. Magic wasn't just cleaning spells and tricks to make people smile. It was dangerous and scary and painful and he didn't like it. His hand reached up to touch his throat again, as if doing it for the hundredth time would revert whatever had been done to him.

Was this even something the pods could fix? He knew that when Shiro had been attacked by Haggar and sustained a Druid magic wound the pods had eventually worked, but it had taken time and Coran had commented they were lucky the pod had been able to find a physical wound to heal.

Other than the cut on his hand, he had no injury to explain the loss of his voice. What if he was like this forever? He choked back the sob of despair and pulled his arms tight about himself.

"Hey." Keith's voice cut through the thickening silence and Lance jerked his head up, unaware of when he'd pressed it against his knees.

Keith had shifted somewhere in the course of his pity party and had settled himself against the wall next to Lance. He looked a bit uncomfortable and Lance blinked at that, realizing he could make out Keith's features rather than just the dull outline. How…?

"Huh," Keith said, sounding just as surprised as Lance. "Would you look at that?"

All of the seaweed plants Keith had gathered were glowing a soft white where the moonlight struck them, brightening as they soaked in more light. Keith reached out and gathered the few they'd emptied to them, placing one in his lap and offering one to Lance, who took it gratefully.

He dearly wished that somehow the plant would be warm too, like the crystals or a light bulb, but they provided no additional warmth. He shivered again, thankful that at least this planet had no wind to speak of.

"So, um," Keith started again. "It's cold."

And Lance chuckled despite himself, because trust Keith to point out the obvious with such a seriousness.

"You're going to freeze like that," Keith continued, averting his eyes to the sky. "And…well…"

Lance's eyes widened as he realized what Keith was trying (and failing terribly, really) to say. Keith, their anti-social no-touchy-feely mullet, was offering to share body heat? So Lance wouldn't freeze to death (he didn't even know if that was too dramatic at this point) even at the expense of his own personal space bubble being invaded?

Lance needed no second urging as his skin prickled beyond uncomfortably. He scooted himself along the wall, pressing right up against Keith's side – and oh, he was so warm – and then, when Keith didn't make any movement except to stiffen at the contact, Lance grabbed Keith's now bare left arm and hefted it about his shoulders, snuggling in.

"Um, okay, is this good?"

Lance nodded, deciding he could spend a few moments soaking up Keith's warmth and allow Keith that time to relax a bit. Sheesh, it's like the guy had never snuggled before.

Lance realized though with a pang that he really didn't know much about Keith. Did he even have close friends or family that he could cuddle with? He didn't recall Keith mentioning any siblings, but he'd never really asked. He and Shiro obviously had a history and he'd seen Keith accept a loose hug from Shiro before, but that was about it.

Even during team movie nights (and Lance still wondered at how Pidge had gotten access to Earth movies) while the rest of them hogged the couch and wrestled for the best spot (against Hunk, who always had the snacks in addition to being an amazing pillow) Keith either sat on the lone armchair or on the floor away from the tickle fights and bonding camaraderie.

He knew Keith had this wall up around him, but maybe they as a team needed to get to work on breaking that down rather than letting Keith keep building it up. He nodded to himself. Once they got out of this there were going to be more group bonding sessions and Keith was going to be subjected to all the hugs until he loved them as much as everyone else.

After a few more quiet minutes where Lance gradually didn't feel like a human popsicle and he heard Keith's heartbeat gradually settle back into normal range, he shifted back to sitting upright so he could see Keith's face, but kept the deliciously warm arm around his shoulders, yanking on it when Keith tried to retrieve it. He was still cold, but this was bearable.

"You okay?" Keith asked and Lance nodded and smiled, this time for real. Just that little bit of comfort and contact had done wonders for his aching soul and when Keith smiled back, light dusting of pink still highlighting his cheeks, Lance felt even better.

"So… your voice," Keith said, and Lance hated and admired how blunt he was about it. "What happened? Was this part of the sacrifice ritual?"

Lance nodded to the last bit, wondering how he could convey all of this without wasting a ton of time at attempted lip reading. He wished that the ground wasn't all rock so he could write out his answers… then again, he wasn't much for writing left-handed and his right wasn't going to be holding anything for a long while.

Inspiration struck then as he realized why the Mackans speech about sin had sounded so familiar, although he much preferred the monkey statues. He quickly took both of his hands and covered his ears, then his mouth and then his eyes, beaming at Keith when he finished.

He received a blank stare in return.

Lance repeated the sequence to the same deadpan stare.

"You're…dancing?" Keith guessed.

Lance gaped. Seriously?

Keith frowned. "Aren't you doing that one dance? The marimba or something?"

Lance put his hands out and performed the first few pieces of the Macarena.

"Yes, that," Keith nodded.

Lance palmed his good hand to his forehead. He shook his head and then repeated his original gestures. Another thing to put down to work on with Keith: charades.

Then again, what was he expecting, truly? This was the person who couldn't even figure out the Voltron chant Lance had brilliantly come up with. Perhaps lip reading might be the best course of action after all.

Keith though was still trying to guess. "Um, your head hurts? You're going to throw up? You can't hear?" Lance jabbed a finger at him for that. Yes! One out of three.

"You can't hear?" Keith repeated and Lance in turn put his hands over his ears. He then put them again over his mouth and raised a pointed eyebrow. "You… can't talk?"

Lance nodded enthusiastically, before realizing what he was agreeing with and deflated a bit. He covered up his eyes next to hide the start of new tears.

"And you can't see?" Keith hedged.

Lance gave a more formal nod this time. Then he gently placed his hands together as if in prayer, made a slashing sign with his left hand and then flicked Keith off. Good and evil. It was a stretch, certainly, and he was glad at least Keith realized the last gesture wasn't actually meant as an offense.

"Um, heaven and hell?"

Lance waved his left hand in a rolling motion to continue. "Good and evil?" Lance nearly jabbed Keith in the eye this time.

And a light bulb finally went off over Keith's head. "It's that Buddhist saying, isn't it? Hear no evil, speak no evil and see no evil."

Lance gave him a thumbs up. Gracias a Dios. That had actually worked.

"So what, the Mackans made it so you couldn't speak… evil?"

Even as he said it though, Keith realized what it was. The white robed Mackan had mentioned it several times as the reason for their sacrifice. "Sin," he breathed, wheels turning in his head "They're… they're trying to purify sin."

Lance nodded.

"It's why they burned you," Keith said, words tripping over themselves. "That was purifying the body and—" he cut himself off as he felt Lance violently flinch. "Oh, quiznak, I'm sorry, I wasn't thinking."

He could feel Lance shuddering under his arm and acting on instinct he pulled Lance a little closer. "You're okay," he murmured, surprised to find his own voice somewhat choked. "It's over."

Lance trembled in his half embrace, eyes closed shut tight as remembered pain and despair swept through him. It had hurt so, so much and he honestly thought that was how it ended. The pain had been beyond awful but looking at death? That had been even more terrifying and the reminder of just how close he had come... He shuddered again.

"I'm… I'm really sorry," Keith said softly. "That looked… really painful."

Understatement of the year, Lance thought, but he knew what Keith was trying to say. He gave a tiny nod against Keith's shoulder, appreciating the attempt.

"I'm glad you're all right though," Keith continued. "I thought… I thought you'd died," and he could feel Lance's breath hitch against his neck. "But you're okay now. And we're going to get out of here, all right?" Another tiny nod.

"Okay, so this ritual," Keith said. "They, um, had to purify the body that Mackan said so then they could purify the soul. And I guess that's what all the sins stuff is about."

Lance didn't answer so Keith continued with his train of thought. "There must be three parts to it; one for each sin. And they did the 'speak no evil' part first." Ice suddenly formed in his stomach. "Did they… did they do any more? Are you going to…?"

Lance jerked up, the same horror reflected in his eyes. He hadn't even thought about the other parts of the ritual, so focused on his lack of speech. Was he going to go blind and deaf too? His heart was suddenly beating too fast and blood was pounding in his ears and no matter how hard he struggled he couldn't seem to draw breath.

He gradually became aware of hands patting his back gently and Keith murmuring apologies and he focused entirely on those sensations and sounds, forcing himself to take one deep inhale and another.

"Quiznak I'm bad at this," Keith muttered. "Never think before I speak. Idiot. You're okay," his voice turned somewhat softer as his addressee changed. "It's okay. Come on, you've got this."

Lance shuddered out another breath and slowly pulled away, ducking his head though so he didn't have to see Keith's face. Falling to pieces. Again. Dios mío, he was a wreck.

"Hey," Keith said, and Lance realized with a start of warm surprise that Keith had still not retrieved his arm that Lance had slung about him. "I'm sorry," he apologized. "I never… I never think before I say something. It's why I don't join in many conversations. I just… make them worse."

But what Keith had said was the truth, even if it was hard to hear. Lance tried to say as much, and by the fourth attempt Keith had finally interpreted, It's true though.'

"It might be," Keith said. "But it's also very blunt." A sad smile crossed his face. "That's what Shiro used to tell me anyway. He said I needed to practice softening my words, but I never really understood. It's easier to just state what you're thinking."

He sighed. "Anyways, I am sorry about it. I just want to know what we've gotten ourselves into. I think we've got about a day and a half still until we're supposed to meet up and a little after that until the others get worried enough to come looking. I don't think it's possible for us to get the Lions as we are now."

Lance nudged Keith then, pointing at him and then miming his fingers walking. Keith had a good chance at reaching the Lions. He was rather stealthy, quick and on his own he'd present a much smaller target. It would be really hard, but it wasn't impossible.

Keith scowled at him though. "Like hell. I'm not leaving you behind. And besides, they've got their magical wall up, remember? I don't think I could get through even if I wanted to."

Oh, yeah. He'd forgotten about that. He was almost glad because as selfish as it was he really, really didn't want to be left all alone, especially when had literally no means to defend himself and the Mackans really wanted him dead.

"Until the others can rescue us we've got to avoid the Mackans at all costs," Keith said. "We don't know if they've got heightened sense or smell, but I do think I have the advantage in hearing."

Lance playfully flicked Keith's ear and grinned as Keith scowled at him.

"They've also got magic," and Keith practically growled out the last word. "I think we can assume at this point they are going to be searching for us and in any case constant vigilance would be the most practical approach. That said, we'll each take a watch and get moving as soon as it's daylight. It's not good to remain in one place and we do need to find some form of food if possible."

As if summoned, Lance's stomach growled at the mention of food. He sat bolt right up, astonishment crossing his features and looked at Keith.

"Yes, I heard that," Keith chuckled, unable to help the smile as Lance beamed at him and then his stomach.

He'd made a noise! Whatever they'd done for their speech removal had affected everything on his head – and Lance suspected that may be because different species had different ways of communicating and the spell literally took out every possible option it could – and having a grumbling stomach really was nothing special, but it relieved him that he still had that.

"I'll take first watch," Keith said. "No protests; you need the rest more. I'll wake you in a few varga and we'll swap."

Lance nodded, unable to deny that he was absolutely exhausted. His hand was still pulsing with pain even despite Keith's ministrations and his entire body felt like he'd put it through a grinder. Sleep would help, he hoped.

Lance snuggled closer to Keith, placing his head against Keith's chest and pulling the arm tighter so it crossed back over his chest. He was still cold, but this was so much better than it had been and Keith was being awfully compliant with wherever Lance twisted him.

He knew that this had to be hard for Keith, who really didn't like contact on a regular basis. Lance wished he could actually say thank you, but, well, that wasn't possible at the moment. So instead he took Keith's left hand and threaded their fingers together, giving it a gentle squeeze. And to his absolute delight Keith returned the gesture a few ticks later.

"Comfortable?" Keith asked, and Lance could hear the uncertainty mixed in with a touch of concern. He nodded against Keith's shoulder. "Get some sleep then. I'll wake you soon enough."

And Lance slept.

xxx

 

Chapter Text

 

A furred paw tentatively knocked on the stone doorframe of the inner chapel before entering the solemn room where the High Priest prayed for guidance.

"You have an update?" asked the kneeling figure, a black Mackan in white robes.

"Yes, High Priest," the green robed Mackan with sandy fur replied, voice somber. "It is not good."

The High Priest sighed and rose from his position of prayer, turning from the statue of Lady Leora with a low bow to his fellow Mackan. "What news?"

"Brother Bostic has succumbed to his injuries, High Priest. Along with Initiate Mavis and Sister Salara that makes three casualties. We also have numerous injured, but they all look to pull through."

"Three dead," the High Priest repeated, expression darkening. "That Paladin of Voltron murdered three of our own." He uttered a soft curse. "And of the sacrifice, Brother Milnew?"

"The blood trail vanished shortly after they exited the compound," Milnew responded. "We have teams searching the area for any trace, but unless the Paladins of Voltron choose to remain in one place we are unlikely to find them right now."

The High Priest cursed again. Their own planet seemed to be against them. The heat combined with the rock surface literally baked the blood droplets and turned their scent to nothing more than another part of the desert. Unless they could sniff out a large or fresh source their sensitive noses were all but useless.

He knew the sacrifice would not cease bleeding from the Purity wound inflicted, which would provide them with the opportunity for a decent chance. But that too posed a problem for if the sacrifice bled out before they were able to complete the ceremony it would be just as tragic as his disappearance.

They needed to find him. The Purity of Sin could not be performed again until it had been completed on the current sacrifice. If they lost this chance… the High Priest shuddered. They would never be able to complete the ritual again and then they would truly go to ruin. Their very livelihoods depended on finding the Paladin of Voltron and completing the ritual.

"How much blood do we have of the sacrifice?" the High Priest asked, a dangerous idea coming to his desperate mind and he silently thanked the goddess for her timely intervention.

"Not much, I am afraid. Just the offering you made and whatever pooled on the Sacrifice Stone. May I ask why?"

The High Priest did not answer, but strode over to a small altar and reached underneath, coming back up with a thick tome. He rubbed a paw across it, revealing a series of symbols in brilliant silver lettering.

"It has not been performed for generations, but I know of a ritual that will aid us," the High Priest said, reverently setting the book atop the altar and flipping through it to a page that it seemed an outward force was directing him to. "We will still require the sacrifice's physical body to finish it, but we can enact the purification of the other Sins from a distance with the correct ingredients."

He would have to be careful as he could not afford to kill the sacrifice through blood loss. But the other Paladin of Voltron had shown to hold his companion's life dear. The High Priest knew that he would do all he could to save the life of the sacrifice. He was counting on that.

"Meaning, High Priest?" Milnew's voice cut through his ruminations and the High Priest blinked amber eyes back to present.

"With each Sin that we purify the sacrifice will become easier to recapture," he explained. "Once he is both purified of Sight and Sound he will be defenseless and weak from the effects of the sacrificial cuts. The problem lies with his companion. He is dangerous, more than I possibly could have imagined, although we will rely on him to keep the sacrifice alive until we can retrieve him."

"Your orders then, High Priest?"

"Summon the Council of Elders here. We will begin the process of enacting the Purity of Sin once again. Continue to send our forces to seek the sacrifice; time is of the essence. We need him alive or all of this is for naught. Maintain the barrier around their ships as well so they cannot leave."

The brown Mackan bowed. "I will see it done."

"And Brother Milnew?"

"Yes?"

"Regarding the other Paladin of Voltron… he is too dangerous to be kept for a future sacrifice. All Mackans have permission to kill him on sight once we have the sacrifice in our possession."

Milnew bowed again. "It shall be done. The Red and Black Paladin of Voltron will pay for the lives he has taken." His own expression darkened. "He will not live long enough to see another sunrise."

xxx

Keith's upper leg was starting to grow uncomfortably warm even in the frigid night air.

He shifted slightly, trying to figure out why his left thigh felt almost damp when there was no humidity to speak of here. Even with Lance pressed up against him no other part of Keith was experiencing the same dampness.

He patted his leg, definitely feeling something moist and held up his fingers to the meager light of the seaweed plants. His breath caught as he realized what was coating the tips of his fingers.

Blood.

But… how? Where? The copper scent was unmistakable now and he shifted Lance again, who let out a soft huff of air on Keith's neck at the motion. And the former Red Paladin realized with sinking horror that the blood was coming from Lance's hand.

Lance's hand that should have been clotted at this point and he knew was well secure because he'd bandaged it himself. He lifted his hand to grasp Lance's right wrist and maneuvered the hand up from where it was pressed between their two legs.

Blood was most definitely dripping from the limb and the bandages were absolutely saturated. He eased it carefully onto his own upturned knee and began to pull the cloth free. His stomach clenched as removing the last piece revealed that the injury was just as fresh as when he'd wrapped it a couple hours ago.

Lance stirred against him and although he could not hear it Keith could practically feel him whimper with pain.

He did hear something else though. There was the faintest scuff of something moving over the stone from the direction of the Mackans' base.

Keith turned to Lance, to see that the other boy's eyes were open now, uncertainty and pain swimming in them while still hazy with sleep. He couldn't hear whatever was coming, Keith realized.

"Mackans," Keith breathed and he hated how that uncertainty was replaced now with fear even if the rest of Lance did become more alert. There was nothing to be done for it though. Keith gently took Lance's still bleeding hand off his leg and bent it at the elbow, Lance catching on and cradling it to him, eyes wide.

Keith then rose silently to his feet. Lance reached out and caught hold of his leg, resolve taking the place of the fear in his eyes. Keith shook his head though. Not yet. He converted his knife into a sword and crossed the few feet to where the edge of the cliff jutted out, hiding him from view.

He could hear the scuffing even more clearly now and the low tone of voices. And to his surprise they were speaking in English, or the universal tongue.

"—getting closer," murmured a voice. "We got lucky, hmm?"

"The High Priest will be so grateful," the Mackan's companion said. "Good thing the sacrifice has such a delicious blood scent."

Keith felt his own blood freeze. He'd been right. They did have a good sense of smell and they had found them thanks to Lance's injury. Although it sounded like they hadn't picked up any of the earlier trails they'd left while running so perhaps it needed to be a large source?

He glanced down at his pants leg, aware that it was still damp and wondering how much Lance had lost now.

"It's around this bend," the first Mackan said. "Remember though, the sacrifice's companion is dangerous. Be cautious."

Damn straight, Keith thought. Dangerous and deadly.

He didn't like killing. When he was given the choice Keith would gladly leave opponents alive and merely injured so he and his team could get away. He knew his fellow Paladins were the same way.

But sometimes there was no other choice. And right now he didn't have another choice. He and Lance were severely outnumbered and outgunned and if they wanted any chance at staying alive themselves he couldn't afford to hold back. It sounded like there were only two. He could dispatch two. Hopefully.

Keith didn't even announce his presence, as he knew an honorable opponent should do. But honor would do them no favors here and if he failed then Lance was as good as dead. It went against his code but it couldn't be helped. Sometimes you didn't always get what you wanted.

He stepped out from behind the outcrop, sword already slicing through the air because in addition to the magic he was already at a disadvantage as the Mackans clearly were able to see much better in the dark than him.

He was rewarded with the sharp cry of a Mackan as his sword met flesh and fur and he ripped it through, severing the bobcat at the shoulders. The other one, voice panicked, shouted out a spell the bright light lit up the space.

Keith took the hit on his left arm, feeling the limb go numb just like last time. But he lunged forward in that additional burst of light and impaled the second Mackan. He tried to ignore the gurgling it made as he pulled his sword back out and it crashed to the ground with a thump, his own heart beating too loudly in his ears at the subsequent silence. He subconsciously noted that apparently once the caster was dead the spell's effect was removed as feeling returned to his limb.

Lance had come running at this point, hearing the cry, but he came to a screeching halt upon the scene. Keith stood, silhouetted by moonlight, above two very clearly dead Mackans… Lance had thought there might be three but then realized that one was in two pieces.

His stomach rolled and he barely moved in time to avoid throwing up on his feet, heaving what he'd eaten for lunch earlier. His head spun and he had to reach out and catch himself on the cliff face.

"Too late for don't look, huh?" Keith said quietly, coming up behind him. "Sorry, Lance."

Lance shook his head weakly. He reached out with his left hand and placed it atop Keith's holding the sword, giving it a squeeze and trying to convey that he understood. He was more worried for Keith than himself. He knew Keith had killed before but this… this had been unusually violent even for him.

"I'm okay," Keith said, interpreting the gesture correctly. "We have to get moving though. They're tracking us by your blood."

As one they looked to Lance's hand, which had painted his chest now with macabre red stripes.

"Here," Keith said, holding up a piece of robe. Lance realized he must have just cut it off one of the dead Mackans. "Let's go rinse you off and wrap it. Then we'll head to the water source I found for now."

Lance nodded, but the motion sent him stumbling and only Keith's quick movements kept him from falling to the ground. He felt suddenly incredibly light-headed and despite the already dark conditions he saw more spots in his vision.

Keith cursed. "You've lost too much blood," he muttered.

Ah. That made sense. He allowed Keith to hoist him up and practically half-carry him back to their pitiful campsite as his legs suddenly seemed to not understand how to walk on their own. Keith helped him sit back against the cliff face.

"Hand," came the quiet demand and Lance managed to lift it from where he was cradling it on his lap. Keith wasted no time and poured another plant tube of water over it. Lance flinched, but the pain cleared his head a bit and he was more alert as Keith deftly bandaged it again, this time wrapping it several times over.

"It's not healing," Keith told him, voice curt with what Lance recognized was worry and not anger. "We've got to keep as much pressure on it as we can, all right? Can you make a fist?"

Lance tried, his fingers stiff from both pain and cold, but he did manage to clench them into his palm. It hurt like nothing else and he nearly released it, but Keith's hand descended on top of his and pushed down even harder that had him uttering a silent scream.

"Keep it like that," Keith ordered. He stood. "I'll be right back. Drink a tube of water. Otherwise don't move."

Lance blinked back tears of both frustration and pain. He felt so useless, sitting here and apparently acting as a giant beacon for the Mackans to find them. He wanted to help, show Keith that he was (near) his equal and not someone that needed protecting. And yet here he was, needed protecting because he could barely even walk on his own.

He picked up the second to last plant and forced himself to drink the whole thing, gagging silently at the putrid taste. He knew he needed it though.

Keith returned a few moments later, another piece of robe slung over his arm and distinctively larger than the other piece. He knelt down next to Lance and swung it about his shoulders, bunching the ends together and tying it into a knot. It was a little half cape, reminding Lance fondly of when he used to tie shirts together and pretend he was a superhero with his siblings.

It only made it to mid-back, but anything was more comfortable than nothing and he shot Keith a grateful smile. Keith gave a nod back, in the process of removing a strip of cloth from about his own neck and replacing it with a new one he'd also commandeered from the robe.

The lighting was still dim, even with their glowing plants, but Lance could clearly see dried blood on Keith's neck and he tapped his good hand against Keith in alarm. When had he gotten hurt?

"It's fine," Keith said shortly, tying off his bandage. "I'll explain later," he said, as Lance frowned at the answer. "Come on, we have go. There's a lot of blood here and they'll probably find it soon."

Lance's stomach rolled again at why there was so much blood staining this area, but he kept whatever he had left inside him this time. He accepted Keith's hand to pull him back to standing, the world swaying as he reoriented himself.

"It's not too far," Keith said, hovering at Lance's side and keeping one steadying hand on Lance's upper arm. "You okay to go?"

Lance went to nod, thought better of it, and instead gave Keith a thumbs up.

"Stay close," Keith advised, picking up one of the glowing plants and keeping his sword drawn.

They moved slower than Keith would have liked, his ears straining the entire trip for any sound that was not him or Lance. He was actually rather impressed; for as unsteady as Lance was he was moving near soundlessly and keeping up the brisk walk.

Keith led them down a rather steep incline, Lance having to brace himself on the rock wall that rose up, and down even further into an almost canyon-like area.

"It's just over here," he said, rounding a bend that contained a large rock full of the coral-like plants. Lance could spot several that had been ripped off where Keith had gathered them earlier.

And true to his word, a small pool, likely some type of underground spring, bubbled up underneath the cliff overhang while the narrow path continued further down before evening out on the basin of the canyon.

"We'll stay here for the rest of the night. Drink what you can; we're not going to be able to really carry any water with us later."

Lance filled up the plant he had been carrying and took a seat against one of the walls, angling himself in the direction they'd come from.

"What do you think you're doing?"

Lance looked over his shoulder as Keith sat down next to him. The sniper mimed with one hand, still keeping the other clenched, a telescope.

"No. No watch. You need rest."

Lance frowned and shook his head carefully. He pointed at himself and then tapped his right wrist, looking at Keith expectantly.

"Your turn?" the half-Galran guessed. "for watch?"

Lance nodded.

"You need the rest more," Keith said quietly. "I'll be fine."

Lance scowled at him now, the effect ruined as now that he'd stopped moving his body was reminding him it was still very cold and he shivered violently. The half-cloak was helpful, but it still wasn't enough for the frigid night.

Keith sighed and Lance was more than surprised when without any prompting Keith looped his arm about his shoulders and drew him against his side. "Sleep," Keith ordered. "You can take watch during the day tomorrow when we can see. Right now my hearing is the only advantage we have."

And he had a major point there. Still, it felt wrong. They'd agreed to share the watch. And Keith was injured too. At the reminder, Lance tilted his head back so he could get a better view at the bandage Keith had hastily applied.

"You're going to get light-headed like that," Keith scolded not unkindly. He seemed to be getting better at understanding Lance's cues – and really, he wondered, had Lance always been this expressive? – and realized that Lance had been looking at his injury.

"I was a reckless hotheaded idiot," he said in answer to the question. "Just like you guys are always telling me."

Lance was not satisfied with that and elbowed Keith. Hard.

"Ouch! Okay, fine," Keith huffed. "I couldn't bust out of the barrier so I sort of threatened to kill myself if someone didn't lower it. They needed me alive and all for the other sacrifice so…"

He could feel Lance's look of horror.

"It worked, didn't it?" he defended. "I'm fine. It's really just a scratch."

Lance scooted himself so he was a little higher and then purposefully knocked his left fist on top of Keith's head.

Keith couldn't even rub the sore spot, his right hand full with his sword and his left being commandeered by Lance so he settled for a light glare that didn't even phase Lance, who mouthed the word "idiot" at him.

"Hey, I was trying to save your life. I didn't…" Keith trailed off as Lance's expression turned somber. He sighed. "Look, it all worked out. And I wouldn't have actually slit my neck, promise. But I was in a hurry because I didn't know what was happening to you and… well, I came too late anyways," his voice dropped even more. "I'm sorry I didn't get there sooner."

Lance threaded their hands together again and squeezed it, although whether he was trying to comfort Keith, himself or both of them Keith wasn't sure. And a few months ago he wouldn't have found the gesture at all welcome, but things had certainly changed. They'd changed from even just this afternoon.

"We'll get your voice back," he promised softly, returning the press. "And we're both going to get out of this alive."

Lance mouthed something at him then, repeating it a few times until Keith finally realized what he was trying to say.

"Bonding moment, huh?" Keith translated. "Will you remember this one?"

He got another bony elbow to his ribs.

"Do you really not remember that?" He had always thought Lance had pretended not to out of the embarrassment of actually being held in Keith's arms, but he was beginning to revise his opinion. Lance got embarrassed about many things, but hugs and touches were generally not one of them. That made him think it wasn't the action that Lance refused to acknowledge, but the person, and it made his chest hurt with something he couldn't quite describe.

Lance shook his head. "You don't remember?" Keith clarified and Lance nodded. A tightness that he didn't realize he had been holding loosened.

Lance tapped the side of his head and looked at Keith expectantly.

"Head?"

He nodded and then held up his bandaged hand, still clenched in a fist despite the pain that likely caused.

"Hand?"

A shake. Lance pointed at the bandages.

"Bandage? Hurt? Injury?"

He got a thumbs up on his last guess.

"Oh," Keith said, feeling like an idiot as pieces clicked. "Head injury. You had a head injury from the blast. So you...you really didn't remember any of it."

Lance nodded.

"I always thought…" Keith shook his head. "Nevermind. It's not important."

He got another rib jab for that. "What?" he snapped, already feeling a bruise forming. That hurt.

Lance linked their hands again and held them up. He looked awfully apologetic and sad and Keith tried to figure out what he was trying to convey. Lance squeezed their hands with a firm nod.

"You're… upset?" Keith hedged and Lance nodded encouragingly. "You're upset that you… got hurt?"

Lance huffed out a sigh. He shook their joined limbs and stared pointedly at Keith.

"You're upset you don't remember," Keith said slowly, earning a sad smile and a nod. "Why… why would that upset you?"

Lance rolled his eyes at that and in answer snuggled back against Keith, pillowing his head once more on Keith's chest and pulling the pilfered arm more over his shoulders.

Keith felt something warm fill him then; the same feeling he got when Shiro praised him or gave him a hug. It was nice. It felt… it felt like belonging.

"Get some sleep," he murmured. "We're going to move out at first light." Assuming the Mackans didn't find them first.

Lance's hand didn't appear to have soaked through this set of bandages (yet, his stomach clenched) so hopefully the creatures weren't getting any fresh trail and this location was far enough from the previous one that it wouldn't be a straight shot to them.

Keith's body ached for rest too, but he couldn't give into its demands. Not yet. Not until it was daylight and Lance's sharp eyes could act as lookout for a few hours.

They also needed food. It hadn't been a major priority of Keith's because it was possible to survive for a while without it, even in these abysmal conditions. But Lance's body was losing blood fast and water was not enough to replenish it. Food would help.

Keith shot another look to the bandaged hand, that Lance had pressed between their legs to keep additional pressure on it while he slept, having already drifted off into a restless slumber. Keith knew it was the combination of exhaustion and the heavy blood loss as his body tried to recover in the only way it could. Keith pulled him a little closer, trying to draw comfort from Lance's soft breaths warming his shoulder and not give into the slight panic that was starting to rise up.

When it had just been Lance's voice that had been taken he thought they would be fine. It was inconvenient, sure, and clearly very scary for Lance, but it was manageable. But now with the blood loss and the threat that it was possible for Lance to lose other senses that he absolutely could not afford to lose if they wanted to avoid capture… he didn't know if he could do this.

Lance was counting on him though. He knew the sharpshooter would likely take offense at such an observation, being strongly independent and determined to prove himself as just as capable of holding his own as the rest of the team. And Keith knew he could. But now he was injured and handicapped and in a lot of continuous pain that they had no way of easing.

Not only that, he could still feel Lance shivering even as he slept and with the addition of the robe. Sadly, the material was not very thick, which made sense given the Mackans already had a full coat of fur. It was doing very little to actually warm Lance, but it had seemed like a good gesture at the time and Lance had seemed to draw comfort from it.

It was only going to get worse, Keith realized with a sinking feeling. They had a long while still to go and Lance's condition was not going to improve during that time. It would be a miracle if it stayed where it was at present.

The reckless part of him wanted to rush the base, locate their armor and hope that he could get a signal out to the others even from this distance. But he'd seen the inside already. It was a massive, twisting space of halls and doors and the only reason he'd located Lance was the loud chanting.

Their armor could be anywhere and he didn't have the luxury of time to search every room. Not when the Mackans wielded magic that could stop him at any second from a distance. Noting that the effects disappeared if the caster was killed was useful, but there were hundreds upon hundreds of Mackans. He couldn't kill them all before he was overwhelmed.

No. Waiting for a rescue was their best chance of survival. That still didn't make it a good choice. It just happened to be the only one that they could pursue.

"I'm sorry," he whispered, bowing his head. "I'm… I'm no good at this. I don't know why Shiro thought I'd be a good leader. I… I have no idea what I'm doing."

His gaze narrowed then. "But I promise… I'll get us out of this. We're… we're going to be okay." He wouldn't let anything else happen to Lance. Seeing him nearly die twice was more than enough to last him the rest of his lifetime and that strange, desperate urge to protect that he'd only ever felt for Shiro reared its head.

And turning his eyes to the path, Keith hoped he didn't just make a promise that he could not keep.

xxx

 

Chapter Text

 

Lance awoke to his shoulder being shaken. He frowned and sleepily tried to bat away the offender, snuggling further against… rock? Hard, sharp rock.

He squinted his eyes open then, wondering where his comfortable pillow had gone and spotted Keith as said masquerading pillow crouched in front of him and being the reason he was now awake.

"What?" he groaned, realizing a tick later as his sleep addled mind caught up that he actually hadn't voiced any protest. And then he was wide awake as everything came crashing back. He scrambled to sit more fully up, but the motion sent his head spinning and Keith's hands braced on his shoulder to keep him still. He couldn't even muster up a frown due to the sudden pounding behind his eyes.

"Easy," Keith murmured, only removing his hands when Lance showed no sign of getting back up. "You've lost a lot of blood. You're going to be dizzy. No quick movements, okay?"

Lance whispered an 'okay' and winced at the silence, tilting his head back and closing his eyes as if that could help with the headache. The only thing he could say right now was that at least he wasn't freezing. The suns were beginning to peek and were warming his skin pleasantly and the rock below him. Give it another hour though and he knew he'd be burning. There was just no happy medium here.

"Here," and Lance felt something tap against his chin. He cracked open his eyes again to see a tube of water. He forced his left hand to shift from where he had it been resting on his lap and take the water himself, as it almost looked like Keith was going to help him and his pride would not allow that. He wasn't that bad off.

He practically snatched it from Keith's hand, regretting it immediately as even that had him tipping sideways a bit, but he righted himself through sheer determination. He was expecting some short comment from Keith, but the only thing he got in return was a look of worry and Lance was torn between scowling in embarrassment and feeling touched that Keith apparently cared so much. He settled for a sort of half-smile that Keith returned, settling himself on the opposite canyon wall.

It wasn't that he knew Keith didn't care. If anything the talk – or, well, whatever that classified as since Lance hadn't actually said a word – from last night had shown him that Keith cared a lot. And despite the fact that Keith often covered up his true feelings with aloofness or anger, Lance was realizing actually just how much of his heart Keith wore on his sleeve.

Lance had practically felt the tangible fear and then the stark relief when Lance had confirmed that he hadn't ignored their bonding moment, but honestly could not recall it. He wondered if that one incident had really been weighing on Keith this entire time. Lance tried to picture how it would have made him feel if he was someone like Keith who didn't really connect with others, and the one time he tried the other party pretended it never happened.

He winced. Yeah. That would certainly put a damper on any future attempts. Maybe he shouldn't have been so flippant about it, to where Keith had honestly believed that Lance didn't value their friendship.

And while he was not happy about losing his voice, and even just acknowledging it like that made his stomach clench unpleasantly, he would admit that the fact he could not speak had forced him to listen, to really listen. And by doing that he had heard Keith… not his words, but the emotions behind them and behind what was not said.

Lance prided himself on being a pretty observant to the needs of others. He could tell when Pidge was feeling down about her family and he'd cheer her up either with stories of his own siblings or sit there in shared quiet and card his fingers through her short hair.

He noticed when Hunk was starting to feel homesick and he'd keep him busy with games and stories of their shared childhood and cooking and baking experiments. He kept Allura from dwelling when he could see she was missing her family and planet with jokes and flirtations and would listen attentively when Coran spun stories as he knew having an engaged audience meant more to the older Altean than he'd ever say.

His ability to connect with others was what had made Allura choose him to act as a diplomat – although this was a beyond terrible first attempt and he wondered if her trust wasn't slightly misplaced about his skill.

And yet despite all of that he had never really seen behind Keith. He knew Keith cared, yes, and that he did want them all to do and be their best. But when Keith got angry and would go to the training deck, Lance would not follow. None of them did, except Shiro and well… Shiro wasn't here now. He'd always thought it was best to let Keith blow off steam and have that time to himself. Keith was a loner after all.

But what if he wasn't? What if Keith wasn't that lone wolf persona by choice but because no one else had ever gone after him? The thought made his chest hurt that he could have missed that. Lance had already come to the conclusion that he really didn't know much about Keith. He didn't know about his family (other than that his Mom was apparently at least part-Galran and had left him when he was young) or about his childhood or even what his favorite food was.

He didn't know why Keith had trouble connecting with others and he had never asked. He'd just assumed that was who Keith was and that was the end of it. But that was wrong. Keith did want to be a part of their team, their family, and he just didn't know how to express that. Shiro had always acted as a buffer but now that Keith didn't even have that and instead had gained the mantle of leadership – one he had not wanted, Lance knew – he had to be feeling even more lost.

Lance scowled at himself then as he drank his nasty onion-water. He was an idiot. And not the haha kind of where he did something stupid and everyone laughed. He had hurt someone he cared about and hadn't even known. And he should have known. He should have.

But his own hurt pride at Keith's natural skills and his desire to best him in something, anything, had blinded him to what Keith's actual feelings were. He hung his head. He was an awful friend. Instead of trying to beat Keith he should have been focusing and improving on his own strengths. He knew he would never be as quick or skilled as Keith in piloting or hand-to-hand or swordsmanship. What he did excel at though was shooting and reading people and connecting, but he'd clearly failed at the latter.

When Red had accepted him as her pilot and Allura had explained it was because he had accepted Keith as their leader, Lance had thought that maybe they could become better friends now that he had shown he wasn't the weakest link of the team. He couldn't be, after all, if he was the second in command.

But, Lance thought with a pang of guilt, he hadn't made any more real effort to strengthen that friendship. He'd become so concerned with trying to prove that he was worthy of the new position that while he did support Keith and his decisions as team leader, he didn't actually go about trying to include Keith any more than normal.

He let out a silent sigh and drained the rest of his water. He needed to fix this. And while being stranded on a hellish planet with killer wizard bobcats, suffering from blood loss and without the use of his voice wasn't how Lance would have planned it, maybe this was what they needed.

Besides, if he thought about this entire thing as a bonding experience rather than a nightmare it didn't seem as scary. Not that it wasn't terrifying, he was most definitely scared and the throbbing pain from his hand was not helping matters at all, but he wasn't alone.

And being alone was infinitely scarier than any of the above.

He knew what he needed to do. For all his thinking on needing to lower Keith's walls, Lance knew he had to bring his own down too. He had to stop being so prideful, accept that his lack of strengths weren't necessarily weaknesses. He had to stop comparing himself to Keith and support him instead.

And that meant allowing Keith to help him right now. He knew he was injured and refusing to accept assistance was just childish and petty. Also… that refusal would hurt Keith and that was the last thing Lance wanted. He'd already done enough damage with the first unremembered bonding moment, he wouldn't screw this one up too.

"Finished?" Keith asked as Lance lowered the water tube for the final time. "I've got something for you to eat. I think."

Lance raised an eyebrow at that as Keith came back over to him and held out, wrapped in another piece of robe, what appeared to be an orange-ish colored insect half the size of Pidge's fist. Lance looked at him incredulously. Keith wanted him to eat a bug? Seriously?

"I found them this morning," Keith explained. "They were by the water. I've got a few more too once you finish that one."

Lance could feel his face turning green.

"It can't be worse than Coran's meals."

And he did have a point there. Still. It was a bug. A very crunchy, unappetizing looking bug. And yet it was also food and he knew he needed it, if the aching in his head told him anything. Fluids and food and rest, his mamá always said when he had a headache.

He gingerly took the robe-wrapped bug from Keith, his stomach knotting as he contemplated how best to eat it. Head first? Pull off the legs? His stomach gurgled at that and that was a definite nope.

At least Keith seemed to be in just as much of a predicament, sizing up his own bug like he would an enemy. It made Lance snort out a laugh and even though there was no sound Keith somehow looked up at that moment.

"Laugh it up," he told Lance. "We're both eating them." His face turned more somber. "And we should do so quickly. We really need to get moving again."

Ah yes. That little detail about Lance's blood drawing the Mackans like sharks in water. Lance carefully lifted up his right hand, where it had been resting on the sun-warmed stone and winced. It wasn't as bad as the previous night due to all of the extra layers, but there were stains showing and Lance could see some dribbling down his fingers where the bandages were looser.

He wasn't really hungry anymore.

"Eat," Keith insisted, following Lance's sightline. "You need it. I'll wrap it again once you finish."

And ugh, that sounded awful too. Necessary, but awful.

Lance took a deep breath. Okay. He could do this. He'd faced much scarier things in his life. Coran's Paladin lunch for example. Or when his little sisters had attempted to make churros for the first time but they'd used salt instead of sugar and he'd eaten every single one so they weren't sad.

What was it they said? The average human ate how many spiders in their lifetime? Well, this wasn't the end. It might even taste good. Simba had grown to like bugs, right?

And before he could stall any longer Lance chomped his teeth down around the creature's head and upper body. It was crunchy, he noted. And… it also tasted like onions, but possibly mixed with… cucumbers? He hated cucumbers.

It was the texture though that was the worst. Crunchy and chewy and oozing at the same time, but he choked it down, eyes watering. He looked at Keith, who was turning slightly purple that had nothing to do with his Galra heritage.

"That was disgusting," Keith gasped as he finished his own bite.

Somehow they both managed to scarf down two of the nasty bugs, but Lance pitifully waved away the third one Keith brought over and to his relief Keith didn't insist. They washed their meal down with more of the water, and after the bug it didn't even seem so bad.

Lance knew what had to happen next though and couldn't hide the grimace even as he held his bloodied hand out to Keith. Even that movement sent a new ache through it, which only worsened as Keith unwrapped the bandages.

And once again the wound was laid bare and not a tick closer to healing than it had been when he got it.

Keith met Lance's eyes. "This isn't good."

Keith was a master of understatements, Lance decided.

He focused on that as Keith once more gently poured water over the sluggishly bleeding wound and then over Lance's stained fingers. He deftly wrapped it again, for all the good they both knew it would do.

"Drink some more," Keith instructed. "We'll head out in a couple minutes." He himself went about wrapping the remaining bugs in a scrap of material to act as a pouch and affixed it to the belted sheath and then spread water across all of the blood that had gathered, diluting it on the hot rocks.

Lance took Keith's advice and also stepped a few feet away to relieve himself. And although he'd suspected it based on everything else, he did confirm that the only clothing article he was wearing were indeed the ill-fitting red pants from the sacrifice.

His stomach clenched as he realized why that was, and a sudden shiver overtook him. Magical fire apparently was not kind on Altean spandex as it was on human flesh. He shuddered again at the feeling of phantom flames touching his skin.

Well, nothing to do about it now, he supposed. And at least on the positive side it hadn't been a weird cult gown or robe. Because then he'd be running through a desert with a not so welcome breeze down there. He snorted soundlessly as he pulled the drawstring tighter and made sure they were secure.

Keith was ready and waiting when he returned. He looked alert, hand clenched about his luxite blade and eyes scanning the opposite horizon, but Lance could see the exhaustion pulling at him and it was impossible to miss the dark circles beneath his eyes.

They needed to find somewhere else to rest, even just for a few hours. Lance felt guilt overtake him as despite his injuries and slight light-headedness that was going to plague him for a while he felt relatively well rested. He pushed it aside as best he could. Keith had been right last night and feeling bad about it wasn't going to help anyone.

"We need to stay somewhat in range of the Lions," Keith said. "That's what Pidge'll track when we don't show. We'll circle back that way, hopefully find another water source, and avoid the Mackans."

Easier said than done, that Lance was certain of. He mimed placing his hands against his head for sleep and looked pointedly at Keith.

"And I'll get some sleep," Keith agreed. "Once we find a somewhat secure location. You okay to walk? We'll go slow."

Lance gave him the brightest smile he could and a thumbs up. As disgusting as the bug was, he did feel a little more settled. His feet too, while still sore, were much better and Keith's idea with the shirt sleeve made moving so much more bearable.

"Then let's go."

Keith seemed to have a built in compass in him, as he led them without hesitation in a sweeping arc through the lower canyon. Although Lance knew Keith's ears were better than his, it didn't stop him from straining to hear any sound that might warn them of approaching Mackans.

He kept his eyes trained as best he could around them as well, knowing that he did have pretty impeccable vision. Unfortunately, he also had to keep a careful eye on where he was walking, as he'd already tripped once over a rise in the stone and if Keith hadn't heard the scuff he'd have faceplanted into the ground.

It was getting hot though. Too hot. Sweat was beading his hairline and they had yet to find a new water source during their trek. Lance was grateful for his darker skin tone, because ahead he could already see Keith's bare arm starting to look slightly pink.

When Keith actually stumbled about two hours in after they finally cleared the canyon on the other side, Lance knew enough was enough. Heat exhaustion was a very real threat to both of them, and Keith already had the exhaustion part down without the added element.

He forced his feet to go a little faster and closed the short distance between them, wrapping his left hand tightly about Keith's right bicep and pulling back. Even that action made him slightly dizzy and Lance amended his previous assessment. He too was also beginning to suffer from some heat exhaustion, compounded by the ever-steady blood loss.

"I know," Keith sighed, wiping his hand across his face and coming away damp with sweat. "We need to stop."

Lance inclined his head to the left where a rising hill of rock provided a slight overhang and with it glorious shade. Other than the rock blocking sight from directly behind, they otherwise would have a clear vantage across relatively flat plains. Lance felt confident that he could keep watch that way for a few hours, at least. And unless the Mackans specialized in camouflage or invisibility (and Lance really hoped they didn't have invisibility cloaks or spells like that) he could see them coming easily.

"Okay," Keith agreed. "Looks good."

Lance watched with growing concern as his normally graceful teammate all but plodded over to the outcropping and sank wearily down in the meager shade. Lance joined him, although he tugged at one of the plant rods in Keith's belt.

Keith wearily pulled it free and went to hand it to Lance, but a dark hand pushed it back with a pointed look.

"We both need it," Keith said, pushing it back to Lance. "Drink, I'll finish it."

Lance took a few sips, wrinkling his nose at the horrid taste that he did not seem to be developing any sort of immunity to. He handed the half-full tube back to Keith, who had removed the remaining three from his back and propped them up along the wall next to him.

Keith drained it in two loud gulps. Now that he was sitting, he looked even more exhausted than before.

Lance poked him and once Keith had turned a weary gaze in his direction he once more mimed sleep.

"Hand first." Keith held out his own and with an exaggerated put upon sigh Lance held it out.

The bandages had not bled through, which was a nice positive. Yet as Keith gently prodded the wrappings a bit of blood welled up. He retrieved another scrap of robe and added it to Lance's palm. They needed a better solution, but Keith was too tired to think of one right now. The only thing that crossed his mind were stitches, and they had no access to anything resembling a needle or thread.

"Three varga," Keith told Lance. "That's it. And you wake me if you see anything."

Lance rolled his eyes even as he nodded. He had never realized Keith was such a worrywart. He also realized that before this mission he may have taken the instruction as a sign that Keith thought he was incompetent, but it wasn't that anymore. Keith just didn't know how to express his concerns otherwise.

"There's more bugs if you get hungry," Keith mumbled as he turned to lie lengthwise against the ground, pillowing his head on his crossed arms. He placed his luxite blade in easy reaching distance from his hand, but not so close that he would cut himself.

Keith shifted uncomfortably, as despite his exhaustion he could not seem to find a suitable spot. A tick later though he stiffened as something landed on his head. He realized that it was Lance's hand, as fingers combed his sweaty bangs back from his forehead.

It felt… nice. Strange, but nice. He turned his head slightly so he could see Lance, and the Cuban gave him a soft smile, hand repeating the soothing gesture.

And although the rock had not grown any softer, Keith was somehow comfortable. He felt his body finally relax and then surrender to sleep, lulled all the while by the caresses.

Lance looked fondly down as Keith's breathing evened into the deepness of sleep. He'd seen the struggle as Keith tried to force his body to rest, and so he had reached out and run his hands through the long, mullet locks as his mamá did whenever he had woken from a bad dream and couldn't fall back asleep.

It calmed him too. He kept up the movement, allowing it to ground him as his other hand throbbed with renewed pain where he'd cradled it in his lap. Dark ocean eyes kept their gaze straight though, scanning the peripherals.

But just rocks, rocks and more rocks filled his vision. Lance was immensely grateful. He had no idea how they were still managing to evade the Mackans so well, but he would bet it was thanks to the planet's high heat.

Other than the disgusting water and bugs, nothing here had a scent or taste. There wasn't even any breeze to stir up rock dust. Just pounding heat and dead rocks with the occasional seaweed tube plant scattered about.

He wondered what the Mackans ate. Surely they must have been able to cultivate something on this dusty rock planet that they had stayed and were apparently thriving. He'd suspect they were carnivores based on appearance (and those teeth had to tear into something) but it was also entirely possible they served no purpose. Like the spleen. And their ears, which unlike normal wildcats didn't seem to be anything special. At least they had that going for them.

His thoughts wandered then to their Lady Leora and if she gifted them food of some sort. Was she actually real? The magic certainly was, and if summoned Lance's hand gave another sharp pulse. He tried speaking again, but not even a whisper. He swallowed heavily, resisting the urge to tip his own head back against the wall. He had to keep focused. He was on watch and Keith was counting on him. He wasn't able to do much in his current state, but he could certainly do this.

Lance spent the better part of the next two varga trying as best he could to keep from thinking about anything of importance to avoid freaking himself out. He puzzled over why the Mackans had such heavy fur in such a hot day climate to how the Alteans had ever had an alliance with a sacrifice-happy species to if Keith would consider letting him trim his mullet back even just slightly when they got back to the castle to if Hunk would have been able to make the seaweed plants edible and delicious.

And just as he was about to move onto the debate he'd been waging as to whether for future missions he should be referring himself to the Blue Paladin, the Red Paladin or just a Paladin of Voltron, he spotted movement on the far eastern (or what he was calling east) horizon.

He squinted, straightening for a better look.

His blood ran cold as several forms he could make out as Mackans appeared. Four in total, about he'd say a mile away thanks to the great visibility of their vantage point. They didn't seem to have spotted or smelled them yet, if the way they were moving slowly was any indication.

But… he looked down at his hand. Blood was staining the outer bandages again and even that slight shift had made his head spin. It hadn't pooled in any amount yet, like it had last night when they'd been near ambushed, but if their noses were as sharp as he imagined them to be, they should eventually catch a whiff of what was visible.

"Keith," he whispered, realizing again too late that his voice didn't work right now. His left hand, which he had been carding through Keith's hair the entire time, moved to tap against Keith's face. Keith scrunched his nose up in protest and Lance thought that it was adorable, but he really did need him to wake up now.

A few more pats and then finally a flick to the forehead had Keith jerking upright, eyes still clouded with sleep but clearing quickly. "What is it?" he asked, voice a low murmur. Lance pointed.

It took Keith a few seconds, but he spotted what Lance had seen and cursed below his breath. The Mackans didn't seem to have seen them though, as they were possibly hidden in the shadow of the overhang. It wouldn't be long at all though until someone picked up the scent of blood.

Keith reached into his sheath and pulled out their last strip of pilfered robe and Lance allowed him to wrap it about the bundle already on his hand without protest.

"Drink," Keith ordered, handing Lance a tube. "We can't bring them with us anymore." They were too clunky.

Lance managed to chug down one while Keith downed another. Keith insisted Lance take the third and Lance dutifully swallowed most of it, but refused to finish it and thrust it back at Keith who reluctantly took it.

"We're going to move along the rock away from them," Keith said, "and use its cover to get moving quickly. Can you run?"

Lance waved his hand in a so-so manner. His head already ached at the thought, but it was either that or possible capture.

"Just until we can put some distance between us again. We'll rest then." Keith offered his free hand to Lance to pull him to standing and Lance gratefully took it.

He stumbled though as soon as he was upright, barely catching himself on the rock hill.

"You do not look good," Keith said bluntly, taking in how underneath his tan skin Lance looked pale. Lance glared at him, although it lacked any type of ferocity. More of just a conditioned response to comments about his appearance.

They still had over a day though until help would arrive and Keith was getting a gnawing feeling that the way they were going was not going to end well. As stubborn as Lance was, his body would not physically be capable of covering large distances much longer and Keith's plan to evade the Mackans was starting to sink.

Later, he decided. Right now they had to get away from the current threat.

Unfortunately , the Mackans had come from the direction Keith had planned to go. This could very well just be one scout party, or it could mean that they were starting to cover and maintain ground and eliminating the places the Paladins could run. They certainly had the numbers to do so.

There was nothing to be done for it now. And in any case they still had at least a day to outwait the Mackans. They could retreat further from the Lions and then double back when they were closer to a rescue. That would be the best plan.

Keith nodded to himself. They would move in the opposite direction of the Mackan's base and find a place to hunker down for a while. But he knew it would only be temporary. The Mackans were hunters and they were the prey. The Mackans didn't look like the type that were going to give up, especially not after Keith had killed some of their own.

But that was later. He had to focus on the present. That meant getting behind the hill without the Mackans seeing them and then moving as quickly as possible until they found some other form of cover.

"Let's go," he said curtly, trying not to show his worry as Lance took a wobbling step forward in the indicated direction, although he seemed to gain some stability as he continued on. Keith prayed it would last.

Breaking into a quick jog once they were clear of the rock structure and its welcome shade, the two Paladins headed opposite the newest threat and further away from the Lions, but hopefully towards some modicum of safety.

But safety was relative here. Magical bobcats behind them, the unknown in front and above it all the suns beat relentlessly down.

Nowhere on Macka was truly safe.

xxx

 

Chapter Text

 

They ran for far longer than Keith wanted.

It couldn't be helped though. There were nearly no structures to hide behind, no cliff wall to offer even a pitiful hint of shade and they were sitting targets out in the vast plain of flat rocks and low hills.

They did have to stop their jog not too long after they got started, as Lance had near collapsed from dizziness. They were plodding along now and despite the extra heat, Keith had one of Lance's arms swung about his shoulders as otherwise the taller boy was no longer able to hold himself upright.

The only positive was that immediately following their retreat there had been a cliff that rose up and they had gone behind it, which blocked the Mackans from seeing them. Unfortunately such a location was still much too close to where they'd abandoned bloody bandages and their scent so they had to keep going. But there didn't appear to be any signs of pursuit and for that Keith was beyond grateful. He still hadn't come up with a good solution to fighting such an enemy.

They were trudging past a series of small rock mounds, Keith very carefully guiding Lance around them so he didn't trip, when the half-Galran could feel Lance's knees buckle and he barely managed to lower them both to kneeling before Lance collapsed.

He couldn't hear it, but Lance's chest was heaving and his breath was coming in heavy pants. He was trembling too as sweat covered him in a thin glaze. Yet, as Keith maneuvered them so Lance was sitting instead of kneeling, Lance's skin was not hot but actually cool. Clammy.

"Hey," Keith said softly. Lance didn't look at him, his eyes shut tight as she shuddered in Keith's light hold. "Hey," he repeated, voice harder as worry clenched his stomach. "Lance. Hey."

Exhausted eyes pried themselves open. Keith saw Lance's lips move, could interpret the gasped 'sorry' as Lance slumped even more, only remaining upright at this point because of Keith.

"Don't apologize." Keith shifted Lance slightly so he could get a better angle on Lance's right hand. What he saw made the already tight knot in his stomach worsen.

The wound was freely bleeding again, soaked through once more and crimson dripping down Lance's fingers. Lance gave another shudder in his hold and Keith realized it was official. Lance had lost too much blood.

Lance raised his trembling left hand and tapped it against Keith's cheek, getting his attention. He mouthed something then and Keith murmured back, "bad?" and Lance gave a weak nod.

"It's not good," Keith said and for some strange reason Lance's lips quirked upwards as if laughing at some inside joke. "It's really not good," Keith repeated, hating how he heard his own words getting choked. "Lance… you're…"

What did he do? Lance needed real medical attention. At this rate… at this rate…

Keith didn't let himself finish the thought. He sat fully back, adjusting Lance's near deadweight against him and put his hand down to balance them both. He yelped and lifted it immediately though as the hot rock beneath practically burned him.

He felt a new wave of guilt crop up as he looked to Lance's feet. They were faring better than before, but he could see from here that Lance's heels were burned and blistered and somehow he'd still been walking on them.

His respect and despair rose in equal measure, even as he pulled Lance's feet so they were propped up against Keith's leg and not directly touching the ground. As it was the pants Lance we wearing had to be doing very little to protect him from the hot ground and…

A sudden, terrible idea came to Keith then. He glanced at the ground to Lance's burned feet, to his blade and then to the blood-soaked bandages. He reached out a tentative hand to the luxite sword. The hilt was warm and somewhat damp from where he'd been clutching it, but the blade itself was hot to the touch and Keith knew if he set it on the sun-soaked ground and let it get the full effects from the suns it would become even hotter.

"Lance," he swallowed thickly. "I… I might have an idea. For your hand."

Dark eyes blinked back at him and Lance tilted his head ever so slightly from where it was leaning against Keith's shoulder.

"I…I think I can…" he swallowed again, "cauterize it. With my blade."

Lance's eyes widened, fear flecking them. But while it did not disappear a steely resolve crossed his face and he nodded.

"Are you sure?" Because Keith sure wasn't. He felt absolutely sick with the idea. He was going to burn Lance. Willingly hurt him. And he didn't even know if it would work against a clearly magical wound. He could burn him for nothing.

Another nod.

"It's going to hurt." And Lance did that weird smile again and Keith wondered if he'd missed any masochist clues in Lance's personality before this trip.

Lance reached with his left hand and placed it atop Keith's hand and gave it a faint squeeze.

"Okay," Keith whispered. "Let's… let's get set up then."

He managed to coax Lance into a slumped sit while he arranged a flat-ish rock next to them where he'd have Lance put his hand. His sword he left on the ground to get every bit of sun it could, blade as large as he could make it. He theorized that if the larger blade took in heat, when he converted it to its smaller form it would be even hotter.

They were out of bandages though, he frowned. The only piece they had left was the thoroughly soaked piece on Lance's hand, which had to go as it was likely going to turn into a Mackan beacon, and then the small scrap he'd tied about his own neck, but there was no way he was going to risk cross-contamination even if his was mostly unsoiled.

Keith would happily cut up more pieces of his own outfit if it would help, but the material wasn't designed to keep moisture in. Still though, maybe he wouldn't need it for that purpose anymore, if this worked out as planned.

Decision made, Keith stripped of his shirt once again and set to work hacking at this other sleeve. His body cried out in protest as one arm was already ripening to red and he was sure his unprotected face was not faring much better. Still, a little sunburn was nothing compared to what Lance was going through.

And even with Lance's darker tone, Keith could see that he too was starting to look a little pink. They needed to find shade again and soon. He scanned the area again looking for anything that looked like it could provide even a hint of protection.

About a quarter mile away there seemed to be a small rise. Nothing like the towering cliffs they'd previously sheltered next to, but it was the only thing he could see in the immediate vicinity that could help. A rise of cliffs did jut out, but Keith estimated them to be several more miles and Lance couldn't make that distance right now. Maybe once night had fallen they could try.

A few hacks later he had decimated his right arm sleeve, keeping the little tubes again with the hope he could slide it over Lance's hand and protect the wound. He gratefully pulled his shirt back on, feeling his back already prickling uncomfortably at the unforgiving rays.

He retreated back to Lance, who was still hunched exactly where Keith had left him. "Are you ready?" He hoped his voice didn't waver as much as he imagined it to. They still had a few minutes at least, Keith thought as he put the blade down on the ground again to regather heat.

Lance looked up and gave another small nod, although he couldn't hide the fear.

"I'll be quick," Keith said, really hoping he could be. "Um… put your hand up here." Lance guided his right hand onto the rock, wincing at the bare heat on his arm but otherwise making no other movement.

Keith deftly unwrapped the bloodied bandage and tossed it as far as he could in the direction they'd already come from. They had no water left to clean the injury, but at this point Keith doubted it mattered. He did wish he had some though for after he was finished, because even lukewarm anything would have to be better than nothing.

"Okay," Keith breathed, trying to tamp down his nerves as his hands shook worse than when he'd made his play with the Mackans. "Okay."

Lance reached across the rock and placed his left hand atop Keith's again, giving him a small smile.

"I don't want to hurt you," Keith admitted.

Lance said something to him and Keith felt the vice around his heart loosen just a little. "I trust you," he repeated, getting a nod of confirmation. "I… I don't know if I trust myself. I'm going to burn you."

Lance winced at the reminder, but repeated his words. He did trust Keith. He trusted him with his life and although this was going to hurt – and Dios, why did this mission involve so much burning? – he knew it needed to be done. He wasn't blind – haha, yet, and oh Dios, he was losing it, the effects of both heat exhaustion and the blood loss taking their toll.

He wouldn't be able to keep moving at even the slow pace Keith had set. And if they stopped moving they were dead. They had no good way to counter magic spells and nothing to defend them from distance. They had to evade until rescue came and that was still over a day out.

If… if sealing his hand could help then Lance would go through that pain. It was nothing the cryo-pods couldn't fix later, he was sure. Assuming he made it back to a cryo-pod. He shoved the dark thought away. He couldn't think like that. If he started down that track then there was no going back. Losing his voice was one thing; losing his actual life was another entirely.

That, and he couldn't do that to Keith. He knew Keith would hold himself solely responsible if Lance were to die here. He'd blame himself even though there was nothing he could have done. And Lance could never forgive himself if he hurt not just Keith but the rest of his space family like that. No. No way.

They were getting out of this and that was that.

Lance squared his shoulders, trying to project a strength he didn't entirely feel. He could feel Keith's own nervousness and fear and he didn't like that at all. He squeezed Keith's hand again, trying to offer what comfort he could.

"Okay," Keith whispered. "I'm… I'm going to…"

He hefted his sword back into his hand, wincing as even the grip was beyond warm now and it stung his still raw hands, that he hadn't even really given thought to this entire time. They paled in comparison to everything else. The black blade seemed to nearly glow and Keith stared at it, mesmerized.

Then reality crashed back and he shrunk it to the size of a knife, the black now really glowing with sheer heat. He gulped and he saw Lance do the same.

Keith removed his left hand from Lance's and instead placed it around the base of Lance's right wrist, pinning it to the hot stone. It hurt him just as much as it seemed to hurt Lance based on the resulting wince.

"Okay I'm… I'm going to put the blade h-here," and his voice was shaking as much as the blade. Keith took a steadying breath, willing his body to cooperate. "Try… try not to move, okay? It'll be over soon."

Lance gave him a weak thumbs up with his left. He stretched his right hand open as much as he could, a new rivulet of blood rolling down his palm at the action.

Keith took one more breath, hovering the knife above Lance's hand. He could do this. It was for the best. It was going to help Lance.

It was the only thing that could save him.

That last thought spurred him into action and without any more delay Keith pressed the knife down flat against Lance's palm.

Lance immediately jerked backwards and Keith had no choice but to throw his entire weight forward to hold him there as the scent of burnt flesh wafted into the air.

Lance was screaming silently, his head tossed back and tears pouring down his cheeks, as he thrashed under Keith's grip, blinding agony taking the place of any coherence.

"I'm almost done," Keith promised, voice breaking. "Just a little longer."

He had no idea how long he was supposed to hold it there, but he'd rather only have to do this once. Thirty seconds, he chanted at himself. Twenty left. It felt surreal though. There was no noise other than the faint sizzle of burning skin and scuffs as Lance kicked against the ground.

It was all sorts of wrong and the back of Keith's neck was prickling.

Lance was scrabbling with his left hand now, weakly trying to push himself away using Keith's shoulder as leverage.

"I'm so sorry." His voice was too loud in this silence of agony, not that Lance seemed to take any notice. Keith felt his own eyes misting and blinked them away. Ten seconds. "I'm so sorry, Lance."

Lance stopped fighting him then, body going limp as he passed out. Keith was beyond grateful.

Keith forced himself to keep pressing on the wound, the smell curdling his stomach and only through sheer will did he tamp it down.

Finally, finally, he pulled the knife free, dropping it unceremoniously to the ground, and looked at the results, praying it hadn't all been for nothing.

Where the open wound had been was now a strip of burnt flesh that covered nearly all of Lance's palm. The wound though… the wound was a shine of pink and red and it was not bleeding. Keith collapsed to his knees with relief, suddenly shaking even more than he had been before.

But it wasn't over. He had to pull himself together. Lance still needed medical attention.

He had to pry his left hand off of Lance's wrist, wincing as the marks of his fingers were embedded in the thin limb. Lance was definitely going to have bruises.

He grabbed the sleeve tubes and pulled one over Lance's unresisting hand, followed by two more to keep it snug. The hand up to the Lance's knuckles were now covered and Keith dearly hoped that would be enough. He had no other supplies to work with.

Keith put the remaining tubes over his own hand and scrunched them up to his wrist, as he needed his sheath back for the blade. As loathe as he was to put it away, he was going to have to carry Lance and he didn't dare risk cutting him; this was going to be awkward enough without the addition of a weapon.

How was he going to do this? Keith knew his limitations. He was decently strong, yes, but Lance was much taller and Keith didn't dare hoist him into a fireman's carry; all of that blood rushing down would not be good.

Piggyback, maybe? It wouldn't be far, just about a quarter mile to that rise. Then, once Lance woke up they could make for the cliffs.

After sheathing his knife, Keith made his way over to where Lance had slumped against the rock. He wormed his way in between Lance and the rock and pulled both limp arms over his shoulders. Lance's breathing was incredibly shallow against his neck and he tried his best to ignore what that could mean for now.

If he hunched forward while walking gravity should keep Lance from falling backwards. The biggest challenge with that was overbalancing, especially as Keith wasn't going to have use of his arms. Speaking of which, he wasn't quite sure how to maneuver them to best hoist Lance up.

He'd never actually given anyone a piggy back ride before. He'd seen it in action – normally Lance hanging off Hunk or Lance carting Pidge around – but the actual process was lost on him. That, and Lance was unconscious and wasn't going to be assisting in any bit of it.

He ended up maneuvering them so Lance was draped across his back and then tucked his arms under Lance's knees, pressing them to his sides. Taking a deep breath of preparation, Keith then rose.

He stumbled forward a bit as Lance weighed on him like an incredibly bulky backpack, but he managed to brace his feet after a few short steps. Okay. He had this. Just a quarter mile. He adjusted his grip on Lance's legs. Time to go.

Nearly twenty of the longest minutes of his life later, Keith all but dropped to his knees as he reached the hill. The flat plains were either really messing with his depth perception or he had been going much slower than he thought. But it was over now and that was all that mattered.

There wasn't much shade; about the same cover they had during Keith's short nap earlier, but it was an immediate relief from the blistering heat. He carefully lowered Lance and settled him as comfortably as he could, pillowing both of his hands on his stomach.

But Lance did not look comfortable. Even in his unconscious state his face was tight with pain and his breathing was still coming in much too shallow of pants. After a moment's hesitation, Keith settled himself against the hill and then shifted so that he got his legs up underneath Lance's head to function as a pillow.

He then gingerly lowered his hand to Lance's head, sweeping the sweat-slicked bangs back. He repeated the action a few times, surprised at how soothing he found the gesture himself. It seemed to be working a little too, as some of the sharpest lines were softening in Lance's face.

It was odd, Keith mused. Prior to this mission he didn't think he'd ever engaged in so much willing physical contact with another. He had never understood what the others seemed to find so endearing about it – and the only person he'd ever actually wanted a hug from was gone now and he pushed away the image of Shiro smiling softly before he could dwell on it—but there was something... not just comforting, but fulfilling, about it. It made him feel a little less alone.

"It's going to be okay," Keith reassured them both quietly, his voice cutting through the still air. "You're okay."

Lance's breathing eventually deepened, slipping into slumber, and Keith wilted with relief. Unfortunately the deep breaths reminded him of just how tired he was too. He could feel his eyes slipping closed against his wishes.

He shook his head to clear it. He couldn't sleep. Not now. He'd gone through worse before. Even if he had to stay awake until the rescue he could do it. He hoped. Under normal conditions he was sure he could manage, but the heat and then the frigid cold with the lack of water was taking its toll. He'd grown up in a desert, but even that experience could not prepare his body for these kinds of extremes.

Keith made the decision they could rest there for another half-varga, but then they did need to get moving. He had no idea how quickly the group of Mackans he'd seen traveling and he did not want to get caught out in the open like this.

He looked up at the three suns, which were ever so slowly moving across the sky. He'd already determined based on staying up all night the previous evening that the days and nights here were shorter than earth's and shorter even than what Allura had dubbed Castle Standard Time (CST) of about a 22-varga day.

He gave this planet a sixteen hour cycle with equal sun and moon exposure. That meant, and he scowled, they still had two "nights" to go, which ruined his original guess that they had just a day and a half from yesterday.

If they landed on this planet at say 1300 varga then that meant, according to Allura's time clock they had forty-four varga to meet up, and add about another two to that for the team to get worried and come looking. So forty-six total.

Keith had no idea how long they'd been unconscious for, but given the fact they'd spent about three retreating and night had fallen shortly thereafter it couldn't have been for long. He'd give it an hour. Once they'd settled down they'd had maybe two varga before Keith had heard the Mackans approaching and then he'd spent the next six awake. He was up to twelve varga now.

He kept his timeline going. They'd walked for about two and then Keith had gone to sleep. He wasn't quite sure how long he had been out - definitely not the three that he'd instructed Lance to keep track of - but maybe two? He'd go with two. They'd been moving for a varga after that looking for some semblance of shelter and then… his stomach clenched at the memory. If he counted it as an hour between that and the rest now that was another two total bringing it to six. That meant they had about two hours left of daylight, and it should wane in about an hour in as the suns sank.

That was what… eighteen varga in so far? Eighteen out of a minimum forty-six? That… that couldn't be right. That meant they had to last still for twenty-eight varga with a rescue in the early morning hours. Two more nights. Another day and a half of sun. Twenty-eight varga of Mackans hunting them.

They were going to die.

The fact was cold and hard and Keith felt something icy settle in him. He was a realist. And realistically there was no way they were making it off this planet alive. Lance was already suffering from heavy blood loss and even if that problem had been remedied for now (and Keith prayed that it stayed sealed because he could not do that again) the damage had been done.

They had almost no food (three bugs left) and Keith had no idea if they would be lucky enough to get more. They had no water source and it was too dangerous to return to their old one. He had no doubt the Mackans had made it there already and had secured it.

Lance was wearing next to nothing and was going to be suffering sunburn and heat exhaustion at this rate not to mention the frigid temperatures at night. Keith was down both arm sleeves now and he could feel the skin prickling beyond unpleasant on the back of his left arm and his face ached too. They weren't equipped at all for either the day or night extremes.

And that didn't even take into account the Mackans tracking them. Keith didn't claim to know and didn't want to understand their sacrifice ritual, but he would bet his luxite blade that they needed Lance back. He had no idea if they could enact the rest of their ritual from here – and he couldn't even stomach the thought of Lance being blind and deaf too – or what complications could still arise from what they had done.

The Mackans had all of the advantages… and they had absolutely none.

None of that mattered though. At this rate neither he nor Lance were going to be sacrifices for the Mackans because they were going to be dead from elements.

They were going to die unless some miracle happened or Keith had a brilliant plan, but all his mind did was run in useless circles. He needed an answer. He needed something. And so he turned to the one person who had never truly let him down.

"Shiro... what do I do?"

The whispered question went unanswered, just as he knew it would.

Keith buried his face in his hands.

"P-please. I don't know what to do."

A sob wracked his shoulders and he hunched over, even in his misery being careful so as not to jostle Lance's head.

He knew that crying as not the answer. It wasted time and fluids he couldn't afford to lose, but in this moment he wanted to do nothing else. He didn't know what else to do. He'd failed. He was supposed to be the team leader and protect his team and instead he was going to get both of them killed.

"I'm so sorry," he whimpered. "I'm so s-sorry."

He felt Lance shift then and he hurriedly straightened up, rubbing at his eyes that were no doubt beyond red and watery.

Dark ocean orbs blinked open, hazy with pain but coming to focus as ticks went by. And Keith watched as they zeroed in on his face and then met his gaze.

"Hey," he whispered, throat still choked. "How are you feeling?"

In answer Lance lifted up a trembling left hand, right lying limp across his stomach, and brought it towards Keith's face. Keith shook as Lance lifted away a wayward tear.

Lance moved then, struggling to sit and Keith hurried to assist. "What are you doing, you idiot," he scolded. "You're going to hurt—"

He broke off as Lance, now upright, leaned sideways and wrapped both of his arms snug about Keith.

"W-what are you…?"

He knew what it was. A hug. But his brain didn't want to seem to process that.

Robotically he shifted so that Lance's arms weren't so stretched, maneuvering himself nearly in front of his fellow Paladin and sitting awkwardly on his knees as Lance's legs tucked off to the side. All the new position did was make Lance tighten his embrace.

Keith hesitantly brought his arms up and copied Lance, twining them about the bare back. The action stirred the tears back to life and he swallowed down the sob. He couldn't cry.

But Lance had other ideas. He somehow pulled Keith even closer, burying his face against Keith's shoulder and chest and Keith could feel the dampness of tears soaking into the material.

Lance didn't try and reassure him. He didn't tell him it was going to be okay. He just hugged Keith and let him know that he was there and alive and Keith felt another tear – of relief? Fear? Sorrow? – slip down his cheek and then another.

And with his head bowed over Lance's and secure in the embrace, Keith allowed himself to cry.

xxx

 

 

Chapter Text

"They've retreated to the Plains of Hiruit, High Priest."

The High Priest blinked amber eyes slowly as the sandy-colored Brother Milnew appeared before him, a cup of steaming tea in his paws that he offered with a short bow.

The High Priest took the cup, hating the tremble to his limb, and took a sip, putting off that revelation for one more moment. He had spent the last several varga with the Council of Elders working to turn the sacrifice's armored helm into an appropriate substitute so they could continue the Purity of Sin. They had only just finished the first step, a long, painstaking process as this was the first time in generations that the ritual had needed to be completed in such a way, and he had excused himself to pray for a short time before they proceeded.

He took another heavy sip of the drink, resisting the urge to massage his brow. He had asked Brother Milnew to keep him informed of the search teams, but he had been so wrapped up it had been at least six varga since he had received an update.

And it was not a good one.

"The Plains, you said?"

Brother Milnew nodded. "And… that is not all, High Priest." He looked so distraught then that the High Priest felt his own face fall.

"What is it?"

"Sister Wilde and Brother Otic are dead."

The High Priest felt his short legs shake.

"They were found several varga ago, but I could not inform you sooner. They were…" and Milnew swallowed heavily, the fur of his ruff expanding. "Slaughtered, High Priest. Sister Wilde was found in two pieces."

The tea threatened to come back up.

"It is believed to be the work of the Red and Black Paladin, as we know he has some type of blade-like weapon. It has… it has made the search teams more hesitant to approach and I am afraid our hesitancy may have cost us a chance at an earlier apprehension. They have retreated now across the Plains and—"

"Follow them," the High Priest cut in.

"But, High Priest…"

"Time is of the essence, Brother. How long do you think a species like theirs will last on the Plains? There is no food or water for pylans and their bodies do not look to be made for the cold. We need the sacrifice alive or we are ruined."

The High Priest saw Milnew's ears flatten back and he looked away.

"What else is there?"

Milnew sighed. "The… The Purity, High Priest. Our teams have found in several places decent quantities of blood belonging no doubt to the sacrifice."

"The other Paladin of Voltron will keep him alive," the High Priest replied, knowing that fact despite the odds. "But the elements are their true danger and leaving them to the Plains will result in not just their deaths but all of ours. Do you understand, Brother?"

"Y-yes, High Priest. I will have a retrieval team assemble."

"Remember, Brother Milnew, we hold the advantage. This Red and Black Paladin of Voltron should be of no concern; he has but one blade that must be wielded at close range. But… if it will aid in the cause the Council of Elders and I will make post-haste to complete the purification of the second Sin."

"That would be most agreeable, High Priest, and will surely restore some faith to our brothers and sisters. I will notify them at once and we will move out shortly."

"Before the night is over we shall have the sacrifice back in our possession," the High Priest said with a smile. "Now go. We have no time to waste."

And with one last bow, Brother Milnew departed. The High Priest took the final sip of his tea and placed the mug to the side, eyes narrowing with determination.

It was time to finish the purification of the second Sin.

xxx

Lance had come to disoriented and in quite a bit of pain. His hand felt like someone had taken a burning knife and – oh. That is what happened. He'd felt a somewhat hysterical chuckle bubble up then, but it had disappeared as quickly as it had come as he heard another sound coming from above him.

Crying. Someone was crying. And suddenly his own pain was not all that important.

He'd moved then, trying to get a better look and the sound had cut off abruptly. By the time he'd managed to pry his eyes open everything had gone quiet. Keith was hovering over him though and Lance would have had to be blind to miss the redness of Keith's eyes or the tear that traced its way down his cheek.

And then the mullet went and asked him how he was feeling. Oh no. Lance might have felt like he'd gone up against the gladiator at level one hundred and had his ass kicked while shoving his and into a blender filled with burning hot liquid, but Keith was most definitely not okay himself and Lance wasn't going to let that go. Not this time.

He'd somehow gotten himself to sitting with Keith's help even as the swordsman protested he would hurt himself, and pulled him into the tightest hug he could. His hand wailed at the pressure and Lance had adjusted his grip, hugging Keith with mostly his right elbow and forearm instead.

And his heart broke when Keith didn't seem to realize what was happening. He'd frozen like a board, hands limp at his sides. Lance had been grateful when some neurons started firing again and Keith moved so Lance's arms weren't' quite so stretched and he could wrap them more fully about the smaller boy, dragging him closer.

And then finally Keith had returned the hug. Lance had burrowed his face against Keith's shoulder, not needing to muffle his own cries thanks to what the Mackans had done, but because his eyes were wet and he couldn't wipe them away with his otherwise occupied hands.

He wanted to tell Keith that it was okay to cry. Well, losing the body fluid wasn't good, but otherwise yes. It was okay to be upset. Lance had already cried enough this trip for both of them, but that didn't mean Keith wasn't entitled to his own bout.

His grip had tightened as he heard Keith finally give into a sob and then another.

They stayed like that for how long Lance wasn't sure, but Keith eventually pulled back and Lance let him. He cocked his head as Keith sat back on his heels and rubbed a sunburned hand across an equally red and tear stained face.

"Thank you," Keith said quietly. "I… I do feel better." Lance gave him a smile.

Those bright purple eyes turned more serious then. "And how do you feel? How's… how's the hand?"

With trepidation Lance glanced at the limb in question. He couldn't see it at all, covered up as it was by Keith's former sleeve, but he did see that there was no blood. That was a good thing.

It was the only good thing really, as the entire hand was absolutely pulsing with pain now and somehow bringing his attention to it had made it worse. He clutched it to his chest, hunching over it as though that would somehow make it feel better. It did not, for the record.

"I'm really sorry," Keith whispered.

Lance looked up and shook his head. It wasn't Keith's fault. He did what needed to be done. If anything Lance should be apologizing for having to put Keith through that, but he wasn't sure how to fully explain that. He settled for placing his left hand on Keith's upturned knee and giving it a squeeze.

Keith managed a small smile, but it fell soon thereafter.

"We're in trouble," he said quietly. Lance managed a look of mock surprise and he drew another smile for his efforts.

"I was calculating the time difference," Keith said. "We still have at least twenty-eight varga before the others get here."

Lance ran the number over in his head, stomach dropping. That meant…

"We have about two hours of daylight left for the Mackan's day today," Keith continued. "We… we need to make it to those cliffs there," and he jutted his chin their direction. "If… if they don't have water though, Lance, we…"

He didn't need to finish the sentence. Lance more than understood. Either they had water and the kept surviving or they didn't and… well, it wasn't going to be pretty.

Keith dug into the pouch he'd made and extracted two bugs, which looked no worse for the wear since that morning and somehow Lance managed to make a face at them, relieved when it garnered a low chuckle from Keith. "I know. But you need to eat. If you can. Just one, okay?"

He took it without even a feigned sigh. But even as Keith chomped down Lance stared at his meal, stomach rolling. He knew he needed to eat, but just the thought was sending his innards heaving and he sucked in a harsh breath instead, which devolved into a soundless cough.

"Lance?" Keith was there then, hovering and uncertain of what to do as Lance tried very hard not to cough up a lung. When he finally finished he held his untouched bug back out to Keith.

"No, you need to eat it."

Lance weakly shook his head.

"Lance, you need to eat." And Keith sounded scared now and Lance hated that he'd caused it, but he couldn't do what Keith asked.

He'd thought he'd feel better as time passed, but it seemed to be the opposite. His head was pounding now and the pulsing pain from his hand was traveling down his arm now and making his entire body throb. And the idea of eating that gross, nauseating bug… he wasn't hungry anymore. He wasn't sure he'd even be in the mood for a plate of garlic knots if they descended in front of him.

"Okay," Keith agreed after a few quiet moments. "We'll… try again later, all right?"

Lance inclined his head even though he was pretty sure later might mean never.

"Do you… do you think you can walk? I'll help. But we can't stay here."

Lance wished they could. He just wanted to lie back down and try to sleep until he felt even a bit better. But that thought made guilt fill him instead of nausea. He'd had plenty of rest while Keith had barely managed two hours.

He mimed sleeping with just his left hand, but Keith got it. "As soon as we get there you can sleep."

Lance shook his head though and pointed at Keith.

"I can't sleep. Not now," Keith said, although Lance could hear the longing in his tone. "It's not safe."

Lance mustered up the best glare he could and repeated his motions.

"If… if we get there and there's still daylight I'll rest. For a bit," Keith finally agreed.

And that provided the motivation Lance needed. He nodded and accepted Keith's assistance in getting to his feet. The world spun nauseatingly around him and he'd have fallen right back down if Keith hadn't caught him.

"Take a minute," Keith murmured.

Lance ended up taking several and even then he didn't feel very sure-footed. Stepping back onto his burnt feet and putting his full weight down was an obstacle all itself, but Lance knew that he had to do it. Keith couldn't carry him, or at least not for long, as he'd gotten to wherever this was without any recollection.

"We'll go slow," Keith said, looping Lance's left arm about his neck and putting his own left around Lance's back. "It's maybe… two miles. Not too bad, right?"

Two miles on a good day was nothing at all, but with way he was feeling it might as well be twenty. Lance appreciated the encouragement though and he took his first step of many.

The full effects of the sun when the stepped out from the shade nearly made Lance falter again and he heard Keith inhale sharply. Within minutes Lance could feel his exposed skin starting to ache and everywhere Keith touched him was stifling. But without the support he'd fall.

The first hour was near torture, but as the suns started to set it became a bit more bearable heat-wise. Lance was dizzy, blinking back dots on his vision multiple times and often moving forward a chunk of distance without even being aware of it as Keith just short of ushered him robotically along.

Keith didn't say much of anything, not that Lance could blame him. His own throat was aching and parched and no doubt Keith's was the same. Besides, what was there to say?

"Almost there."

Keith's voice was so loud in the otherwise silent world and Lance nearly tripped in surprise. He lifted his head for the first time in a long while, blinking as the cliffs loomed in front of them. They were nowhere near the grand size of the canyon from the previous night; perhaps only fifteen feet or so tall and they stretched at most for fifty yards. But they provided something to the otherwise flat canvas and just having them at their backs provided the slim comfort that no one could come up that way.

Keith all but hauled him forward the last hundred feet, lowering Lance to the ground before he collapsed next to him with a quiet oomph. They both lie there for several minutes, Lance's head slowly coming to a stop from its carousel ride as he breathed in the stillness.

Keith was the first to recover, sitting up with a groan. "I'm going to go look for water," he said. "Stay here, okay? I'll be back in a few minutes." There really weren't that many places to look and Keith had a sinking feeling he was going to be disappointed.

And five minutes later after scouring the base of the cliff structure he hated that he'd been right. He had located a few of the seaweed plants and had plucked them for light, but otherwise his search had proved fruitless. He didn't run along the back of the cliffs, but given that they weren't too wide he'd walked the width of the structure to see if anything appeared different from that end. But no luck from what he could see; just more dry rocks.

Lance was exactly as he'd left him, lying on his back with his hands pillowed on his stomach and eyes closed. The pried themselves open though as he approached and Keith shook his head. He hated seeing the despair slide onto Lance's face.

"We'll stay here tonight," he said hoarsely. "Tomorrow we've got to get out of this desert. We… we can't go back the way we came, but we've been heading north the entire time. If… if we keep going we should reach the end."

Although getting out of these plains didn't mean the danger ended. The land all over Macka was the same rock environment and unless they got lucky enough to encounter a water source that the Mackans hadn't yet staked out they were still at risk.

And that was assuming they made it out. Keith ignored the ice in his stomach and instead settled against the rough cliff face with a sigh. Lance pushed himself somehow to sitting and waved at Keith to get his attention. Once he had it he mimed sleeping again and pointed up at the sky, where the suns were still casting their dying rays.

Keith turned his gaze to the plains, seeing only the same barren wasteland. They had a good view again of anything encroaching. And… it's not like they could run at this point. If the Mackans did come they were going to have to fight back, somehow. Keith snorted. Fight. Right.

But if he did get some rest, even if it was only an hour, that had to help. And Lance could still keep watch. For now, anyways.

"Okay," he sighed. "As… as soon as it gets too dark to see though you wake me. Understood?"

Lance gave a sloppy salute that somehow dispelled some of Keith's worry. If Lance was still up to making gestures and faces he had to be okay.

Although, he'd seen Lance smile when he could tell he wanted to cry or laugh to cover up a hurt. But Keith supposed that was who Lance was. Even when he was bad off he still wanted to comfort others. Keith appreciated it more than Lance could possibly realize.

Lance pulled himself over to the cliff face and settled himself against the rough stone while Keith curled up next to him. The temperature had entered that nearly almost pleasant stage and the sun warmed rocks felt nice instead of torturous.

It was the most comfortable Lance had felt since he'd gone to sleep the previous night. But unlike then he forced himself to remain awake and keep watch. Keith had drifted off near instantly as soon as he'd curled up just a short reach from Lance and their safety was now in Lance's hands. Hand.

He looked at his right hand again, grateful that Keith had covered up the wound. It hurt to even flex a single finger, no doubt as the connected skin pulled against what had to be second degree if not third degree burns. But still, there was no nearly familiar feeling of blood pooling and Lance let out a breath.

He'd had his doubts it would work, given the fact it was as magical wound, but it had. The vain hope he'd clung to that by sealing his hand his voice would return though was not to be. His left hand tentatively touched his throat, massaging the base of it.

A whispered hello yielded nothing and Lance didn't know whether the lack of disappointment and fear he felt over that was good or bad. Probably good, he settled on. At least he wasn't going to break down crying again over it, although at this point he didn't think Keith would hold it against him.

He tried to go back to his mental debate as he had just earlier that afternoon, but the pounding in his head – dehydration, his body told him helpfully, compounded still by blood loss – and the constant ache of his hand kept distracting him.

He kept his gaze straight though as the suns continued to sink, counting the ticks in his head. He was nearing about fifty dobashes, although it could be slightly off as he'd lost track a few times, when the final sun sank from view.

Prior to that Lance had seen absolutely no movement on the plains, so he counted out another twenty dobashes, figuring that there wasn't much Keith could do anyway with his hearing from that far out.

A varga later though he reached over and lightly jostled Keith with his foot, careful to make sure it was just the toes as the heels were beyond tender. He was so, so glad that Keith had thought to make him the shirtsleeve socks, because otherwise he knew he wouldn't be walking at all at this point.

A few more nudges and Keith finally stirred, picking his head up with effort from the ground. He forced himself to his hands and crawled the few paces so he slumped up against the wall with Lance. The lighting was beginning to dim and the moon had not yet come out to make the plants glow, but it was hard to miss the exhaustion nearly painted onto Keith.

"I'm okay," Keith mumbled, catching Lance's worried eyes. "Really."

Lance wasn't sure who Keith was trying to convince, because he was not buying it and he frowned.

"Fine, okay. I'm really tired," Keith sighed, tipping his head back on the rock. "But nothing we can do about it. You should get some rest though."

Lance shook his head. He was tired, but he wasn't tired enough to leave Keith alone like that. Even if it was just sitting in shared silence that was better than nothing.

"Up for trying to eat again?" Keith asked after a few moments, freeing the pouch from his belt and holding it out.

Lance grimaced.

"You need to eat."

The sharpshooter placed his left hand over his stomach and shook his head again. He wanted to. He knew he needed to. But just the thought made him want to heave up the two bugs he had managed to get down earlier.

"Lance, please."

But he couldn't and he turned his face away from the offending meal.

A second later he felt a rough hand descend on his forehead and he could only blink owlishly at Keith.

"You're burning up."

Lance was pretty sure they were both rather roasted at this point.

Keith looked even more worried now as he sat back and Lance closed his eyes again. Had Lance gotten an infection? Was there bacteria in the water? Was it just from the dehydration and sun? Keith admitted he didn't feel so well either, but he was still capable of scarfing down needed nutrients.

He wished they had water. Wishing was pointless though. He never understood why so many placed their hopes and dreams on the impossible. If you wanted something to had to take it, not wait for it to come to you.

Still, he would not be opposed to a freak rainstorm right now because he hadn't even a clue as to where to start looking. They could survive the night, he was certain, but come the suns again in eight hours?

Speaking of night, already the heat was leeching away from the rocks and there was a nip to the air. Keith wasn't sure if it was just the temperature or the sunburn, but he felt even colder tonight than last, and Lance gave a full body shiver next to him.

Without any hesitation Keith wrapped his arm about Lance and pulled him flush against his side. As much as Lance was shivering, he outwardly felt warm and Keith was reminded of the hot corn bags he'd sometimes slept with.

Lance relaxed easily into the half-embrace, tucking his head up on Keith's shoulder and hot breath ghosting across Keith's neck. After a few minutes Keith's left side was actually feeling rather warm. But Lance was still shivering.

"Hey," Keith murmured, and Lance cracked open an eye. "Um… Are you… still cold?"

He got a small nod, accompanied by another shudder that Keith felt all through him.

"Would… would it help if you sat here? In front of me? I could um…" He wasn't good with this sort of thing. He may have gotten more than a crash course in physical contact in the last twenty varga, but it still wasn't something he was wholly comfortable with, even though he could admit it was nicer than he had thought it would be.

Lance though had no such reservations and was already pushing himself over Keith's extended leg. The former Red Paladin hardly had a second to unfold his other one where he'd tucked it under him before Lance was there and dragging his captured arm as well.

Not even sure how it had happened, Keith found Lance's back pressed fully against his chest and both of his arms had been commandeered to wrap about Lance in a loose hug while his legs were outstretched and Lance curled his up, pressing both of his feet against Keith's inner leg.

Lance finished off his spot by pillowing his head against Keith's shoulder, hair tickling Keith's chin. It was all very close and much more intimate than anything Keith had ever been subjected to in his life and he could feel his cheeks warming that had nothing to do with Lance's additional body heat.

"Um… are you… um, comfortable?"

In answer Lance snuggled more against him. As the minutes ticked by Keith felt the small shudders that had been running through Lance come to a halt. The seaweed plants were glowing now too and Keith freed one of his arms so he could pick it up and tuck it in next to Lance, easily illuminating the pain-lined face.

"So… you do this… often?" Keith asked as Lance shifted again so he was more on Keith's shoulder and they could make out each other's faces in the light.

Lance gave a nod and mouthed something. Keith frowned. "Can you repeat that?"

Ah. "Siblings," he realized. "You guys are… close?"

A fond sadness overtook Lance's expression and he nodded. Keith knew that. He knew Lance was always talking about his family and his siblings, but he'd never really listened before. He couldn't relate to siblings or what it was like to have a family that was there for you and hearing Lance go on and on about them had always made him feel even more like an outsider.

Lance interrupted his inner thoughts by holding up his left hand with five fingers. "You have five siblings?" Keith interpreted and he got a nod. Lance pointed then at Keith and tilted his head slightly.

"Me?" Keith shook his head. "I don't have any."

Lance's eyes looked sad at that.

"Well, I had foster siblings," Keith offered. "But they… well…" His eyes widened at himself. He didn't speak about his time in the homes. To anyone. Only Shiro knew. The words had just come out and he blamed it on the lack of sleep.

Lance wormed his left hand free from where he'd pillowed them in his lap and pressed it on top of Keith's. A reassurance. Comfort. Keith hated that he was somehow so transparent now to Lance. Their sharpshooter had sharp eyes indeed. He knew he could stop now and Lance wouldn't press, but whether it was the exhaustion or the desire to further this growing bond, to be open with someone other than Shiro, Keith found himself speaking.

"My mom left when I was young. I don't remember her and my dad never talked about her. He… he died when I was little. Cancer. And I wound up in the foster system."

He gave a self-depreciating chuckle. "You know how I am. I didn't fit in. At all. I bounced around. A lot. I don't think I was ever with the same family for more than a few months. I just didn't connect with anyone. I missed my dad. I wanted my mom. I… I think now that I now I'm part Galra that explains a lot why I never really fit."

He trailed off, and Lance gave his hand another gentle squeeze. And Keith continued. "I don't know what would have happened if I hadn't met Shiro, honestly. He was part of a Big Brothers program I was forced into as a last resort before I…" he trailed off, recalling the last warnings of the agency that if he messed up with his most recent family he'd be back to the group home. He barely suppressed the shudder at remembering how horrible that family had been and what he'd put up with to avoid an even worse option.

"We got paired together," Keith said quickly, pushing past the memory and focusing on the good. "He saw something in me, I guess. He was the first person since my dad to tell me I could do anything. That he believed in me. And I…." Keith hated the tightness clogging his throat. "I miss him. We don't even know what happened to him. What if he's hurt? Or the Galra have him? Or…" A sob interrupted him. "What if he's dead, Lance?"

Lance's hand squeezed Keith's own before he entangled their fingers and brought their conjoined limbs up to his own heart, pressing them there.

"He'd be so disappointed in me," Keith whispered, blinking back a tear. "I'm a horrible leader."

And all of a sudden Lance's grip on his hand became painful and Keith found own hand being forced to hit the bottom of his chin. Lance was glaring at him, an anger etched in his features that Keith had rarely seen. 'Idiot,' he mouthed at him.

"An idiot and a horrible leader," Keith said, gaze dropping. His chin got another hit and when he looked back at Lance he was the recipient of a firm head shaking.

"Just an idiot?" Keith whispered and earned a nod and a small smile to show that even that Lance didn't mean it. Not that way. He sighed. "I know. I know."

The lapsed into a shared silence, Lance maintain a firm but comforting grip on Keith's hand, but moments later Keith could feel Lance yawn on his shoulder, hot breath tickling his skin. He looked exhausted, Keith thought. And still in so, so much pain that he had no way of easing.

"Get some sleep," he said gently. "I'll wake you when it's light and we'll find water then."

Lance nodded and mouthed 'good night,' before turning his face so he was facing forward and the back of his head was now directly under Keith's chin. He did not relinquish his grip on Keith's hand and Keith didn't pull away.

Instead he leaned his own head back against the wall, eyes closed but ears straining for any sound that did not belong in the still night, and pulled his other arm tighter about Lance.

And in that quiet stillness he listened and he prayed that it would remain.

xxx

 

Chapter Text

 

"The Council of Elders is fully assembled, High Priest, as all are of our brethren who are not on patrol or search. We are ready to begin."

The High Priest rose at the announcement. "Then we shall begin. Lead on, Brother Milnew."

The two Mackans walked silently through the twisting halls towards the sacrificial chamber. Moonlight filtered in the passing windows, casting an ethereal glow on the scene. The High Priest hoped that was a sign of good fortune.

They entered the cavernous room where not even half of the chamber was filled with fellow Mackans. The High Priest strode up the aisle, nodding in reverence to each well wish as he passed. Milnew followed, holding the sacrificial dagger aloft on a mirror-like tray.

Striding up to the table the High Priest gazed down at the Blue and Red Paladin of Voltron's odd shaped piece of headwear. It had been painted tediously with the sacrifice's blood by the Council of Elders in the runes inscribed in their holy book and was to act as a substitute for the sacrifice's actual body.

Should the ritual work they would then need to prep another such piece of the sacrifice's armor for the third part of the Purity of Sin to be carried out the next evening. The Lady Leorea called for the light of the second moon to bathe the sacrificial table, which meant they only had a slim window to enact the ritual.

But it would be done. And then when the moon came tomorrow evening they would do the third Sin and their sacrifice would be ripe. In that time the retrieval teams should have been able to make contact and collect the sacrifice.

The High Priest had been so relieved when the two Paladins of Voltron had landed. They were an answer to their prayers as it was soon time to conduct the lottery to determine the newest sacrifice and now they no longer had to lose any of their own.

But they were a curse. They had killed five of his brethren now and the High Priest feared that number would grow due to the savagery of the Red and Black Paladin of Voltron. But he could feel the power in both of these aliens and he knew that they would be more than worthy sacrifices. Why, Lady Leorea may even take the single sacrifice as several.

He wished they could keep the Red and Black Paladin, but he had shown he was too dangerous. If the retrieval team was somehow able to bring him back alive and subdued he would be overjoyed, but he would never wish to put his fellow Mackans in the path of harm. No, the best course of action was to eliminate the sacrifice's companion.

He was atop the dais now and the High Priest turned, black fur highlighted in silver from the moon. "Brothers and sisters," he called, raising his paws. "It is time for the Purity of Sin to continue!"

Cheering greeted his proclamation although it cut off as he raised his arms once more.

"For the first time in our generation we shall conduct the Purity of Sin with our sacrifice away. But do not fear, my brothers and sisters, for he will soon be returned to us and his sacrifice shall save us all."

The moon was nearly in position now and the High Priest accepted the dagger from Brother Milnew, who bowed low and went to stand amongst his fellows then.

"Speaketh, seeth, heareth," the High Priest chanted, stalking about the helmet and carving the dagger into the air.

"Speaketh, seeth, heareth," intoned the crowd.

"Ladrás, maras, sentas!"

"Ladrás, maras, sentas!"

The chant continued, picking up intensity with every iteration. The blade began to glow blue in the High Priest's hand and he sucked in a harsh breath. This was it. Either this method worked and brought them closer to retrieving their sacrifice or it did not and the two Paladins of Voltron remained dangerous adversaries.

"Maras novia mesto scolars," he growled, raising the glowing blade above the helmet.

Please, he prayed silently. Let this work.

And he stabbed the dagger down.

"Maras!"

xxx

Keith had been counting out the dobashes, approaching their second hour of darkness and about an hour and half since Lance had fallen into a rather deep slumber all things considered, when Lance gave a near violent twitch in his arms.

"Lance?" he whispered, as the sharpshooter shifted again.

And then Keith was seeing stars as Lance swung his head back and collided solidly with Keith's lowered face.

He was squirming then like something possessed, hands scrabbling at his face and a silent scream echoing in the stillness.

"Lance, what's wrong?" Keith couldn't see from his current position and Lance had his head tucked down. All he got were more violent trembles.

Keith wormed his way out from behind Lance, crouching down in front of him and bracing his hands on Lance's shoulders.

"Lance, look at me," he pleaded as Lance hunched over more. In the dim lighting though he could see something drip down Lance's face. Was he crying? What had happened?

"Lance, hey." He grabbed Lance's left wrist and pulled, expecting to see tears.

Instead he saw blood.

At first glance it looked like Lance was crying blood, but then no, he realized the blood was smeared on Lance's cheek and the tears pouring from his squeezed shut eyes were mingling with it. All the while Lance was still silently screaming and crying. Keith moved his hand from Lance's shoulder to the back of his head as Lance tried to smash it against the rock wall. They did not want to add concussion onto the injury list.

"Lance," he gasped. "Where are you hurt? What's bleeding?"

Lance's right hand was digging into his cheek, but Keith did not see any blood. He turned his attention to the left hand he still had firmly grasped and his stomach bottomed out.

In the center of Lance's palm was a gaping, bleeding wound.

"No," he whispered. "No."

And suddenly everything made terrible, terrible sense.

"Lance, open your eyes." Please no. Please don't let them have taken that too.

"Lance, please," he begged as Lance's violent tremors began to wind down. "Come on, look at me."

And as a pair of eyes blinked open Keith realized what a selfish request that had been.

Because where there were normally pools of dark ocean blue there was now a distorted cloudy version, like a wave of foam had washed over but had not gone back to the sea.

"No," Keith whispered, bringing a hand up to cup Lance's face, removing it immediately as Lance flinched back, unseeing eyes widening in terror. "It's just me. It's Keith," he babbled, hoping to fill the dark silence. "Can… can you hear me?"

And the relief he felt as Lance gave a tiny nod was nearly overwhelming. At least they hadn't taken that. Not yet, at least.

Lance reached blindly out with his right hand and Keith caught it, holding onto just the tips of the fingers because beneath the wrappings was still a grisly, painful wound. "I'm right here."

Lance's lips moved, mouthing 'Keith' and Keith blinked back his own sudden tears. Not now. "I'm not going anywhere," he reassured. "I'm right here."

Purple eyes moved to Lance's left hand where blood was already starting to drip down over Lance's wrist and plop onto both Lance's legs and the ground. He was out of bandages; only the few shirt sleeve tubes remained but they wouldn't hold the blood in. He could use them tomorrow if – when, he amended with despair – he cauterized that injury too, but they would be useless right now.

But he still had the food pouch. It was sitting just against the wall where he'd untied it, a bug still ensconced inside.

"I'm going to retrieve the food bag to use as a bandage," he told Lance. "I'm just stepping a few feet away, okay?"

Lance's grip on his fingers tightened.

"How… how about a pinky swear?" Keith choked out. "I promise I'll be right back."

Lance offered a hesitant nod. Keith gently wrapped his own little finger about Lance's right one and bobbed it up and down. "Be right back."

He literally was back in under ten seconds, dumping the bugs unceremoniously to the ground, and ripping the cloth into strips. "Can I have your left hand?" he asked, as Lance had clutched it closed and had it held to his chest, still shaking although Keith was betting at this point it was also due to the cold and possible shock rather than just pain.

Lance tentatively held it out, flinching back though as Keith took it by the wrist.

"I'm just wrapping a bandage," Keith explained quietly. "When I finish I need you to clench your hand though. I know it'll hurt, but you can't lose any more blood."

This cut fortunately did not look as deep as the previous one. It was by no means a scratch, but it didn't seem to have almost dissected Lance's hand and it only took up the center of his palm rather than his hand corner to corner.

Once he was done and released Lance's hand, the boy cradled both to him again, shoulders hunched and looking in that instant as young as Pidge.

"What can I do?" Keith whispered.

Lance lifted his head, cloudy eyes near shining in glowing plant light. He bit his lip, looking mostly in Keith's direction but seeming uncertain as to where exactly Keith had gone to.

"Right in front of you," Keith murmured.

Lance adjusted his angle slightly and Keith forced himself to meet those sightless blue eyes brimming with tears. Lance said something and it didn't take a genius to figure out his request. And after the one Lance had bestowed upon him hours earlier Keith knew how comforting one could be.

"Okay," Keith said. "One hug coming up. Ready?"

A nod.

Keith leaned forward and carefully wrapped both arms about Lance and pulled him close. Lance slumped bonelessly in the embrace, head dropping to rest on Keith's chest.

"It's going to be okay," Keith murmured, rubbing one hand up and down Lance's back as he'd seen Lance do for Pidge and Hunk. "We'll figure this out. We'll get your sight back. And your voice." His own hardened. "They'll pay for what they've done."

Lance shivered in his hold.

They remained like that, quiet, for a few minutes. Lance did not fall back asleep; Keith wondered if despite how exhausted he was he even could. He was certainly awake again though.

Awake and aware. His ear twitched as he heard the telltale scuff of movement that was most definitely not coming from him or Lance. He cocked his head, and it came again. They had company.

Lance must have felt him stiffen because he picked his head up, tear tracks staining mocha skin and shining in the moonlight.

"Mackans," Keith whispered. And although Lance made no sound he could still hear the sharp intake of breath.

What did he do? They couldn't flee; not only was Lance now blind but they were both exhausted. They wouldn't make it far. Not when they – he, Keith amended – could barely see the terrain in the dark. Fight? Him against at least two Mackans in close-quarter combat? This wasn't like the previous terrain. There was no wall for him to hide behind and spring out. The cliff face was as straight as it could be and there was no other cover in range.

Keith cast his gaze up to the moons, seeking some inspiration as his heart raced. And while the moons didn't provide answers, they illuminated the top of the cliff face. Fifteen feet, give or take. The walls were rough enough that Keith was certain he could scale it.

But Lance… there was no way Lance could. Not blinded and with his hands in the state they were, to say nothing of his dizziness. If he missed even a step he would fall. Also, the Mackans had to smell the blood by now. Lance had it smeared still on his face and chest, not to mention the streaks all over his hand and arm and the still bleeding wound. They would know they were here. They'd sniff Lance out in a heartbeat. They were probably smelling him now.

Keith had no doubt this timing of Lance losing his sight and the subsequent blood trail was not a coincidence. The Mackans had hunted them to the area and they had given themselves even more of an advantage than they already had. Keith cursed under his breath. How cowardly.

There was only one thing Keith could think of, and it was stupid and reckless and beyond dangerous, but it was the only thing he could think of as the scuffing got closer and was picking up speed as they tracked their prey. It would mean leaving Lance alone though and if something happened to him in that time… Keith would never forgive himself. But if he didn't do this, didn't at least try, then they were both dead.

"Lance," Keith said urgently, pulling out of the embrace. "I… I need to go."

Lance shook his head, lunging forward and fisting his hands into Keith's shirt despite the pain that action had to cause him. He looked beyond frightened, but there was nothing to be done for it now.

"You trust me, right?"

And the fear was replaced by a look of deep offense. Like Lance couldn't even believe Keith would ask that.

"I'll be back," Keith said, prying Lance's hands from him, and the affront turned back to a shadow of the original fear. "I promise. Stay here. It's going to be okay."

They were getting closer. There was no more time to waste.

"I promise," he whispered, squeezing Lance's shoulder as he clambered to his feet. "It's going to be okay."

Keith launched himself at the cliff, scrambling up the rough surface as the scuffs became even louder and he knew he had but seconds. Rocks bit into his palms and he ignored the sting, pulling himself up and then over the rim. Just in time, as from this new vantage he could see the Mackans – four of them, his stomach clenched – just a hundred yards away.

Patience, he told himself. He needed to wait for the opportune moment. Wait. Listen.

Still, a chill that had nothing to do with the night air swept through him as he could see when the Mackans caught sight of Lance, saw their ears prick up and heard the intakes of breath and the growls of excitement.

And Lance… Lance sat there, arms wrapped about himself now in some measure of self-comfort and staring sightlessly forward at the approaching danger. Keith could see him shuddering, could almost feel the terror rising. And still, he sat. He made no move to get up, to run away because Keith had told him to stay. And despite his own fear, Keith felt a warmth fill him that Lance trusted him that much.

Keith's gaze narrowed. That trust would not be misplaced.

xxx

Down below Lance could hear the Mackans now. They were speaking but from this distance he could hear only purrs and growls. He strained his eyes forward, even though only pitch blackness filled his vision and it made him shudder again.

They were almost there now. He backed up slightly, pressing against the cliff face even though he knew having it behind him would do nothing. He couldn't do anything. He couldn't even see what was going to happen. And although losing his voice had been terrifying it didn't even compare to going blind.

He had awoken feeling like someone was stabbing burning embers into his eyes and no matter how many tears he cried to flush them out, or how hard he dug his fingers into the crevasses nothing helped. The pain had slowly started to fade to be replaced with a new pulsing in his left hand.

He hadn't even needed to open his eyes to confirm what had happened. He knew. But hearing Keith gasp when he'd found the newest wound on his left hand this time had been the final nail in the coffin.

And now he'd had but minutes to come to grips with what had been taken from him this time before Keith was whispering about Mackans and stealing away and leaving Lance alone. He knew Keith had some sort of plan. He hadn't just been abandoned here.

But it sure felt like that. It was a horror movie come to life but he couldn't even see the monsters. He could only hear them, their growls and claws scratching the rock, and it made everything worse.

They were close now. So close.

And then something touched his shoulder.

Lance flinched back, head slamming against the cliff and new pain exploded behind his eyes.

"Careful," growled a voice. "He could be dangerous."

A scoff from Lance's right. "Does he look dangerous, Sister Kladrel?"

"He looks to be in pain," murmured a third voice. "The poor thing."

Lance felt his heart stutter in surprise. Was this… was this third Mackan an ally?

The soft voice continued. "This is why the ritual should have been finished immediately. How cruel to let the sacrifice suffer their physical body any longer." And that would be a no.

A paw brushed against his face then and Lance took a swing at it, desperation as well as fear fueling the punch. He didn't know what Keith's plan was, but he was not going to go quietly. Blind and injured he may be, but he was a Paladin of Voltron.

But his attempt was caught, painfully, and a clawed paw squeezed his burnt hand. He screamed silently, trying to wrench it free as a different kind of blackness filled his vision.

"Where is his companion?" asked a new voice over the pounding in his head. "He is the truly dangerous one."

"Did he abandon the sacrifice? The High Priest seemed so certain he would remain."

"Perhaps he saw us coming and fled?" A series of chuckles and growls sounded then. Lance attempted to use their apparent distraction and pull his hand free, but he was instead wrenched forward and dragged to his knees, feeling the material of his pants shred at the handling.

He tried his left hand then, scrabbling at the paw that wrapped about his right, but a sharp cuff across his face snapped his head back, followed by the rest of him. He hit the ground with a silent groan.

"How weak," muttered one of the Mackans. "Clearly it was the other Paladin of Voltron who is the true threat. We should have sacrificed that one first."

Lance's body was screaming at him to stay down, but he couldn't. He had to fight. He wasn't weak. He wasn't. He placed his left hand flush on the ground, biting back the cry, but he needn't have bothered.

A paw stomped on his back and he crashed down again, feeling his cape get wrenched off in the process and the frigid air land on newly exposed skin. Then there were several paws on him, one pressing against his back, another on his head and more grabbed his arms. He kicked out, rewarded with a sharp gasp, but then his legs too were seized and Lance could do nothing but flounder as he felt what could only be rope tied about his ankles and more around his wrenched back arms.

"More fight left in him than I thought. And yet it amounts to nothing," chuckled the voice of Kladrel, as Lance twisted in his trussed up state, body aching at the contortion. He needed to do something. Anything. Tears burned his eyes as all his struggling did was draw more guttural laughter.

Where was Keith? Why wasn't he stopping this? Keith had promised it would be okay. He would never have left him. But then where was he? Lance's stomach dropped. Had something happened to him? Or… was he still waiting for something else?

His musings were cut short as a set of claws descended into his hair and he stiffened in surprise as they raked from his bangs and back. Was the Mackan… petting him? When it happened again he had his answer and the tears were replaced with narrowed eyes. Oh hell no. He tried jerking his head away, but the Mackan held him firm.

"I don't think he likes your attentions, Sister Munice."

The paw came around, brushing back Lance's bangs and then stroking the side of his face. "I have no idea what you mean, Brother Tyrol. His fur is so soft. Look at— Ouch!"

Lance grinned in minor victory around the paw clamped in his teeth that had wandered too low. But the appendage was pulled free and he received a firm clout to the back of his head that smashed his face into the ground.

"Enough lollygagging," Tyrol said. "Let us go."

"No," snarled the still unnamed voice. "Not until we kill his companion."

Lance's heart stopped. What? No. He struggled uselessly to sit up, but a furred foot settled on his back between his bound hands and held him immobile.

"That is not what was asked of us, Brother Wicyk."

"He killed five of our kin. You wish to let him roam free? He is a danger to us all!"

"I wish to have the sacrifice finish the Purity of Sin, Brother. That is our most important objective."

"We have been fortunate he seems to have fled," Munice said quietly. "Let us not waste this gift."

"No!" came an enraged growl. "I will have his head!"

Lance felt himself being picked up by his hair then, and fought down the whimper the action caused. Hot breath hit his face then and he tried his best not to flinch back.

"Sacrifice," growled Wicyk, shaking him by his hair and Lance felt reflexive tears pooling. "Where is your companion?"

"His Speech has been purified, Brother," sighed Kladrel. "He cannot speak."

"He knows." Lance was shaken again, his head wrenched back now and body bending uncomfortably. "Where is he? Where is that murderer?"

Lance mustered up his best glare around the tears he could feel trekking down his cheeks. Even if he knew he would never betray Keith. Keith had said it was going to be all right. He trusted Keith. Keith would come.

A clawed paw slapped across his face and he could feel thin trickles of blood where claws had scratched. Breathe. It was okay. Keith was coming.

"Tell me!"

Lance bared his teeth with a bravery he didn't feel. It was going to be okay. It was going to be okay.

"Fine. If you will not tell me then I will make him come to you." Lance was released from the tight grip and he fell awkwardly back to his knees, managing to somehow catch himself and remain upright even as he felt his heart threatening to break free of his chest. Deep breaths. In and out. It was okay. Keith promised. This was all part of the plan.

"Brother, what are you doing?" Tyrol asked and there was a mark of hesitation in his voice.

"Summoning the Red and Black Paladin of Voltron." A pause. "Netale."

And then pain. Lance collapsed to the ground as it felt like lightning was racing across his skin, mouth opened in a silent scream as his body shuddered under the attack. He slammed against the cliff wall, crying out.

"Stop me, Paladin of Voltron," challenged Tyrol. "Do you wish to see your companion suffer?"

Lance tasted blood as he bit on his tongue as another arc sizzled through him. Still. It was okay. He was okay. He tried to choke back his pain, determined to not give them the satisfaction or spur Keith into any immediate action. Because this was now a trap. And Keith couldn't come. Keith would die.

And that thought was more painful than any spell.

"Come out!" bellowed Tyrol.

Don't come out, Lance pleaded, agony pulsing through him. He was okay. This was nothing. Keith couldn't die because of him.

"That is enough," cut in Munice and the agony stopped as sudden as it had started. Lance whimpered soundlessly, pressing himself against the cliff face as if he tried hard enough he could disappear into it. "There is no need to torture him so, Brother," Munice continued. "The other Paladin of Voltron is gone. Let us be gone too."

Lance shuddered out a sigh at her words. It was over. Keith hadn't come. He couldn't come. Relief warred in equal measure with despair.

A growl. "Fine. But should we find him his head is mine."

"You will have to share with me," Kladrel said and there was a darkness to her tone. "He killed my blood sister. I will see him bleed."

And no, Lance thought. No. Keith wasn't going to get hurt. He wouldn't let them. He couldn't let them. If… if it meant that Keith would be safe he would go with them. He would stop resisting. That way they'd be so occupied with him that Keith could take the opportunity to get away. He could survive until the others came to rescue them. Lance knew he could. This was Keith's best chance.

He forced himself to go limp, for the tension and fight to drain from him. This was for Keith. For their family. He already knew his odds of surviving until the rescue were slim with his injuries and he acted only as a beacon to the Mackans to find them more easily. With him gone Keith had more than a chance. Keith would live.

"We all wish for him to pay for what he has done, Brother Wicyk," Munice murmured. "He will face our wrath, do not doubt. His death will be slow and long and we will revel in it. But now is not that time. Let us go."

"Sister Kladrel, if you will assist me?" Tyrol called. "This Paladin of Voltron is long in limb."

The foot pressing him to the ground lifted, but before Lance could so much as blink he felt his body being hefted up with a grunt. Someone else grabbed his feet. He trembled in both resignation and from the aftershocks of pain.

Over the blood rushing in his head he could hear claws on stone as the Mackans gathered themselves. They were leaving. They were leaving. And although he had come to terms with what had to happen to ensure Keith remained safe, especially now that he knew how badly they wanted him dead, he felt panic welling up. He didn't want to die. He didn't want to be a sacrifice.

He wanted to live too.

"Let's go," said Wicyk. "Move out."

But he couldn't. He offered no resistance as they secured him and began to step away from the cliff. He tried to reassure himself that this was all right. It was okay. Keith would be safe. Keith would escape. He'd live. That… that would have to be enough.

There came then a sudden, odd whistling noise from up above that gave pause to the entire group.

And then all hell broke loose.

 

Chapter Text

 

Keith had never known the actual, physical pain of waiting.

It had started with his stomach clenching as the Mackans had surrounded Lance, reaching out to their blinded, wounded prey with smug grins as they closed in for the capture.

It had morphed into crescent moons dug into his palms as Lance tried unsuccessfully to strike them and they had brought him down, absolutely no remorse for someone who was clearly already in a lot of pain. They'd taunted him too, Keith had heard them use the word weak and his blood had boiled.

They were the weak ones. Four healthy, beyond dangerous wizards abusing a single injured boy. How dare they.

And then one of them had reached out and tried to actually pet Lance. Like he was some animal. Keith had seen red as Lance had stiffened, jerking his head away. Satisfaction had followed soon after as Lance bit her.

His veins had filled with ice after that as he heard their plans. They wanted him dead. And not in the sacrifice vein either. Dead, dead. He in a way understood. He had killed their kin. But it was either them or his own life and Lance's and he knew who he would always pick.

These Mackans weren't evil, not in the Galra sense. He recognized that. But their end goal was still to kill Lance and that was absolutely not okay. They may not be evil, but they were far from innocent. Keith couldn't even begin to imagine how many they had tortured and killed in this way and he felt sick.

A mixture of pride followed as Lance stood his ground with a resilience that Keith wasn't sure even he could have mustered in that moment. His hackles had raised though when the one Mackan had struck Lance across the face, three lines of blood trailing in his wake. He'd had to bite down on his lip to keep from making a noise.

And then the pain of waiting had been all consuming, teeth clenched and blood welling in his own palms as Lance screamed silently, writhing under the effects of some spell. He knew it was a trap. God, he knew it. If he blew his cover now it was all over.

And yet he wanted to. Copper filled his mouth as he bit down on his own tongue to keep from screaming in pure frustration and anger. He wanted them to stop. He'd never wanted anything more.

But then Keith saw something worse. He'd seen resignation cross Lance's face and he found that he couldn't draw a full breath. Had Lance given up on him? Did he think Keith wasn't coming?

No… it was more resolute than that. He'd witnessed it in Garrison classes as Lance turned the attention from a classmate under fire to himself, often landing himself in hot water instead. It was the same line of determination when Lance had taken a hit meant for others, oftentimes winding up in a cyro-pod to make sure they avoided that fate. It was the grim acknowledgement Keith had witnessed time and time again that Lance would do anything to help others even at the cost of his own safety and well being.

The realization had frozen him. Lance wasn't giving up. He was surrendering. Letting himself be taken so Keith would be safe, so he could get away while the Mackans were busy with their ritual.

Lance was trying to protect him.

And while the sentiment warmed him… No. No. Absolutely not. Keith had promised it was going to be all right and this? This was not all right. This wasn't even close.

He didn't know if they were honestly going to get out of this alive. The odds were not in their favor. But if they went down they went down together. None of this self-sacrifice bullshit. That wasn't how Keith wanted to survive. He refused to live at the expense of Lance's life.

The Mackans wanted to kill him? He snarled silently as down below they debated his fate. Let them try. But he sure as hell was taking them down with him.

Their backs were finally to the cliff now, two of them hoisting Lance awkwardly between them. He climbed to his feet, crouching right on the edge and fully silhouetted by the moon. But they didn't see him as they turned away. And besides. His grin turned feral. No one ever looked up.

He pulled his knife free with the barest hiss, blade elongating to catch the silver rays. He stood then to his full height, holding the sword out and pointed down.

And then taking a deep breath he jumped.

xxx

A scream of pain shattered the night air, cutting off before it even began with an all too-sudden silence of shock.

Something hot splattered against Lance's face and he flinched back.

More screams then; harsh growls and shouts. "Murderer!"

Lance hit the ground with a bone-jarring thump, feeling the hold on his feet give way and air rush past him. His heart was thudding too loudly, echoing in his head. What was happening?

"You coward!" came a high shriek.

There was that whistling again, a blade in motion. Keith, Lance thought dazedly. Keith had come.

"I'll kill you!"

More screaming. Chanting. Something smashed into Lance's side, sending him rolling onto his burnt and bleeding hands, wrenching a silent cry from his lips.

A choked gasp, a gurgling. The sound of a body crumpling.

"No! Sister!"

More hot liquid hit him, a macabre souvenir. A sharp inhalation sounded, broken by a cry that he recognized as Keith.

Spells. Words that sounded like growls flew hard and thick. He couldn't keep up with them. It was going too fast. Everything was too fast.

He felt sick.

Another cry. "Look out!" The harsh whine of metal on metal. A sizzle. Keith screamed again.

No. No no no no. Keith had to be okay. Lance struggled uselessly, bound hands and feet holding him captive.

His stomach rolled as another gurgling scream split the air. He had to help. He rubbed his bound hands against the rock. It hurt. Didn't matter.

Wailing. Claws scratched on the rock. Someone was gasping, breath a death rattle.

Keep going. Blood painted his wrists. He rubbed harder.

Stillness then.

Panting. A growl. "Just you and me."

A sword whipped through the air.

"Netale."

Screaming. Keith was screaming.

Faster, faster, faster.

A yowl of pain. Keith's screams stopped.

Almost there. He could feel it loosening.

Scuffing footsteps. And then a new pain burst behind his eyes as a claws dug into his hair, raking his scalp and dragging him up.

He thrashed silently in the hold, desperate. No! Not yet. He wasn't done yet. The rope was still there.

"I'll kill him." The voice sounded above, harsh and guttural. Wicyk, he recalled blearily, head spinning with pain and vertigo at the new angle.

Something sharp bit into his neck and he bit back the cry, afraid it would go deeper. He ceased pulling on his bound wrists. "I'll kill him."

"Let him go." Keith sounded like he was in pain, voice tight. But it was controlled. Strong. He was okay. Lance shuddered out a breath of relief.

Keith was okay.

"I'll kill him," growled Wicyk and Lance's head was pulled further back, exposing the bloody line he'd made. "You monster."

"You won't kill him. You need him." There was the swish of a blade cutting through the air. "Let him go and I'll let you live."

"No!" Panic. Desperation.

Fear.

Lance whimpered silently as the blade cut deeper, the sting now a burn. He shifted uncomfortably, body contorted in the hold, but stilled as more blood dampened his neck.

"Let. Him. Go."

"We're dead anyway." The words were but a whisper.

Lance could feel the intake of breath. The resignation. Sightless eyes widened. 'Keith' danced on his lips. His hands grew slack, rope firmly embedded around his wrists.

"I have seen my kin felled by your blade, Paladin of Voltron," murmured the Mackan. "Now you shall see yours."

It was all the warning Lance had.

He surged to his feet at the same time Keith gasped out a "no," metal sunk into flesh and the creature screamed, paw going slack.

But rather than slicing through his neck, the Mackan's knife cut an incision from Lance's collarbone down his chest and he cried out, stumbling on bound feet.

Then arms were there, catching him, and Lance struggled before he realized that these arms lacked in fur. Keith. Keith was there. He was safe. He was okay.

They were alive.

And for a single moment all of the pain disappeared as Keith's arms wrapped tight about him and his face was pressed into Keith's shoulder and he just breathed. "I've got you," Keith whispered, his own form trembling. "It's okay."

But all too soon the peace was shattered as the new wound covering his torso throbbed in anguish and Lance could feel his head lolling as dizziness caught up to him.

"Easy, easy," Keith murmured, releasing the embrace and instead gently lowering Lance to the ground. "Hold on a tick." He heard footsteps walking away and then a terrible squelch that made his stomach flip-flop. Lance tried desperately not to think of what had produced such a noise.

The footsteps came back and Lance found himself being rotated onto his side, startling at the sudden touch. Then there was the dull snapping sound of rope being cut and Lance's arms tingled painfully as they fell limply at his sides and Keith moved onto his bound feet.

Keith walked away again then and Lance could do nothing but lie there, pulse pounding in his ears and distorting his hearing. He couldn't move, as even just trying to twitch a hand up sent ribbons of pain through him and he groaned silently.

Something dropped onto his chest and he recoiled as much as he could, before realizing that there was no threat as Keith's soft tones sounded. "Sorry, sorry, that was stupid. It's just a piece of robe, okay? Lie still, I've got to see how bad this is."

He heard Keith shuffle against the stone and then there was a pressure on his chest. He gasped, jerking up, but Keith pushed his shoulder firmly back down, continuing his examination.

"It's not good," Keith said after a minute. And if he'd had the breath Lance would have laughed. It would have been hysterical, likely, but at least, no matter what happened he could always count on Keith to understate everything. He appreciated the second of familiarity.

"It's deep," and Keith's voice sounded small. "Lance, I…" A choked sounding sob. "I don't know how to fix it."

Lance managed to raise his right hand from where it had flopped on the ground, hoping Keith would understand. Even that small action exhausted him.

"Cauterize it? Lance that… that…"

And now that his head had stopped throbbing Lance heard something else in Keith's voice behind the worry and exhaustion. Pain. And he remembered that Keith had cried out not just once but several times, clearly on the receiving end of some sort of spell.

He mustered up what little strength he could and poked in Keith's direction with his left fingers, relieved when he actually hit something. A knee, maybe? 'Okay?' he mouthed and gracias a Dios Keith had been able to interpret it.

"I'm okay," came the reply. Lance managed another poke at that and tried to etch disbelief over his own pain.

"I'm a little beat up," Keith admitted. "Nothing… nothing major though. Promise. I'll be all right. You though… Lance, this is really bad." And that tremor was back and Lance couldn't do anything to relieve it. He was the one putting it there in the first place.

"We need to get out of here," Keith continued. "There's… there's blood everyw-where." And Lance did not miss the way Keith hitched on the last word. Lance reached out again, but this time Keith intercepted his fingers and wrapped his own hand tightly about the blood-stained digits.

"I'm okay. I'm okay." Lance didn't know who Keith was trying to convince, but he was doing an awful job of it. He squeezed back on their hands as best he could, wishing he knew how to make it better. He felt useless like this, but as he'd already told himself, there wasn't much he could do about it.

They sat like that for a few minutes, Keith's shuddering breaths gentling out while Lance wavered in between wakefulness and sleep, the latter only being prevented from the sharp ache that sprang up with every exhale.

"Okay," Keith repeated, and this time his voice didn't waver. "Here's what we're going to do." Lance blinked at him. Or, well, he thought he did. It felt like his eyelids moved.

"The Mackans have to have water flasks on them. And some food too, maybe. I'm… I'm going to wash the blood off of us," and Keith faltered again. "And… and try to staunch your bleeding. Then… then we need to get away from here. Somehow."

He didn't seem to know how that last part was happening and Lance had no suggestions. He wanted to volunteer to walk, but he could barely twitch a finger right now over the pain and he felt so dizzy even lying still.

Lance hadn't felt at all well before he'd gone to bed for the evening and it hadn't improved when he'd woken up screaming and blind. And now he'd managed to go and slice himself open and make way for even more blood loss that he knew he could not afford.

He was cold again too, but his body was too tired to make a complete shiver. Keith must have seen him try though because all of a sudden there was a hand coming through his hair and a soft shush. Lance inclined his head towards the touch, nothing like the cruel and mocking version the Mackan had tried.

"Hang tight," Keith whispered and Lance heard him rise. "I'll be right back."

Lance closed his eyes, even though it didn't make any difference at this point. He managed to swallow back the sob at the reminder as the deeper breath made his entire chest feel like it was on fire.

And listening to the sounds of Keith's boots scruffing against the rock and sounding absolutely nothing like the Mackans' claws, Lance fell into a restless half-sleep as he waited.

Keith meanwhile was navigating around the Mackans bodies as best he could, one of the glowing plants held aloft.

He felt sick, looking at the carnage he'd wrought. He swallowed heavily knowing he couldn't afford to throw up now. He fought like a Galran, Zarkon had said. Keith held back a shudder as he surveyed the bodies. Yeah. Yeah he did.

Everything had just been so fast. He'd slammed into the first Mackan that had been carrying Lance, luxite carving through the creature's flesh as though it was butter. His scream had been short-lived as Keith ripped out his throat, blood splattering himself and Lance.

He'd had to though. That's what he kept telling himself as he rummaged through the utility pouches each Mackan had been equipped with. He couldn't afford to go easy on them or show mercy when he knew they would show him none.

His left arm trembled, clenching and unclenching as aftershocks of the same spell they'd used on Lance slowly dispersed. He'd been hit with several over the course of the fight that had felt like forever but had really just been a couple minutes.

As he'd noted before, once the caster was dead, or severely disabled, the spell died as well. He'd used that knowledge, managing to take out next the Mackan, the one that had tried to pet Lance, as she had managed to freeze his right leg and send what felt like tendrils of fire snaking up his arms.

He stopped to hack off a large swathe of robe from the third Mackan, whose throat he had run through. There was no blood to be found on the lower half of her robes and he relieved her of them for bandages and blankets.

Still, he'd had to hurry away as her sightless eyes, wide with grief and horror, seemed to follow him. Keith suppressed the acid tickling his throat.

"I'm sorry," he whispered, so softly he wondered if he'd even spoken at all. He hadn't wanted to kill them, but they'd left him no choice. He would always pick Lance.

The last Mackan he'd killed… this one he felt no pity for. This one had tried to first bargain with Lance's life and then, seeing that he was not getting away, had tried to end it. He was the one who had cast that lightning spell on an unarmed, wounded opponent to try and draw Keith out.

This one was evil. And he had deserved to die, a luxite blade thrown through his head. Keith honestly couldn't believe that had worked. He'd nearly struck Lance, not expecting the other Paladin to move, but he realized now with horror that if Lance had not done that then Lance would be dead.

He felt suddenly light headed and thumped to the ground next to Lance, his pilfered supplies clanking around them.

Lance would have died.

For all his skill and for all his assurance to Lance that they'd be okay, he'd almost lost him. His knife had flown straight and true with more accuracy than Keith had ever managed before, almost as though someone were guiding it.

But it would have been too late. The knife at Lance's throat would have torn right through that soft flesh and Lance would have been dead in an instant. By moving though the knife blade had been jerked and although it had still cut much too deep for comfort into the base of Lance's neck and then down and across his chest, thinning as it went, it was not fatal.

Not yet, at least.

He swallowed back the sob that threatened to release itself. He couldn't go to pieces. Lance was counting on him and now was not the time for him to dwell on what ifs. He needed to do what he could.

Instead he forced himself to take a few deep breaths and take inventory so he could see what he had to work with.

Four water flasks, each about half full. Some type of… energy bar? Keith sniffed one of the brown food things he'd found and took a tentative bite. He was not surprised in the least when it tasted vaguely of onion, but otherwise it seemed to be a bit grainy and sweet. Not bad, actually, and significantly more edible than the bugs. He counted eleven in total.

The one Mackan had had a sword on him, which was interesting as Keith had assumed they only fought with magic, but it was of no use to him as he had nowhere to carry it, and he wasn't taking the knife that had almost killed Lance, practically justifying it with again, nowhere to carry it. One of them had a roll of parchment and Keith pulled it apart, eyes widening. A map. It was a map. He almost kissed it.

He looked it over quickly, stomach lurching as he realized that based on the markings he and Lance had wandered into a large, flat plain that stretched for miles and miles. It's not that the whole planet wasn't this dry wasteland – although if he was seeing right there was some type of vegetational area to the far north, assuming green meant trees – but they'd went into the area with no structures and therefore no shade.

However, they were nearly out. The cliff they were at was on the very edge and if they went a little further east they'd get out of here and back to another winding set of cliffs. Cliffs were much better protection and had the element of surprise. Keith nodded to himself. They would go there.

The cliffs were still walking away from the Mackans' base and if he was figuring this right – not able to understand all of the Mackans numerical units – it looked like they were heading in the direction back to their Lions.

Keith counted that they had about twenty-three varga minimum for rescue and five more hours of darkness, although it was more of a hindrance than cover as the Mackans seemed to see just fine. Keith had only made out so well in that battle because, like it or not, the spells they'd employed had lit up the area.

And that meant they really needed to get out of there. He didn't know how close the next Mackan team was, he prayed not close at all, but the lightshow if anyone had seen it had to be attracting attention.

First things first. Clean up the blood so it wasn't a neon sign to the Mackans. Keith ripped up a scrap of robe – and at least they had plenty of those now – and poured a tiny amount of water onto it. His throat chose that moment to remind him that it had been hours since he'd drank anything and he was starting to feel a little light headed now. He took two small sips then, forcing himself not to guzzle the entire thing.

Once done he went back to carefully wiping up the blood that he could feel splattered across his face and some on his right arm. None of it was his. He'd escaped that battle with only magical injuries, and even the last tremors were fading away now.

But of course Lance didn't. Guilt flared up as Keith looked again at the cut, covered right now by a piece of robe, and the small cuts and likely going to be bruises that dotted his shoulders and upper arms where they'd grabbed him. Bleeding scratch marks were etched into his cheek from the backhanded swipe and both of his knees were bloodied and raw from being dragged across the hard ground.

Lance seemed to be asleep for the moment and Keith let him be. He grabbed a new scrap of fabric and wet it, intending to wash the blood from Lance's face. But as soon as he'd made contact Lance's foam-covered eyes were opening and he tried to sit up, panic clear.

"It's just me, it's Keith."

And Keith felt that weird warmth bloom in him as upon hearing his voice Lance settled back down immediately.

"I'm getting the blood off your face," Keith explained as he gently wiped at the splatter from the first Mackan's death. "Almost done."

Once he was finished there he carefully made his way further down, dotting at the line of blood the knife had made and managing to work a strip of cloth around it several times much like his own.

Then came the real injury that they could do little about right now. Lance was right, Keith realized. They'd likely need to cauterize it – his own stomach flipped at the sheer amount of pain that was going to cause – but that couldn't be done until they had sun again.

So for now he dabbed at the edges of it and then placed a clean strip of robe folded several times over the injury and then prepared more strips by tying them together to make a long bandage. Through it all he could feel Lance's ribcage rising up and down rapidly, no doubt in a lot of pain. And it wasn't over yet. "Can you sit up?" he asked gently. "I'll help."

Lance managed a nod and between both of them Lance made it to a hunched over sit, body trembling at the exertion. Keith awkwardly fed his bandage rope under Lance's arms, knowing that asking him to sit straight and with his arms up was not going to end well. Still, he managed well enough and tightened the last knot with a good tug.

Keith used a little more of their water to wipe the blood from Lance's now exposed knees and then a bit more for his feet, which at this point Keith wasn't sure how he was walking on even with the wraps, as they were no real substitute for proper footwear.

Lance endured all of it silently – and it took Keith longer than it should have to realize why that was – and he hurriedly glanced back up to Lance's face, which was angled down.

He put gentle fingers under the chin and tipped it up, not surprised to find new tear tracks. Lance turned his head to the side, arms too tired to lift and wipe them away and Keith felt his heart break.

"I'm sorry," Keith whispered, swinging Lance's face back to him. "I did this."

Sightless eyes widened and a protest formed on chapped lips.

"No," Keith said firmly. "Let me finish. First though, drink. You need it." He brought one of the canteens up and Lance took a careful sip and then another. Keith could almost hear the whine when he tugged it away. "You'll throw it up. You can have some more in a bit."

Before he continued he grabbed one of the largest pieces of robe he'd commandeered and draped it over Lance's shoulders, this one long enough to brush the top of Lance's pants and cover his entire back. Keith knotted it again, leaving it loose though so it didn't pull on any of the new wounds on his neck.

And then, before he could think on it any longer, Keith sat flush at Lance's side and brought one of his arms carefully over Lance's shoulders, tugging him towards him. Lance sank gratefully into the half embrace, his head finding a familiar spot on Keith's chest.

"I did this," Keith repeated quietly once Lance was settled. "I thought I could take them out with an ambush. I didn't… I didn't think they would hurt you. I'm… I'm so sorry. I'm sorry I didn't come sooner."

He felt the shake of Lance's head and somehow Lance lifted his left hand and Keith caught it with his own, their fingers interlacing to spare any additional pressure on the newest sacrificial wound. Lance squeezed Keith's hand and Keith returned the gesture, finding the comfort now in it.

"I'm sorry," he said again, knowing it was still never going to be enough. His actions had almost gotten Lance killed. He wasn't sure he could forgive himself.

But Lance didn't seem to bear any type of grudge, butting his head up more so that dark locks tickled Keith's chin and Keith could feel the soft sigh against his neck. Keith hugged him a little tighter.

"Why did you do it?" Keith asked after a few moments. Lance inclined his head slightly. Keith continued. "I saw it, Lance. You… you stopped fighting them." He felt Lance stiffen ever so slightly. "Why?"

Lance shifted, enough so that his face was visible now propped up on Keith's shoulder and he mouthed his answer.

"Safe?" Keith repeated and he received the barest of nods. "You wanted to keep me safe?" Another nod.

"Damn it Lance!" And that came out harsher than Keith intended, based on Lance's flinch, but he couldn't take it back. "Why would you do that?"

And God help him, Lance actually looked confused at the question. Confused and hurt. 'Safe,' he repeated, accompanying it with a barely-there squeeze of their hands.

Keith tried to soften his expression, not that Lance could see it he realized after a second. He lowered his tone instead. "I want to keep you safe, Lance. I promised."

And Lance shook his head. He weakly raised his right hand, and pointed a shaking finger at himself and shook his head again.

"We're both getting out of this," Keith said. That, or they were both dying, but no need to touch on the more morbid outcome. He knew Lance was more than aware of it. "Both of us," he emphasized. His voice broke then. "Lance, I don't… I don't want to survive because you sacrificed yourself. That's not living. And I won't do it."

He saw the protest of his name on Lance's lips and he shook his own head, the action going through his entire body. "No. No more of that. No more thinking your life isn't as valuable as anyone else's," and he felt Lance cringe at the observation. "It is Lance. And I won't let you give it up like that. Do you understand?"

And after a few too long seconds Lance nodded.

"Good," Keith said brusquely, feeling the vice clenched around his heart loosen. "Now that that's settled…"

He dug into the utility bag he'd put all of the food bars in and removed with two. "You need to eat." Lance paled even in the wan moonlight. "It's not a bug. It's… some type of food bar. And you need it."

The swordsman realized a slight problem though; Lance had no hands really to eat with. His right was wounded and burned and his left, while not terrible, was still shaking and wrapped up in Keith's and he highly doubted Lance would have much dexterity even were he to release it.

Keith broke a small piece off and pressed it against Lance's closed mouth. "Open up. I promise, it's not bad." Reluctantly Lance accepted it, chewing cautiously, expression slowly giving way that it really actually was tasty.

The spent a few dobashes eating, Keith providing Lance another piece whenever he stopped chewing. He knew it still wasn't enough; not for all the blood Lance had already lost and was still losing, but anything was better than nothing. And he'd bet these were packed with nutrients too.

"Want some more water?" Keith queried, already unstopping the one nearly empty canteen and taking a sip himself. Lance nodded and Keith guided it to him, allowing him to finish it off.

"We do need to get going," Keith said. "The Mackans had a map on them. We're going to head east towards a cliff line and towards the Lions. We'll hopefully be able to make camp there until the others come."

Keith was also hoping that once the Mackans stumbled upon the grisly scene they were leaving behind they would be more hesitant to approach.

That, or they'd be sending in an even larger group. If that happened Keith honestly had no idea what they were going to do. He'd been beyond lucky this time and he knew it.

He retrieved his hand from Lance's, patting it gently as if in apology for the loss, so he could condense the rest of the canteens to two full ones and slipped the long straps connecting them over his head. The bars were all contained to one of the utility pouches that he managed to hook to his belt and the rest of the robe pieces he'd cut were rolled up and placed in a second pouch, bulging. Good; the more the better.

Now… how did they get moving, exactly?

Keith glanced down to where Lance was slumped next to him, blank eyes fluttering with exhaustion. He was in no condition to walk and Keith couldn't ask him to try. He knew Lance would. The Mackans of course hadn't come with any type of transportation and there was nothing of use for any type of sled for him to pull.

Looked like he was going to be carrying Lance again. Keith's shoulders already ached, but they didn't have any other choice. They needed to be well away from this area before the scent of blood attracted more Mackans. It was most likely easier to smell now too without the sun baking it into the stone.

"Hey," Keith murmured, giving Lance a gentle nudge. "I'm going to carry you, all right?" Lance's nose wrinkled and it tugged a smile from Keith's mouth. "You aren't walking. Come on, I'll need your help. We're going to do piggyback, okay?" After a few ticks Lance nodded.

Keith gave all of the supplies he'd attached to himself one more check and placed his knife, clean of any blood, into the sheath that he shifted so it was on the front of his hip rather than his back. At least that way he could access it since Lance was going to be covering it otherwise. He jammed a piece of the glowing plant into the belt as well. It wasn't the best, but it did illuminate his feet and should prevent him from tripping over anything in the immediate area.

Once he was certain they were secure, he got up and knelt then in front of Lance, who had tipped forward without Keith's support. "All right, hop on," he said, bracing his feet.

After a few seconds of waiting he turned around, the frown disappearing in an instant. Lance did have a hand outstretched, but he was slightly off, turned more towards the left, and Keith could see the wavering of fear as his hand moved more and still didn't encounter anything.

"Hey, right here." Keith gently took the quivering limb, hating how Lance still startled. "I'm right here. Just follow my arm."

He felt Lance trace his arm up to his shoulder and then to his neck where he settled his left arm and then his right followed soon after.

"Good," Keith murmured, inching back a pace so Lance's arms could fully encircle him without strain. "Can you pull yourself to kneeling?"

The arms tightened, almost painfully as Lance used him as leverage. After a few ticks, where Keith could feel Lance's hot breath on the back of his neck coming in short gasps, he'd managed. Keith couldn't see in the darkness but he'd bet the movement had really hurt what with the newest wound.

"I'm going to pick you up now, all right? One sec."

He shifted his own arms to brace around the back of each of Lance's thighs and then pushed himself up, wobbling slightly. Unlike the first time though he was more evenly balanced as Lance was holding up some of his own weight and Keith didn't have to bend near double to keep him from falling off. He did wonder how Lance's hands were faring as the gripped one another, but there wasn't anything to be done.

Keith adjusted his hold to more comfortably grasp Lance's legs beneath his knees and bring his own arms together in the front, securely latching Lance to him. And despite Lance's extra height, he wasn't terribly heavy. Keith nodded to himself. He could do this. Just a couple miles.

"Are we good?" he asked as Lance settled his head over Keith's shoulder. A slight nod.

"Okay, we're going then. Hold on tight."

Keith took one careful step and then another, picking up the pace as he settled into a gait. It was by no means fast, but it was better than a plod. He felt a little more refreshed now too with the food and water in his stomach even as the adrenaline from the battle faded.

Just a few miles, he reassured himself. Find shelter. Find water. And then wait for rescue.

Twenty-three varga to go.

He hoped they made it.

xxx

 

Chapter Text

 

The suns were just beginning to rise as they reached the cliffs, a harsh and beautiful line against the flatness of the plains.

Keith moved mechanically towards them, legs burning with each step. His shoulders were screaming and his arms ached, but he forced himself to keep going. Just one more step. Just one more step. It was a mantra he'd been chanting in his head for the last varga.

Lance had fallen asleep or unconscious, he wasn't quite sure. His breathing was for the most part steady on the back of Keith's neck, so he was trying not to worry too much. It was nothing like the shallow gasps following when he'd had to cauterize his hand.

Just thinking on that though broke through his mantra as dread settled in him. As soon as it was hot enough he was going to have to do it. Again. And twice; once to Lance's left hand and then to the large wound that cut Lance from across his collarbone down to near his right armpit.

He could feel additional damp heat on his shoulders and had no doubt that Lance was bleeding on him. There was nothing to be done right now though. They'd stopped about two hours in so Keith could rest and he'd re-bandaged both of Lance's newest injuries. He'd also gotten Lance to eat another food bar and scarfed one himself along with another few sips of water.

The map hadn't shown any type of labeled water source, but Keith was hopeful that a light orange mark might signify water. He also knew that such an area was likely to be guarded at this point. His plan was to find a secure location earlier on in the cliffs and then, once he was certain Lance was safe, proceed there on his own to try and refill the canteens.

He also needed to sleep. He'd hoped to plow through until the rescue, but that had been a serious error on his part. He could feel even now how the exhaustion was making him sluggish and if any type of attack was launched he would be not able to defend against it. Just the thought of wielding his sword made him dizzy.

He took another determined step, a high cliff wall rising upon his right. And then another. He kept going until a secondary wall rose on the opposite side closing them in. A narrow tunnel wasn't so great for swordplay, but it also would prevent the Mackans from firing on all sides and force them down in sets of two to three rather than a whole horde.

Keith kept trudging until one of the walls curved in a bit forming a widened section of path before narrowing again several feet up. It was here Keith decided was far enough and he just about collapsed with relief.

Disentangling Lance's hands from where he'd ended up looping them together with a piece of cloth, Keith pulled them free his own neck and then lowered Lance gently to the ground. He wasn't sure if the fact Lance didn't stir in the slightest was good or bad.

After rolling his shoulders and neck a few times and cracking his back, Keith then turned to making Lance more comfortable, pulling him into the part of the curve where the shade was currently falling and propping his head up on the pouch full of spare robe pieces.

He rested his hand on Lance's forehead, frowning as despite the heat starting to leech into the air Lance felt cool and he looked pale beneath his tan and the sunburn that was darkening already. He spied the culprit; the bandages wrapped around Lance's chest were indeed dark and damp with blood.

His hands trembled as he pulled his luxite blade free, staring at the gleaming black surface. He knew what he had to do. Again. He swallowed thickly, the scent of burnt flesh lingering on in his memory.

Speaking of, he should probably check on Lance's right hand. He hadn't given it any attention after he'd wrapped it the first time and he knew that more often than not cauterization could lead to infection. There wasn't much he could do if that was the case, but he could at least wipe it down with some water, which had to help with the burn, right? He at least had water to do that now.

Gingerly he began to pull the shirt tubes off and over, frowning as they felt damp. Clammy skin? He hoped so. But as he eased the main one that covered the majority of Lance's palm free his eyes widened. Peeking up through the burn was a sliver of an open wound with a line of blood.

It felt like his heart stopped.

"No," he whispered. "How…?"

Now freed from the pressure, he watched the blood start to run free of the cut, spilling onto Lance's palm and dripping down his hand. He hurriedly yanked the shirt back down, securing it and wrapping his hand about Lance's to add additional force for the moment.

It must have been enough to cause pain though, as he felt Lance twitch and then seconds later try to pull away.

"It's just me," Keith said, relinquishing his hold and moving instead to place a firm but gentle hand on Lance's shoulder to keep him from trying to sit up, eyeing the stained bandages on his chest warily. "Lie still, it's all right."

Sightless eyes blinked up at him and Keith hated that he could see the confusion and fear even then. Lance tried to move again and Keith pressed down harder on his shoulder, earning a silent whimper that made his guilt flare. "You can't move. You'll hurt yourself more."

Lance stilled then, although his breathing had definitely picked up tempo if the dull thudding beneath Keith's hand was any indication. "It's all right," Keith repeated, even though it really wasn't. "Just… just rest, okay?"

Lance closed his eyes in answer.

Keith meanwhile sat back on his heels, exhausted mind going in circles. He needed to cauterize all of the wounds. Even though it wasn't a permanent fix for the blood loss it had held for… he tiredly counted back, having to resort to his fingers that swam in front of him, for about ten hours. They still had about eighteen left, give or take, which meant if he cauterized it now it would hold until sometime in the middle of the night and then it'd be bleeding again with no way to staunch it.

Or, and his stomach heaved, he could do it now and then redo the operation in about six more hours before the suns started to set. That'd get them practically to the rescue and then hopefully Coran would have a different method to heal Lance until he could go into cryo. Keith had a sinking feeling that Lance could not go into the pods until the spell had been reversed. Because if the cryo healed the wounds but did not restore Lance's sight and speech…

The suns weren't high enough yet to really give him the heat he needed. Maybe in about a varga. And his hands felt shaky right now, proven as he lifted them both to his face and there was a faint tremble to them. He couldn't perform such an operation like this. He'd hurt Lance more.

He needed sleep. Even just an hour had to help. But he couldn't ask Lance to keep watch. Lance couldn't even see and his hearing was either equal or less than the Mackans.

What did he do?

He glanced at their supplies again, hoping inspiration would strike. If Hunk or Pidge were here he'd know they'd probably be able to devise some trap out of nothing, but all he could see were items and they were hazy in his vision. He shook his head but it did nothing except nearly tip him over and make his head pound. The water and food had helped a lot, but they were no replacement for sleep.

"Lance," he finally whispered and cloudy blue eyes opened, his head turning ever so slightly in Keith's direction. "Are you awake?"

And the faintest smile tugged up Lance's mouth and he managed an eye roll.

"Okay, haha, yes, dumb question," Keith mumbled, but his thoughts weren't quite lining up the like they were supposed to.

Lance seemed to realize something was wrong too as his left hand shifted and with startling accuracy he landed it on Keith's knee, poking it with his index finger. Keith supposed he shouldn't be surprised; Lance had always been adaptable and also had a keen sense of direction. He was already beginning to come familiar with this newest handicap.

"I'm tired," Keith admitted, more honestly than he would have even a few hours ago. "I… I need to sleep. But…"

Lance poked him, hard, and with more force than he'd managed last night. The food and water had to have been good for him too and Keith sent up a silent prayer that if they'd had to be attacked than at least the enemy had brought supplies. If that hadn't happened actually… well, they might both be passed out on the plains right now. He shook the thought away, but that only brought a new wave of dizziness and he caught himself on his hands.

Lance struggled to sit then, no doubt hearing Keith's hiss as still healing hands thumped the stone, but somehow Keith managed to shift one of his hands onto Lance's shoulder and the movement stilled.

"Can… can you…?" What was he even asking?

But Lance nodded as best he could, a line of determination taking place of his own pain and exhaustion. 'Sleep' he mouthed at Keith.

"But—"

And Lance poked him again. 'Sleep.'

"Just for an hour," Keith agreed reluctantly. He settled down next to Lance, his head even with Lance's shoulder and his knife resting in its sheath between them. "If… if you hear anything—"

Lance cut him off with another poke, this one stabbing into Keith's chin. Keith pulled himself up to avoid losing an eyeball and settled onto his stomach, pillowing his head on folded arms and looked in Lance's direction, sightless eyes staring back at him.

"Okay, good. Do that. And don't move," he said that last part a bit firmer. "Not until I…"

And the wince that passed over Lance's face told him he knew how that sentence ended. Still, he got a soft nod and that was enough.

Keith closed his eyes and was out like a light.

Lance lied still as Keith had asked, taking comfort in the deep, even breaths next to him. He resisted the urge to copy the inhalations, knowing that it would knock him out too and he needed to keep watch. Or, he amended, keep listen? No, that sounded stupid. He'd stick with watch.

Despite Keith's request, order really, Lance did move, bringing a trembling left hand and gently prodding at his neck, withdrawing with a silent hiss. Okay, that stung. He could feel cloth wrapped about him further down and gently trailed his fingers along the edges, trying to determine for himself how bad it was.

Not good at all, he concluded as he felt something sticky on his fingers. He tried to wipe them as best he could on his side where the bandages seemed to just be there for support rather than covering any particular wound.

As strange as it sounded, he did actually feel a little better than earlier. Not in any less pain – oh no, that had most definitely increased – but his head felt clearer. Less fuzzy. A combination likely of the sleep, food and water. He licked his lips at that last thought. He really could go for a drink.

But… he had no idea where Keith had put the bottles or whatever it was they were drinking out of now. It wasn't the plant tube, he knew that much. And he was in no condition to be fumbling around looking.

He swallowed, trying not to think about how thirsty he was now. It really wasn't that bad. Nothing like last night where he'd almost wanted to cry because of how parched he was and the heat of his new burn had not helped.

He swallowed again, twitching his right hand at the thought. It responded with a sharp stab and he stilled it immediately. His left didn't seem to be as bad, but whether that was because Keith hadn't sealed it yet or the cut wasn't as deep he wasn't sure.

He tried not to think about that. The pain the first time… He closed his eyes as if that could block it out. That… that had been the worst pain in his life he'd experienced to date, and that included being thrown from what was pretty much a bomb blast. Well, maybe he'd call it a tie with the whole being burned alive thing. Point was, fire was not his friend. It made him miss Blue's soothing water and ice with a new pang of longing.

And worse still, this time he'd gotten someone else hurt. While Keith might not have any actual physical wounds, Lance hadn't missed the deep guilt swimming in those purple orbs when he'd come to. He'd forced Keith to hurt him and telling himself that it needed to be done couldn't erase the action. And now he was asking Keith to do it again. That almost hurt more than the impending pain of the actual deed.

And this time he wouldn't even be able to see. He blinked back the hot tears that sprung up. He was trying really, really hard not to panic about his loss of sight. There was nothing they could do and freaking out wasn't going to solve anything.

But that didn't make him any less scared. He was lucky that Keith seemed to have gotten rather good at his random interpretations – maybe he wasn't such a lost cause for charades, the thought quirking his lip into a smile. In fact, Keith was really surprising him. In a good way.

He cast his eyes in Keith's direction, another smile, more real, lightening his entire face. It's not that he didn't think Keith would look out for him. That's what you did for your friends. But Keith had been nothing but (mostly) kind and even in his fits of anger and frustration Lance could tell now that it wasn't directed at him, but at their situation.

Except for last night. Or whenever that was. When Keith yelled at him for surrendering. He bit his lip, looking guiltily in Keith's direction.

He knew what Keith thought. He understood why he was worried. But despite all of that Lance would do it again. Even though he'd sort of promised not to.

Ideally, yes, he wanted both of them to get out of here alive. But he knew what the situation looked like. They were severely outnumbered and he was weighing them down. He could never forgive himself if he could have done something, anything, to save Keith and he didn't. He didn't care if Keith cursed at him for the rest of his life. At least he'd be alive to do so.

Lance was well aware of his tendency to figuratively and literally bite the bullet. He didn't like to see people get hurt when he was in a position to do something to stop it. And if that meant taking a bomb blast or the blame or whatever it was he would do it. Every time.

It's not that he didn't want to live. He liked living very much, thank you. But he couldn't just stand there when he knew he could make a difference and spare someone else the pain. He hated that he kept hurting Keith. He didn't want to. It just kept happening and when Lance had tried to save him it had made Keith beyond angry.

Lance understood. If their roles were reversed he'd be royally pissed too that Keith had tried to offer himself up so he could make a clean escape. He got it. Really.

But still…

Things were not looking good.

It really was a moot point though. Unless Keith managed to get away for another attempted ambush, any attack would involve both of them. He wasn't going to get away and Lance willingly choosing to go with the Mackans wasn't likely to spare him. The Mackans had wanted blood for their kin and after last night… Lance swallowed again, stomach churning at the memory.

They didn't want Keith for a second sacrifice anymore. They'd made that more than clear. They wanted him dead. But before that, they wanted him to suffer. Lance shivered at the thought of what they would do. It would probably make his own death via the ritual look peaceful.

No. He wasn't going to let them hurt Keith. He didn't really know what he could do, but it'd be over his dead body that they got their nasty little paws on Keith. Lance nodded to himself, determination etched into his features.

He spent the rest of his watch time counting as best he could. He wanted to let Keith sleep longer than the varga, but even just lying here he could feel his hand beginning to dampen. He frowned though. He swore it almost felt like there was something dripping on his right hand too, but that was impossible.

Still, the feeling grew the longer he lay there and it was taking all his willpower to not try and check for himself. What would that accomplish? He still wasn't going to wake Keith unless he heard Mackans.

He made it to what he guessed was about a varga, but opted to throw a few more minutes onto it. That couldn't hurt, right? Besides, Keith was still sleeping so peacefully and Lance knew he needed it. He'd had what… maybe four varga of sleep now? That wasn't healthy. Especially not for their one line of defense.

Eventually though the tickling sense of paranoia won out and Lance poked Keith, catching him in the shoulder. Keith grunted but didn't wake. Lance did it a few more times until finally Keith stirred, but with none of quick reflex Lance was used to. He was really tired, Lance thought guiltily.

"'m awake," Keith mumbled and Lance heard him shifting, likely sitting up. There was the sound of a jaw-breaking yawn and Lance winced in sympathy.

Then there was the sound of rummaging and what sounded like a cap being flipped. "You up for a drink?"

Uh, why was that even a question? Lance made a 'come hither' motion with his left hand and got a dry chuckle out of Keith.

"Okay, one tick. I'm going to lift you up so you don't choke."

This time Lance was prepared for it as Keith's hands slipped below his shoulders and adjusted him so he was inclined against Keith's knee. Then the water bottle was pressed to his lips and Lance took a grateful swig and then another, biting back his unhappiness as Keith pulled it away. He had no idea how much they had though and Keith knew best.

There was quiet then and Lance hated it. He'd never liked it and he understood that here, in this situation, quiet could be good, but without his sight it felt like too much. Everything was pressing in and he had nothing except his own thoughts to distract him and his head was not a good place to be right now.

He reached out for Keith, eyes widening as his hand hit only air, which made him flail it around in a slight panic as he tried to orient himself.

"Hey, hey, I'm right here," and Keith's hand intercepted his own. "What is it?"

Lance just shook his head, unable to really explain. And although Keith didn't say anything to break the new quiet after that, he didn't release Lance's hand and Lance took comfort in that, focusing on that rather than any of the other pain thrumming through him.

"I have some bad news," Keith said after a few moments.

And was there really any good news here? Lance gave a silent sigh and inclined his head.

"Your right hand. It's bleeding again."

And relief that he was not going crazy mixed equally with horror. That meant that…

He felt Keith's sigh of resignation. "I calculated. It looks like the cauterization holds for about ten varga. If… If I do it soon – and I really should, Lance, you're still losing blood – I.. I'll have to do it again. Before the sun, suns, go down."

Again? The word echoed in Lance's mind. He had to go through it not once more but twice? And not only that… he was going to make Keith go through that pain too?

"I'll make it quick," Keith said hurriedly, misinterpreting the source of pain on his face. "I'm… I'm really sorry, Lance. But it needs done."

And Lance knew that. The best thing he could do now was try and put on a brave face for both of them and assure Keith that it was all right. So he squeezed Keith's hand and tried to muster up a smile.

"You up to do it now?" Keith asked and Lance's eyes widened. So soon?

But it made sense. The more he bled the better signal he made to the Mackans and the quicker they'd be found. Lance knew that he wasn't going to be able to walk much if at all and Keith was beyond tired and wouldn't be able to carry him far. If this was where they were going to stay for a little bit at least it would be best if they didn't draw the Mackans right to them.

So he nodded even as his stomach clenched.

"Okay," Keith breathed. "I'm… I'm going to start with the one on your chest. I'm going to focus right here," and Keith very lightly touched Lance's collarbone to the left of the wound. "It's pretty deep. But I don't think it should reopen again since it isn't magical."

And, well, that was a small bit of relief. Not much, but Lance would take what he could.

He heard Keith slip his knife free and he reflexively winced even though he knew nothing was happening. Yet.

Keith was then shifting his head from where it was resting on his leg and Lance found himself being propped to sitting. His body cried in protest but he forced himself to remain upright, even if that meant slumping forward over crossed legs.

"I've got to remove the bandages," Keith said. "It might pull a bit. You okay to sit like that for a few?"

Lance nodded. It was all he could do.

He felt Keith's fingers fumble with what had to be a knot and then there was the sensation of the reduced pressure as Keith unwound them, ducking in and out of Lance's arms. And although the force was lessening it was being replaced with an uncomfortable prickle that was quickly morphing to a sting.

"Okay, all done. Let's get you lying down now."

Hands grasped his shoulders and Lance prided himself on only tensing a bit as Keith helped him lie down on his back. Then there was the splash of water and the feeling of damp cloth blotting at his chest.

"It looks like it clotted a bit," Keith said as he continued his ministrations. "But…"

Not enough. Lance sighed again, regretting it immediately as it sent lancing pain through his torso. Not enough for bandages to do the job. He understood. Didn't mean he liked it.

"If… if you pass out," Keith said and Lance winced at the reminder. "Don't be like that," Keith scolded not unkindly. "I'm glad you did. I… I don't like seeing you in pain."

And well, when he put it like that Lance almost wanted to suggest clubbing him in the head with a rock now. Except for the probable concussion that would rise from that complication. That wouldn't be good.

"As I was saying," Keith continued, "If you do… do you want me to do the rest?"

And again, why was Keith even asking that? Lance nodded very firmly, hoping to convey how much he liked that plan. Not being awake to experience torture disguised as healing? Sign him right up.

"Okay then." Lance heard the scrape of a blade on stone as Keith likely lifted it up. "Um… I'm going to start then. Are… are you ready?"

Lance formed a weak thumbs up with his left hand just like last time.

And then, to his surprise, he felt Keith shift from his side and then he could feel Keith's legs braced on either side of him and Keith sit down on his stomach, effectively straddling him and making Lance give a silent 'oof' at the new weight. He raised an eyebrow at the maneuver.

"You're going to move," Keith said matter-of-factly, although Lance could practically hear how uncomfortable he was and picture the blush. It made him grin despite himself. He may have been acclimating Keith some to hugs but it was clear that crossing personal boundaries was still a very new thing. He'd have to get Hunk and Pidge to dogpile Keith when they got back and keep him nice and squished until he yielded. That should fix that. Maybe he could even get Allura and Coran to join in if he told them it was an Earth custom…

"But if you could try not to I'd really appreciate it," Keith continued, breaking into his plans, voice more steady. "I… I don't want to hurt you any more than I have to."

Lance sobered up immediately at the reminder.

"I was also thinking… do you want something to bite down on? Um, we've got the seaweed plant. If you want to."

Lance raised an eyebrow in question this time. He couldn't make a noise while screaming no matter how hard he tried, so what did that matter?

"I thought about it just now," Keith said, and Lance could picture him running a hand through his mullet. "It can help you with the jaw clenching so you don't hurt your teeth. I'm sorry I didn't realize it earlier."

Lance had no idea where Keith pulled random medical knowledge like that from, but he figured he may as well give it a go and gave another nod.

Keith shifted forward, reaching for something beyond Lance's head, and then settled back a tick later. Lance felt something rough tap against his mouth and he opened, gagging at the dry, chalky texture of the plant. Still, if Keith thought it could help… He got it up over his tongue – ugh, it tasted even worse now – and clamped his teeth down around it and tried to flash Keith a grin.

"Okay. I'm going to hold it for about twenty ticks, okay? Just… just bear with me."

He heard Keith take another deep breath and he tried to still his own racing heartbeat. He scrunched his eyes closed for all the difference it would make. He was ready. He was ready. He was—

Agony tore into him and Lance realized that no, he was not ready. There was no being ready for this level of pain.

His teeth ached as they caught in a scream around the plant and he threw his head back, slamming it against the rock. It didn't knock him out. He cried out tears of frustration and hurt.

Against his will he could feel himself trying to buck Keith off, feet scrambling for purchase on the ground despite the pain and damaged hands trying to push himself back. All it did was make more and Keith tightened his own legs, knees digging into his sides, and put more of his weight across Lance's body.

"Almost there," Keith choked out, although Lance could barely hear him over the blood pounding in his ears. "Ten ticks left."

Why wasn't he blacking out? He could feel tears dripping down his cheeks and his struggles slowed; not for want but because he had nothing left in him to fight with. He cried out silently, tossing his head back again but he remained determinedly conscious.

And then the worst of the burning disappeared, but it still hurt beyond nearly anything. He felt Keith grasp both of his shoulders, pinning him firmly to the ground and murmuring apology after apology and Lance reduced his attempts to break free, shuddering now and trying to calm his racing heart. It was over, gracias a Dios.

Keith shifted then, clambering over him on one side, and while one hand remained on his shoulder the other went up to card through his hair and he sobbed, leaning into the touch while the rest of him felt like he was still on fire.

"I'm so sorry," Keith whispered, "I'm so sorry. It's over." The soothing hand disappeared and Lance whined low in his throat, but it was now tugging on the plant rod and Lance gratefully let it pull that vile thing free, his jaw aching.

As soon as that was done though the hand went right back to his hair and Lance closed his eyes, trying to focus on that and only that. Clarity was coming back in little bits and pieces now and he was realizing he'd failed in his pledge to protect Keith from the pain, made all the more obvious as something dripped onto his face.

Keith was crying.

Oh no. Oh no no no.

Trying to move his hands was a no-go as even just that little attempt was sending new ribbons through him. So he did the only thing he seemed capable of right now. Lance smiled.

It was by no means a mega-watt grin and probably looked as forced as it was, but it had the desired effect as Keith inhaled sharply and gasped out, "What?"

'Okay,' Lance tried to say. Whether it was a question to Keith or a pitiful attempt to describe himself Lance wasn't entirely certain, but it was okay. Sort of.

"It is not okay," Keith replied, but the deep guilt that Lance had heard in the apologies had vanished and his smile softened, becoming more natural. Good. He didn't want Keith to be upset. He'd agreed to this and they both knew it was necessary. Keith was saving Lance's life and like hell was he going to make him feel bad for that.

All too soon though Keith removed the comforting hand and sat back. Lance heard him rummaging for something and then felt a piece of cloth being draped over the wound. He hissed silently at even the light contact and Keith murmured an apology. Keith didn't attempt to wrap the wound like previous, but Lance felt several more pieces being placed and smoothed down, protecting the injury and burn from exposure.

"Rest here for a bit," Keith instructed, patting down the last bandage. If he'd had the energy Lance would have eye rolled at him because, seriously, where else was he going to go? "I'm going to scout the area."

What? No! Lance commanded his left arm to move, but it remained steadfast on the ground, pain receptors telling him nope, not moving.

"I'll be right back," Keith assured. "Promise. I just… need to make sure we're safe here. For now, at least."

And that was not the least bit comforting. Still, Lance recognized the logic in it. They had been stationary in this spot for over a varga at least and the potentially fatal wound had been dealt with for now. It made sense that they needed to secure their spot as best as they could.

He still didn't like it.

"Ten minutes tops." A hand descended on his shoulder and gave him a light squeeze. "Promise."

And Lance forced himself to nod. There was a slight scuff on the stone and then all was quiet. Keith was gone.

Ten minutes.

What could possibly go wrong in ten minutes?

xxx

 

Chapter Text

 

Nothing went wrong in ten minutes, Lance was happy to report.

Nothing except that Keith was not back yet. That… that jerk. Name calling prevented him from giving into panic for the moment. This was just Keith being an idiot and clearly not being able to count out ten minutes. Granted, he was suffering from sleep exhaustion and counting was probably slightly harder than normal, which was the only reason why Lance was giving him the benefit of the doubt.

Lance counted out one more dobash and when there wasn't even the hint of Keith's footsteps he nodded to himself. He had no idea what the heck he was going to do, but sitting around waiting was not an option.

He braced his left hand on the ground, biting his lip at the utter stab of pain that caused, and pushed up anyway.

White spots danced in his darkened vision and Lance collapsed back down, breathing heavily, as his chest screamed at him and his heart felt it was going to combust. He gritted his teeth, frustration and pain warring in equal measure.

He had to get up. Keith might be hurt. Or… or caught. A new tremor raced through him that had nothing to do with his injuries. Keith promised he'd be back. And if he wasn't back that meant he was in trouble.

Okay, new plan. He clearly couldn't sit up as he was right now, but maybe if he tried it from a different angle he'd have better results. He spent a few wasted moments trying to rock his body to the left, but each attempt left him only more winded and he swore he felt a faint trickle of something dribbling down his side.

That was the only thing that stopped him, fear seizing him that he'd just torn open Keith's attempt to heal him. And in those few seconds of rest he heard something. An uneven gait was coming and it was approaching fast. It didn't sound like claws, but it certainly didn't sound like Keith either.

Lance flung his left hand out looking for anything he could use, pulse quickening as he found nothing. He couldn't even scream to alert Keith that he'd been found. This was it. He was going to get caught and it was over. He clenched his hand into a fist, ignoring the pain as his nails bit into the wound. He was at least going to get one last good swing in for all the good it would do.

Closer. Almost there.

"Lance!"

And that wasn't a Mackan. His fist fell away as his brain registered Keith's voice.

Something thumped next to him and he felt hands on his shoulders, stiffening and relaxing in one movement as they were most definitely human hands. Keith was here. Gracias a Dios. He was okay.

"What were you doing?" and Keith sounded angry but mostly worried. Cloth brushed up on his side and Lance winced at the pressure where he thought he'd felt blood. "You idiot. You're bleeding again."

There was a quiet fury in Keith's movements as Lance heard the bottle being opened and then a damp piece of robe was trailed along his side. He remained quiet, biting his lip and not really understanding why Keith was so upset. He'd been concerned, damn it. He thought Keith had gotten hurt.

Keith sighed then, heavy with regret and Lance felt his own stirrings of anger fade. "I'm sorry. "

Lance waited, knowing more was coming.

"I know I'm late," Keith mumbled as he applied a new bandage to the wound. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be. I… I tripped," and the word was said with such hatred that despite himself Lance felt a small chuckle in his throat. Keith, normally graceful as anything, tripping? Over what? His own feet?

"I twisted my ankle," Keith continued, and Lance's humor faded. "I'm fine. Just… it slowed me down. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make you worry. Or yell."

Lance's hand still wasn't cooperating, but he tried to convey his understanding still and whatever facial expression he'd scrunched up seemed to have done the trick as Keith laughed softly. "I have some good news, at least. I scouted down the pass and no sign of any Mackans. I scaled up one of the walls too and don't see anyone at all."

Keith neglected to mention said wall was at least fifty feet high and coming back down it had resulted in the turned ankle when he'd landed and promptly tripped over a boulder on the trail. He was still cursing himself for that error.

It wasn't bad, all things considering. But it had hindered him coming back and clearly he'd been late enough that Lance had been worried enough to try and get up. Keith was touched. But more than that he was worried. Lance had torn open the incision he had not cauterized with his movement and although it wasn't life-threatening it had scared him.

It still scared him that Lance was so willing to hurt himself to help others. He may have gotten Lance to agree he wouldn't give up his life to the Mackans to protect him, but Keith had seen the fire even in those dulled eyes. Lance would never stop trying to protect others. It was just who he was.

And such a thing had never terrified him more.

Keith was reckless. Dangerously so. But he never went out there expecting not to come back. He was a survivalist. He would do what he had to to come back to his family

But Lance… Lance would act as a human shield if it meant keeping someone safe. It was a different type of dangerous, this disregard for his own personal safety. Did he not realize how much he meant to the team? If Lance were to die... Keith could picture it already. They would crumble in a mixture of grief and guilt and blame.

Hunk would try to keep the team going, he knew. But it wouldn't work. Lance was their heart, the one who kept them going even in the darkest of times. While Allura kept them focused Lance kept them together. And without that Keith knew they wouldn't last. He'd probably join up with the Blades or try to find Shiro and Pidge would depart to seek her brother. Hunk might stay out of obligation, but without Lance he'd lose his own drive.

They were already broken without Shiro. If Lance was lost too they would shatter.

It was decided. After they got back to the castle and everything was okay again Keith was having an intervention. He'd even get Hunk in on it and make Lance realize that this sort of self-sacrificial behavior was not okay.

They couldn't lose him too.

And that just meant until they were safely back on the castle Keith had to make sure Lance didn't do anything of that nature. Like trying to get up and come after him and tearing open healing wounds.

He'd been quiet for too long, Keith realized as Lance's brow furrowed and his right hand tried to shift on the ground, likely seeking Keith out.

"I'm right here," he murmured, placing his hand atop Lance's wandering fingers. "Sorry. Thinking."

And he was not imagining that eye roll as Lance's lips curved into a smirk.

"I can think," he protested as the smirk widened. Keith just shook his head, unable to hide his own smile. How did Lance always do that? Make him feel better? Lance was the one in clear pain and losing his senses one by one, but he was still attempting to cheer Keith up.

He smiled wider. Heart indeed.

He was brought back to reality though as under his hand he saw a thin red trail beginning to snake away from Lance.

It was time to cauterize his hands. Again.

The area may be safe for now, but it wouldn't always be. And the longer they left the blood unattended the more dangerous it would become, both for Lance's health and their survival.

Keith was pleased to note that although Lance was still pale his skin no longer felt so clammy and his breathing had evened. Sealing up the wounds and getting food and water into him had really helped.

Speaking of water. Keith eyed the flasks. They were down to about one and a half and he hadn't had time to scout all the way to the possible water source. They were in the shade and not moving so that should help them conserve it, but it was doubtful that would be enough until rescue.

Still, keeping Lance somewhat hydrated and nourished was the best he could do to offset the blood loss and the heat. He recognized he had to include himself in that equation as he was their only line of defense. As such, he uncapped the canteen and took a small sip. He saw Lance's ears practically rotate at the sound.

"Drink?" he asked and Lance nodded.

"Okay, but let me lift you," Keith said, putting the canteen down and sliding one arm under Lance's lower back and using the other to guide his shoulders so he was leaning slightly on Keith's knee again.

He allowed Lance two careful sips and then set it aside, but pulled out two more of the food bars. Food wasn't as big of a concern as water, but he'd rather get Lance to eat as much as he could now so he had the nutrients in him.

He remembered how Lance had shirked away from food following the cauterization and he knew it was likely a combination of pain and the blood loss giving him nausea. And although he'd been more receptive since the bugs were off the menu, but Keith wasn't holding his breath that this would last.

"Up for eating something?" and his stomach dropped as his worries proved correct and Lance shook his head. "Lance, you need to eat." Another tiny shake. "Is it your stomach?" A nod.

Keith sighed. "Okay." He'd gotten two bars into Lance in the last eight varga. That wasn't too bad. And he was at least drinking water. "We'll try later."

Besides, and his insides clenched, he had to still cauterize Lance's hands and at least he wouldn't have anything new to throw up after that pain. He'd try again after Lance recovered some from that. He forced himself to eat one though, mechanically chewing and putting off the inevitable for just a few more minutes.

And he'd stalled long enough. The blood wasn't ceasing and it was only going to get worse.

"Lance," he called out, and he saw by the look of resignation that settled over Lance's features he knew what was coming. "Are… are you ready?"

And somehow Lance nodded. Keith returned it, steeling himself. "We'll do the right hand first, okay?" Keith was personally hoping the pain would indeed knock Lance out. He couldn't believe he hadn't passed out during the last one and seeing him in that much agony had unleashed a flood of tears the swordsman had not been able to hold back.

He'd acted on instinct, cradling Lance's head and trying to soothe away Lance's own tears and pain with the caress when Lance clung stubbornly to consciousness. He didn't want to do that again. He didn't want to put Lance through it.

He honestly debated if knocking Lance would be such a bad thing, but they really couldn't afford a concussion on top of all the other injuries. He knew Shiro was well versed in pressure points and Keith wished he'd asked for his mentor to teach him. Hindsight. He hated it so much.

Keith set the blade into the sun and gingerly unwrapped the blood-soaked bandages on Lance's right hand. He was going to have to use some of the water and wash these ones though because they were too valuable to lose. He wanted to double layer them and add more to Lance's feet, even though he doubted Lance was going to be doing much walking. It had to help, right?

The wound had opened more than it had been just a couple varga ago. It still fortunately was not at the state it had been to start, but combined with the burn already in place – Keith felt his stomach churn and the bar threaten to come back up – it was not a pretty sight. He was sure it felt even worse though and his admiration for Lance somehow rose even more that he was putting up with this level of hurt without a complaint.

He tried to best figure out how to position himself this time around. He ended up rolling over one of the many loose rocks from the cliff face and lifting Lance's hand onto it, providing a slightly elevated surface. He offered Lance the plant again and after a few prods Lance accepted it with downcast eyes. He then braced his left hand on Lance's forearm and picked up the knife with his right.

"Twenty ticks," he advised, hovering the heated blade. "Here… Here I go."

It was just as bad as Keith remembered it. The putrid scent of burning flesh stained the air for a second time in a varga and Keith barely resisted closing his own eyes as flesh bubbled and blistered on the edges of the knife.

Lance wasn't fighting him as much this time, but it wasn't for lack of pain. He was just too exhausted. Tears were still welling in sightless eyes though and his right arm was trembling with repressed movement as Keith pinned it with his own weight.

"You're doing great," Keith told him, voice breaking although he held back his own tears this time. "Almost done."

But as he lifted the knife a few moments later Keith's heart plummeted as the very center of the wound still bled. It hadn't been enough.

He had to do it again.

Keith pushed the blade into the sunlight, setting the bloodied object on the ground to collect more heat. He didn't relinquish his grip on Lance's hand, knowing if he let go now he was not going to be able to recollect it from Lance.

Lance had curled forward towards his right side and was futilely tugging at his trapped limb, face buried in his shoulder.

"I'm so sorry," Keith whispered. "It's almost over. I just… have to…one more time." Lance's shoulders shook but whether it was because he understood or just from pain Keith was not sure.

He picked up the blade after a painfully long two minutes, shrinking it back to a knife and the hot glow he needed. In the interim Lance had clutched his fingers into a fist, as if trying to protect the open wound from anything else.

Having to pry those fingers up as Lance whimpered silently behind him was harder than placing the blade the second time. It felt like a betrayal. He hated it. He hated all of this.

He forced himself to hold it for another twenty seconds, stomach and chest heaving as one. But with a few seconds to go Lance's wrist went limp and Keith choked out a sob of relief that at least the worst of it was over for Lance now. When he removed the blade that time it was to burned and raw flesh but no blood. Keith took a bit of water and poured it over the whole hand and then poured more over the wrappings, rubbing the blood out with his fingers as best he could.

He slipped them all back on, knowing that in about six varga they were going to have to do this all over again.

His stomach gave another heave at the thought and Keith swallowed back the acid taste of bile. He couldn't afford to lose it now.

Pillowing Lance's right hand gently on the Cuban's stomach, Keith picked up the rock and moved it to Lance's other side. Time for round three.

He slipped the cloth bandages off of Lance's left hand, not at all surprised when they came away saturated. It had been about eight varga now since Lance had lost his sight and gained that injury, but it was definitely bleeding less than the first wound.

As the knife heated up, and this time Keith was letting it get extra time to avoid having to do it again, he wiped down the wound as best he could, grateful that although Lance unconsciously flinched at the action he did not stir.

"Please don't wake up," Keith pleaded quietly. He didn't want to see him in that kind of pain again.

After taking another deep breath he applied the knife, hating how Lance jerked, but so, so thankful that he remained out of it. It was a small mercy for all he'd already suffered.

This time the cut sealed up in one go and Keith pulled the spare shirt sleeves that he'd been wearing as bracelets off and affixed them over Lance's hand and the remainder of his pile to re-pad Lance's feet. 

All done. It was over. Keith slumped back against the cliff wall, hands trembling. He pulled them to himself, tucking them under his arms to try and stop the shaking and despite the high heat he suddenly felt very cold.

He should scout again; scale the cliff and make sure they were still undisturbed. But the fuzziness was coming back and such an action wouldn't be wise. Falling and breaking something would be the end.

That, and he was still so cold.

He rubbed his hands up and down his bare arms, willing the prickling skin to settle. All that did was aggravate the sunburn and now he was cold and in pain. Grimacing, Keith shifted out of the shade patch and into the sun, the temperature change still surprising him. He'd lived all on his own in the desert for the past year and he'd still never experienced extremes like this. He was blaming it on the three suns present instead of just one.

Once he felt more than uncomfortably warm he ducked back into the shade, noting that it was beginning to recede and he'd have to shift Lance in a bit so he remained fully covered.

Feeling antsy, Keith recounted their supplies. Six food bars. Just over one canteen of water. A lot of robe in a mixture of strips and pieces. And about sixteen varga to go till rescue, which included eight more hours of darkness.

He packed it all back up and then got to his feet, unable to sit still even though his body was exhausted. If he stayed there he knew he'd fall asleep. They couldn't afford that.

Instead he paced the length of the shade. Eight steps. Around the entire widened path was fourteen. Listen for movement. Repeat. His ankle twinged, still tender from where he'd twisted it, but he forced it to move. It had barely swollen and for that he was grateful.

He looked at Lance every other repetition, hoping for… he wasn't sure. He wanted Lance to stay asleep. He wanted him to wake up.

He wanted this to be over.

Keith felt like a trapped animal, pacing back and forth in its cage. He couldn't leave though. Not again. Especially not when Lance was asleep. If he woke up and Keith wasn't there…

No. Not an option. He wouldn't give Lance any reason to look that scared. He wouldn't leave him defenseless and alone. Never again.

But still. He looked at their one remaining full water flask. It was not going to be enough. Not when they still had six hours of daylight on this end and despite the shade it was still broiling hot. The water and food were the only things keeping Keith somewhat upright and Lance needed them desperately to replace some of the blood he'd lost.

Keith halted his track and picked up the map. He had to trace it several times with his finger, the lines and colors blurring, but he identified what could be the water source. Based on how far they'd come to here he estimated it was about… maybe half an hour away at a walk, twenty at a light jog.

He shook his head, dispelling the idea as quick as it came. He couldn't go without Lance. He'd be gone for about an hour and that was much, much too long. Despite his sensitive hearing he would be well out of range even if Lance could yell for help.

They'd have to go together. But they could very well be walking into an ambush. It'd be better if Keith did go alone in that case as he could still fight. Sort of. His vision blurred again and he forced himself to sit, head spinning.

He was just so tired. And the heat was making him even drowsier.

A few ticks passed and Keith jerked his head up, chest freezing as he realized he'd fallen asleep. For a minute? An hour? His pulse slowed as the shadows of their niche showed that barely any time had gone by.

He shuddered out a breath, veins thrumming at the near miss.

But within a few minutes that spike of adrenaline was fading and he could feel sleep tugging down on his eyelids.

"Wake up," he ordered himself, voice hoarse. He resisted another drink to soothe it, instead struggling to his feet and beginning to pace again, although keeping to just the darkened section.

He hated this… this feeling of uselessness. He wanted to do something. Anything. But he was forced to wait. Forced to be on the defense instead of the offense.

Forced to watch Lance continue to suffer.

A small part of him wanted to say screw it and rush the Mackans' base. If they were all out searching for them then there couldn't be too many left behind, right? And although they seemed to be significantly lacking in tech for him to use, maybe, just maybe, he could find something to contact the others with.

It was a big maybe though. And the risk was too great. If they were caught – and the still rational part of his brain told him that yes, they would certainly be captured – then Lance was right there for them to use in their sick ritual. He'd be dead within the varga.

Keith cursed under his breath and slammed a closed fist against the wall, the resulting ache almost comforting.

Waiting was killing him. Figuratively. It was nearly literally killing Lance.

Sixteen varga left. Almost there. They were so close.

He sighed, exhaustion winning out again, and slumped down next to Lance.

So close.

And yet still so, so far.

xxx

 

Chapter Text

 

The shock and horror that rippled through the air was palpable.

The High Priest was shaking himself as he approached a returning retrieval party, solemnly bearing stretchers that contained four bodies.

Sister Munice. Brother Wicyk. Brother Tyrol. Sister Kladrel.

He traced each bloodied face with his eyes, forcing himself to look upon the grisly wounds, the lifeless stares. Behind him he heard crying, wails of despair as kin and blood kin alike came upon the scene and the names of the fallen were whispered back.

"When?" he managed to ask, unable to still hide the tremor to his voice.

"We found them this morning, High Priest," murmured one of the Mackans that had returned with the deceased party. Sister Robin, he identified. Just barely initiated. "On the Plains of Hiruit. We… we smelled the blood," and she winced.

The High Priest extended a gentle paw to rest on her shoulder and she looked at him gratefully. Strengthened, she continued on. "My team was told by Sister K-Kladrel to stay off the Plains." She swallowed. "But when the suns rose and they had not returned we followed. We picked up a blood trail not long after and…"

She bowed her head. "I am so sorry, High Priest. If we had gone sooner…"

"No, Sister," and he squeezed her shoulder again. "You too may have met the same fate. Sister Kladrel's team was picked specifically for their strength and yet…" he trailed off. But he was their High Priest. He must remain strong. He forced himself to continue. "I am glad you are safe, Sister Robin. I know this is hard to think on, but do you know where the Paladins of Voltron have gone?"

She shook her head. "I am sorry, High Priest. They… they vanished without any trail." He hid his displeasure with this news. "We have teams combing the area still. We will find them." Her own gaze narrowed. "They will pay for what they have done."

"That they will," the High Priest said. "But for now, please, have your team bring our fallen brothers and sisters to the morgue so we can begin burial rites. We shall not let them suffer any longer."

Sister Robin's eyes softened. "As you wish, High Priest."

The gathering crowd parted as the stretchers were brought forth, new cries rising into the air and sobs of grief echoing off the stone. Some followed the stretches, blood kin to the fallen, but many remained, turning to the black-furred Mackan wearing the robes of white.

They looked to him with hope, for answers. They were scared. They needed reassured.

They needed their sacrifice.

The High Priest took a deep breath. "Brothers and Sisters," he called and silence immediately reigned. He looked about the hallway, meeting every pair of matching amber eyes. "Today… today has been a tragic day indeed.

"These Paladins of Voltron are monsters." Muffled agreement. "Demons." Louder. "They have slain our fellow Brothers and Sisters without remorse. They threaten our very existence." The sorrow was giving way now to determination. Anger.

The High Priest smiled. Good. Anger gave purpose. Anger gave power. Anger would give them their sacrifice.

"We must stop these Paladins of Voltron before any more harm befalls us. The Red and Black Paladin of Voltron is a menace to us all. He is responsible for the deaths of our dear Brothers and Sisters. He is keeping the sacrifice from us. He is trying to kill us all."

Growls and roars greeted him.

"But we will not let him! We will show him the power, the strength, of Macka. This is a trial, bestowed upon us by Lady Leora to make us stronger. To unite us as we have never united before."

Cheering now. A call to arms.

"We will take back our sacrifice! We will protect our home! We will not be stopped!"

The High Priest allowed himself a smile as the crowd, formerly consumed by grief was now calling for action, calling for blood.

"We will not forget the price paid by our brothers and sisters!" he called, rousing them further. "We will honor them with the death of the Red and Black Paladin. We will see him bleed!"

It was a frenzy now, paws stamping and yowls and growls echoing.

"We will overcome this trial, Brothers and Sisters. We will not bow to fear. Lady Leora will guide our paws and our hearts so that justice may be served." He surveyed the Mackans. "Now go! To arms, my Brothers and Sisters. We will find these Paladins of Voltron and we will take what is ours!"

The assembled Mackans broke apart, scrambling to form search parties, readying weapons outside of their own magic. They may have underestimated these Paladins of Voltron before, but that time was long past. There would not be a small party of Mackans trying to apprehend them now.

No, the High Priest thought, smirk crossing his muzzle. There would be an army.

"Brother Milnew," he called over the din, and as if waiting for the cue the sandy-furred Mackan was at his side. "Summon the Council of Elders to the chapel. We will begin preparations for the Purification of the third Sin."

He would allow the Paladins of Voltron this one final afternoon to draw breath as his kin tracked them down. He would grant them that last mercy, this chance to live for a few varga more. It was more than they already deserved.

But once night fell and the Purity of Sin ritual was completed… the High Priests' grin widened.

Then there would be no escape.

xxx

Keith was beginning to worry now. Not that he hadn't been worried before, but this was ascending into levels that were beginning to border on panic.

Lance hadn't woken up.

It had been about two varga now since he'd passed out and he hadn't even so much as twitched, even when Keith awkwardly dragged him across the ground to follow the shade along the cliff walls.

He'd taken to checking Lance's pulse every few minutes, trying to reassure himself that the Cuban's chest was indeed rising and falling as he breathed. His skin wasn't cool to the touch as earlier, but now warm and unlike Keith he was not glistening with sweat.

Keith was no medical expert, but did know that sweat came from the body's attempts to cool itself. He also knew that sweat was mostly water. And the fact that Lance's body wasn't producing any meant he was still severely dehydrated.

He'd tried getting him to drink twice, but the water just spilled from slackened lips and they didn't have any to spare on watering the ground. Keith had already had to use the rest of the second canteen, after realizing his error, to dilute the blood Lance had lost on the ground.

Then he'd walked several yards away and had thrown the bloodied garments Lance had used as bandages as far as he could inward down the path. He hoped that given the fact there was no wind and now that they were baking in the heat there would be no scent left to track. He nearly kicked himself for not realizing the potential beacon they would have made to the Mackans.

He blamed it on the extreme lack of sleep he was suffering. It still wasn't an excuse.

Despite his dizziness he'd forced himself to scale up the cliff wall about an hour ago, hoping upon hope that no Mackans disturbed the horizon.

Somehow, miraculously, he had not seen any signs of the bobcats. Rather than relief though he felt only a churning fear. Because they would be coming. And he hated not knowing when.

He slumped back down next to Lance, entire body drooping with exhaustion. But he couldn't sleep. That was the one thing he did know for certain. Sleep would be death.

"You wanna wake up?" he asked the still figure hoarsely.

And as if summoned Lance's eyes moved beneath closed lids. Keith leaned forward, holding his breath. He didn't dare hope yet, but this was the closest Lance had come to moving since he'd passed out.

With an inaudible gasp Lance came to, eyes flying open and widening further as only blackness greeted them. Keith saw the bandaged chest rise rapidly and he interjected before Lance could work himself into a panic.

"Hey," he greeted, only then reaching out to place a hand gingerly on Lance's shoulder. "It's okay. It's just me. Deep breaths."

Lance sucked in a soundless breath and Keith watched as it practically shuddered its way free. Lance repeated the action a few more times, heart rate gradually calming. Keith kept one hand on Lance's shoulder and carefully moved his other to the chocolate locks, combing his fingers through gently and a real smile touching his lips as Lance leaned into it.

"How do you feel?"

At the question Lance winced and Keith couldn't miss how both of his hands, still settled where he'd put them on the brown stomach, twitched.

"I know," Keith sighed. "I'm sorry."

Blue eyes narrowed. Keith could already picture what Lance was going to say and he sighed again. "And I'm sorry for apologizing. I know it needed done. I just… I don't like doing it."

Lance nudged his head against Keith's hand, which the half-Galran realized after a tick was Lance's new version of hand squeezing given the fact both of his hands were too hurt to really be doing that.

"Are you up for some water?"

Lance seemed to think about it but then there was a minute nod and Keith shifted to help Lance sit up, this time pulling him past the half-recline and actually to full sitting against the cliff wall. The robe still tied loosely about his neck cushioned his back against the rough rock and Keith settled next to him, pressing the canteen to Lance's mouth.

"Better?" Keith asked, pulling it away after watching Lance swallow twice. A nod and blue eyes closed tiredly, still exhausted despite all the rest. Keith more than understood.

"Ready to try eating again?"

Lance's brow furrowed.

"Just a few bites?" Keith was well aware of how desperate that sounded and Lance seemed to have picked up on it, as he sent a guilty look in Keith's direction. "Two bites," Keith haggled. "You need it."

Lance mouthed 'okay' and took the piece of bar Keith offered, chewing robotically. He made sure they were large pieces.

"We've got about fourteen hours," Keith said in way of conversation. "Four hours of daylight on this end, night and then two more hours of light."

Lance managed to nudge Keith with his elbow, hands still on his lap, and tilted his head with his eyes closed.

"Your neck hurts?"

Lance silently snorted and shook his head. He lifted one shoulder and rested his head against it.

"Oh, sleep," Keith realized. It was a bit harder without Lance's hands to interpret. Lance raised an eyebrow again and nudged Keith again with the elbow. "I can't," Keith told him, even though every part of him was nodding in agreement with Lance. "It isn't safe."

Lance said something, but the only word Keith caught for sure was sleep. He blinked after a few seconds, realizing he'd zoned out and Lance was waiting for a response.

"Can't sleep," he repeated, and damn did that sound slurred.

And even though Lance's eyes were no longer the lively blue, they still burned with intensity as they focused on Keith and the swordsman had to look away.

"I'm sorry," Keith apologized, although he wasn't really sure who he was saying it to. "It's not safe."

And as if proving his point Keith heard something coming from beyond their niche. He surged to his feet so fast that Lance, who had been lightly starting to lean against him, startled back.

His hand went to his knife and he pulled it free without a sound, cocking his head to hear better.

And no, there was definitely the sound of something from further up the canyon. Adrenaline thrummed in equal measure with dread in his veins. "Stay here," he whispered, as though Lance was really going to move.

Edging forward he pressed himself against the far wall, straining to pick up what was coming.

An ambush, he'd assume, but there wasn't near enough sound for a large group, even if they were trying to be stealthy. But why send just small groups again? Hadn't they seen what had happened to them?

His stomach rolled without consent and Keith closed his eyes for a brief second. He didn't like killing them. He didn't like the way he fought; it was too violent. Too Galran. He'd rationalized the previous deaths because he knew he couldn't afford to hold back, not when they were severely outnumbered and outgunned.

He told himself the Mackans wanted to sacrifice Lance. They wanted to kill him now too. They'd hurt Lance. They'd scared him. That wasn't forgivable.

He knew what he had to do. It was the only way.

But as the sound drew closer, voices now, his skin prickled. These voices sounded… young. Younger even than the Mackan he'd coerced into letting down the barrier. He wondered if he was still alive. Part of him hoped so.

"—shouldn't go any farther. We're going to get in so much trouble."

"Quit being so scared. It's embarrassing." That voice sounded haughtier, but still much, much too young. His stomach clenched.

"You didn't see the bodies, Celia. Sister Kladrel… she…"

The claws on stone paused and Keith sucked in a silent breath. They had to be just around the curve on the trail. Twenty yards, max.

"Hey. It's okay. We're going to be okay. But we have to help and you know my nose is one of the best. I smell something here, I know it."

Keith's heart skipped.

"But—"

"We won't engage, all right? The High Priest just wanted to find them for now, remember?"

A mumble.

"Good. Come on, just a little farther. Then we'll go back."

Keith's hand felt sweaty on the grip of his sword and his pulse was pounding so loudly he couldn't believe they hadn't heard it.

What did he do? Those sounded like… like children.

He cast his gaze back to Lance, who looked strung as tight as a bow, hands pressed to the ground in case he needed to try and get up quickly. He knew what Lance would do. Or, well wouldn't do.

Killing was already bad enough. But killing children?

Keith shook his head. He couldn't. What would that make him? Not a Paladin of Voltron, surely. Not someone who the universe was counting on to save them.

And they didn't want to fight anyway. Maybe if he just scared them they'd leave?

But then what? The other Mackans would know they were there. They would come and they would not be so easily turned away.

What did he do?

"Stop," came the voice of the one named Celia. "The smell… it's stronger."

Keith cursed silently.

Ten yards away. If they fully rounded the curve they'd be spotted.

"Can we go now?" whimpered the other young Mackan. "Please? Before…"

A new wave of guilt filled the half-Galran at the palatable fear he could hear. He hadn't… he'd never wanted that. They'd come here to make allies with these aliens. It was the Mackans who had been the cause of all of this. If they'd just let them leave… none of this would have happened.

It was the Mackans fault. They were the ones to blame for this entire situation.

And yet remorse still pulsed in Keith at how scared he'd made them feel. For how he'd no doubt ruined families. His hand clenched about the knife. Family was precious. He knew that.

With that thought the remorse gave way to resolve as he glanced back at Lance again. Family was important, more than anything in the world. And he was protecting his.

And no matter what happened his family would always come first.

"Let's go," Celia said and Keith shuddered with relief. "We'll report what we found and they can track them here after the High Priest purifies the third Sin."

His brain froze, trying to process what he'd just heard.

"Hurry," urged her companion. "Please."

The sound of their claws scratching against the rock receded. Keith didn't move from his spot until he could no longer hear them.

He moved mechanically to sit next to Lance, nearly collapsing. He could feel the questioning look directed at him, but he couldn't form words yet. His legs were trembling slightly at the near miss and he was unsurprised and grateful when Lance lifted one of his bandaged hands and placed it on Keith's knee, giving it the barest of squeezes.

"I think," Keith said slowly, "we might have the rest of daylight to ourselves."

Lance cocked his head.

"There were scouts. Young ones," he licked his lips. "They smelled us."

Lance's eyes widened and Keith placed his own hand atop Lance's.

"They're just reporting in though," Keith continued. "Sounds like no one is engaging until…" He trailed off, feeling ice forming in his stomach.

'Until?' Lance repeated.

"Until they do their ritual again," Keith all but whispered, feeling Lance stiffen. "To take your hearing."

Lance's free right hand flew up to his ear, horror filling his face.

"It's going to be okay," Keith murmured, squeezing Lance's hand again. "We'll… we'll figure it out."

Lance did not look any less terrified.

"It won't be until later tonight," he said, as if that was comforting. "Last night they did it about two hours into darkness. If it's the same thing… we'll only have eight hours until rescue then."

How though, Keith wondered as despair started to filter in, were they going to last until the rescue? That was eight hours of Lance being completely cut off from the world save for touch.

It was eight hours of having to fend off what sounded like a large group of Mackans coming in for the kill. Keith wasn't surprised; after last night he doubted there'd be anything less than an army confronting him.

And he knew no matter what he did he could not fight off that many.

"I don't know if we're getting out of this," Keith said quietly.

And based on the slumping form next to him Lance had come to the same conclusion. A dark head descended on Keith's shoulder and instinctually Keith put an arm about Lance, as even in the heat he suddenly felt terribly cold.

They weren't going to make it.

For all that they'd struggled and suffered through there was no way out. Keith wondered if he should have killed the two children but no, he knew it wouldn't have made a difference. Eventually another party would have sniffed them out; there were only so many places they could be.

"I'm so sorry, Lance," Keith whispered. "I'm sorry. I don't… I don't know what to do."

Lance peered up at him then, eyes bright with unshed tears, but he looked determined. Determined and resigned.

"Hell no," Keith snarled, interpreting the expression. "I'm not leaving you behind."

He saw the word forming on Lance's lips and he cut him off, his own sadness turning to anger. "No buts, Lance. Don't even think it."

Lance though clenched Keith's hand in his own, ignoring the flare of pain the action caused. Didn't Keith get it? They were both going to die if they stayed like this. But Keith could get away. He could escape and wait for rescue. Surely he could evade the Mackans if he was on his own and not weighed down by a blind mute who was going to become deaf too in a matter of hours.

He had to run. He had to. Lance could never forgive himself if he let Keith get killed when there was something he could have done.

Even if that something was letting Keith go.

'Please,' he mouthed, trying to blink back the hot tears and failing.

A hand touched his face, catching the tear and Lance leaned into the caress. 'Please,' he tried again.

"I'm not leaving you."

Lance felt a sob jerk its way through him and he shook his head.

"I'm not leaving you," Keith repeated, voice breaking. "Don't ask me to, Lance. I won't."

But—

"I won't," and Keith's arm tightened about him. "Either we get out of this together or…" Lance felt Keith's chest hitch.

"Or we don't get out at all."

xxx

 

Chapter Text

 

The silence was near deafening after Keith's proclamation. Lance shivered next to him, battling between the relief that he was not going to die alone to the gut-wrenching fear that he'd just condemned Keith to death.

There wasn't anything he could do about it though. Keith was adamant and Lance couldn't – wouldn't – ask again. Hot tears pricked his eyes and he buried his face against Keith's arm to hide them.

There had to still be some way out of this. They'd never given up before. They couldn't start now.

But what could they do? Lance was in no condition to fight, Keith was exhausted and –

Sleep! Keith needed sleep. And if what he said was true, that the Mackans weren't going to come till the evening when… when… he skipped that thought. It meant they had time for Keith to rest even with a watch guard as useless as Lance.

And although sleep itself wasn't an answer, sleep would go a ways to helping Keith to process and plan and being able to function and fight.

Lance nuzzled his face against Keith's arm to get his attention (and try to dry the tears) and the hand about his shoulders tightened in response.

"What is it?" Keith's voice was low; a mixture of resignation and pain. He had already accepted their fate, Lance realized, frown forming on his features. He expected to die. His scowl grew fiercer. They weren't giving up, not yet. Not without a fight.

Lance shifted his head to lie on Keith's shoulder, closed his eyes and mouthed 'sleep.'

"Sleep," Keith repeated incredulously. "Are you serious?"

Lance nodded.

"Why would—"

Keith broke off as Lance elbowed him. Hard. Damn did the lanky teen have pointy elbows.

It forced Keith though out of his rather melancholy thoughts – failure and guilt running rampant – and to really look at Lance. He could see that Lance was scared, and with more than enough reason. He was still upset, smeared tears on his cheeks.

But he was also determined, a fire sparking in otherwise dulled eyes and eyebrows furrowed.

He wasn't giving up. He wanted to fight.

"Lance," he whispered, feeling like his throat was closing.

He was just so tired. The thought of having to get up, to move, to engage made his limbs cry out in protest. His head felt fuzzy, his eyes hurt and took literal effort to keep open.

It was no longer just the physical exhaustion either. He could already feel the crushing failure from what he knew was inevitable and it made his heart heavy. He hated to admit it, but it was paralyzing. It made him want to just curl up and cry like a child because he'd never felt so helpless – not in the foster system, not even when Shiro had gone missing – and he hated it. He hated this feeling but it was clawing its way into him and he couldn't seem to stop it.

'Sleep,' Lance insisted, as if sleep could fix everything.

Those blue eyes were full of trust, of hope and resilience and looking into them Keith felt a spark. It didn't wipe away the creeping darkness, but it smothered it, letting him draw a full breath.

"The odds aren't in our favor," Keith choked out, as the ember tried to find a hold. "I can't fight them all."

Lance squeezed their joined hands then, an encouragement that Keith knew had to hurt but Lance did so anyway. As though to say he was here, no matter what. Keith felt that spark burn brighter, the protective instinct that had flared when he'd realize Lance had survived being burned to death. The fear loosened its hold.

He'd made a promise, hadn't he? He'd promised Lance that they would be okay. That they would get out of here. And on top of that he'd sworn to protect Lance, who had already been robbed of sight and speech but was still somehow seeing more than Keith was.

He really was a terrible leader.

But he had an excellent right-hand.

"Okay," Keith said, returning the squeeze, a newfound strength filling him. "Okay. We're not giving up. We're going to make it back to the castle. To our team. We're both going home."

Lance's resulting smile was so genuine, so pure, that Keith found himself smiling right back, hope blooming.

It wasn't over till it was over, right? And they still had time. They were Paladins of Voltron. They didn't just give up, not even when victory looked impossible. Sometimes they just needed a reminder of what – for who – they were fighting for.

Keith's smile softened as he traced his eyes over Lance's still beaming face. "Thank you," he murmured. Lance looked confused then and Keith's lips quirked. "For reminding me. I needed that." He squeezed Lance's hand.

"This means though," Keith continued, freeing their hands and using it to open the food bag. "You need to eat. A full bar. We're going to need all of our strength."

And although Lance looked a little pale he nodded.

"Good. Let's get you another drink of water and then food. Then I'm going to take your suggestion and sleep for a couple hours."

Lance looked so relieved at that that the guilt swam back up. He'd really worried him, hadn't he?

"You can rest too," Keith told him. "It doesn't sound like we need to keep watch. And when I wake up… we'll figure out what to do."

They nearly finished the canteen, but Keith knew getting to water was going to be one of the first things they did when he woke. Lance ate the rest of the one bar from earlier and Keith ate another, leaving them with four left. He tried to get Lance to eat another, but he got a weak head shake.

Keith then helped Lance lie back down –although Lance had tried not to show it Keith could tell that the injury across his chest was causing him quite a bit of pain – in the shade and then settled himself, angling his body so that in about two hours time the sun would be shining directly on his face and it should wake him up. He couldn't sleep for too long after all because if they wanted to avoid detection for as long as possible he needed to get up and re-cauterize Lance's hands.

"Sleep," Keith told Lance, his voice heavy with it. "We'll plan when we get up."

Keith was out nearly instantly but Lance found himself wide awake even though he wished for nothing more than to fall asleep and escape the dull throbbing that had become his existence for a little bit.

No matter how much he slept – or lied there unconscious, since he seemed to be doing that quite a bit – he still felt exhausted. A good chunk he could blame on the never ending pain that only kept getting worse with each new wound.

His hands hurt so much worse than before when they'd just had a cut. Every twitch of a finger pulled on burned skin and he felt the food bar tickling its way back up just thinking about it. He swallowed heavily, desperately trying not to vomit. Still, he knew it was for the best. And he was trying really hard not to show how much pain he was actually in because he didn't want Keith to feel any more guilt than he already did for burning him in the first place.

His throat stung where the Mackan's knife had dug into it, but worse than that his entire chest ached with every breath. The bandages Keith had wrapped pressed uncomfortably on the raw skin, but Lance knew removing them would be beyond stupid.

If he could find a positive, his feet weren't feeling like he'd run over hot, broken glass at least. They still hurt, and he winced as he flexed one experimentally, but Keith had literally been carrying him so he hadn't had to put any weight on them. He bit his lip, wondering if he even could now. Just the thought of standing made him hurt and the dizziness come back front and center.

And there was no way to relieve that sick swirling feeling either. If he could just see to reorient himself, but no, that wasn't possible. He blinked but everything stayed the same and he swallowed again, this time to try and fight back tears.

No matter how much he tried to deny it, he was scared. Absolutely terrified. And once they took his hearing… He shuddered. He knew it was going to happen. For all he knew it had happened now because the area was deathly silent. But no, he let out a tiny sigh of relief as he dragged his foot against the ground and a soft scraping met his ears.

He couldn't believe he'd thought losing his voice had been that scary. It's not that it wasn't. But not being able to speak had nothing on not being able to see. He was literally relying on Keith to guide him everywhere, to do everything for him so he didn't hurt himself even more.

But at least he'd managed to swallow his pride. He wasn't stupid. He knew that if he'd kept insisting this whole while that he could do it on his own because he didn't want to appear weak that they wouldn't have gotten half this far. Accepting help was not a weakness, it took strength to realize it.

And he wasn't lying when he thought this had been a good bonding experience for him and Keith. Granted, it would be a hell of a lot better of one if they both survived it. But at least… if it did have to end here, he'd had that chance to get to know his teammate. His brother now. And he hadn't had to go through this alone.

He hated being alone. He hated that more than anything.

Reaching out his hand brushed against Keith's… shoulder, he realized after a second. He kept it there, feeling after a few moments the gentle rise and fall as Keith slept. It was comforting, to know he was right there. It'd be more comforting if Keith could maybe snore for the sound he was desperately craving, but he'd take what he could get.

And silence was a good thing, really. It meant no Mackans were approaching and they were safe for a little while longer.

Lance certainly hoped the sleep gave Keith some ideas. Because he didn't have many. If he could only see he could try and lob projectiles at the Mackans, damaged hands be damned, but he couldn't do that and he really honestly doubted he'd be capable of picking up anything. Experimentally he tried flexing his right hand and stopped immediately as what felt like streaks of lightning flared on his palm. Nope. Not happening.

He tried his left then, which was significantly less hurt when compared, and although he could twitch and shift his fingers without too bad of a result, getting to poke Keith lightly in the process, there was no way he was going to be able to get a good grip on anything.

And really, what was the point? If what Keith had said was true then he'd be deaf by the time the Mackans tried to attack. Keith couldn't even try and point him in the right direction to throw because he'd just be standing (or sitting, rather) there like some useless mannequin.

And although he'd come to terms with it, Lance couldn't quite tamp down the feeling of failure. He'd gotten them into this mess. He should have listened to Keith back when they'd first encountered the Mackans, but no, he was determined to prove that he could be just as good a diplomat as Allura. Keith had tried to say something hadn't felt right and Lance had plowed ahead and got them both captured when they should have retreated in that brief moment of time.

Now he couldn't even try to amend for his mistake. He was rendered all but incapable of doing anything on his own and was just a burden at this point to Keith. Lance was no quitter and he'd always tried to remain positive. And although he'd gotten Keith to at least look forward and not accept death lying down, he would be lying if the other boy's words hadn't shaken him.

"Either we get out of this together… or we don't get out at all."

They brought on a chill that was unwelcome even despite the heat.

Lance wasn't sure how this was going to play out or what hopefully brilliant idea Keith had. What he did know was that he was going to do anything – anything – to make sure Keith did walk away from this. He wouldn't let him die because Lance had messed up.

Even if he hadn't messed up. Not really. Bad intel had been the true cause of their problems as Allura had relied on her planet's alliance with the Mackans over ten thousand years ago and apparently a lot had changed. Or, well, Lance sincerely hoped it had because there was no way Allura would have ever knowingly sent him and Keith to a planet with sacrifice-happy tendencies, right?

He wondered what Macka had been like back when Allura had known it. Had they still had the order of their brother and sisterhood? Had Lady Leora existed then? Had the Purity of Sin?

As if summoned just thinking about the ritual made his hands burn and Lance whimpered silently as spasms shuddered through him. He was left breathless, shallow pants not permeating the still air and he whimpered again.

Sleep, his body told him. Sleep offered an escape from the pain and his thoughts.

But he couldn't. He was too hot and then too cold and the sharp pounding had returned in full to his head. He probably needed to drink more and keep hydrated, but he was pretty sure at this point they were out of water. His throat prickled.

Still, he needed to try. Keith had said he'd awaken on his own, although given how it had taken multiple prods to wake Keith the few times he had allowed himself to sleep, Lance wasn't quite sure if this was the safest option. What if Keith overslept and they got overtaken by Mackans? Lance didn't trust himself to be a good judge of time. He could tell temperature a bit because even with the long cape Keith had given him he was still unbearably cold during the night.

He let out a silent sigh and shifted slightly, trying to see if a different spot would coax his body to sleep. He'd have to trust Keith to wake up when he needed to, because even at this point Lance wasn't sure if he'd been lying here for ten minutes or for an hour.

Closing his eyes, for all the good it did, Lance tried his best to ignore the aches and tremors and stings that popped up no matter what position he took. Sleep, he told himself.

And somehow he did.

xxx

Keith's first thought upon waking was that his face felt like he'd been roasting it over a fire. The second thought was of pure panic as he jerked up right, half-expecting to see an army of Mackans surrounding them.

But nothing stirred and Lance continued to lie silently nearly against the cliff face and in the deepest part of the shade, breathing for the most part even if still a little shallow. Keith released his own breath, willing his racing heart to calm.

His preparations had worked. Based on the third sun's position, which had ever so kindly been burning his face, it had been just over two hours, leaving him two more still of daylight so he could… his stomach clenched. So he could re-cauterize Lance's hands.

Although now that he was thinking on it, perhaps that was not such a good plan. Lance was already in enough pain and he couldn't run the risk of Lance passing out for several hours again. Not when they had to come up with some plan to evade the Mackans until rescue in about twelve hours.

The Mackans already knew where they were, right? At least, the general area. They wouldn't need the blood to sniff them out then and Lance wouldn't - shouldn't - lose anywhere near fatal amounts in the few hours they'd have to go until rescue. He could hold on until then and Keith could spare them both that pain.

He nodded, decision made, and the cramping in his stomach lessened.

Heart rate steady again Keith took a moment to analyze himself. He still felt tired, but the fog that had been settling behind his eyes was lifted and his thoughts were clear and no longer mired in the resignation he had let himself get stuck in. He shot a small, grateful smile to Lance.

Now, how to get out of this?

He had two hours of daylight plus about two hours of night until the Mackans enacted their ritual and then he had an even more injured and deaf Lance. Whatever he did would have to be mostly carried out by then.

Time to think. His throat and half-baked face ached and Keith realized that their most pressing concern at this moment was still water. It was doubtful they could go for another twelve hours without any. He needed to get to the water source.

From what the map had relayed, if that was indeed water, it was about thirty minutes away and followed the cliff path. It was also headed east, which was the direction they needed to go to get back to the Lions. And no matter what, they had to get somewhere within range of the Lions or the rest of the team would never find them and this rescue would be for nothing.

Keith just really, really hoped he hadn't messed up on counting the hours. If he was even a varga off and he and Lance were stranded for that extra time… he didn't like their odds. He didn't like them now though, so really, it was a moot point. Still, the sooner the better because anything could happen in the interim and if they succeeded they were already going to be down to the wire.

Keith shook his head. Not if. When. When they succeeded. He had to remain positive.

So, water first. And headed in the correct direction too. He looked to Lance again, debating the best way to transport the lanky teen. His shoulders and back ached at the thought of carrying Lance again, not at all helped by sleeping on rock. Maybe Lance would be up for walking with support? His back pleaded for that to be yes.

Besides, they did need to leave this area. Keith wasn't sure what was beyond, but the Mackans had tracked them to where they currently were and that was likely to be where they centered their first wave. If Keith could get him and Lance far enough away from this spot they may even be able to evade for longer before a confrontation.

He knelt down next to Lance, whose right hand was pillowed on his stomach and left outstretched on the ground. Gingerly he pulled back the bandage on the right, nose wrinkling at the still lingering smell of burned flesh and also… he stiffened. Infection.

God damn it.

He'd known that infection was possible, but so soon? He pulled the bandage back farther, noting how the skin was not just red from the burn but inflamed on one edge of the wound. It radiated heat; more than Keith knew was safe. Lance twitched slightly but did not wake and Keith replaced the covering.

There was nothing he could do. If they could find a pool of water perhaps they could wash it… but then again, what if there was bacteria in the water? Even if it was a moving source it could be dangerous. And Lance wasn't likely to succumb to an infection in the next fourteen hours. He was stronger than that, Keith tried to reassure himself.

Keith's stomach gave another lurch. Lance was indeed strong, but right now his body was weak. He pressed a hand to Lance's forehead, the skin dry but hot and not entirely to be blamed on the planet's temperature.

Keith swore again.

Moving quickly, Keith checked the left hand – not bleeding and no sign of infection – and redressed the wound from Lance's collarbone across his chest. It too did not yet seem infected, although still warmer than it should, and a thin line of blood snaked away from the uncauterized part as Keith pulled on the robe bandage.

Lance did stir then as Keith was relayering that part. This time though the swordsman was prepared. As soon as Lance's eyes flew open he was already there, one hand pressed gently on Lance's shoulder to keep him lying down and the other on his forehead, fingers half-carded in bangs.

"I'm right here," he said softly, not forcing Lance to have to figure out what was happening, seeing the tension leave Lance's body as soon as he recognized the voice. "It's all right, I'm just checking the bandages. Can you lie still for a few more minutes?"

Lance mouthed a 'yes' and Keith hurried to finish. He made sure though to keep a large swathe of pilfered robe though because no doubt Lance was going to gain another new wound tonight and they would need it to staunch the bleeding. He idly wondered where it would be before shoving the dark thought away. Not now.

"How're you feeling?" Keith asked. "Scale of one to ten with ten being perfectly okay. And be honest." He saw Lance wince at that last bit, no doubt going to say something like he was at an eight. Idiot.

After a few seconds Lance decided on 'five.' Keith nodded. That was… fair. And then Lance mouthed back 'you?' and it was Keith's turn to wince.

"Better than before," he said. "I'm less tired." Lance pursed his lips and Keith sighed. "Eight, in terms of physical condition. I'll manage until the rescue." Lance's face softened into a small smile and Keith returned it.

"We have a lot to do in four hours," Keith said. "But I have decided not to… to reseal your hands." Lance practically wilted with relief and Keith felt the too familiar surge of guilt. "Water is first though. I think I might know where we can find some, but we have to walk. Do you think you can, if I help you? It's about maybe thirty dobashes."

And as he'd suspected, Lance gave a nod.

"All right. Let's get you up then."

Keith slipped an arm beneath Lance's lower back and lifted him to sitting, not missing the way he felt Lance's breath hitch in pain. They stayed like that for a few seconds for Lance to regain his equilibrium a bit and Keith picked up and secured the pack of robes Lance had been using as a pillow to his belt. The four empty canteens were already all thrown over his chest and the food pouch also attached with the map.

"Ready?" Keith asked, maneuvering himself into a crouch so he could pull Lance up, draping Lance's left arm about his shoulders. Another nod.

He rose slowly so Lance could get his long legs underneath him. Keith felt the moment Lance's feet began to bore some of his weight because of the sharp intake of breath he felt through Lance's back.

"You're doing great," he encouraged, the words rolling off his tongue with surprising ease. And within the next few ticks they were both standing, although Lance was leaning forward slightly to compensate for the height difference.

He was trembling, like a newborn foal standing on its own for the first time. Keith resecured his arm more firmly about Lance, gripping him under the arm, while Lance's left tightened almost uncomfortably about Keith's neck.

"If it gets to be too much you tell me," Keith ordered. "Got it?"

A wane smile was his answer.

They moved slowly, but they moved. Lance was holding his own as best he could despite that he was clearly in pain with every step. It really put into perspective how much worse Lance had gotten in just a day. Just about this time yesterday Lance had been able to keep up a steady jog while they worked to evade the Mackans.

Then again, he'd also only had a single wound and his sight at that point. Keith's hand tightened, trying to take more of Lance's weight if he could.

Keith couldn't view the map, but as they rounded a sharp curve in this new canyon trail he knew that what he'd guessed was the water source shouldn't be more than a few minutes further. He stopped, nearly tripping Lance at the sudden halt.

His ears twitched, seeking any sound that might indicate an ambush ahead. Nothing. It was still disconcerting.

The part of the trail they were in was nothing special and just as wide as the rest of it; about eight feet across. But it did have the advantage of the blind curve protecting them from immediate eyes and so it was here Keith lowered Lance down, Lance's legs practically collapsing beneath him.

"I'm going to scout ahead," Keith told him quietly. "Stay here. I'll be right back."

And although he'd done it several times now, Keith still couldn't help the flinch as Lance looked pleadingly towards him, fear filling those dulled blue eyes.

"Promise." Keith backed up. "Just a few minutes."

And he meant to keep that promise. This was just a scouting mission; he would not engage. If there were Mackans up ahead then they just would not be getting any water right now and force themselves to make do. Somehow.

Keeping along one of the cliff walls, Keith carefully made his way further down the trail, knife preemptively drawn. But nothing so much as stirred and it only made him more uneasy.

If he were a Mackan and he knew this potential water source was here, he'd have staked it out. And even if he didn't spot any actual Mackans there was no telling if they'd set some type of magical trap. He tried to reassure himself that so far every bit of magic he'd seen had a colored light to it and hopefully it worked the same way for traps.

The trail was going on a steeper incline now; so sharp Keith wasn't honestly sure Lance would be able to traverse it. He followed it, bracing himself against the wall. The temperature here was cooler, a welcome relief. But in a few hours Keith knew they'd be longing for the heat.

He really hated this planet.

There was still no sound of claws on stone as Keith neared a flattening of the trail, but there was the faintest sound of burbling. A satisfied smile tugged at his face. Water.

He didn't lower his guard for an instant as he crept closer, following the sound until he spotted it, just like the previous time a small underground reservoir under a hollowed part of the cliff face. Keith waited, perched several feet from the water's edge as he strained to detect anything unnatural.

Still nothing.

The Mackans had to know the water was here Keith thought as he opened the first canteen and shoved it under, hair prickling. It was on their map after all. They had to know.

So what was this?

He stuck the second canteen under, amethyst eyes warily watching the trail. It was either stupidity or some weird sense of mercy. Maybe a combination of both. The two Mackans had said the High Priest was waiting to enact the third Sin before they attacked. So was this some sort of cease fire until then?

Keith snorted at the absurdity of it. He appreciated it, of course, but really? They chose to show some semblance of humanity now after all they'd done and what they still wanted to do?

He filled up the fourth canteen then, but rather than stoppering it took several loud gulps and then dumped the rest over his head. The water was lukewarm at best, but it felt so good. He shook his head like a wet dog and refilled the canteen.

Not wasting any more time, Keith hurried back up the trail, water clunking against his sides with a reassuring weight. Lance was exactly as he'd left him, slumped against the cliff wall but perking up as Keith approached, head cocked like a puppy.

"Got water," Keith said in greeting. "Want some?"

He chuckled at Lance's expression and joined him on the ground, uncapping one of the canteens and holding it up to Lance's mouth, allowing him a few sips.

"You can have more in a bit, let that settle," he said in response to the wounded look he got. "Here though, try this."

He tipped the canteen a bit over Lance's head, the water soaking into brown locks and dripping down Lance's face. Lance's initial reaction had been to stiffen – and Keith realized maybe he should have told him what he was planning to do – but then he grinned, holding his tongue out to catch some of the droplets falling off his bangs.

He glanced at Keith once the fall stopped, that contagious grin looking for more.

"Last time," Keith smiled. He didn't even feel bad that that was one canteen nearly gone. Not when it brought such an expression to Lance's face.

They settled into a companionable silence then as Lance closed his eyes and tilted his head back on the sun-warmed rock, which was becoming more of a comfortable heat instead of an oppressive one as the suns began to trek out of the sky. Keith's eyes traced past Lance's head to track the sun, barely visible from this vantage thanks to the high cliff.

The high cliff. An idea started to form.

"We need to start planning," Keith said, letting the thought grow.

Lance's expression grew more serious and he nodded, leaning forward a bit.

"We have about an hour and a half left of light," Keith said. "Before it gets dark we need to be ready for the Mackans." Even as he said it he felt a twinge of guilt as Lance's eyes lowered. Of course daylight only mattered to him. He reached out and gave Lance's shoulder a tiny pat and continued on. "I've been thinking we still need to keep heading east. It'll do us no good to be away from the Lions. According to the map where we are now it's still about, rough estimate, at least ten miles back to the Lions. We really swung wide through those plains."

Lance winced at the announcement. There was no way he was going to be able to walk that far and he knew for a fact Keith could not carry him either.

Keith seemed to read his mind. "We obviously aren't going to get as close as we'd like. But I thought we'd do the next best thing." He paused, the idea taking root. "We'll try and be spotted from the air."

Lance's eyes widened in realization.

"We go up," Keith confirmed. "Right now we're back in some sort of canyon, but from as far as I can tell we haven't actually been sloping down like the last one. If we were to scale the walls here I don't think it'll be a rim but an actual cliff face on the other side. We'd be well out of immediate range of the Mackans that way and be more visible for the extraction."

He'd warmed to the idea even more as he recalled the events from last night. The Mackans had never once even glanced up the cliff even though it hadn't even been twenty feet tall. The one they were in now was easily fifty, possibly sixty feet.

Keith knew it was a wild hope, but it was possible the Mackans wouldn't even be able to smell them if they were that high. They certainly hadn't located him after all. And if the Mackans did eventually smell and find them, the Paladins would have the height advantage. Keith could lob down projectiles of loose rocks and try to keep them at bay and if they were climbing it wasn't likely they could use spells, leaving them defenseless. It was quite literally a rather brilliant solution.

There was only one, rather glaring problem.

As one both Paladins looked to Lance's bandaged hands, burns and wounds hidden beneath them and so tender that any pressure sent tongues of agony stretching across them.

With Lance as injured as that...

...how on earth did he climb up?

xxx

 

Chapter Text

 

Before they had to get to the logistics on how to get Lance up a fifty foot cliff face, Keith decided it would be best to scout it and make sure it actually would work for their purposes. There was no point in this if he was wrong and above was just a canyon rim.

He'd decided the far cliff wall, the one he and Lance were resting on, would be best since it was further away from the Mackans camp. He'd spent near twenty minutes hauling himself up the rough rock, hands digging into small crevices and body pressed flat against it, sweat beading his forehead even as the suns continued to slowly set.

How Lance was going to scale this blind and injured dug into Keith as surely as the rock, but he couldn't back down now. This was their best chance.

It was their only chance.

Fortunately for their plan, when Keith finally crested the top it was to a mostly flat-topped surface spanning possibly fifteen feet wide before jutting severely down again. The cliffs ran for at least a few miles or so in each direction and he and Lance could even, if they were capable by that point, walk along the top of the cliff eastwards to get a little closer to the Lions.

At this high vantage Keith could also make out sections of the plains and the area beyond the cliffs. And he hated that there was some sort of dust cloud, likely kicked up from claws against rock, a couple miles out and more west towards the entrance to the canyon trail. The Mackans were gathering, as he'd expected. He tried to ignore the icy feeling settling in his stomach.

They were going to make it out of this. Odds be damned.

After surveying the area for another minute, Keith eased his way back down the rock face, hands aching.

"Well, it will work," Keith announced as his feet hit the ground a little later. "We just… have to figure how to get you up there."

Keith could not carry Lance, he knew that. Perhaps Pidge if they'd been in the same scenario, but Lance was much too heavy and he'd pull Keith right off the cliff. Maybe some type of rope then where he could pull Lance up?

He checked the back of pilfered robe pieces. They had a decent amount but absolutely nowhere near enough for fifty feet. He sighed and Lance tilted his head at the sound.

"Don't have enough cloth to make a rope," Keith explained. "There's maybe twenty feet in here, after we account for knots."

Lance brightened though and raised his left hand and fumbled at the knot of robe tied about his neck. Keith placed a calming hand atop Lance's, slowing the movement that was no doubt causing him pain.

"You sure?" Because they still had a whole night to go and even with the half-covering Keith knew Lance was still freezing.

A determined nod. Lance knew he'd be cold, but he'd rather be that then dead. And unless he got up the cliff he may as well be. Keith's plan was a good one, a really good one, but he was the sticking point. As usual.

"Okay." And Keith's deft hands undid the knot, sliding the robe off of Lance's shoulders. He estimated they had about another twenty to twenty-five feet, which was still too short. But assuming he could affix the rope about Lance's waist that was another three-ish feet accounted for. It could be possible.

The only thing not as likely was Keith being able to physically haul Lance's dead weight up a cliff face. His arms trembled just thinking about it. And if he were to let go or if the rope frayed against the rock… Lance would plummet and likely die.

"I'll need your help," Keith said. "I know it'll hurt but… I need you to try and climb as best you can still, okay? We're still short and I… I don't think I can lift you on my own."

Lance's brow furrowed but he nodded. He'd do whatever he could to help, even if his hands were already crying with pain.

"All right then. Rest for now. I've got to get the rope together."

Lance closed his eyes and tilted his head back against the cliff, lulled by the sound of cloth ripping as Keith hacked at it. He wondered how well Keith was at tying knots. Having grown up for the first years of his life along the water Lance was very skilled in all sorts of knots and he was pretty sure he could tie anything blindfolded… or, well, blind. But his hands ached at the thought of trying to maneuver them.

Still, as he heard Keith move from separating the cloth into the quieter sounds of tying it, he couldn't help but worry. Hoping Keith wouldn't take offense, he reached a hand out, encountering Keith's knee.

"What?"

Lance gestured as best he could with his left hand, right at this point just one pulsing blob of agony that he was more than content to let sit on his lap.

"You want… the rope?"

Lance nodded.

He felt a piece placed into his hand and he maneuvered it until he felt a tight knot. He rolled it between his fingertips, following the ins and outs.

He breathed a silent sigh of relief as he identified the square knot. Nice, beautiful, sturdy square knot. So long as the cloth itself was decently strong it should hold. No falling to his death for him today, gracias a Dios.

Keith seemed more amused than offended if the huff of laughter was any indication when Lance finally handed him back the rope. "I can tie knots you know. It's a basic survival skill."

Lance gave a light shrug, as if trying to play it off, but winced as the movement pulled at the burn on his chest. Ouch. Times a lot.

"Easy," Keith cautioned. "Just rest. We'll be ready to go soon."

Oh goodie. Walking even that short distance earlier had set every ache in his body alight, although at least the dizziness had not been as bad as he'd imagined it would, and thinking of trying to somewhat scale a cliff only made the hurt intensify.

He could do it though. He wasn't a quitter and this was their best shot. Besides, Lance knew if he couldn't make it up then Keith wouldn't go up either. He'd wait, cornered on the ground, to protect Lance until his dying breath. He shook his head. No. He was not allowing that to happen.

"Okay, done," Keith said several minutes later and Lance's stomach dropped. This was it. "I'm going to run and refill the canteens again first though," and Lance's stomach righted itself. Not yet, at least. A few more minutes to put off the inevitable. "Do you want another drink first?"

Lance nodded to that and a moment later the rim of the canteen pressed against his lips and he took two heavy sips, draining it.

"I'll be right back," Keith said.

And Lance smirked as this time at least Keith didn't say 'stay here.' Apparently the redundancy had finally caught up to the mullet's brain.

He relaxed as best he could, the heat tapering off and air almost pleasant. This was the most comfortable he'd been, temperature and peace of mind wise. There wasn't the sense of immediate impending danger, as the Mackans did seem to be waiting till nightfall to attack, and it made everything more… not quite peaceful, but bearable.

If only they could reason with them, Lance thought sadly. The Mackans weren't bad. They were wrong, certainly, as it was clear they sacrificed their own kin as quickly as they did outsiders, but they weren't evil. If he could he'd have liked to help them.

But they'd taken his voice. A trembling left hand lightly touched against his throat, regretting it immediately as it touched upon the cut the one Mackan had made. And without his voice he could not get them to listen. Not that he thought they would have. He and Keith were nothing more than sacrifices in their eyes. Or, well, he was. Keith was just an enemy now. He didn't know which honestly was worse.

Footsteps that he'd now identified as belonging to Keith sounded and he was torn between the relief at having him back and the fear that now he'd have to attempt climbing the cliff. At least the uneven gait was gone and it sounded like Keith was putting full weight on his ankle. He could still try and be grateful for small things.

"All right," Keith said, sitting down with an odd jangle as the canteens bumped into each other and not wasting a second. "Here's what we're going to do. I'm going to scale up first with all of the supplies and leave it up there. I'll measure the rope too and maybe it will be long enough to reach you from the bottom."

He doubted it and based on how Lance's nose wrinkled he too, even without seeing it, didn't believe it either. Still, there was no harm in hoping.

For the fourth time that day Keith began his trek up, seeking out the path he'd traveled this last go because at least he'd found a few decent holds. The canteens weighed heavily on him and he knew now without a doubt there was absolutely no way he'd have been able to carry Lance up. Not when a few pounds of water were already exhausting him.

By the time he reached the top again Keith was panting hard and could feel blood welling on his hands where they'd scraped one too many times on rough stone. He flopped like a fish, focusing on regaining control of his breathing.

The suns were falling faster now and they had at most about an hour of good light left to see by. He needed to hurry down and get Lance up. He knew it wouldn't make a difference to the blind sharpshooter, but it did to Keith and since Keith was going to have to get back up without any aid he needed to be able to see where he was going.

Shrugging off the canteens and the food pouch, Keith unwound the coil of tied robes from where he'd looped it about his neck. Hoping for a miracle, he held it over the side of the cliff, giving himself a good foot to grasp onto.

A curse passed his lips as he followed the rope down. It was too short. Lance was sitting still, but it hung a good teen feet above his head, meaning it was about eight feet too short.

Quiznak.

What to do? Lance was going to have to pull himself about ten feet up the cliff side and then hold there while Keith scrambled up past him with the rope so he could then haul him up. Hold there, on burnt and bleeding and damaged hands and feet while blind.

Oh, this had not been one of his better ideas. And yet it was all they had. It was going to have to work. Somehow.

Keith began the task of climbing back down, hands stinging more than ever now but there was nothing he could do about it. Once Lance was up top they could disassemble some of the rope and he could use a few pieces as bandages, but for now he had to make do.

It was still nothing compared to what Lance was suffering through anyways. He'd grin and bear it.

When he touched down for hopefully the final time it was with a resolute thump.

"It's too short." No point in beating around the bush.

Lance gave an inaudible sigh and inclined his head. He'd figured as much.

"You're going to need to scale about ten feet up. I'll stay with you and help as much as I can, okay?"

Ten feet? That didn't sound too horrible. Yet as Lance shifted his right hand it sent fire burning down his fingers and he hunched over it with a whimper. Ten feet may as well be one hundred.

He felt Keith kneel next to him and a pair of rough fingers tilted his chin up.

"I know you can do it," Keith said softly, breath ghosting across Lance's face. "Don't give up now."

Lance blinked to hide the sudden tears that had cropped up at Keith's words. He really didn't know if he could. This wasn't like the cartoons where a speech suddenly gave the characters new strength and the ability to overcome. But maybe they weren't entirely wrong, as he did feel bolstered by Keith's words. He would try.

Keith's hand left his face and then there was a sound that Lance could not entirely place. He startled though as Keith's hands brushed out of nowhere just above his hips, and he hit the cliff wall with a thud in surprise. What the…?

"Sorry, sorry," Keith muttered. "Hold still, I'm putting my belt on you. Be careful, my knife is still attached."

Ah, okay. That made sense. Lance felt a stiff and warm material wrap about his waist then and tighten as Keith pulled on the buckle. He yanked a few times on it, reminding Lance of carnival ride operators, and he couldn't help the smile at the memory.

"Okay, I'm going to tie the rope to you," Keith explained, and Lance felt the belt being pulled slightly away from his stomach and cloth brushing against him. Keith repeated his tugging process a moment later, seemingly satisfied.

"I'll direct you," Keith said, trying to project a confidence he did not feel. "You'll be at the top before you know it."

Lance nodded and managed a thumbs up with his left hand, although the action left him wincing. Keith wondered again how this was going to work.

"Standing is step one," Keith said. "Let's get you up."

Keith leaned forward and placed both of his hands under Lance's armpits and heaved upwards. Lance's ascent was less than graceful as long legs struggled to bear his weight and he leaned almost instantly forward into Keith to relieve the pressure on his feet. Keith staggered slightly, but held his ground.

After a few seconds he pushed against Lance's chest to straighten him up and to his relief Lance remained in a standing position, if wavering slightly. That could just as easily be attributed though to having no sight as the dizziness.

"All right?" Keith asked, keeping his hands on Lance's shoulders. A miniscule nod.

Keith helped Lance to turn around so he was facing the cliff face. "Arms out," he instructed and Lance hesitantly lifted both, wincing as fingertips brushed against the rock in front of him.

Dios, he didn't know if he could do this. His heart was thumping loudly in his chest as the full weight of what they were about to attempt struck him.

Keith though was a steady reassurance at his back. "It's going to be okay," the former Red Paladin said softly, as if hearing Lance's thoughts. "You've got this."

Lance nodded again, more decisively. Yes. He just had to fight through the pain. He could do this. It would be over soon.

One way or another.

He tamped down that thought and forced his hands to stretch out along the sunwarmed rock, seeking any type of crevice. And of course his right hand found it. He winced.

"Bring your left hand up a little higher, right there," Keith instructed. His fingers found a protrusion. "Good. Okay, ready?"

Not really.

"I'm going to boost you," Keith said and Lance felt arms wrap about his lower legs. "Once you have a grip on the wall you need to reach up to another spot, okay? I'll hold you for now."

And without any further warning Lance felt Keith squeeze his legs and push upwards. His hands dug into the holds, both screaming silently as he forced stiff fingers to curl. He swallowed down his own actual cry.

Blindly he shoved his left hand higher up, locating another jutting rock a few ticks later. He grasped it, vision going from black to white as the rock pressed directly against his wound.

He could vaguely hear Keith calling his name and he followed the hazy sound back.

He'd let go, he realized a second later. Keith was fully supporting him and he could feel the tremble of exertion. If this happened again, higher up… he gulped, hands going back to clenching the rock.

His right hand joined his left further up and Keith shifted his own hands to free Lance's legs and was supporting him behind his thighs. Lance's feet scrabbled weakly against the cliff, seeking a foothold.

There! He finally found one and tug his bare toes into it. Keith was still supporting the majority of his weight and even so Lance's hands were weeping for release at what little they were holding up.

"You've got this," Keith panted from below. "I… I have to let go, Lance. Do you…" another harsh gasp. "Do you have a good hold?"

Lance didn't dare nod and his cheek was pressed flush against the cliff face rendering lip reading useless. But Keith must have taken the silence for a yes because the next moment the support disappeared and Lance nearly slipped back down, only sheer will and the fear of falling keeping him splayed on the rock.

He quivered violently, fingers aching for a release that he could not yet allow. His chest was throbbing and he swore he felt a trickle of blood fall on his stomach, but he obviously couldn't confirm.

"I'm here," Keith's voice said, suddenly very close. "I'm right next to you. We have to go up now."

Lance only pressed his face firmer against the rock. He had to be what, just a foot off the ground maybe? If he let go he wouldn't get hurt too bad.

"Lance!" Keith sounded that odd mixture of angry and worried now.

Lance heaved out a breath. He had to do this. For Keith, remember? If he failed and went down Keith would go down too.

"Right hand up two feet," Keith said, sounding like he'd given the command already. "You can do it. Come on."

Lance pressed his body even more against the cliff, eyes squinted closed – because what difference did it make? – and reached up. Immediately his left hand wailed with the extra weight and he nearly slipped off right then. His right hand found the crevice Keith had instructed and he pulled himself up slightly, arms trembling as his feet one after the other scrapped out a new hold.

"Good, okay, left now. Just about… your whole arm length. It's straight up."

Lance though remained where he was, body heaving. He couldn't. He knew he had to but he couldn't. It felt like there was literal fire coursing through his chest instead of blood and trying to draw a solid breath only ignited it.

"Lance, please," Keith begged next to him.

For Keith. He released a shallow breath, all he could manage. This was to protect Keith. Left hand.

Somehow he forced his left fingers to release their death grip and straighten, groping blindly along the rock for anything that stuck out. As soon as he found it he closed his hand around it and pulled his body again, silent cry breaking free as that time he definitely felt something tear on his chest.

"It's okay, it's okay," Keith chanted next to him although he didn't sound all that confident. He sounded scared and Lance let out a breathy sob into the rock.

"You're almost there," Keith promised. "Just… just two more with your left, okay? Four more up."

'Keith,' he whispered, tasting blood and dirt on his tongue. He didn't know what he was trying to say. An apology, maybe? He couldn't do it. Everything hurt too much and he wanted it to stop.

"No! No giving up! You go, I go."

And Dios, Lance knew that. It was the only reason he was even still trying to cling to the rock. He couldn't take Keith down with him.

"Right hand up and slightly in. It's a big one."

Lance whimpered and shifted his hand up, arm scratching against the rock and sending little fragments onto his face. His hand bumped into a large protrusion and he gripped it again, eyes watering from the rock dust even though he couldn't see it.

His toes were definitely bleeding now, he could tell, as they tried to support his weight, digging into the rough stone. They felt slick, sliding out of their crevice and he wrenched them back in, desperately.

Somehow he made it up again and again, Keith alternating between begging and commanding him to keep going. He could feel blood in many places now; his fingers, his face, his chest and then his feet. He must be leaving a red smear on the stone. He wondered what it looked like.

Keith was saying something again but Lance couldn't make out the words over his pulse. He swallowed thickly, as if that could make the pain go away, but all it did was set his chest alight with a new ache.

"Lance, please, come on," he heard Keith say. "Look at me. Come on."

He was scaring Keith. Again. He had to do something.

He inched his face off the cliff, feeling his feet give slightly at the movement and he cried out as he rammed them back.

"Okay, good, there we go," Keith murmured. "I need you to stay right there, okay? I'm going to go to the top and pull you up. But when I do I still need you to grip the wall, okay?"

Lance trembled.

"Okay?"

He was too scared to nod, so he mouthed 'yes' and hoped that Keith could see it.

"Hold tight. It's almost over."

He heard Keith scramble past him then, kicking down a fine dust. Lance clung to the cliff face with everything he had, but he was afraid even that wasn't going to be enough. His fingers were slipping again and his body was on fire with agony.

But if he fell… if he fell then Keith would go down too. And he had to protect Keith. He had to. He kept repeating that over and over as if it would give him strength.

When he felt the slightest tug around his middle several minutes later Lance nearly let go of the cliff in surprise.

"Lance," called Keith, and his voice sound far, far away. Lance swallowed again. How much further up did he still have to go again? "I'm going to pull up, okay? Hold onto the cliff."

The tug came again and this time Lance did gasp as the belt dug into his flesh. His body was trying to go up and Lance forced his hands to seek another hold. He knew Keith wasn't going to be able to lift him up fully. He still had to propel himself.

Still, despite the new ache around his waist the pressure had been relieved some off his hands. He could do this. He reached up, finding a crevice and held his hand there as the rest of his body shifted slightly up.

It was slow going. Too slow, but at the same time too fast. Even with the support Lance was flagging. He couldn't believe he'd felt dizzy before because that clearly had been nothing. His head was spinning now and if it wasn't for the continuous pull on the rope he doubted he'd actually know which way was up.

There was a growing chill to the air too now and he was shivering on top of the already violent tremors wracking him.

"You're almost there," Keith encouraged and his voice sounded so close. "Just a few more feet."

The burst of energy Lance had hoped to feel at the announcement though did not happen. If anything he felt more tired. But he forced himself to find another handhold, moan catching in his throat.

He made it two more arm lengths before pain was bursting behind his eyes as something – a hand, he dully realized – grabbed onto his hair. But it was a welcome pain even as reflexive tears spilled down his cheeks.

"I've got you," Keith murmured, "I've got you."

Lance reached up and this time his hand met the edge of the cliff, and he scratched weakly against more rock. Keith grabbed it though and he would have screamed if he'd had any air left as his entire chest was dragged fully against the ledge and over.

But then Keith was grabbing his other arm and short nails were digging into his back and he couldn't find it in him to care as his torso finally cleared the ledge and then Keith was dragging up forward a couple feet until at last Lance felt his feet flop onto the ground.

He couldn't comprehend entirely what was happening as he felt himself being shifted so he was on his back and then he was being wrapped up in a pair of trembling arms and pulled up in a slouch against a warm chest. It made him realize how cold he was in addition to the pain and he shuddered at the touch.

Keith meanwhile was trying very hard not to panic at how much blood was covering Lance. It was everywhere. Smeared on his face, coating his chest. His hands and feet were a mess, more so than before, and his fingers now were rubbed beyond raw and dripping.

He needed to clean him up, but right now all Keith could do was sit there and hold him, shoulders aching from the exertion of hauling Lance for almost twenty minutes and heart aching for the pain he had caused.

"I'm so sorry," he mumbled, pressing his face into Lance's dark locks. "I'm so sorry. God, Lance. I...:"

It had worked, yes. They were both on top the cliff now. But at what cost? The light was wan right now as the moons had yet to fully rise and Keith hadn't collected any more glowing reeds other than the one from previous, but he could see that Lance was pale. Too pale. His arms tightened about the shivering form.

One minute, Keith decided. They could have one more minute to sit here and breathe and just be. And then… his eyes narrowed as he drew Lance closer still.

Then they would prepare for the fight of their lives.

xxx

 

Chapter Text

 

One minute became near ten as Keith couldn't find it in him to pull away. Lance's shivering had subsided a bit, but he was still wracked with tremors from pain and the only thing that seemed to still them was when Keith tightened his hold.

But they did need to move and quickly. Smearing Lance's blood all over the cliff face had not been a part of the plan and no doubt the Mackans would be able to more easily tell now where they had gone. The best thing they could do was get as far away from this section of cliff as they could, move more east towards the Lions, and put distance between them and the blood.

That meant that Lance needed to get cleaned up first though because he was most definitely bleeding. A lot.

Keith didn't move Lance from where he'd pulled the other boy's torso over his lap, but he did release his arms so he could gather the rope and subsequent cloth pieces. Clumsy, stiff hands untied a piece and he wrapped it as best he could around his own raw hands now, made worse from the constant pulling on the rope.

Still, in the grand scheme of things when all he was suffering were still some slightly damaged hands after all they'd been through he realized how lucky he was. He flexed his fingers a few times, trying to regain some semblance of feeling to them before he went to treat Lance.

The sharpshooter's eyes were closed, and Keith couldn't tell if he'd fallen unconscious or was still awake. He wasn't honestly sure which option he preferred right now.

"Lance?" he whispered and hazy blue eyes blinked open. And that answered that. "I've got to move you," Keith told him gently. "I need to look at your injuries."

Lance's eyes closed and Keith took that as a confirmation. He carefully shifted Lance to lie flat on the ground, but after that he wasn't entirely sure where to start. As he'd already observed, there was blood literally everywhere.

And well, the logical thing to do would be to wipe up what he could so he had an idea of what he was dealing with. Keith grabbed one of the canteens, took a quick drink first, and then wet another piece of freed rope. Then he realized that he actually still needed to pull off the old, now blood-soaked bandages, and the best way to do that would be if he had his knife. Which was still attached to Lance.

Quiznak.

The rope he'd tied around the belt was knotted so firmly from all the tugging that no amount of picking at the knot would release it. Keith instead managed to undo the buckle and then tugged it off to the sides. His heart leapt into his throat as it fell away.

Lance's skin all around the belt had already painfully darkened with bruises and blood was welling up on the top edges where it had literally bitten into his skin. Not wanting to look but knowing he had to, Keith gingerly rolled Lance to his side so he could retrieve the rest of the belt and the sheath where the knife was on his lower back

And yup, it was worse there. Lance's back had taken the brunt of the pressure and there was a line of almost blackened flesh welling with blood and another mark higher up where the handle of the knife had pressed into soft flesh.

He'd done this. Keith's stomach lurched again. He should have tried to pad the belt – with what, he had no idea, but he should have, somehow – or done something to relieve the strain. "I'm so sorry," he whispered, knowing it would still never be enough.

He retrieved his knife and belt though and settled Lance down on his back again. The other boy barely reacted to the handling, his breath coming once more in shallow little pants. He cut carefully through the blood soaked bandage pressed against Lance's side, sliding them off and chucking them across the rock where they landed with a dull splat.

He winced as he dabbed away at the smeared blood, revealing that the entire uncauterized part of the wound had split open and was sluggishly leaking. Keith cursed under his breath. In addition to that reopening, Lance had carved a few more lines into him from the cliff face and Keith did what he could to wipe them clean of the debris.

Lance did shudder as he poured a bit of water over the wounds and Keith had to pause to press a hand to Lance's shoulder get him to lie still, murmuring apologies again. After the worst was cleared Keith grabbed a few more robe strips and affixed them over the new cuts and layered several over the reopened laceration, pressing down to help the blood clot.

That was apparently more than painful though because Lance spasmed beneath his hands, eyes flying open wide.

"It's okay," Keith managed, shifting one hand to lie on Lance's forehead, thumb moving in soothing circles, while the other continued to apply pressure. "It's okay. Just breathe."

Lance leaned into the gentle touch, closing his eyes again. Keith indulged the caress for another minute as Lance's body relaxed, but then he had to get back to work. He still needed to secure all of the bandages, but opted for now that while Lance was lying down to look at the rest.

He started with Lance's feet, having to use more water to rinse them of blood. Lance twitched but held himself still.

Keith was no expert, but he was pretty sure a few toes might be broken, likely from Lance smashing them into the rock. A few were more purple than they should be and all of them had broken or chipped nails, not to mention the abrasions and punctures.

Lance would not be walking again until after their rescue, of that Keith was certain. He had nothing to use as splints and wasn't honestly certain if you were supposed to splint toes, but wrapped both feet up well with the robes. He wished he had something for the pain, but all he had was water.

That part taken care of, Keith moved onto what he'd been dreading most: Lance's hands. They were lying limp on the ground and even as Keith picked up the left and eased it into his lap Lance shuddered.

His index finger was broken, Keith noted first. The rest seemed to have made it free of any breaks, but all were bleeding and the pinky was missing its nail completely. Keith didn't want to look, but he forced himself to pull off the compression bandages.

Lance's sacrifice wound had reopened, no doubt a combination of the magic and the abuse Lance had put it through gripping onto the cliff. He poured a little water onto it, having to brace Lance's wrist as the boy gave a wordless shout and tried to wrench his limb away.

"I'm almost done," he promised, wrapping a clean piece of robe directly about the incision and then sliding the compression sleeves back over. "You're doing great."

But he could tell that Lance really wasn't. By this point, despite the pain, the other boy was normally trying to tell Keith he was okay. He hadn't done anything of the sort yet.

Despite the fact Lance was going to have absolutely no mobility now with his hand, making attempts at talking even harder, Keith knew he had to wrap the whole limb. Lance's fingers were too damaged for anything but. When he was done Lance's fingers were all aligned next to one another and covered to the tip with cloth like a terribly designed mitten.

The right had fared slightly better, finger-wise at least as none appeared broken. They were still scraped raw though so they received the same mitten treatment. Keith didn't dawdle over the incision, which like the left had reopened, but cleaned it as best he could and rewrapped it.

All that was really left now was Lance's face, which had a few scrapes from rubbing against the rock, and one of the claw marks the Mackan last night had left had reopened. Keith lightly washed them all with water.

"Just about done," Keith said quietly. "I need you to sit up though."

He received no response.

"Lance," he said, just a bit sharper, relieved when those sightless eyes cracked open again. "You have to sit up. Are you ready?"

Keith frowned as Lance mouthed something at him that didn't quite make sense. "See?" he repeated back. Lance said it again.

Oh. Sí. Yes in Spanish.

Keith's stomach clenched again. If Lance was reverting back to his mother tongue…

"I need you to stay with me, all right?" Keith hoped he didn't sound as desperate as he felt. He knew the trip up the cliff hadn't been good but Lance was regressing too much for just the exhaustion and strain on his body.

The blood, he realized. Lance had lost a lot of blood again.

With no assistance on Lance's part, Keith pulled the other boy to a hunched over sit, wincing as the blackened bruise showed itself even more prominently. He worked quickly to wrap several layers of bandages about Lance's chest to hold the compresses he'd made together and then wrapped another about the belt bruise. Even though it wasn't really bleeding he felt better covering it up.

Lance was shivering again, the small bit of heat he'd been able to leech from the rock gone now that he was sitting. Keith rearranged them, hating how Lance was as compliant as a doll, so that Lance was between his legs and his back pressed to Keith's chest, his arms wrapped around the thin shoulders and his hands rubbing gently on Lance's forearms to generate some heat .

It seemed to help, as Lance stirred on his own and tucked a cold nose against Keith's neck.

"You with me?"

A slight nod and a hot breath ghosted Keith's skin. Still, Lance was much too cold and Keith hugged him closer.

"On a scale of one to ten, what would you rate your condition now?" Keith tried to keep his tone light. He moved so Lance's head was propped on his shoulder and he could look down. Lance seemed to be debating the answer.

"No lying," Keith said bluntly. "I need to know, Lance. How do you feel?"

And even though he'd been expecting it the inaudible 'three' still made his heart freeze. And then, true to form, Lance mouthed out 'You?' and the lifelessness that had been present was replaced with concern and guilt.

"Seven," Keith said after a few seconds. "Maybe a six. My hands aren't so good right now." A dark chuckle was pulled from him. "Nowhere near as bad as yours though. I'll stick with seven."

Lance didn't look comforted by that. "I'm okay," Keith said, trying to convince them both. And really, compared to Lance he was pretty much a ten. "My head's still clear enough and I can grip my knife."

He shifted slightly so he could retrieve the canteen he'd been using, which was nearly empty. "Drink?"

To his relief Lance gave a nod and Keith tipped it gently, allowing Lance to have several small sips. He took another himself, draining it. Three left now. Assuming the rescue came when Keith was hoping for it should be enough.

That, or they'd be dead and then it wouldn't matter.

He shook his head to clear it of the thought and could feel Lance's gaze on him, feeling the movement.

"It's fine," he said. "Just thinking."

Lance's lips twitched, no doubt remembering their previous conversation on such a topic. Keith squeezed Lance's shoulder in retaliation, although he found himself smiling too.

"We need to get moving again," Keith said after a few moments. He felt Lance wince. "I'll carry you. But we have to get away from the blood. Before that though…"

He trailed off, looking up at the sky. The moons were higher now, their glow even stronger from this vantage point. They had about an hour, Keith calculated, before the Mackans carried out their ritual.

An hour before Lance lost his hearing.

"We need to talk about what's going to happen," Keith murmured. "I… I know it's going to be scary." He felt Lance let out a heave somewhere between a sob and a laugh even though a smile formed on his face. A little unnerved, Keith continued on. "I'll be right there the whole time. Well, unless I'm fighting."

At that Lance sobered and he pressed himself up just a little closer.

"It's going to be okay," Keith reassured. "I won't let anything happen to you."

And that was what Lance was afraid of. He didn't want Keith to lose his life trying to save Lance's. Just like Keith had said, Lance did not want to survive at the expense of another. And yet that was exactly what he was prepared to do for Keith. He let out a silent sigh. He was so selfish.

"I was thinking," Keith continued, "we should have some sort of signing system so you… so you won't be completely unaware."

Lance nodded, grateful.

Keith's hands, which had still be very nicely rubbing warmth back into him, paused and Lance felt the fingers tap on his wrist. "One tap for Mackans sighted. Two taps for I'm going to engage. Does that work?"

Lance nodded.

"This," Keith said, giving Lance's wrist a gentle squeeze, "means our rescue is here. But if you don't feel that…"

Lance vehemently shook his head, a mistake as it sent him reeling. But no. If Keith didn't give the signal it was because Keith couldn't and Lance wasn't leaving without him.

"Lance…"

He elbowed Keith then as hard as he could, which was barely anything at all. Idiot. He wasn't leaving him behind and he knew the others wouldn't either. It was as he'd said, they were both getting out together or not at all.

"Okay," Keith finally said. "Okay."

Quiet reigned for a moment and Keith started talking again. "Since we've determined they're going to enact their ritual, it stands to reason you're going to get hurt. Again."

Lance gave a tiny nod. He'd figured as much too. His hands flared at the reminder and he hugged them closer.

"I think it's either going to be your neck," Keith said quietly, "or over your heart. It's supposed to be the final cut, right? Makes sense they'd do it to kill the victim."

And well, Keith had learned many things on this adventure but apparently bedside manner for fatal diagnoses wasn't one of them. Lance didn't know why he giggled then, but between the bluntness and the understatement from earlier he couldn't help it. His mind also chimed in that he was likely suffering the effects of blood loss again making him a little loopy, and Lance fully agreed.

"You okay?"

It only made Lance laugh harder, wishing he could stop as fire ignited in his chest but he couldn't. Absolutely nothing about this situation was okay. Keith had just described how he was supposed to be murdered and here he was laughing. Oh, he'd really gone off the deep end now.

He hiccupped back another laugh as his lungs protested that they had no air left to give. Keith's left hand had shifted from his arm to pat against his back. To his horror the laughter turned to tears and he found he couldn't stop those either.

"Oh, Lance," Keith murmured, and that just made them come faster but still silent.

He buried his face in the crook between Keith's arm and chest, shoulders shaking. Dios, it was so close now. Any minute he could lose his hearing, his last link to having any sort of understanding as to what was happening. His world was going to become completely dark then. No light. No sound. Nothing.

Nothing except touch. He pressed his face more firmly into Keith's shoulder, nuzzling the rough texture of the undersuit and the cold, smooth flesh that was Keith's arm.

"It's going to be okay," Keith whispered. "I won't leave your side. I won't leave you, Lance."

Lance swallowed thickly. Keith meant it to be reassuring, he knew. But all he could picture was Keith lying next to him, dead, because he wouldn't leave. He'd be staring vacantly up at the sky, blood pooling around him and knife just out of reach.

Actually though, no, he wouldn't know that. All he'd know were fur and claws pressing in. He wouldn't know if Keith had gotten away, if Keith was dead, if Keith was being tortured right in front of him… he'd know absolutely nothing.

He clung a little tighter, fingers aching at how he forced them to brush against Keith's shirt, but it was a good pain. It meant Keith was there. Keith was there and breathing and alive. He took comfort in hearing Keith's soft exhales, feeling the rise of his chest under his shoulder.

Keith held him for a few more minutes, not saying anything but continuing to rub one hand up and down Lance's left arm and the other circles on his back. Despite the dull thudding of pain that flared whenever he took too deep a breath, Lance wished they could stay like this.

They were both safe here, in this moment. He didn't want it to end.

Keith apparently had no such hesitations, breaking into the peace with an, "Are you up to eating something?"

Lance pressed his lips together and minutely shook his head. Even the thought of chewing hurt and frankly his stomach was lurching all over the place with nerves. And if Keith was carrying him… well, he definitely did not want to throw up all over him. He'd die of embarrassment before the Mackans even had a chance.

He could feel Keith's disappointment and he ducked his head. He knew he should eat something for the blood loss. Logic told him that but his body told him the opposite.

"A little more water then?" Lance licked still dry lips and nodded slightly at that. Water he could do.

Keith gently moved to hold his shoulder and tip him upright before a canteen was pressed to his mouth. He took a few sips, barely even registering the onion taste anymore.

"Time to get moving then," Keith said after Lance heard him take a few swallows. "Just for a little bit, promise. Think you can hold on for about half an hour?"

Lance really had no idea what he was capable of at this point, but when put into perspective that he had managed to scale a cliff then holding tight while Keith carried him didn't sound impossible, so he nodded.

"All right then. Same as before."

Keith moved away from him then and Lance whimpered at the loss of heat. And unlike last night he didn't even have the robe to cover his back. He shivered, the tremor only making him ache worse.

Keith shivered too as the loss of body heat as he set about resecuring his knife and the canteens and pouches. His under armor may provide some measure of warmth, but it was still cold. He had nothing to complain about though. Other than the missing sleeves he was covered from toes to neck while Lance barely had on pants at this point, so full of holes that they were.

The bandages that wrapped around most of his torso wouldn't be giving much in terms of heat either. The only good thing about the cold was that it helped slow the blood flow, but that was of little physical comfort to Lance.

"Come on," Keith said, crouching down in front of Lance. "Let's get you up."

He guided Lance's left arm so that Lance's elbow was secured under his neck. Lance slowly mimicked the movement with the right, unable to hide the wince as the action tugged on the chest wound covering that side.

He tightened his arms as best he could about Keith's neck and pressed himself against the warm back, tightening even further to try and get closer and only letting up when he heard Keith wheeze. 'Sorry,' he whispered, even though Keith could not hear or see the apology.

Arms were circling behind him then and grasping at his thighs before Keith got none too gracefully to his feet and Lance near choked him again in an effort to remain upright. Keith found his balance though and shifted so he his arms were through Lance's calves and locking him in place.

"Good?" he rasped.

In answer Lance rested his cheek against the back of Keith's head, the hair tickling but comforting at the same time.

Keith took a few lurching steps forward then before he settled into a rhythm. He really wasn't going to go too far. He still wanted time to get settled and hopefully find some projectiles to chuck back down at the Mackans. That, and he wanted to make sure Lance was… comfortable, before it happened. He'd have to get the bandages ready too because with their luck the wound was going to bleed. A lot. And Lance really had none left to give.

The going at least was smooth. The cliff top wasn't without its grooves and dips but there were no shadows cast up here save from them and he could easily pick out where to go with the moonlight. Keith hoped that they weren't big giant targets up there, but based on the location he'd seen the Mackans in last they would be looking lengthwise down the cliffs and given the twists and turns two figures atop shouldn't be visible at all.

Keith made it about twenty minutes by his count, which had to be nearly a mile. It wasn't the best but he figured they were still about four miles in from the front of the path and over fifty feet up. And he wasn't sure he could go too much further; his arms were still sore from the multiple cliff climbs and then hauling Lance up. He could feel them shaking now and was worried at this rate he would drop Lance.

"We're here," Keith announced, coming to a slow halt. He released Lance's legs, hearing them make soft taps as the hit the ground. He crouched down then, lowering Lance until he felt the other boy's bottom make contact with the ground and the arms released.

Lance immediately pulled his arms around him and hunched over, looking the picture of utter misery. Keith could already see splotches on the bandages on his torso and a trickle was leaking down his right hand.

"Hold still," Keith murmured, retrieving a few new scraps and wrapping them about the hand, tightening it well and hating how Lance flinched. He patted another piece down over the bleeding chest wound and tied it all together again.

"How about you lie down?" Keith suggested gently, hating how he heard his voice choke on the words. It was too much like his dad, when the nurses had made sure he was as comfortable as he could be on the narrow bed when they knew he'd lost the fight.

Lance wasn't going to go like that though, Keith thought, blinking back the sudden tears. He wasn't going to slip off silently, limbs going slack as he fought for that last final breath and failed. No. He was going to be fine. Help was coming in just over eight hours.

He was going to be fine. This was just… just so he wasn't as in much pain, having to hunch over like that. That's what Keith told himself as he helped Lance to lie down, unable to offer the pillow of scraps, but helping him bring his hands over his chest – stomach, he decided instead after an uncomfortable thought that Lance looked like he was in a casket the other way – and his feet drawn up.

Lance was incredibly flexible, Keith was learning. His legs folded nearly at the knee, allowing him to tuck the heels up against himself while he curled down, forming the most pathetic looking ball he'd ever seen.

"I'll be right over here," Keith said. "Just gathering some rocks." He saw how Lance stiffened and added, "I'll keep talking though… if you want?" And Lance relaxed ever so slightly with a nod.

"Okay then," Keith said, using his knife to pry up a mostly loose stone about the size of a softball. He bet that would make a good impact, assuming he had decent aim. "What do you want me to talk about?"

He caught Lance angling his fingers towards Keith's direction. It was hard to tell what with them all bandaged together, but Keith swore it looked like Lance was trying to point.

"You want to talk about… me?" Keith guessed. A small smile formed on Lance's face and he nodded.

"Really?"

Keith hated that such a concept still made him uncomfortable. He had shared more about himself in the past couple days than he ever had in his entire life prior to meeting Shiro.

But Lance wasn't looking for him to spill his life story. He just wanted to get to know Keith better. And, Keith supposed, he really would like to know more about Lance when all of this was over. He wanted to actually listen to Lance's stories about his family and adventures with his siblings rather than tune them out because of the pang of what could have been.

He wanted to be a better friend. A better brother.

He could start small. Maybe work up to something else. Keith nodded, freeing another decent sized rock.

"Okay. Um, my favorite color is yellow." He could feel the follow up 'why' and couldn't help the smile that tugged at his own lips at the memory. "My dad and I… we'd wake up every morning to watch the sunrise together before he'd go off to work. My favorite part was when the sun would crest over the dunes, this big golden yellow ball, and it made the whole desert softer." He paused and then added quietly, "I haven't gotten up to watch a sunrise since my dad died."

And wow, how had he turned such a simple answer into something like that? Lance was rubbing off on him, he decided. All of these emotions and feelings.

He glanced to judge Lance's reaction, not at all surprised to see a sad smile and compassion emanating from the dulled eyes.

"And moving on." He added another rock to his collection. "I hate cucumbers. Don't know why, I just do. I also can't stomach anything overly spicy." He could practically feel Lance's look of horror. "Remember when Hunk made those… what were they supposed to be, papas fritos or something like that." Lance winced at the butchering of the food but inclined his chin ever so slightly. "They were too hot. I snuck mine all to the mice when he wasn't looking."

He grinned at Lance's expression, feeling some of his own anxiety melt away. This… this felt right.

"Let's see… Shiro forced me to watch a bunch of anime once I moved into the Garrison. He's obsessed, but you'd never know it. There was this one I really liked… it had a samurai," and he did feel Lance's eye roll that time, "Hey! It had a samurai who gave up killing people and used his sword to protect them instead. You know, fighting to protect the ones you love." He let out a soft laugh. "Who'd have ever thought we'd all be sort of like that. Sometimes it feels like we are living in a cartoon or fantasy novel what with everything that happens to us."

He'd accumulated a decent pile now and Keith took them over a few at a time towards the edge of the cliff where the Mackans should be traveling down.

"Almost done," he told Lance. He tried to think of something else to say. "I like to cook," he offered up. "I'm not as good as Hunk, but I'm not terrible. I have no idea how all the alien ingredients work though so I haven't tried anything in the kitchen. Maybe Hunk could show me though."

Lance nodded his agreement and Keith decided that if – when – they were rescued he'd ask the larger boy for some pointers in navigating the alien fare. He wouldn't mind being in the kitchen again, honestly.

Last pile arranged, he made his way back to Lance, nudging him slightly with his knee so he could lift him up to rest against Keith's front again and wrap his arms about the chilled form.

The pack full of bandages was within easy reach and Keith adjusted his grip so he could quickly lower Lance down to the ground and begin first aid. His gaze drifted upwards, tired eyes tracking the third moon. Couldn't be more than fifteen minutes now.

Lance seemed to be thinking along the same lines as Keith felt him shudder in his arms in a different way than the shiver of cold.

He lifted a hand to card through the back of Lance's hair, tucking his own chin over the brown head. "It's going to be okay."

Lance nudged him, more gently this time his ribs noted with relief, and angled his head out from underneath Keith and rested it once more on a shoulder so that his face was visible.

He mouthed something then, eyes cast to the side as even blind he didn't seem able to look directly at Keith.

"I didn't catch that," Keith said apologetically. "What?"

Lance repeated it, feeling his cheeks darken a bit. It was childish, really. Keith wouldn't, he hadn't ever heard—

"Sing?" Keith interrupted.

Lance gave a jerking nod.

"You want me to sing," Keith clarified.

Lance averted his eyes even more, embarrassed. He shouldn't have asked. It was just… his mamá would sing to him after a bad dream or even just when he had difficulty falling asleep. It soothed him. It made everything better, assured him that he wasn't alone and no monsters were going to get him.

Was it so wrong he wanted that assurance again? He knew the monsters were coming, and this time they were real. But for just a few moments he wanted to pretend he was safe and warm in bed and everything was okay.

Before everything wasn't.

"I'm not very good," Keith said quietly, and Lance turned back towards him, hope fluttering. That didn't sound like a no. "And I don't know many songs."

Lance butted his head against Keith's chin. He didn't care. Keith could sound like nails on a chalkboard singing the alphabet song and he'd love it.

He just… he really didn't want it to be quiet and still when everything happened. He didn't want to be alone like that.

"Okay then," Keith murmured. "I'll try. Um, you ever heard 'Moon River'?"

Lance gave a minute shake of his head.

"My dad used to sing it to me." Lance could hear the sad smile in Keith's words followed by a deep breath. "Okay. No complaints. You asked for this."

Lance snuggled further against Keith, closing his eyes and letting out a silent breath. He was ready.

Keith started off humming, the sound low and deep and reverberating in his chest and filling Lance with a newfound sense of warmth. It was enough to lull him into a sleepy sort of comfort, pushing the pain aside for just a little while.

Hesitantly Keith began to sing. His voice was a little rough, but at the same time sweet. Lance smiled. Just like Keith.

"Moon river," Keith sang softly, "wider than a mile…"

Lance let out another tiny breath as the song washed over him.

"I'm crossing you in style… some day…"

Keith's voice hitched and Lance could feel the sob rumble its way through him. Lance only pressed closer, feeling his own chest tighten and a tear sting his eye.

"Oh, dream… m-maker," Keith paused, unable to understand why entirely he felt a burning behind his eyes and his throat closing up. "You… you heart br-breaker."

His hands tightened around Lance, who was lying near peacefully. "Wherever you're going," he all but whispered. "I'm going your way..."

As the last note faded away he felt Lance jerk in his arms, felt the lithe body grow tense and mouth open in a silent scream.

And the last of their peace was shattered.

xxx

 

Chapter Text

 

Keith didn't waste time with comforting words, knowing they would literally fall on deaf ears. Instead he tightened his arms around Lance, trying to hold him still as he thrashed in his grip, strength restored to previously lifeless limbs in the face of such agony.

Lance's hands were trying desperately to free themselves from Keith's hold, stretching upwards towards his ears. Given how Lance had acted towards his eyes Keith was certain that whatever Lance was feeling as his hearing vanished was a similar pain.

He gritted his teeth for the both of them, riding out the crest of the torment. He didn't dare let go to find where this newest injury was yet, not until Lance calmed down. He could tell though, his arms wrapped about Lance's chest, that nothing there felt any bloodier than before, so it didn't look like they'd gone for his heart. That was good, because Keith had zero ideas on how to bandage something of that nature. Then again, he really had no idea what he was doing at all for most of this.

Gradually Lance's struggles slowed although his breathing remained harsh against Keith's neck. The former Red Paladin gingerly lifted one of his hands to cup the back of Lance's head, pressing fingers into the dark hair and massaging it gently.

Lance stilled even more, but rather than leaning back into the touch he hunched forward.

And as Keith felt something warm and stick drip onto his hand that was still pressed against Lance's chest he had a good idea why.

He pulled back on Lance's head, tipping his chin up and stomach recoiling as he was proven right.

They'd made to cut Lance's throat.

Blood was pooling and dripping from a gash just above the one made by the Mackan's knife the previous night, although this one was much deeper. At least Lance wasn't coughing up blood, Keith thought with relief. It hadn't gone penetrated enough to cause that kind of damage.

Keeping Lance's head propped up with one hand, Keith dug his now bloodied right hand into the bag of bandage scraps and grabbed the pre-folded one he'd made into a compress. He pressed it against the morbid cut, other hand tightening in Lance's hair as he tried to jerk away.

"Sorry," Keith mumbled, the words rolling off his tongue even though he knew they did nothing. He held it there for near a minute, waiting until he felt the stream stop its torrent. He knew it was still going to bleed, but if it could congeal a little bit it would help. Leaving the blood-soaked pad there, he grabbed a few more strips of rope and wound them as best he could all about Lance's neck.

Only once that was secure did he allow himself to breathe, pulling Lance closer to him and feeling the heart beat rapidly under his hand. It was too fast still, but it was there. Lance was still alive and breathing and really that was a miracle in itself. It was likely supposed to have been a fatal cut; some twisted way of letting their sacrifice bleed out on the table. But it hadn't been a lethal as just like his left hand apparently the ritual from afar wasn't as deadly.

Keith bowed his head, tucking Lance up against him as if that alone could keep him safe. He knew it wouldn't, but right now, for a moment, he would pretend it could. He could feel tears, hot and threatening, gathering behind his eyes and he squinted them shut. Not now.

He focused instead on taking deep breaths, trying to slow his own racing heart and listening. Nothing. He chose to be grateful for the silence rather than suspicious.

Lance meanwhile was focused too on his own breathing, the blood pounding in his ears the only sound he could hear. Everything else was a kaleidoscope of black and silence, dizzying in its intensity.

And the pain. His ears had stopped feeling like they were trying to burst and were now just dully throbbing with an ache similar to after they'd popped from a huge change in height. But his neck. Dios. It felt like someone had taken a blunt nail file and tried to dig it as far into the flesh as they could.

He'd felt Keith trying to patch it, but the pressure had scared him and he'd envisioned that rusty file being pressed even more in, severing his trachea and letting blood bubble up. Only the knowledge that it was most definitely Keith holding him and squeezing at the wound had allowed him to even try and fight back the instinct to pull away.

He'd whimpered silently as Keith had wrapped something then about his neck, tightening it and he'd choked reflexively. But the worst of the pain had dulled by then (and how was it that dull just meant no longer stark agony?) and he felt Keith pull him close again against his delightfully warm chest and the one hand that had been in his hair resume gentle, soothing circles.

It was okay, he tried to convince himself, listening to Keith's heart beat gradually slow and trying to mimic it although such an action tugged at his chest. Keith was there. He hadn't signaled that the Mackans were sighted. Maybe they wouldn't come at all.

He snorted, regretting the action immediately as his throat seized, and curled his head over more, pressing his cheek flat against Keith. He tentatively brought his hands up, which Keith was no longer pinning down, to brush against Keith's shirt, settling them over Keith's heart and feeling the pulse.

He focused on what he could make out, trying hard to ignore the blackness pressing in from all the other sides. Keith's heartbeat. The hand carding through his hair. The rough texture of the under armor pressing against his cheek. He curled his legs up, wincing at the ache as he forced his knees to bend and they bumped painfully against Keith's leg, but then rested cold feet against Keith's opposite inner leg, soaking up the heat. He felt Keith start behind him but he regained himself quickly, the hand in his hair never ceasing its movement.

This wasn't so bad. It was like sneaking into his siblings' beds in the wee hours of the night and silently tumbling and giggling so as not to wake their parents while they fought for pillows and blankets in the darkened room. The ache to his throat was where Rosie had kicked him in a mad scramble; the cold because Geoffery had stolen the good quilt for himself. The burning in his hands was from little Sara clutching at them and the hitch in his chest was because Carlos and Maria had scared him witless jumping up from behind the headboard.

Any second now Papá was going to walk in and he'd join them in their nighttime romping until Mamá awoke and turned on the lights, turning pillow monsters and blanket forts into just strewn about bedding. She'd tuck them all back into their own beds then, smoothe hair back from foreheads and sing if the pillow monsters were a little too real in that moment.

But no lights turned back on and no childish shrieks of glee at being caught sounded. Just deafening silence and darkness. He tried to blink back the newest round of tears as the happy memory faded to be replaced with cold reality.

Keith had felt the hitch of breath and he paused, thinking he'd caused Lance some type of pain. But a second later he felt a familiar nudge under his chin and he couldn't help the smile as he went back to carding his hand through the back of Lance's hair.

"You're demanding, you know that?" he murmured, absolutely no heat behind the words. Lance could ask for pretty much anything at this point and if it was in his power Keith would do it.

Except for him to leave. His hand tightened about Lance's shoulders. No matter how much Lance insisted – and how he'd do so the way he currently was limited Keith had no idea, but he was sure Lance could come up with something – he wasn't going anywhere. They were in this together until the end, whatever that might be.

Keith was no optimist, but he would cautiously say that they had a decent chance now that they were atop the cliff. He hoped it took the Mackans at least a few hours, preferably eight or more, to sniff them out. So far so good as there wasn't even a whisper of sound and he knew that even from this high he'd be able to hear some sort of claws on rock scratching given how many Mackans were surely coming.

He was still tired, that he could easily feel. Two hours of sleep, however helpful, could not make up for being awake for over thirty hours. But the constant hum of fear mixed with adrenaline was keeping him alert, not to mention Lance shivering against him.

Keith rubbed his one hand up and down Lance's arm, hating how cold the flesh felt. He wished there was something else he could do, but they only had strips of robe left and Keith knew that those were going to be put to use as bandages. Already he could feel where Lance's hands were pressed against his chest a hot dampness. He cursed under his breath.

Blood loss was becoming the real danger here. Cold they could deal with and so far the Mackans had yet to pose an immediate threat. But Lance had lost so much blood now, and Keith winced thinking about the smeared cliff. He dearly hoped the last rays of the suns had managed to bake it somewhat, but if they had not then the Mackans would find them quicker than he'd liked.

He needed Lance to eat again. Anything had to help replenish it, right? But could he even swallow with his throat sliced like that? It would have to hurt.

Water first, Keith decided. Lance hadn't once yet refused that and it would be a good indicator if he was capable of ingesting anything heavier with the wound.

He shifted Lance, propping his head up against his chest rather than his shoulder, so he could grab one of the canteens and unscrew the top. He took a deep gulp first, hating how cold it had become as the temperatures dropped.

Bringing the canteen around, he held it up to Lance, who had his right cheek pressed back against Keith's chest. The boy started at the new contact but after a few seconds gave the smallest of nods and Keith tilted the water back.

He didn't miss the wince as the cold liquid touched sensitive teeth and then an even more tender throat. Lance visibly looked pained trying to swallow it.

"Come on," Keith encouraged softly, rubbing Lance's left shoulder. He couldn't afford to choke on it; Keith couldn't even begin to imagine how terrible that would feel.

Lance was thinking the exact same thing, willing the water to glide down without any mishap. It burned both fire and ice but he managed, although the simple task left him breathless. He tried to lift a hand up to feel his neck, not sure if he was imagining something dripping or not, but Keith held them down, one pressed between their bodies and the other pinned by Keith's arm.

Moving hurt too much anyways, he decided after a second. His entire chest throbbed no matter what, but even trying to move his arms that little bit had set it alight with new pain. He let out a tiny sigh and pressed his somewhat warmed cheek back against Keith.

He felt so tired but he wasn't sleepy. It was just a bone-deep exhaustion that seemed to permeate every inch of him. The dizziness in his head wasn't helping either and he closed his eyes, not sure when they'd opened.

He could feel Keith shifting again and he whined low in the back of his throat at the light jostling. But all of that paled as fire reignited along his throat as he felt one rough hand brace against the back of his neck and the other press against the wound.

A silent cry was torn from his lips and despite himself he tried to recoil away from the source of the pain. Keith's hands were firm though and he was forcibly held still. After a minute the pressure lessened slightly, but taking its place was the texture of cloth sliding about his throat. More bandages. Well, at least he hadn't been imagining the blood.

He was moved again then, his head angled so it was resting just beneath Keith's chin and this time he was faced forward. He lost the comforting warmth on his cheek this way but the strain around his neck had lessened without the tilt down.

Keith made up for it though by wrapping his arms about Lance's front and crossing them so his hands rubbed lightly on his Lance's arms. He leaned back into the warmth, letting it ground him. Keith's chin pressed on top of his, a welcome pressure because it helped him orient up from down.

A small smile tugged Keith's expression up as he felt Lance give a soft sigh and settle more against him. It faded though as even with his vision mostly blocked from looking down, he could still make out dark patches staining Lance's bandaged hands that were resting on his stomach. He'd just rebandaged the neck wound after he had seen a trickle of red escaping, but it was like trying to hold water in a colander.

And after the drink of water he knew that forcing Lance to eat was not going to end well. If he could barely swallow a liquid there was no way he was going to process anything heavier.

Purple eyes glanced up at the moons. It had maybe been about half an hour since they'd enacted their ritual. Still seven and a half to go. Keith sighed himself, trying to get the knot of nerves in his stomach to settle.

He hated waiting. He wanted to do something. Anything to make this anxious feeling disappear. But he knew that such a thing wouldn't happen until both he and Lance were safely aboard the castle and far, far away from Macka.

Not too far though. He hated the thought, but it was likely they were going to need the Mackans to reverse the spell. How that was going to happen he had no idea, but it had to be done. Lance's physical wounds might be healed by the cryo-pod, but Keith had no idea if they would stay healed given his own lack of success with that.

And on top of that, this was magic. He nose wrinkled at the thought still. It was magic they did not understand and he had no way of knowing how it would interfere with the technology and crystals of the Alteans. If it did heal the wounds but left Lance in this blinded state with no reversal…

Lance couldn't live like that. And Keith could never live with himself if he allowed such a thing to happen.

Despite knowing they had none available, Keith found himself looking for some type of writing utensil and paper. In the chance that something happened to him and he didn't make it back – he bit back the shudder – the others had to know what had been done to Lance. Lance obviously couldn't tell them and while his teammates were incredibly smart Keith knew that those genius minds would not help them here. There just wasn't a logical explanation for what was happening for them to solve.

When no such writing tools show themselves, Keith knew then and there there was only one course left. They both had to live. It was that simple. They would both need to be rescued and Keith, no matter his own exhaustion or wounds, would need to remain awake long enough to explain the precariousness of their situation.

Because if he woke up and Lance was in a pod and his moment of weakness had condemned Lance to a lifetime of silence and darkness… No. It could not happen.

It was these thoughts that kept him company as the night progressed. Lance shifted between a light doze, evidenced by closed eyes and slightly deeper breaths, and then the always heart wrenching moments where he would first wake and re-discover what had been done to him.

Each time Keith was there, smoothing back bangs, pressing his hands against Lance to assure him that he was there and sometimes even murmuring that it was okay even though it wasn't and Lance couldn't hear it anyway. Keith needed to though. The silence was growing too oppressive.

Lance would settle then once he was reassured. Sometimes Keith could get him to take a sip of water, rubbing his back to help him swallow, and other times those bandaged, broken hands would prod at Keith's face as though seeking out his features. A week ago Keith would have swatted Lance's hands away, but now he found himself helping to guide them and then hold them within his own.

But no matter how many bandages Keith applied – and they were nearly out now – or how much water he could get Lance to take or even how much restless sleep Lance got, he could see the boy fading in his arms as the night wore on.

His skin was becoming paler in a way that the moonlight had nothing to do with. And no matter how vigorously Keith tried to rub warmth into chilled arms the skin remained cool although warm blood continued its sluggish trek down Lance's neck and off his fingers.

Lance felt it too. It was like a dull panic that made him want to thrash and scream but his limbs felt weighed down and stiff, forcing the terror to fester without release. The darkness was growing, making him dizzy and nauseous and only Keith – firm and safe and there – was keeping him somewhat grounded.

But it was getting harder to do even that. He felt… off. Floating, sort of, but at the same time chained down. He didn't like it. At least when he'd been stripped of his sight and voice he could still hear. He'd taken comfort in listening to Keith. Hearing little snippets of his life had calmed him like nothing else could in that moment; a dash of what Lance hoped was going to be their new normal.

But now he didn't have that. All he had was touch and it wasn't enough.

A hand brushed through his bangs and he wasn't sure if he leaned into the contact or not, but he wanted to. Something pressed against his lips then and he kept them sealed in a thin line, knowing that with drinking came pain and he couldn't right now.

He gave another silent sigh as the hand returned to his bangs, palm brushing against his frozen nose and he did for certain lean into that. Or tipped, maybe.

It was like playing on the swingset with his eyes closed, the wind rushing through his hair and the ground an unknown distance away as he soared. But it was too much. Too fast. He reached out weakly and his hand bumped against some part of Keith. He held it there, chest heaving as he tried to will the swing to a stop.

He felt his stomach heave again as the momentum slowed and he swallowed thickly. Agony erupted at the action and he gasped, which only made the pain flare more.

Hands were there then, on his shoulders, on his back, pressing into his hair. They made it worse. Better. He couldn't quite decide. Dios, if everything would just stop moving. He whimpered as he felt his head change direction again, biting his lip to try and keep the cry inside.

Everything finally stilled then, save for a thump thump thump that was beating almost erratically under his head. Keith's heart, he realized. He'd been shifted down so his head was lower on Keith's chest; crown pressing against Keith's upper shoulder to steady it.

Arms were wrapped about his waist, pressing just above the line of pain that Lance still hadn't yet entirely figured out. He closed his eyes and felt out that beating heart. It was much too fast, making him feel dizzy again, but he pushed past that, getting to the heart – haha, and wow, he was laughing at his own puns now – of the matter.

And that was that Keith was scared. And Lance was the one scaring him.

He hadn't gotten the signal yet that Mackans had been spotted for him to even worry about the second tap and then the fear of the unknown while Keith engaged. So if there were no Mackans yet then it was only logical that something else was making Keith's heart beat so rapidly.

And that was because Lance couldn't keep it together. The guilt overtook the nausea and Lance welcomed it as his head cleared ever so slightly.

He couldn't control the fact he was bleeding. A lot. But he could get control of himself and calm down and try not to show the pain he was feeling as he'd been trying to do over the course of this entire nightmare. Keith didn't need that burden on top of everything else when there was nothing either of them could do about it.

He let out a small, shaky breath, throat spasming at the action but the exhale cleared his mind just a bit more. It still felt heavy and foggy, but it was better. He repeated it, trying to match the pounding of his own heart to Keith's.

Keith could hear Lance's heartbeat steadily slow and felt the soft exhale leave the body. Good. He languidly ran one of his hands over Lance's arms, no longer trying to generate friction as one, it wasn't helping really working on Lance's decidedly frigid skin and two, right now slowing Lance's pulse was the best bet over warming him up because the faster it beat the quicker blood pumped and the more Lance lost. No, he needed to calm Lance down and the rapid movements were not helping.

And it seemed to be working. Keith felt himself relaxing too, although he didn't allow himself to fully slouch as he really wanted to. He had to remain vigilant. Just because nothing had happened in four hours – and he felt the stirring of hope grow stronger that they were halfway there – didn't mean it wouldn't.

Not even five minutes later Keith cursed himself for even thinking such thoughts as a muffled sound reached his ears, so loud though in the quiet that it may as well have been a gunshot.

He straightened up, tilting his head as though it could help him hear better, all the while praying it was just a loose piece of rock freeing itself from the cliff.

It sounded again. And again. His stomach sank.

Claws on stone. Even muffled and distorted due to the sheer height difference it was unmistakable.

But… all of the sound was coming from down below. There wasn't a hint of movement on top the cliffs with them and that alone forced Keith back down from the rising panic. He clutched Lance a little tighter and continued to listen.

They were trying to be quiet, he could tell. No other sound was audible save for the slight scratching noises, magnified by sheer numbers and the way they echoed up and over the cliff walls.

Please just let them stay away, he prayed. They'd clearly already passed the blood Lance had decorated the cliffside with about a mile down and if that hadn't made them scale up nothing hopefully would.

He warred with what to do. Half of him wanted to stay just where he was, sitting in the middle of the platform holding Lance, who was still shivering as leaving him even for just a few minutes was a few minutes too long. The other part, the one he would have gone with without hesitation had it not been for Lance, was telling him to get up and scout, observe. He couldn't protect them without knowing what he was up against.

That part won out. Remaining ignorant was not how one survived.

He hesitated to tell Lance though. Technically he hadn't actually seen the Mackans and there was no need to alarm him. But if he just up and left without any sort of explanation that would be just as bad, right? Besides, Lance deserved to know, even if there was nothing he could actually do about it. That's what they'd decided, back when Lance was still able to communicate on some level.

So Keith took a deep breath and deliberately tapped two fingers firmly on Lance's forearm. The result was immediate; Lance whipped his head up so fast that Keith felt a breeze.

"It's okay," he murmured, voice hardly audible even to him. "It's going to be all right."

He placed one hand on the back of Lance's head and moved to shift him sideways, to lie down so Keith could get up. But Lance's hands somehow managed to curl into his shirt, sticking like little barnacles.

The shivering had increased and ocean eyes were blown wide, sightless but still full of fear. Keith hated pulling those clinging hands free, but he had no choice. And Lance realized it too, expression closing in on itself and he offered no further resistance.

He managed to get Lance to lie down on his back, propping his head up with the pack that contained just a few strips of bandages, and maneuvering Lance's arms to cover his stomach. It was just like the last time when he'd been gathering rocks, but this time there was no tilt to Lance's head or smile gracing his lips. He only looked frightened.

"I'll be right back," he promised, more as a warning to himself than a reassurance for Lance.

And before he could stall any longer, Keith dropped to an army crawl and pulled himself the few feet over towards the inner edge and cautiously peered down.

He choked on his next breath as his weaker eyes tried to account for what he was seeing down in the more shadowed ravine. Mackans. Hundreds of them were milling around down below. Several had the glowing seaweed plant reeds and were holding them aloft, illuminating more of the area, while others had their heads back, sniffing the air.

They were all coming from the west, but as Keith continued to watch he noticed that there was a shifting in the opposite direction and several minutes later another contingent of Mackans came from the east. They'd gone in both sides of the trail, Keith realized. They'd likely staked out the ends so that he and Lance couldn't get out without encountering some resistance and that made traveling further east now even more dangerous.

Amidst all of the dark robes Keith spotted two lighter ones; not white but perhaps a light gray, and they were moving from each side to conjoin in the middle.

He shifted about thirty yards down, following the one from the west, until they met. He had no idea who they were, but based on the different colors and the reverence the other Mackans gave them, bowing their heads and shifting to the side, he knew they were important.

"Elder Simone," greeted the Mackan Keith had followed.

"Elder Loni," came the response, and both bowed to one another. Their voices were soft, but they echoed in the otherwise near quiet night.

"We did pick up a scent," Loni stated, voice deep. "And located several used bandages that contained the sacrifice's blood."

"So they were here," Simone replied. "My team did not locate any such signs, which means they did not make it through the pass."

"Then where are they?" Loni asked. "We have searched, fellow Elder. There are no hidden caves or crevices to hide and the water pool feed is much too narrow for them to have traversed."

"They cannot have vanished into thin air," and there was definite irritation now to the cream-colored Mackan's voice. "We are running out of time, fellow Elder. The sacrifice cannot continue to lose blood or he will not survive to make it to the stone table for the conclusion of the Purity of Sin. We must find them."

"We will find him," Loni said, and Keith watched as a paw lightly touched on the other Mackan's shoulder. "We will not lose Lady Leora's protection and condemn our kin."

"But where do we look? You have said it yourself; there is nowhere for them to hide here and it is impossible for them to have slipped past."

Keith allowed himself a small smile. His plan to go up had worked better than he'd thought.

"Elder Loni! Elder Loni!" the voice was high and loud and Keith winced at the cutting volume even as his stomach dropped. He recognized that voice. It was the young Mackan from earlier that had originally sniffed them out.

Quiznak.

"Initiate Celia," came a growl. "You were told to remain in Brother Malcom's care if you insisted on accompanying us."

"But Elder Loni!"

"No, buts. This is dangerous, Initiate, and—"

"I know where they are!"

Silence reigned for a few seconds and Keith found himself holding his breath as he waited for the axe to fall.

And it fell with stunning accuracy.

"They climbed the cliffs," the young Mackan blurted out. "There's blood on the rock face a pylan back."

"Is this true, Elder Loni?" Simone asked.

"Several of our kin did smell the sacrifice's blood, but it was incredibly faint, fellow Elder. Besides, their species does not look capable of attaining such a feat, especially with the sacrifice's condition. I thought nothing of it."

Keith's pulse was being so fast he almost couldn't hear what the female Mackan said to the younger girl, her voice pitched low. "Initiate Celia, you are certain?"

"Y-yes, Elder. The scent goes a long way up. I… I don't know if it's at the top, but…"

"You would be wise to listen to our young, Elder Loni," came the rebuke. "They see things that we of the older generation cannot. These Paladins of Voltron are desperate and desperation can lend immeasurable strength. If Initiate Celia's nose detects the sacrifice's scent then we shall go where she follows. Lead on please, Initiate."

Keith backed away from the edge, heart doing double time.

They knew. They knew they'd gone up. The only positive he could think of was they were going to backtrack about a mile to go where the scene was strongest, presuming that was where he and Lance were still located.

They'd reach the top and although they wouldn't find them, they would encounter all of the blood from Lance before Keith had been able to apply new bandages. And then, not blocked by the cliff walls and height, they would be able to locate the new scent of blood as they spread out searching, as despite his efforts Lance continued to lose it and the copper scent was notable even to Keith.

Staying where they were would be suicide. Assuming most of the Mackans from below made their way up Keith would have just about fifteen feet to maneuver on before the ground plummeted away, and he had no cover to protect even one side. They were completely exposed.

Their best bet would be to run. Even if Mackans had been left stationed all along the canyon there would be less on the eastern side and they would all be down below. If Keith remained up top he could evade them.

For how long though was the question. They still had around at least four varga till rescue and unless Keith could make it to a close enough distance to the Black and Red Lions they needed to remain atop the cliff so they could be spotted. Besides, he had absolutely no idea how they were supposed to get down. Even if it was only a ten-foot drop and not fifty it would be just as impossible.

They needed to run. His legs ached just thinking of it but he knew his own pain was absolutely nothing compared to the jostling Lance would have. All of the movement too would not be good for the blood loss problem either, but remaining where they were and getting surrounded by Mackans would be certain death.

He got into a low crouch and made his way back over to Lance, who had remained exactly where Keith had arranged him, although his eyes were wide open and roving without luck.

Before alerting Lance, Keith moved on auto pilot to grab the two canteens they had left and the food bag and stuck the one glowing reed back into his belt. Only once everything was secure did he reach out to Lance, placing a hand on his left shoulder. And even though Keith braced for it, he still flinched as Lance started at the touch. Hands coming out of nowhere though would have that effect on anyone, he imagined.

Lance weakly lifted his left hand and Keith took it in his own, giving it the lightest of squeezes. Some of the fear left Lance's face then but not all of it; for as disoriented as he was he knew it wasn't over. Something was happening and he hated not knowing what.

He felt Keith's other hand slide below his lower back and he flinched upwards and away from the limb, but it seemed to be in the right direction because a moment later he found himself sitting and chest newly lit with hurt.

He didn't even have a second to process that though as the hand Keith had been holding was suddenly pulled forward and he felt his elbow come to rest around the familiar spot on Keith's neck. His eyes widened. They couldn't be…

But Keith was grabbing his right arm now and pulling it into the same position and Lance realized the truth even as he felt Keith's back press against his chest and strong fingers dig into the back of his thighs.

They were running. Again.

What had happened? Had the Mackans found them? Had Keith attacked them?

Was Keith hurt?

He tried to ask, but his tongue felt thick and wasn't like Keith could see the question or answer it anyway. His stomach lurched as Keith surged to his feet and Lance buried his face against Keith's hair. The grip changed to wrap around his calves and Lance leaned forward, trying his best to hold on as the world moved and pain exploded in unseeing starbursts.

They were moving quickly, that much he could tell. But nothing else. Not what direction they were going, not if Mackans were chasing them. Nothing.

Nothing except Keith's rapid pulse pounding beneath his hands and the constant jarring pain that echoed through him with each footfall as they ran.

And all Lance could do was hold on and pray that they would both be okay.

xxx

 

Chapter Text

 

Keith wasn't sure how long he ran for.

All he knew was that it was not long enough.

But he couldn't help it. His legs were trembling and refusing to take another step and he felt like his lungs were going to heave out of his chest at any second. Black spots were dancing across his vision and he was afraid that he'd wind up stumbling over the cliff edge if he kept going.

That, and he could feel his back was damp with more than cooling sweat from his jog and Lance's breaths had grown shallow and weak on the back of his neck.

He all but collapsed to his knees, gasping out an apology to Lance at the thud, but there was no further movement indicating Lance was even aware of what had happened.

Keith hurried to disentangle Lance's limp arms from about his neck and then hoist the the other boy so he was leaning up against Keith's chest, offering what body heat he could as he pulled the last few strips of bandages free from the pouch.

There weren't nearly enough to cover all of Lance's wounds, so Keith made the decision to use them on the most fatal injury of them all and pressed a wad to Lance's nearly sliced open neck.

That garnered a reaction as dull eyes flickered open and reflexively pulled away from the newest source of pain.

"Sorry," Keith mumbled, but he did not relent the pressure. Lance was far, far too pale for him to do anything but and the fact that he might watch him just slip away only made him press harder. He wouldn't lose Lance. Not now. Not when they were so close.

Grabbing the rest, Keith secured another compress to the front and tied them on. Tears were glistening in the corners of Lance's eyes and Keith instinctively brought up a thumb to wipe them away. Lance leaned his head into the touch and Keith found himself cradling Lance to him.

It wouldn't be long at all now until the Mackans found them, but until that moment Keith was going to do all he could to provide any comfort he was able to do so to the dying boy in his arms.

The moons had nearly finished their trek across the sky. That meant in about an hour they were supposed rendezvousing with the others, based on his estimates. Keith sent a silent prayer that they would feel something was wrong when the two weren't there on time - because while Lance may have generally no sense of urgency, Keith was stickler for deadlines - and they'd come even sooner than the two hours leeway he had factored in.

Keith glanced about where he'd stopped his exhausted jog, looking for some sort of cover. But the cliff top was flat for as far as his eyes could see. He was going to have to make their final stand out in the open.

And it was almost time. Despite all the distance he'd put between them - at least two miles, he had to say - he could hear the telltale scritch of claw on stone and unlike last time it wasn't muffled down below. It was right here, coming across the cliff.

If he could hear them then Keith knew that there was no doubt the Mackans could likely see them, two protrusions on an otherwise flat landscape. And that meant any second now spells could be flying their way.

He had to get up. He had to fight. But his body didn't want to do that. He found his arms tightening around Lance, shoulders hunching over to more fully cover him.

"I'm so sorry, Lance," he whispered, words muffled against Lance's hair. He had to move though. He had to or they were going to die right where they sat.

He shifted so his hand was free and heart clenching he gave two distinctive taps to Lance's forearm. Part of him hoped Lance was too exhausted and in too much pain to remember what that meant. That he could rest peacefully there while Keith… while Keith did what he could to prolong their lives.

But it was not to be. Lance's eyes fluttered open again, exhaustion and pain being overtaken by fear. Terror. 'No,' mouthed near bloodless lips. 'Keith…'

Keith hated the sting of tears that warmed his eyes. He turned his head down, burying it back into the dark locks and giving Lance one last tight embrace.

"I'm so sorry," he near whimpered as he pulled away, ghosting his hand through Lance's hair, pressing down as if to say 'stay.' He withdrew his knife then, channeling it into a sword. The extra weight had him near dropping it as his weakened and exhausted arm shook.

His heart broke as behind him Lance raised a trembling hand in his direction, seeking contact. Keith stayed out of range, widening it instead, as he prepared to face the rushing army.

After a few seconds Lance lowered his hand and Keith saw his name on Lance's lips again and more tears trickle down mocha cheeks. He resolutely turned away, swallowing down the lump in his throat. "I'm so sorry," he whispered again.

He couldn't afford any distractions. He had to fight, had to protect Lance until help arrived.

If it arrived in time. He shook that out of his head, eyes making out robed forms now. This was it. One way or the other it was going to end and Keith had promised Lance that they were going to go home.

He would do all he could not to break that promise.

To his surprise, despite the fact the Mackans clearly saw him by now, not one spell was fired his way. Instead, they were lining up nearly ten abreast about twenty yards away. He supposed as alone and exhausted as he was, they remembered that he had killed a number of them now. They were wise to be cautious and Keith was grateful for it, for the few extra minutes.

Two silver-robed figures, the Elder Mackans he'd observed before, came to the the front, and the female spread her paws placatingly in front of her. Keith didn't lower his sword, recalling all too clearly how Lance had done the same and then they'd fired upon them without warning.

"Red and Black–"

"You can't have him," Keith interrupted her address, wincing at the rough sound that came out of his throat. "You can't have him," he repeated, clearer, and planted his feet firmly.

"Red and Black Paladin," she tried again. "I come to you as an Elder of the High Council. There has been enough blood shed here and I do not wish to see any more." There were some murmurs behind her of discontent, but none interrupted. "Please, turn over the sacrifice and–"

"His name is Lance," Keith growled. "And you can't have him."

"You may leave freely," she appealed. "We promise to let you go peacefully. We will not seek revenge for our fallen kin. Please. Just-"

"I said no," Keith snarled, taking a protective step back in case any of them dared tried to sneak around.

"We need him. Without his sacrifice we cannot—"

"You should have thought about that earlier," Keith snapped. "Before you tried to kill us. Before you tried to sacrifice him."

"Please," she pleaded. "Please, I beg of you. We will all die if he is not sacrificed." She gestured widely at the assembled Mackans alongside her. "The Purity of Sin must be completed."

Keith followed her paws, seeing amongst the robes of green a few speckles of brown. Initiates. Children. He'd be condemning them to death, if the Mackan's words were to be believed.

But he pressed his lips into a firm line and shook his head. Lance was far, far more important to him than any of these aliens, especially ones who had gotten themselves into this mess. And he would always put the life of his own family first, no matter the consequences.

"So you refuse to take Elder Simone's generous offer," the other Elder said, voice hard and Keith's eyes narrowed in response. "This is your last chance, Red and Black Paladin. Surrender the sacrifice and we will let you go," he scowled at the words as though it pained him to say. "If you do not, we will engage."

"I think I already made myself clear," Keith said more calmly than he felt, adjusting the luxite blade in front of him. "You're not getting my brother."

His word had the intended effect as a ripple of surprise seemed to make its way through the crowd and looks of unease were exchanged. He'd seen how they addressed one another and how much kin meant to them. If there was any chance at appealing to them this would be it.

The female elder sighed then, and Keith was surprised to see sadness flicker across her features. "I am sorry it must come to this, Red and Black Paladin. But I must protect my kin."

"And I have to protect mine."

"So be it." Her paws were suddenly bathed in a soft purple light and all around her the other Mackans' paws lit up with their own magic.

Keith shifted his weight, waiting to see which Mackan would make the first move.

He knew his best bet would be to go up close and personal as right now they had the easy advantage of lobbing spells at him and he would be hard pressed to defend. Attacking outright was in his nature and he knew instinct would take hold even above the exhaustion.

But he didn't dare leave Lance. The Mackans would no doubt surely use his distraction and spirit Lance away and down the cliffs. It was not honorable, but neither too had been his own fights against them.

Such was the game of war. There was no honor here. Only life or death.

And Keith was not going to hand over Lance's so easily.

He would wait for them to attack first, he decided. Deflect the spells until then and once they got closer he could rush them and start taking them out, one by one. He'd do it all night if he had to.

The Elder was the first one to launch a spell, a glimmering purple light that soared like an arrow. That seemed to be the cue as all across the way spells started to come his way, accompanied by growls and shouts that lit up the night sky in a deadly display.

Keith gritted his teeth. Just like training with the gladiator. Only with more deadly consequences.

Luxite fortunately was able to reflect the spells, although he wished he could redirect them more accurately then letting them ping off to the side. Let the Mackans have a taste of their own medicine.

Within the minute though he realized this strategy of dodging and blocking was not going to work. While he did have the advantage in that the Mackans were aiming higher on him so they did not strike Lance – they too seemed to realize that Lance was not doing well and a hit could very well take him out – he could not keep defending like this. His arms were aching from the force of the strikes and he could feel what little energy he had left draining.

He needed to attack, not defend. It was the only way.

He risked a quick glance over his shoulder. Lance had tipped over and was lying down, facing Keith's direction, blue eyes highlighted by the spells sizzling overhead. His right arm was trapped beneath his body and he was likely too tired and in too much pain to free it, while his left was extended out, as though still trying to reach for Keith.

But there were no Mackans behind him, using the flurry of attacks to sneak up the cliffs. Keith didn't know if that would hold. But if he didn't go on the offensive then it wouldn't matter because he was going to be overrun.

Decision made, Keith rolled under one spell and jumped gracefully back to his feet, adrenaline making up for the exhaustion. He ducked another, reflected an orange beam back, and then he was running forward.

The Mackans in the front row let out cries of alarm and Keith felt a surge of guilt mixed with dark pride that he'd put so much fear into them. He felt one spell collided with his shoulder – a cold freeze that had taken both him and Lance out for the count previously.

He shifted his blade into his opposite hand and struck in the direction of the Mackan who had cast it. A scream of agony echoed into the night, but Keith was already spinning his blade into another, arm still numb. Wrong Mackan.

"Do not falter!" he heard the male Elder shout over the din of cries and howls as he tore through their ranks, black blade flashing under the moon. It was a dance. A dark, bloody dance as ichor sprayed and screams turned into music.

He lost himself in it, even as claws raked against his arm and another spell made lightning strike in his veins. He struggled through it, the pain just a backdrop. He had to stop them. He had to stop them all or they were going to kill Lance.

Blood painted his cheeks like a grotesque blush, more still was splattered across his chest. He kept going. He kept going until the sharp clang of metal reverberated up his arm and he was jolted out of rhythm.

A sword. And it was pinning his own down. Keith grunted, throwing his weight sideways to disengage, but the moment of stillness had cost him.

Fire exploded on his back and he screamed, stumbling forward. Another spell struck, but this time he only wheezed as he had no air left to express his pain.

He parried blindly, a startled shriek sounding, before another spell knocked him backwards and he hit the ground with a jarring thump, only barely managing to hold onto his blade.

"Take him down!" he heard over the ringing in his ears.

Bodies pressed in on him from all sides, but through the folds of robes he could see several Mackans breaking away, heading towards Lance.

"No," he gasped, struggling to lift his sword. "No. L-Lance…"

He headbutted one Mackan, struggling to get his feet under him even as more bursts of fire alighted inside his body. He ignored it, fighting to stand. He had to get to Lance. He had to.

But just as he thought he might manage to stand against all the odds, something else pierced through the fog of pain. He choked on the scream that welled up and crashed back to his knees.

Glazed purple eyes looked down, staring uncomprehendingly at the hilt of a sword pressed just above his navel and the furry paw holding it there.

He blinked at it again, trying to understand. Blood was darkening all around the hilt, weeping through his torn under armor and trickling along the silver blade.

Ah. The thought came with a sudden clarity as fire and ice warred inside him and he felt his muscles spasm.

He'd been run through.

He looked up, meeting the amber eyes of the Mackan holding the blade. There was no anger there, no scorn or pride. Just sadness.

"I am sorry," the Mackan rumbled, words sounding like they were coming from far away. "But you should have taken the Elder's mercy when you had the chance."

Keith felt his vision tunnel in past the Mackans then, on Lance just twenty yards away. On Lance, who was lying there, not knowing anything. Not knowing that Keith had failed him.

And he could do nothing but watch as the Mackans descended.

xxx

The silence was too loud. Lance could feel his heart racing and the blood pounding but he couldn't actually hear it.

He groped blindly forward again, hoping upon hope Keith would grab hold of his hand. But all he got for his efforts were cold rock and a new stabbing ache in his chest as the action pulled at the wound.

Lance whimpered silently, resting his cheek on the ground. He felt so dizzy. He was freezing but parts felt too warm, too hot. No matter how much Keith had bandaged him up he could still sense the trickle of blood escaping.

He wondered how much more he could afford to lose. Not much, probably.

Was this how it was going to end then? He gave a mental shake of his head. No. He wouldn't do that to Keith.

If Keith was still there. He whimpered again, pressing his cheek further against the ground. The Mackans were here. And Keith was fighting them. Alone. Alone against probably hundreds and armed with only a sword.

Keith was going to die.

That thought spurred him to try and move, although where he was moving to was beyond him. He could barely move, let alone stand. And what did he think that would accomplish? He'd just as likely crawl off the cliff edge than be of any actual help.

He had to trust Keith. And he did. He trusted Keith with his life.

But that still didn't make this any better. No matter how determined Keith was he couldn't face down an entire army. Not even if he'd been well-rested and equipped with his bayard and armor could he hope to emerge victorious. That was why Voltron was a team. They fought together and had each other's backs.

But not today. Lance tried to blink back tears. He was lying here, useless, while Keith was fighting for their lives. And he couldn't do anything except wait and pray.

He twitched his hand again, desperate to feel Keith's own wrap around it.

And to his surprise something did touch it.

But it was not human flesh.

He jerked his hand back as soft fur brushed against his arm, eyes widening and chest heaving. Another fur covered limb landed on his shoulder and he gave a silent yelp as he felt claws dig in.

No! No no no no! Where was Keith? What happened to Keith?

He felt sick as another paw joined the one on his shoulder and then he was being lifted from the ground, tipped back to sitting.

He flailed out his left arm, connecting with rough cloth, but more claws wrapped about his wrist then, holding the limb immobile. A silent scream was torn from him, pain and fear and horror all rolled into one, and he kicked out weakly with his legs, encountering only air.

Where was Keith? A sob ripped up his throat and the tears came unbidden. Because if the Mackans were here then that meant… that meant…

'Keith!' he wailed out, not even noticing the agony as the scream tore at his ravaged throat. 'Keith!'

Keith couldn't be dead. He couldn't. Another sob sent his chest aching and more furred paws were there, grabbing at his arms and lifting him further still.

Lance felt numbness start to settle in as his arms were bound behind his back, for all the actual resistance he was putting up.

Keith was dead. His breath hitched. Keith was dead.

Lance had all but killed him himself.

His head drooped, the adrenaline driven by fear fading and leaving him trembling and dizzy and more exhausted than before.

It was over.

All of the struggling, the fighting, the tears… None of it had mattered. In the end they'd lost. Keith was dead. Lance was about to be. And when their team arrived… all they would find would be corpses.

His heart broke, picturing Hunk's grief as he cradled bodies to him. Of Pidge, losing even more brothers. Of Allura, blaming herself and wearing that guilt for the rest of her life. Of Coran, who had lost so much already.

And yet he could do nothing to stop it. He couldn't do anything at all.

Lance took a trembling breath as he felt himself being fully lifted into the air now, paws digging into his shoulders and his legs and waking sleeping wounds. But the pain was nothing compared to the shattering inside his chest.

'I'm sorry,' he whispered into the silent night, feeling the last of his tears make their way down his face. 'I'm so sorry.'

xxx

Keith saw the moment Lance gave up, the same moment the first suns rays pierced against the sky. He went limp as the Mackans lifted him into the air, holding him by his legs and his shoulders. Grief was etched into his face as surely as scratch marks. Crystal tracks streaked down his face and those ocean eyes closed tightly.

He saw all of this as he knelt on the ground, sword still inside him and blood bubbling up around the wound. Sound and pain vanished as his vision narrowed to only see Lance and nothing else.

He didn't know what he could do. He was pretty sure he was dying himself.

But he wasn't going to let it end like this. He said they'd end it together. Not this. Not separated and scared and alone.

If… if they were both going to die here then… then they were going to die together.

Like true brothers-in-arms.

Keith shifted his right hand, fingers still death-locked around the luxite blade. He let out one last breath, focusing.

And then he moved.

He surged to his feet, dragging his sword in a sweeping arc that cut without mercy through the Mackan holding tight to the embedded sword.

His left hand closed about the now freed hilt and he pulled. Pain unlike anything he'd ever experienced choked him and he wavered for the briefest of moments, vision darkening.

No he hissed at himself. No time for weakness or pain. He had to get to Lance. Before… before it was too late for either of them.

He pulled the second sword free with a squelch and wielded both blades in a flurry, clearing out the immediate ground around him as Mackans fell to his swords or scattered in panic and fear. He wasted no time.

He didn't care about taking them out. He didn't care about the pain as spells collided into his back as he freed himself from the horde and stumbled into clear space.

He just had to get to Lance.

The Mackans holding Lance saw him coming, but their hands were full. Keith sliced his commandeered sword into one's leg while the luxite blade took off the head of the other.

Lance fell, hitting the ground with a bone-jarring thump and Keith saw the wail of agony erupt from him.

Keith dropped his swords and flung himself across Lance, covering the other boy's body with his own. He could feel the trembling and shaking and Lance's eyes were open again in disbelief and he mouthed 'Keith?' as tears spilled from dull eyes.

Keith could feel himself fading now, copper clawing up his throat. All he could do was wrap his arms tightly about the thin shoulders and bury his head in the crook of Lance's neck, bloodied bandages pressed against his lips.

"I'm here," he whispered, feeling his own tears hot against his cheeks.

There was yelling going on behind him and Keith felt claws dig into his sides, trying to pry him off. He clung tighter. Lance's heart was racing under him and Keith knew his was too, even as he could feel it struggling.

"I'm here," he repeated, voice breaking. "L-Lance…"

The Mackans were becoming more insistent now and Keith could feel his strength vanishing. Still, he held on. He wasn't leaving Lance's side. Not until they'd both breathed their last.

Neither one of them was going to face death alone.

The ground rumbled and jerked and Keith wondered what kind of attack they were trying now.

But the angry shouts behind him turned to screams of fear and pain and the claws grabbing at him suddenly vanished.

And then there was a roar.

Keith pulled his face free of Lance's neck, almost not believing what he was seeing as more Mackans screeched in alarm. Because planted above him, massive metal paws on either side, was the underbelly of the Green Lion.

The Lion roared out again, a bright blast of light streaking just above the heads of the Mackans and sending them to the ground. Keith watched, feeling like he was dreaming, his hands not releasing their embrace around Lance.

He saw Hunk descend out of the belly of the Lion, but he was having difficulty with distance as one second Hunk was yards away and the next he was crouching next to them, concern and fear practically radiating from him. All Keith could do was blink. He had the fleeting thought that he hoped the larger Paladin didn't pass out at all of the blood.

"Oh God man, oh God. What the…" Hunk was mumbling, even as his hands were gently pulling at Keith and the swordsman allowed himself to be manhandled away from Lance. "Keith…Holy cheeseballs. L-Lance… oh my God."

Hunk's mumble turned more urgent. "Pidge! Pidge get down here!"

A few ticks later the girl dropped out of Green's underbelly, the Lion still shooting blasts at the cowering Mackans and her size was keeping any retaliatory shots at bay. The sound was dizzying and Keith's vision spun.

Keith stared in her direction, unblinkingly. Shock, he realized after a few ticks as Pidge was suddenly next to him and hauling one of his arms about her small shoulders and swearing up a small storm. He was going into shock. Or dying. Or both.

"Get up," she snarled, although there was no bite to it. "Come on Keith. I can't carry you!"

That got him moving. Sort of. He managed to plant a shaky leg and Pidge heaved him to standing.

"L-Lance," he stuttered. He couldn't leave without Lance.

"Hunk's got him." And true to her word, the Yellow Paladin was scooping Lance into his arms, although the other boy was fighting back as much as he could with his arms bound behind him.

"Lance," Keith repeated. He needed to go to him. He needed to let him know this was safe. He was safe. They were being rescued.

"Keith!" and Pidge's voice was sharp with fear. "We need to go now."

But Keith planted his shaking feet. He wasn't taking another step until Lance was reassured that Keith hadn't just been picked off again by Mackans.

"Hunk!" she snapped, "Get over here!"

The Yellow Paladin did so, holding the squirming Lance to his chest. "He won't stop fighting," Hunk cried. "He's hurting himself!" As he spoke rivulets of blood could be seen running down Lance's neck and chest.

Keith took a stumbling step towards the two and Pidge moved with him, the only thing keeping him upright. He reached out his free left hand and wrapped it around Lance's bicep and squeezed.

Lance's eyes widened and his mouth formed a tiny 'o' of surprise. And then without warning his eyes rolled back in his head and he went completely limp in Hunk's arms.

"Okay, move, move, move," Pidge ordered, nearly dragging Keith now. He dazedly wondered how they were going to get into the Lion, whose opening was nearly twenty feet above their heads, when Pidge activated the boosters on her jetpack.

Keith groaned as they were suddenly airborne and all of his weight was dragging on the arm Pidge had secured about her neck. But it was only for a few ticks and then they were landing on the cold metal of Green's loading bay, Keith's heart in his throat, and Hunk was up a second later with Lance cradled in his arms.

"Go, girl!" Pidge yelled. "Go!"

And with a roar and a jolt the Green Lion took off into the sky.

xxx

 

Chapter Text

 

They'd been rescued. They'd been rescued. The thought was stuck in a loop in Keith's head, making him dizzy, but he couldn't seem to stop it. They'd actually been rescued.

They were both alive.

Well… for now.

He gasped as Pidge grabbed his shoulder, jolting him forward and sending a wave of pulsing agony through his stomach. Blood gushed, spilling down his navel and he blinked at it. That's right. He'd been stabbed.

How had he forgotten that part again?

Pidge and Hunk's voice were echoing dimly now over the thudding of his heartbeat and he swore he heard Allura and Coran shouting too.

Large arms were suddenly wrapping about his shoulders and Keith found himself being scooped against Hunk's chest. The numbness that had started to settle in disappeared as the wound flared again and he hated the weak keen he felt being pulled from his throat.

"I've got you, easy man," Hunk murmured as he carried Keith into the cockpit and towards the large pull-out wall bed. Lance was already lying on it and Keith blinked again, wondering when Hunk had left to put Lance there.

He found himself settled down opposite Lance, feet brushing Lance's shoulder, and Hunk's worried face peering over him. The Yellow Paladin shouted over his shoulder and a second later Pidge was there, something in her hands.

And then pain.

Keith thought he might have screamed, but he wasn't sure as everything was ringing and his stomach was on fire. A large hand pressed against his chest, holding him down while the other held something to the gaping wound.

"I'm okay," he tried to say, anything to get the fire to subside, but all that came out was an unintelligible grunt. Somehow Hunk translated it.

"You are not okay," he replied, voice shaking. "Keith...there's a hole in you!"

"L-Lance—"

"We've got him," Hunk assured. Keith saw Pidge in his peripheral, another towel in hand as she headed towards Lance.

But Keith weakly shook his head. "His n-neck…" he trailed, off coughing and tasting blood on his teeth. That probably wasn't good.

"I'm staunching it now," Pidge said, her voice steady. "We'll be at the castle in three dobashes. We'll get you both in pods and—"

"No pods," Keith choked out, and he definitely felt something dribble down his chin. Hunk gasped in alarm above him.

"Keith—"

"No pods," he repeated. "C-can't."

"You're dying," Pidge said bluntly, and there was a shaky quality to her voice now. "Damn it Keith, you… you…" He heard her swallow back a sob. "You're going into shock," she said, calmer. "It's okay. The pods will—"

"No," he all but snarled. "N-no."

"Leave it," Hunk said to Pidge, pressing back down on Keith's wound and making the smaller boy groan. "Coran will handle it when we land."

"Hunk—"

"Just… just keep putting pressure on his neck, okay?"

It was silent for a few moments and then Pidge spoke, her voice but a whisper. "It won't stop. Hunk, it won't stop."

She entered Keith's view again and he felt his own eyes widen as he saw her hands, gloves coated in blood. Lance's blood.

Keith struggled to sit, to get to Lance. He had to do something. He had to—

"Whoa, easy there," Hunk murmured, pushing Keith back down without any trouble. "No moving, okay? It's going to be fine. We're almost to the castle."

"Number Five," Coran's voice crackled over the comms. "Direct the Green Lion to the main hall, please. The Princess and I are waiting there."

"On it," Pidge responded and Keith saw her leave Lance and head for the cockpit.

"If I let you go will you stay?" Hunk asked and it took Keith a few seconds to realize the question was directed at him. He managed a nod, relieved when all Hunk really did was shift to the other side of the bed and took over Pidge's role of holding a towel to Lance's neck.

The last few minutes of their journey passed in silence, the only noise the harsh, wheezing breaths that Keith belatedly realized were coming from him. When he tried to stop them though he only choked and Pidge ended up rushing over, pulling him to sitting as he coughed up blood.

He was still hacking and coughing when they landed, unable to draw a full breath to get it to stop. He wished he could. Every gasp was sending ribbons of agony through him.

But more important than that, he needed to talk to Coran. Before… before…

And as if summoned the advisor was hurrying up the ramp that Keith hadn't even heard come down with Allura right behind.

"Oh Alaaran," Coran breathed. He stood in shock for a moment before he strode forward, voice controlled. "Number Two, if you could please assist Number Four. The pods are prepped and—"

"No," Keith coughed, spraying spittle and blood and Hunk's hands descended on his back.

"He keeps saying no to the pods," Pidge explained, trembling off to the side as Coran strode over to Lance.

Coran's sharp gaze landed on Keith. But rather than dismissing the words as delirium he asked with all seriousness, "Why can you and Number Three not go into the pods?"

Keith struggled to speak, tongue heavy. "M-magic," he finally managed, slumping and only Hunk's hands on his shoulders keeping him upright.

"Magic," Coran repeated and Keith saw him exchange a glance over his head, likely to Allura.

He weakly nodded. "L-Lance they… they did…s-someth—" he broke off as more blood crawled up his throat.

"Magic was used to wound Lance," Coran said. "And you feel that the pod will not be able to heal it?"

"C-can't," Keith gasped, dark speckles starting to creep across his vision. "They t-took…"

And why were words suddenly so hard to come by? He couldn't seem to find the right ones and time was running out.

"Can't," he said again, desperately.

And Coran nodded. "All right. And you, Number Four? Can you go into a pod?"

Keith's head tipped down even as he managed, "Shouldn't." He did not deserve to be healed, not while Lance continued to suffer.

"Shouldn't is not a cannot," Coran said. He looked serious, more so than Keith had ever seen before. "Very well. Number Two, escort Number Four to the infirmary and into a pod. Princess, could you please take Number Three and bring him to the infirmary? I'll do what I can to stabilize him until he or Number Four can provide more answers."

"Coran," Hunk pleaded, hands tightening uncomfortably on Keith's shoulders. "Lance needs a pod! He's dying!"

"He does, lad, but right now we shall heed Number Four's warning." Coran looked pained at the declaration but firm. "He would not give it if such a course of action would do more harm than good."

Keith wilted in relief, even as new guilt flared. He was subjecting Lance to more pain and fear this way, but he couldn't ever live with himself if the pod made Lance's handicaps permanent.

He needed to tell them about those, he realized. If he was still in cryo when Lance woke up… His heart seized with fear. Lance wouldn't be able to tell them what happened. He didn't know if Lance would even remember he was safe now.

But the blackness was stealing up more of his vision, creeping in on all sides and the voices around him were growing fainter.

"L-Lance," he tried, the name nearly a gurgle. He felt the odd sensation of falling while sitting then as the world tipped over. There were muted cries of alarm and he caught Allura's jewel-bright eyes widening as she reached for him before he knew nothing more.

xxx

Lance came to slowly.

He noticed the pain first. It wasn't the white-hot piercing spasms of before. It was still there, but it was dulled.

Bearable.

He followed it along his body, feeling the spikes in his hands and his neck with every rapid breath he took. His chest hurt, little pricks of needle-like agony that seemed to only worsen as he became more aware and he desperately tried to steady his breathing, feeling his heartbeat race and worsening it.

He shuddered out an exhale, throat aching and the faint taste of copper tickling his tongue. He swallowed it down, sending a new pulse through his abused neck.

A frown pulled at his lips in confusion as he came to the realization that he was not lying on rock. He pressed his left hand down, feeling what could only be described as soft and some sort of material.

He blinked open his eyes, forgetting somehow that he could not see but that little detail coming back as he stared into unending blackness. Against his will he felt his heart pick up tempo again as he turned his head to the side, straining to hear something and only silence sounding.

Where was he? What had happened?

Where was Keith?

Just thinking the name brought back the flood of sensations; a body thrown across him, painful but comforting all the same. Hot tears stinging against his neck. Hands clenched tightly around his shoulders. The rapid pulse of Keith's heart beating with his own.

He struggled to sit up, hands groping blindly at the soft surface for leverage. His mind was firing off sensations mixed with memory and he flailed harder, trying to find purchase.

There had been paws. Fur. Claws. He struggled harder. Then there were… hands? Was that right? He recalled a hand wrapping about his arm and squeezing. Hadn't that been the signal for the rescue? Or had that been something to do with the Mackans?

He couldn't remember, he couldn't' remember, he couldn't—

The thought came to a screeching halt as something touched his arm.

He recoiled from it, sightless eyes widening with fear.

It touched him again and this time he let out a wordless shriek that tore at his throat.

And then there were more. There was something pressing on his shoulder and another on his head and yet a third holding down his upper right arm. Something else crossed over his legs and he screamed again.

He thrashed against them, but he had no strength. All he managed was a pitiful little roll of his hips that didn't dislodge any of it and tears burned his eyes.

What was happening? Was it the Mackans? Where was Keith? What had happened to Keith?

He cried out Keith's name, throwing his head back against the soft surface. 'Keith!' he screamed silently again, desperately trying to free himself. 'Keith!'

But despite his attempts he could not free himself from whatever was holding him down. More tears rolled down his cheeks as he realized he was not getting out of whatever this was. 'Keith,' he whispered again, tasting salt now.

The thing pressing his head back lifted up but Lance did not try to move again. It was useless.

He was useless.

It came back, but without the harsh pressure. It glided against his face and cupped his cheek before tenderly brushing his bangs back.

Lance's breath hitched in his throat.

He knew this… this hand. This human hand.

The gesture repeated itself, caressing his face and then carding through his hair. He turned into it, inhaling. It was faint, but somehow there was still the scent of grease and honeysuckle.

Hunk.

This was Hunk's hand.

'Hunk,' he breathed out, feeling the large digits brush his cheek again. 'Hunk.'

A gentle squeeze was applied to his shoulder. Hunk's other hand. All about him the pressure started to retreat as what he was able to identify now as other limbs – humanoid limbs – released him.

That meant… that meant they had been rescued. Tears formed again, but this time of sheer relief. They were okay. Keith was okay.

At least… at least he hoped he was. What if… what if…?

He repeated Keith's name soundlessly, hoping somehow that his best friend would understand.

Hunk's hand shifted on his head and a second later there was the sensation of something being drawn on his forehead. A… circle?

The finger shifted and it was drawing lines now; one straight and then two more also straight but angled sideways. Lance furrowed his brow, trying to piece it together. Hunk repeated it.

Okay. Hunk was tracing the letters 'O' and 'K' on his head.

'Okay,' Lance murmured, lips tugging up into a smile. 'Okay. Keith is okay.'

Well, he knew okay maybe wasn't the right term. Clearly Keith was not with him right now, but that had to mean he was in a healing pod then. And he was going to be fine.

He let out another breath of relief which morphed into a grimace as previously tight limbs relaxed and reminded him that despite the dullness to it he was still really, really hurt.

A soundless whimper escaped him then as he shifted ever so slightly against what was apparently a bed and it sent new ribbons of fire through him.

Hunk's hand returned to carding through his hair and he closed his eyes, concentrating solely on that.

A tiny prick against his forearm had him wincing, but the rush of numbness that flowed down his hand from it was most welcoming indeed. He vaguely felt someone pat his arm – Coran, maybe, based on the size of the hand – before the same tiny poke was made on his other arm.

The pain was receding completely and leaving him feeling like he was floating. It was a little scary, but Hunk's hand continued the soothing motion and he allowed that to ground him in this otherwise near weightless world.

He felt the bed dip and another set of hands, tiny ones, come to rest on his upper arm. 'Pidge,' he tried to whisper, his tongue heavy, and he got a tiny squeeze in answer.

Whatever Coran had injected him with was making him pleasantly drowsy and pain-free and Hunk's ministrations to his hair were beyond soothing. They were even easing away the lingering fear, the 'what ifs' regarding his senses. He was surrounded by his family now. He was safe. And he knew, beyond a doubt, that they would figure everything out.

Lulled by all of those Lance allowed himself to give into the bone-deep exhaustion and drugs and slept.

xxx

Keith stumbled out of the pod, mind a jumbled mess of thoughts. 'Cold' was at the forefront, followed closely by 'exhausted' and if whoever wasn't holding him up he knew he'd be flat out on the floor. But above all of those was 'Lance.'

His feet moved on autopilot forward although it took him a few seconds to realize he was not actually moving as arms tightened about him and nearly lifted him off the floor.

Hunk, he realized, slumping against his will into the embrace, so tired it was hard to actually keep his head up. But he'd powered through exhaustion once and he would do so again. He couldn't rest until he knew Lance was safe and to do that he needed to alert the others as to what had happened so they could fix it.

He realized a tick later that Hunk was actually speaking to him and he forced himself to pick apart the comforting hum.

"—just warm you up a bit first, okay? Keith? Buddy? Hey, you with me?"

Keith tried to make an affirmative to that, but all that came out was a muffled groan and despite his previous aversion to such touch he found himself pressing further against Hunk's broad chest, trying to soak up the heat as shivers wracked him.

"Yeah, okay, that's not normal at all," Hunk muttered above him and Keith was far too cold and tired to care if he was coming off as abnormally clingy. After all the contact he'd had with Lance in the freezing desert this barely even phased on his radar now.

A silent snort exited from him as he realized what he'd just acknowledged. He, the anti-social, walls up twenty-four-seven loner, no longer had a personal bubble. And he didn't care.

"Is everything all right?" Allura's regal tones were laced with an undercurrent of worry and her footsteps were quick and light.

"He's good," Hunk rumbled above him and Keith found that he liked the vibration the sound made. No wonder Lance loved to use Hunk as a pillow so much. "Just a little… cold."

"Let us get him warmed up then. Come, we have gathered blankets on the other bed."

And that was all the warning Keith got as suddenly those large arms were lifting him up to where his feet cleared the ground and his face was pressed almost uncomfortably into Hunk's neck. Still, it was warm.

The ground moved dizzyingly below and Keith closed his eyes as he waited for it to stop. He felt disoriented, more than normal when he came out of the pods. It was probably the exhaustion. He knew from previous experience the pods couldn't replenish the sleep cycle so he had to be running on his absolute last reserves. But it was almost over.

And all of the exhaustion disappeared the second he laid eyes on Lance as Hunk set him down on a bed next to the other Paladin. Lance appeared asleep, relaxed in a way that Keith hadn't seen since the nightmare began. A blanket covered his lower half, warm and thick by the look of it, while his upper half was exposed save for a large swathe of bandages wrapped all about his chest.

Keith traced over every bandage; one was pressed against Lance's cheek hiding the claw marks, while a few smaller ones peppered his shoulders. Another one was wrapped about his neck, but even now Keith could see that it was lightly stained with blood and his gut clenched with worry.

His hands were lying next to his sides and had also been bandaged although like his throat there were the faintest signs of the weeping injury that would not heal. But a thin tube was inserted into Lance's left forearm and Keith followed it to a bag of blood hanging next to the bed along with what appeared to be another bag full of fluids.

He remembered then that after a particular scare when a lucky piece of shrapnel had lodged in Hunk's thigh and he'd almost bled out before they could get him to a pod, that Coran and Shiro had insisted that all of the Paladins carry onboard their Lions several pints of blood for emergencies.

Keith realized with a jolt that he had never transferred his collection to the Black Lion, which meant that the Blue Lion still had Lance's and she was still aboard the castle. It was a shame Black was down below because she would have had Shiro's blood and he was a universal donor,

Still, the fact they had any at all was good and even under the overbright infirmary lights Lance seemed to have a bit of color back in his cheeks. He was still much, much too pale but he no longer looked like he could fade away at any moment.

Pidge was sitting in a chair next to the wheeled bed, one of her hands moving rhythmically through Lance's hair while the other clenched and unclenched a tightly fisted blanket.

Her honey eyes left Lance's face though to land on him and the smile of sheer relief and whispered 'Keith' would have bowled Keith over if he'd been standing. As it was, all he managed was a slow blink as Hunk draped a blanket about what he realized were his bare shoulders.

Color flooded his cheeks then and he glanced down, revealing very, very frayed but thankfully still intact boxer shorts. He pulled the blanket tighter about him, making a tent, as he heard Hunk let out a low chuckle and offer him another blanket to put across his folded legs.

"We didn't have time to put you in a cryo-suit," the Yellow Paladin explained, mirth fading. Keith had been dying on them after all. Coughing up blood as his already pale skin turned nearly translucent all while his suit continued to grow dark. Hunk had practically thrown him into the pod, so scared that that the smaller boy was going to die in his arms just feet from help.

"'s okay," Keith rasped, coughing at the sound of his voice. He sounded like he'd gargled glass and he tried again. "Is Lance—?"

"Lance is stable for now," came Coran's voice, the mustachioed Altean entering the infirmary from the far door and bearing a tray full of steaming cups. "How are you feeling, Number Four?"

Keith didn't get a chance to respond as a hot mug was shoved into his hands and he barely managed to wrap chilled fingers around it before he dropped it. "Drink," Coran ordered, passing out cups to the others. "You need the fluids."

Giving it a tentative sniff and not sensing anything too out of the ordinary, Keith took a small sip. No onion, he was pleased to note. Almost a strawberry and ginger mixture and he felt it warm him from the inside out and he took another heavier sip.

He drained the cup in a matter of seconds and gratefully accepted a second that Coran offered him, although he held this one mostly in his hands to warm them.

"Lance," he tried again, wanting answers even as his brain sluggishly chugged along.

"He woke up," Pidge cut in, knuckles whitening on the blanket, "while you were in cryo. He…he…" she looked up and Keith felt the all too familiar guilt flare at the sight of tears in her eyes. "What happened, Keith? What…?"

It was unusual to see Pidge at a loss for words and it made Keith feel all the more rotten. He should have explained more. He should have—

"Now, none of that my boy," Coran said gently and Keith didn't even startle at the hand that descended upon his blanket-clad shoulder and gave it a squeeze. "There is no blame to be found here. You have clearly both been through something beyond what we can envision."

To that Keith nodded, throat suddenly tight. "Yeah," he managed, swallowing past the lump.

"To your question and all of our concern," Coran continued, "Lance is currently under the effects of a light sedative and painkiller. When he awoke he was…" Coran pursed his lips, seeking the right word. "Disoriented. And I would hazard that in addition to the effects of the blood loss that could also be explained due to the fact he seems to have lost the ability to see or hear us as well as speak."

Keith could sense the fear that observation brought on He could only imagine what it must have been like, both for Lance to wake up without any sense of where he was, and for his friends to be trying to console him without any idea that Lance could not hear or see them.

"He was fortunately able to recognize Number Two and calmed down," Coran continued, releasing the sharp prickle of fear, "but I felt sedating him would be best until we are able to get more answers, hopefully from you. You mentioned magic earlier, yes? Is this what you were referring to?"

Keith nodded again, feeling every eye on him. "They did something to him," he said. "For some ritual of theirs. The Purity of Sin," he all but growled out the cursed name. "They… they wanted to sacrifice him."

Horrified gasps met his garbled explanation.

"Sacrifice him?" Hunk repeated, paling. "Like as in kill him?"

Keith gave a short nod.

"I do not understand," Allura murmured, aghast. "Macka was Altea's ally… they are a peaceful race. They would never have…"

And yet Keith saw that even though the princess was struggling to believe this of former allies, the proof was clear in front of her. And the guilt that plagued him stole across her features as she glanced between him and Lance. She had sent them into that situation after all. And just like Keith knew all too well she would hold herself responsible.

"Please," Allura begged, turning jewel-bright eyes to Keith, "tell us what happened so we can fix this. So Lance…"

As one they all turned to look at the unconscious figure on the bed, unaware of everything happening around him.

Keith gave a halting account of all that had happened since the touched down on Macka. He spoke of how Lance's offer to help the Mackans had been grossly distorted and the two of them had found themselves offered up as sacrifices for their goddess. He had seen Allura and Coran exchange a look at that, but they did not interrupt.

He explained that they had been separated and he'd been able to rescue Lance partway through the ritual thanks to his luxite blade, which had made him pause in a silent panic as he realized the knife was gone. Dropped, he remembered. It was a small price to pay for their lives but it was all he had left of his parents and he felt a stab of pain at the loss.

But Pidge had grinned at him and held out the blade; sheath missing but otherwise intact. He'd taken it in trembling hands before carefully putting it on one of the small medical table trays for now. He picked up from his previous point in the story, noting that after they escaped they discovered that Lance's voice had been stolen – purified, he'd said bitterly – and they later found the cut inflicted on his right hand would not clot or stop bleeding.

He skipped over the personal pieces and discussions, picking up instead that they'd been forced to run given the fact they were greatly outnumbered and nearly unarmed. He'd calculated the timeframe and knew they had around forty varga until the others would notice something was wrong and come to find them and so they had to hold on until then. But Lance had been getting weaker from the blood loss and it was here Keith found his voice trailing off.

"You cauterized it," Hunk put in gently.

"It didn't even work," Keith trembled. "Not for long. I… I hurt him and it was for nothing."

"Not nothing," Pidge interrupted. "Keith, you saved his life." Her tone turned clinical."The human body can only lose so much blood and even temporarily stemming it would help. And you said you got him to eat and drink too, right? All of that helped him, Keith. That kept him alive."

"Lance knows you were helping him," Hunk added, "There's nothing to feel bad about, all right?"

And Keith knew that. Lance had tried to tell him the same. Hearing it from someone else – especially someone like Hunk who Keith knew knew Lance the best – eased some of that blame but still, he couldn't let it go entirely. Not until he'd made it up somehow to Lance.

"This cauterize," Coran said, sounding out the word, "that is the burn mark then? It was made to seal the wound with heat?"

"That's the gist of it," Hunk said, sparing Keith from having to explain the process.

Keith tried his best to finish the rest, explaining how that second night Lance had lost his eyesight and gained another unsealable wound. He tried his best to skim over what he'd done to the Mackans that had been sent to retrieve them but he hadn't missed though the small gasp from Pidge as she realized what had happened from the omission and he'd lowered his eyes.

"Keith," Allura's voice was strong and he felt her place one of her slender hands along his back. "You did what you had to to protect both yourself and Lance. There is no shame in that."

And she would understand, he realized. She and Coran. They had seen war, had seen the sacrifices one had to make sometimes for the greater good. Still, he wished Shiro was here. He closed his eyes tight to keep the tears at bay. There was no use in wishing; it would lead nowhere.

So he blinked them away and continued. He explained how they'd taken to the relative safety of the cliffs to try and get some semblance of rest because they were both flagging. They'd been found out and Keith then had the idea to scale the cliff for the height advantage and the fact the Mackans hadn't yet seemed to realize they were capable of going up.

As he'd calculated, Lance's last sense of hearing had been taken from him later that evening and gave him the near-fatal slice to his neck. As he spoke, he watched as Coran placed another layer of bandages along with some light yellow salve that smelled vaguely of mint along with it, likely to help stem the wound.

The Mackans had found them after and they'd tried, he scowled, to bargain with him for Lance. He'd had no choice but to engage them after that and that was when he… he gestured weakly towards his stomach.

"If you hadn't come then…"

"Thank Hunk," Pidge said, shooting him a grateful smile. "We'd just gotten to the rendezvous point and you all weren't back yet. When we couldn't reach you by the comms Hunk said he felt something was wrong because it was unlike you, Keith, to not respond, and you should have been headed back at that point and wearing your helmets. So Allura wormholed us to Macka and we took Green down in stealth mode to see what was up. And…"

Keith managed a small smile. "I'm glad you did."

"We all are," Allura said. "If it had not been for Hunk's instincts…" Her hand, which had not left his back, rose to squeeze his shoulder.

"That being said," she continued, "I more than owe you and Lance an apology. I would have never sent you to Macka had I even a hint that their culture and ideology had changed so much. I am so, so sorry, Keith, for all that I put you and Lance through."

Keith colored. "Princess—"

"I was not finished," but there was no bite to her tone. Only sadness and she moved to place her hands around Keith's. "I am truly sorry for what you had to endure. Taking a life is never easy and yet my decision to send you and Lance to Macka forced you to make that decision time and again. I hold myself fully responsible. I am sorry you had to suffer for my mistakes—"

"Allura," Keith interrupted her this time. "It's not your fault."

Saying those words released something inside of him. If it wasn't her fault then it wasn't his either. The only ones at fault were the Mackans who had twisted an offer of help so terribly that they had only caused anguish for everyone.

Lance had told him time and again that he didn't hold any ill will towards Keith for what he'd been forced to do. Keith's stomach did clench again then though as he knew that there was one person Lance would still blame for this mess. Because that was what Lance did. He took on the blame and the hurt and the guilt so others wouldn't have to. From what Keith had seen he knew Lance was going to try and do it again, blame himself for the turn of events that none of them could have predicted.

Well, he scowled, he'd just have to knock some sense into that thick skull then. And he was certain the others would be more than happy to help.

Allura gave a slow nod. "All right then. What we should concentrate all of our efforts on now is Lance and how to return his senses and heal him. Coran?"

The advisor stroked his moustache. "Number Four, you said all of this stemmed from a ritual called the Purity of Sin, correct?" Keith nodded. "That rings a dophenhagern to me. Hold tight while I retrieve some items from the library."

"Let's get you lying down," Hunk said kindly to Keith as the Altean hurried away. "You look a second away from keeling over."

"'m not tired," came the protest before Keith even realized what he'd said, the response automatic from all the times he'd tried to convince himself of that. He flushed as the remaining three all exchanged looks.

"Keith, how many hours would you say you've slept since the mission started?" Pidge asked.

"Um…" he tried to count as Hunk gently tilted him so he was lying lengthwise on the bed and his head was cushioned by a pillow. Like this he found it even harder to concentrate as sleep tugged at his eyelids and a blanket was pulled up over him. "Five? Maybe six?"

"Five hours," Pidge repeated incredulously. "Sleep. Now."

"But—"

"Keith, buddy, sleep," Hunk encouraged, draping another blanket over him. "You need it."

"But Lance," Keith protested, even as his eyes drifted closed. "Have to… keep watch…"

"You must sleep. We shall keep watch over Lance for you," Allura promised.

He made another mumbled protest, mostly for the sake of protesting as his body was yelling at him to please let it rest but he was nothing if not stubborn.

"We shall wake you if something changes," Allura's voice sounded far away, but the words calmed him. "Now sleep."

And Keith finally did.

xxx

 

Chapter Text

 

The High Priest knew something had gone terribly wrong even before the messenger had reached the chapel door.

There was no flurry of pawsteps or excited clamors and yowls for him to finish the ceremony. There was only a single, weary set of claws striking the stone and nothing else.

He looked up from his prayer as Elder Simone entered the room, a blood-soaked cloth pressed to her shoulder and a horrified resignation in her eyes.

"We failed, High Priest," she murmured, sinking to the ground as he hurried to her, helping to lower her the rest of the way to a more comfortable kneel. "I am so sorry."

"What happened?"

She shook her head. "The Red and Black Paladin. He… he fought. He killed so many. Too many." She swallowed thickly, closing her eyes in remembrance. "But... but even then salvation was still in our reach thanks to the courageous sacrifices of our Brothers and Sisters. We nearly had the sacrifice when… when..."

"When?"

"A great creature came down from the sky," she whispered. "Just like the other two beasts we have contained. It shot blue fire and we had no choice but to retreat. And when it left… the sacrifice and the Red and Black Paladin were gone."

"Gone," the High Priest repeated, falling none-too-gracefully back on his haunches. "Gone."

"We have failed," Simone whispered. "Condemned our kin to death. And yet… and yet I cannot even be angry, High Priest. I do not even understand it myself, these blasphemous words. But yet I speak them. The Red and Black Paladin… he called the sacrifice 'brother.'"

She looked up and met the same amber orbs as her own. "Never before has an outside sacrifice claimed kin. We know all too well the pain of losing family to the Purity of Sin, but we understand that it must be done for the good of the rest. These Paladins of Voltron… they did not understand that. They only saw us, saw our actions, as that of monsters." Tears glistened in her eyes. "Are we monsters, High Priest?"

"No, Simone, no," he shushed, stroking a comforting paw down her injured arm. "We do what must be done as Lady Leora requests and being chosen for the Purity of Sin is a great honor. The sacrifice leaves their physical body and transcends into something greater than we mortals can ever hope to be."

"But they did not know that, Damien," she whispered, giving them both a start at his birth name that had not been used since he had been made High Priest over ten years ago. "They did not know what awaited them. All they saw was pain and suffering and that is all we gave them."

She shook her head. "Perhaps we deserve this fate."

"No," the High Priest said firmly. "No. Do not think that."

"So many dead," she murmured. "For what? To save one of our own for another no-moon cycle? And yet instead we have countless who have passed long before their time, in terrible, violent ways without even Lady Leora to guide them."

"Their deaths will not be in vain."

"How? Without the sacrifice we cannot complete the ritual and… and then…"

The High Priest took a deep breath. "will offer myself to Lady Leora. Perhaps a High Priest will be a suitable sacrifice to make up for the previous loss."

Her eyes widened in horror. "Damien, no. You cannot. Oh, brother, you cannot—"

"I must. And you, my dear sister, shall take on the mantle of High Priestess."

Her paws flew to her muzzle. "No. No. I refuse. I—"

"This is what must be done and I shall accept my fate proudly." He closed his eyes, feeling the weight of his words. But this was the only course. If anything could sate Lady Leora now that the original sacrifice had been taken from them perhaps it would be the blood of the one chosen as High Priest.

It was, after all, his decision to use the outsiders as sacrifices that had caused all of this tragedy. It was only right that he paid the sin of failure with his own life.

"Come," he murmured, holding out a paw to assist Simone to her feet. "We must inform the Council of Elders and prepare. But first, let us look to our grieving kin and do what we can for them. And after we shall complete a new Purity of Sin and pray that Lady Leora is forgiving."

And in solemn silence the two Mackans left the chapel.

xxx

Keith came to with the sound of hushed but excited voices above him, broken up by squeaks and the scent of something that almost smelled like basil.

Apparently he must have sniffed a little too deeply as suddenly there were multiple voices going "Keith!" and he felt a pair of small hands latch onto his arm.

He blinked open still tired eyes, the faces of Hunk and Pidge filling his vision.

"Waking up there, buddy?" Hunk asked. "Come on, we've got some delicious food goo for you."

"Food goo?" he repeated, struggling to sit up and hissing as the cold air of the infirmary bit at his still bare chest as the blankets fell away and he hurriedly pulled one over his shoulders. Where was the good smelling thing? Food goo, while not awful and nowhere near the bugs he'd been forced to eat, was not really all that appetizing.

"Nice, healthy, nutritious, easy on the stomach food goo," Hunk said, depositing a heaping bowl onto his blanket-covered legs. "All of which you need right now. Eat up, we've got a lot to talk about."

"Lance?" Keith asked, not even embarrassed that his new default was apparently to ask after Lance every time upon waking.

Hunk gave him a soft, fond smile. "Still sleeping. Coran said it'd be best if we can keep him under until we enact our plan since his body is so weak. But he's doing okay, all things considered."

Keith looked across the bed to confirm this for himself, relief filling him as Allura gave him a little half-wave where she was stationed in the chair next to Lance's head and her long fingers were gently brushing through the brown locks.

"Are you feeling more rested?" she inquired as their gazes met.

"How long was I asleep?"

"About three varga," Pidge said, digging into what looked like some orange pasta with a sauce and Keith's stomach grumbled jealously. "Nowhere near enough, but I guess your body has adapted to a shorter sleep cycle right now, so I'm not surprised you awoke so soon. It'll be back to bed with once we're all done with this though, got it?"

"I'm fine, really," Keith said, and he meant it. There was lingering exhaustion, yes, but it was nothing compared to what he'd experienced in the desert extremes. "Now what plan?"

"And there's our Keith," Pidge grinned around her pasta.

"Eat your food goo first," Hunk told him, joining him on the bed. "We've got to wait for Coran to come back first anyways."

Keith did so, scarfing it down. But as soon as it was gone he was sliding his feet over the edge of the bed, wincing as bare toes touched down on cold metal, and crossed the few feet over to Lance's bed. No one stopped him and he could feel the soft look Hunk was giving him as he pulled himself onto Lance's bed and sat down.

He needed to confirm it for himself that Lance was all right. He reached out a tentative hand to the bandaged face, tracing the now familiar curve of Lance's high cheekbone and up into his hair. Allura had retreated her own hand and sat watching the interaction with the same fond smile Hunk was sporting.

A breath shuddered out of Keith as he felt the slow, steady puff of Lance's breath against his hand. Not hot, not cold, just air.

"You two went through a lot, huh?" Hunk remarked softly as Keith brought his hand back to card through the dark hair.

"You could say that," Keith all but whispered, hating that prickling feeling in his throat and eyes that kept popping up.

"I'm glad Lance had you with him," Hunk said sincerely and Keith felt a large hand descend on his shoulder. "Thank you," he continued, voice rough. "For being there for him. For bringing him home."

"He was there for me too," Keith choked out, not even minding when he felt Hunk's arms wrap him in a hug from behind. He actually leaned into it, accepting the comfort. "If… if he hadn't… hadn't… we'd both be…"

He felt Pidge lay a small hand on his arm and Allura leaned across the bed to place her own against Keith's that was still resting in Lance's hair.

"You saved one another," Allura murmured. "You protected him and Lance protected you. That is what family is, Keith. What a family does."

"Family?" He wasn't even aware he'd repeated the word, hearing it ring in his head. He'd felt that bond, that closeness, back when he'd thought he'd first lost Lance. When he came to realize how much the other boy meant to him, how important he was. It had grown stronger, those feelings of love and protectiveness, as the days had dragged on.

And then he'd actually said it aloud. He'd called Lance a brother to the Mackans, declaring the other boy his family. It hadn't sunk in until just now though what that meant.

"You and Lance are brothers, are you not?" Allura smiled. "Just as we too are all a part of your family."

"Brother," Keith breathed. It felt right, like a missing piece had been restored. For so long he had been alone, bouncing from one 'family' to the other with none to call his own. And then he'd found Shiro and he had the closest thing to family he'd had since his father passed.

But then Shiro disappeared and now he'd disappeared again. And it had hurt. Something had been ripped inside him, torn away at this newest loss. He didn't think he could go through it again, that pain.

And yet, watching Lance scream as flames had wrapped about him, he'd realized that no matter how hard he tried to pretend that Team Voltron wasn't his family that was a lie. They were his family. They were the best family he'd ever had.

He had sisters now in Pidge and Allura. Brothers in Lance and Hunk and Shiro. And the combination of loving dad and goofy uncle wrapped up in Coran.

"Family," he whispered again, unable to stop the smile.

"Yeah man," Hunk sniffled and the hug tightened. "And don't you forget it."

"I'm missing out on this group hug?" came the affronted and amused voice of Coran. Keith couldn't see the advisor, ensconced as he was in Hunk's arms and Allura's now wrapping around from the side, but he felt the Altean join the embrace.

He let out a sound between a sob and a laugh. He just wished Lance was awake to see this and be a part of it. But as he glanced down at the boy who had brought them all together he startled as dull blue eyes were gazing up at him.

"Lance!" he gasped, starting a chain reaction and Allura released the swordsman from her hold so he could lean forward.

Lance tilted his head ever so slightly into Keith's hand, a small smile tugging up his lips. 'Keith,' he silently whispered, and Keith let out another sob. He mouthed something else that eventually Keith realized was, 'We're home.'

"Yeah we are." His other hand moved to Lance's shoulder and he squeezed it. "We did it."

Lance smiled wider, nuzzling his face into the familiar hand. Everything was pleasantly numb and his mind was foggy but he would recognize the feel of Keith's hand anywhere and waking to it, whole and sound, let him breathe near fully again.

It meant Keith was safe. No matter what happened, that had been the most important thing. Lance would have given up all of his other senses if it had meant that Keith was saved.

Other hands were petting his hair now – Hunk, he recognized, and the slender one must be Allura – and small hands were once more on his arm and another large hand was on his shoulder. Pidge and Coran.

They were all here. They were all here and everything was going to be okay now. He knew it.

The rest of the group was sharing smiles at the unseeing Lance and each other. It wasn't quite the perfect reunion yet, but Lance knew they were there and he was smiling and it was as much as they could expect at this point.

"I'm going to administer another round of sedative," Coran said, readying a small vial. "Looks like human bodies burn through it faster than an Altean. Number Four, keep your hand there please until it takes effect."

Keith had no intention of moving it at all, thumb brushing lazy circles on Lance's cheek. He could feel when the sedative had kicked in for as relaxed as Lance had been in the absence in most of the pain he went even more limp under Keith's hand, eyes drifting shut with a flutter of lashes.

"We do need to move quickly," Coran said as he put the empty vial away. "We have only two pints of blood left and at this rate those will be gone within the next… three varga or so."

"So what is the plan?" Keith asked again, settling back more comfortably on the bed and continuing nearly unconsciously his caress, the feeling of Lance's soft breaths pulsing against his hand calming him in a way nothing else could right now.

Everyone started to babble as one – Coran talking about the ritual, Allura about Altean physiology while Pidge launched into an explanation of cloaking and thrusters and Hunk was asking him about… sewing?

Keith held up a hand and to his surprise everyone fell silent. Huh. Apparently being labeled the leader, no matter how much he still didn't want the title, did have some perks.

"One at a time. Please," he added.

"I shall go first," Coran said, looking around the group. "As I mentioned, the Purity of Sin sounded familiar. I perused some of our books on various planets and found Macka's history. They have always performed a ritual called the Purity of Sin to honor their goddess, Leora, but it was not the sacrifice ritual you encountered."

"It was always done by the High Priest or Priestess and a group of Elders," Allura chimed in. "To better able to commune with Leora they would undergo the Purity of Sin by abstaining from the three sins - speaking, hearing and seeing - for the duration of a no-moon cycle. The High Priest or Priestess would go a step further and use actual magic to remove all three Sins from his or her body for that time period."

"And they were able to return them," Coran said excitedly. "Obviously the ritual has changed given the painful nature of enacting it, but at one point the removal of the senses was reversible."

"So they can change Lance back," Keith breathed, eyes flicking to Lance.

"Exactly," Coran grinned. His face sobered. "I could not locate anywhere in the texts though how this gross distortion of an otherwise peaceful ritual happened."

"Ten thousand years and the Galra happened," Allura said, voice sharp. "I know not how, but something changed their culture and I have no doubts as to where that poison came from."

"So they're not bad… not really," Hunk said quietly. "Not the way Zarkon is."

Keith inclined his head. "They're not," he agreed. "They… they care about each other. What they did was wrong," he continued, voice hardening. "And unforgivable. But…" and he sighed, blaming Lance and his compassion for even making him think this, "they're not bad. They're misguided. They do this to their own, it sounds like, and Lance and I just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time."

"That's horrifying," Pidge whispered. "They sacrifice their own people?"

Keith nodded, thinking back to the Initiates, the children he'd seen. He wondered if they were sacrificial candidates too and he his stomach rolled at the thought.

"Which brings us to the the first part of our plan," Coran intervened before the discussion could get too off track. "Leora is a staple in both their past and their present and is obviously someone they will listen to. If we were to have a certain Altean princess shapeshift into a Mackan of the regality and stature of a goddess and order the Mackans to restore Number Three's senses…"

"You can do that?" Keith asked, jaw dropping as he turned to look at Allura.

"I will do my best," she said, lips pressed firm. "I admit, I did not come close to finishing my training before…" she trailed off. "But I am confident I can manage some of their main features. My largest struggle will be shrinking my body as I have always struggled with downsizing my skeleton."

Pidge though shook her head. "Stay big, Princess. A goddess should be larger than life, right? Besides, if you're going to be carrying Lance you'll need a larger body so he doesn't swamp you."

"That does make sense," Allura nodded. "Thank you, Pidge, for the insight. Very well. I shall focus then on adopting the feline features of the Mackans."

"For this to work we're going to need some high-tech," Pidge added. "Hunk and I are going to rig up a hoverpack for Allura and some flashy lights to give her that goddess vibe. Problem is we need an outfit."

"White is the color of purity," Coran said. "While the princess has many gowns she has none that are pure white to benefit our purpose. I consider myself a well-learned man, but I am afraid that the art of sewing is beyond me and I fear I shall rip the stitches in any attempt to alter the dress."

Several pairs of hopeful eyes turned to Keith. "Do you, perhaps lad, know how to sew?" Coran asked.

"If I say no?" Keith hedged, but Pidge frowned at him.

"Uh uh, none of that. I know I saw you patching your jacket."

"I can fix things," Keith stressed. "Like holes and buttons. That's a lot different than sewing a dress!"

"We wouldn't need you to make a whole dress," Coran clarified. "Just take elements from various ones of Princess Allura's and combine them."

Keith stared around the group. "You're serious."

"One hundred percent," Pidge smirked. "You get to save the day with your seamstress skills."

"It'd be a tailor," Keith grumbled, but he nodded even as Hunk and Pidge shared a sad look in Lance's direction that he did not understand and he hurried to add to it, "Fine. I'll do it."

"We'll also need white clothing for Lance," Allura added. "A shirt and tunic. It doesn't have to be fancy, but it does need to be all white. We cannot have him looking at all like a sacrifice."

"I don't suppose you have those lying around, do you?" Keith sighed, already seeing where this was going.

"Afraid not, but we do have many bolts of cloth for the undyed banners," Coran said cheerfully. "For a tailor of your caliber I'm certain you could figure something out."

Keith only sighed. But he would do whatever he could to help. He was by no means skilled in the technology aspect and he would be useless in helping Allura look more Mackan. Sewing it was.

"Everyone clear on your tasks?" Allura asked, receiving nods. "Good. We shall reconvene in two varga here. By that time we must be ready to go as Lance does not have the essence of time."

"I'm not leaving him," Keith said, making no move to shift off the bed. He'd sew whatever he could, but he was going to do it right here with Lance in his full sight. He recognized that he was being more than a little overprotective by this point, but no one called him on it as they all understood.

"I shall fetch you the cloth and gowns then," Coran said, "and assist you in any way I can."

"We've got to go to Green's hangar," Pidge said, looking put out. "I can't bring all of the tools here that I need."

"We'll be back as soon as we can," Hunk promised. He stood up and squeezed both Keith and Lance's shoulders. "Hang tight."

"I will be heading for my room," Allura said, straightening her dress. "I need a large mirror in which to practice." Under her breath as she exited Keith caught, "Alaaran help me."

Within the minute the entire room had cleared save for Keith and Lance. The former Red Paladin realized after a second that maybe he should have asked for someone to bring him actual clothes.

Red stained his features as he felt the elastic around his hips give way even more as he shifted on the bed and he made a mental note that he was never, not even on the verge of death, going into cryo again without a suit. Hunk had told them he'd only been in there for just over three varga; any longer and he doubted he'd even have this much left.

He wrapped the blanket more firmly about his lower half and readjusted the one over his shoulders. Part of him said that when Coran came back it wouldn't take too long to nip down to his rooms and get a suitable replacement, but his stomach clenched at the thought of leaving Lance when he was like this.

It's not that he didn't trust the others to take care of him. Coran had even said Lance had been able to recognize Hunk and calmed down right after. But he still couldn't leave. Not when Lance was still in pain and confused and scared. He'd promised to fix this and he wasn't leaving until that was true.

But to his great relief when Coran returned about ten dobashes later, besides an array of very frilly looking gowns and a giant bolt of cloth – reminding Keith once again the strength of Alteans – he had a familiar knapsack in hand.

Coran's eyes crinkled into a smile as Keith practically snatched the bag with a hurried thanks.

"There's a small washroom right off the infirmary," the Altean advised. "Go ahead. I'll keep vigil over Number Three."

Deciding two minutes would be acceptable, Keith all but raced to the small bathroom and was back shortly thereafter, refreshed and clothed. Also, he noted, very tan. Or, well, parts of him were. The cryo-pod had healed the sunburn but it hadn't faded back to his normal pale complexion. Nope. His arms, face and upper neck were at least ten shades darker than the rest of him and he unfortunately lacked any high collared shirts to hide the obvious line on his neck. It looked ridiculous but he supposed he'd never cared much for appearances anyway and this was a minuscule price to pay. Lance he imagined would have been horrified and it brought the tiniest smirk to his face.

When he returned to the infirmary he ended up sitting on the floor, back to the bed he'd been on so he could easily keep Lance in his sights as fabric and gowns stretched out all around him.

"Now," Coran said, holding up another small bag. "These are all the supplies I could find that seemed to be related to sewing. "

"Is there a seam ripper?" Keith asked, pulling the whitest gown they had to him and eyeing the blue overlay and gold threading.

"Hmmmm, let's see here," Coran said, dumping the entire bag onto the second bed. "We've got a crumsnupet, a bolliedog, this weird lever-looking thing…"

Keith ended up having to scour the items himself and found something close to his desired item – a sanosuke, Coran informed him – and he got to work ripping apart a clearly well-made and designed dress.

"Can you keep doing that all along the blue seams?" Keith asked, handing off the gown and sanosuke to Coran. "I'm going to start trying to make clothes for Lance." Trying was the key word because Keith really had no idea what he was doing. At all.

"Of course, lad," Coran said, taking to the task with gusto.

Keith wondered how much Lance would hate him if he made him a giant shapeless nightgown like object and called it a day. A smirk turned up his lips at that, but he shook his head. He could at least try to make something a little more fitting and use that as a fallback.

He wracked his brain back to the good old home education classes he'd encountered in one of his many middle schools as he bounced around. Start with a pattern, he remembered that much.

Shrugging out of his jacket, he laid it across the large broadcloth. Obviously he was going to need the sleeves longer and the body longer given Lance's height. But it didn't need to be perfect; baggy and flowing would be easier anyway with all of Lance's injuries.

Grabbing a marking pen from the stash of supplies Keith took a deep breath and pressed it to the white fabric. A small black dot appeared.

One mark down. A thousand more to go. And with an energy normally reserved only for fighting and training, Keith took on his newest opponent: clothes making.

xxx

Lance was getting worse. It was no surprise, really. Even with the sedative and painkillers in him his body had been pushed beyond the brink and the wounds were either too deep to heal or imbued with magic preventing it at all.

He was also starting to come back to, if the fluttering of his eyes beneath closed lids and the increasing heart rate were any indication. Yet he had not fully awoken and so Keith had set up his post in the chair right next to the bed and was carding his hand through the dark hair once more.

He and Coran had finished and both were patting themselves on the back. Coran was an insanely quick learner, Keith had discovered, and once he'd shown the older man how to actually wield a needle to attach the white silk overlay they'd freed from another dress, he'd taken to it like a fish to water.

The dress was by no means the quality of the ones they had destroyed to make it. But it was, Keith thought, quite exquisite with two amateurs making it. They'd commandeered silk ribbons and overlays from other pieces along with jewels that reminded Keith a bit of pearls but square instead of spheres and stones that sparkled like diamonds. It had multiple layers, both to hide the tech that Hunk and Pidge were working on as well as to give her that larger than life feeling.

Lance's outfit was much more simple. A (hopefully) large enough shirt and a very simple pair of pants that Keith had the sinking feeling were going to cut off mid-calf after he'd stitched them up. He also had zero idea on how to cinch the waist so he'd ended up making a couple loops and threading a strip of white cloth to be used as a drawstring belt.

They were going to wait until the last minute possible to change Lance into them as they wanted them to remain pure white and even with bandages Lance's wounds were too unpredictable.

Keith had watched in morbid fascination as Coran had changed the ones wrapped around Lance's hands and neck, his stomach heaving at the former. In the bright light of the infirmary they appeared even more grievous and beyond painful; burned flesh mixed with the gaping wound with infection lingering on the edges.

"You did what you had to, my boy," Coran said gently as he observed Keith's eyes lingering on the palm-wide burn on the right hand.

"I know," he whispered. "But still…"

But still, he'd done so much these past few days he was not proud of. Burning Lance. Killing the Mackans. Giving into hopelessness that without Lance he may have fully drowned in. What kind of leader, let alone person, did that?

Coran gave his shoulder a warm squeeze. "Do not be so hard on yourself, Keith. Above all you must remember that you were protecting Lance and yourself. Do not forget that."

Keith managed a nod.

The solemn silence was broken by the arrival of Hunk and Pidge, both grinning wide.

"Where's the booster pack?" Keith asked, as the only thing the two were carrying was a tablet and what looked like a small shoe box.

"Here," Hunk announced, holding up the latter item. "It's so neat. We managed to incorporate the hover technology with the…" he trailed off with a shake of his head. "Never mind all that. But we managed to make it small and inconspicuous so there won't be any actual booster jets or noise. Should hold for about a varga, not that we should need that long."

Pidge held up her tablet. "And I've got all the links here so we can control it from our end and move Allura around. How'd the dress go?"

Keith pointed at what he and Coran had devised and Hunk let out a low whistle. "That's really beautiful, man."

"I am finished too," Allura's voice rang from the doorway and everyone turned.

It took all Keith had not to reach for his blade, secured in a new sheath and resting on his hip, as she entered.

Gone was her flawless dark skin and jewel-bright eyes. Instead she had transformed her skin to the lightest of creams and tufts of fur could be seen peeking down her arms underneath the slip of a white dress she had pulled on. Her hands had rounded into paws and grown thicker.

But it was her face that caused the most alarm. She had elongated her nose into a snout and canines were visible as she spoke. Her eyes had turned amber and the same soft fur covered her new features. Her hair was still the same, somehow seeming even more silver-white, and a tiny pair of cream ears poked out of the top. She had changed out of her gold circlet and replaced it with a near match but in silver with a small clear crystal in the middle and her earrings of the same stone.

"That's amazing," Hunk gushed, rushing over to more closely examine the changes.

"The nose is a little off," Allura admitted, gingerly raising one of her paws. "And I admit I am having trouble grasping onto things. But it will pass muster, yes?"

Keith nodded, heart in his throat. He couldn't help it. It's not that he was scared of the Mackans, but seeing one of the creatures that he had developed a significant fight or flight response to was not at all good for his nerves.

Allura seemed to have picked up on his distress and she sent him a sorrowful smile, which only made her look like the one Elder Mackan who had tried to bargain for Lance and he was unable to stop the shudder that raced through him.

"I am sorry," Allura apologized, keeping her distance.

"'s not your fault," he managed. "It… it's really good, Princess."

"How is Lance?" she asked, maintaining her spot by the door.

"Waking up, I'm afraid," Coran said, pulling on his moustache. "I don't dare give him any more sedative either as it won't react well with the pod and hopefully he'll be in one before the next varga is over."

"Then let us hurry," Allura said. "Pidge, would you assist me in dressing? I cannot do much with these paws I am afraid."

"Uh, sure." Pidge went to pick up the dress and followed Allura out, likely to the small bathroom Keith had already used.

"That is our cue then," Coran said. "Come, let us get him dressed so we can finish this." And despite his attempt at joviality Keith could hear the undercurrent of worry in the advisor's voice.

Lance came to as they were easing him into sitting with a soundless gasp and unseeing eyes flying open, hands scrabbling uselessly on the bed. A line of blood dripped down his neck, winning its battle against the bandages and Coran uttered a soft swear.

"Hey, hey," Keith murmured, placing a hand against Lance's cheek and turning the head in his direction. Hunk and Coran disappeared from view entirely as he focused solely on Lance, brushing his thumb over the cheekbone and bringing his other up to press lightly in Lance's hair.

'Keith?' Lance mouthed.

"Yeah, it's me," he whispered, even though Lance couldn't hear. He rubbed his thumb over the cheek again. "It's okay."

He could feel Lance relax, but still slumping forward with exhaustion and pain. Hunk was there then, one of his large hands on Lance's shoulder and helping him to lean back. Lance went easily with it, a tiny smile tugging up his mouth as he voiced a silent 'Hunk.'

"All right," Coran's voice sounded behind him. "Let's add another bandage there on the neck and clean up the blood. Number Two, if you could continue supporting him please and Number Four, I leave it to you to get the shirt on. Just let me pull the vein valve free first…"

Lance winced as hands lightly dabbed at his neck, which he realized based on process of elimination must be Coran's. Keith's were still steady on his face and Hunk's on his back and shoulder, until Keith's disappeared.

Taking their place was the feeling of some type of rough fabric and he whined as it scratched against his skin. It was going over his head, he realized. A shirt? Why were they dressing him though, and in something so scratchy at that?

He had one terrifying moment as whatever it was covered his face completely and his breath hitched as he wondered if he was going to suffocate even as his mind told him he was being stupid because it was obviously his friends doing it.

And a tick later it was off his nose and mouth and pooling instead about the base of his neck. Hunk's hand left for a moment and came back, no longer pressed on bare skin but on the cloth of the shirt.

Lance let out a silent whimper as he felt Keith's hands grasp his right forearm and guide it up. He flinched as the movement pulled on his chest wound and he could almost hear the muttered apologies from Keith. He tried after that to be as compliant as possible, knowing that they wouldn't be doing this without a reason.

Even if he had absolutely no idea why.

A few painful minutes later Lance could feel material encircling both of his arms and despite how stiff it was another smile formed on his lips. He had almost forgotten what it felt like to have actual clothes again, even if getting them on was reminding him of when he'd played dolls with his sisters.

But then he was being shifted again and the blanket that had been covering his lower half was yanked away and he let out a reflexive yelp at the cold air, jerking back against Hunk's hold. A flush stained his cheeks a moment later as he realized, yup, he wasn't wearing anything under there.

But the embarrassment was gone as quickly as it had come on as he was moved again and dull pain and a wave of dizziness washed over him. Hands pet through his hair and his legs were lifted and slid into the same coarse material as the shirt.

He winced as hands touched along his lower back where something ached beyond measure before he was finally lied back down on the nice soft bedding. He let out a silent little breath, head spinning still.

All was calm then, with Keith's hand back on his cheek and Hunk's in his hair. Their combined touch was making the pain a little duller, the panic a little less sharp. He took a steadying breath then, willing his pulse to slow. Whatever was going on was okay. His friends, his family, were there. It was all right.

He felt his left hand being lifted a few minutes later, no longer encased in a mitten of bandages like Keith had applied but each finger wrapped individually and leaving the tips bare. Said tips touched upon flesh and Lance traced it lightly, realizing after a few ticks that it was Keith's face.

Okay then…?

Then his hand was moving, still in Keith's gentle hold, and it lighted on something else.

Something furry.

He shrieked in alarm and tried to pull back from it, but Keith's grip was firm.

What was this? He turned his head in what he assumed was Keith's direction, panic flaring. Why was there a Mackan here? Why was Keith making Lance touch the Mackan?

'No,' he whispered, shaking his head and trying to pull back as Keith shifted his grip and Lance felt his hand tracing up the Mackan's face. 'No. Please. Keith! Stop!'

Hunk's hand was stroking his hair again even as Keith continued to pull Lance's against the soft fur, climbing higher and higher.

He swallowed back the sob, regretting it as the action caused his throat to hitch painfully. What was going on? It had to be something, some type of plan. They would never endanger him like this. What was he not seeing? (Other than everything his mind supplied, and Lance didn't know whether he should laugh or cry at the thought).

Lance desperately tried to get the pounding of his pulse under control so he could more fully concentrate on what it was they were trying to tell him. He'd traced Keith's face first. And now a Mackan's.

And now his hand was being lifted further up the Mackan's face to brush against something metallic. A headpiece? His fingertips traced the design, feeling the sharp edges of a downwards triangle and a jewel. Now why was that so familiar?

His eyes widened in realization a moment later. 'Allura?' he hedged and the hand on his shoulder gave a squeeze of possible confirmation. He repeated his guess and received another squeeze.

That's right. Alteans could shapeshift. He'd only seen Allura do it the one time, turning herself larger and purple to pass as a Galran in that terribly failed mission that he tried not to think too much about. So she had shifted to look like a Mackan to do… what, exactly?

They seemed to have taken his stilled movements for confirmation themselves because the next thing Lance knew he was being lifted up completely from the bed, furred paws tickling him even through the fabric, as he was hoisted lengthwise into a set of arms that had to be Allura's.

Then he was moving, gait indicating that they were walking quickly, and he closed his eyes, tucking his head up into the crook of Allura's arm and feeling silk against his cheek. He nuzzled that bit, focusing on its satin rather than the fur.

He hated not knowing what was happening or what this plan of theirs entailed, but at least this time he did know he was surrounded by his family and they were going to protect him.

And that was all he really, truly needed.

xxx

 

Chapter Text

 

The short ride back into Macka's atmosphere was a tense, silent one. Coran had forcibly restrained himself to remain behind in the castle as even with all the precautions and defenses it was not safe to leave it unoccupied and floating in space.

The others had all piled into the Green Lion; Pidge at the controls, Allura sitting on the bed, stripped of its bloodied blankets, and Hunk and Keith squeezed in next to her so they could both keep a hand on Lance and comfort him as best they could while he shuddered in pain.

The boy in question had grown paler since they'd removed him from the vein valve and his blood supply, which had barely any left. The bandages were holding for the moment though and the all white on his dark skin was a stark contrast, especially tucked up against Allura who was practically glowing.

"Two minutes until entry," Pidge called, hands tight on the controls. She and Hunk had changed into their Paladin armor but Keith's undersuit had been completely destroyed by the cryo-pod and his armor was still with the Mackans, so he was wearing his street clothes and armed with his knife.

As the hastily thrown together plan would go, Green would enter with her cloaking and Allura would descend as though floating with Lance in her arms down to the large audience hall that Keith had described. He was certain someone had to be up and about even at the late hour for Macka and it would make the most sense for a goddess to literally come from the sky. Plus, schematics with accounting for Green's size and all.

Allura had a microphone hooked into her long tresses that would have an echo effect, Pidge explained, to make her sound more powerful. They'd attached the hover pack along with strings of small white lights to make Allura glow.

Despite her new cream-colored fur and countenance, Allura was beginning to look a little green the closer they got.

"I do not know if I can do this," she whispered, tightening her hold on Lance, who barely reacted, eyes closed. "What if they do not believe me?"

"You're going to be great, Princess," Hunk encouraged.

"You can't afford to fail," Keith reminded her and Pidge snorted from the cockpit at the utter lack of tact.

"Dude, that is not very helpful," Hunk admonished and Keith's ears reddened even as Allura paled.

"Uh… go get them?" he tried again and he distinctly heard Pidge's hand hit her helmet with a dull thud.

"Thank you, Keith," Allura sighed but with a small smile. "I appreciate the sentiment."

"We've got movement down there," Pidge called, eyes widening a moment later. "Holy shit, that's a lot of Mackans."

Keith got up from the bed and crossed to the front so he could gaze out Green's front windows. His eyes widened at the sight below, illuminated by the glowing reeds and scones of fire.

It was a funeral. On the stone table where he'd freed Lance just days before there were now numerous shrouds of white; cloths draped over bodies. Keith stopped counting at twenty, stomach threatening to expel the food goo he'd eaten.

"Keith," Pidge murmured, and he startled as one of her gloved hands came to rest lightly on his arm.

"I…"

His stomach gave another lurch. He'd killed… he'd killed all of those shrouded bodies. All of those families. From this distance he could even hear the howls of grief from the assembled living Mackans.

"Do you see the High Priest?" Pidge asked, easing Green into a hover that disturbed not a ripple of air and Keith was grateful for the distraction.

He tore his eyes from the table, looking for another spot of white. And he found it, standing on a raised dais just beyond the table. "There."

"All right Princess, heading of thirty clicks east when you drop down. Ready?"

Allura carefully got to her feet, clutching Lance protectively to her. "Ready." And her voice was even and firm, amber eyes glinting with intensity and displaying none of the nerves from just moments ago.

"Then on my mark," Pidge said, readying her tablet as Green went to auto-control. "Three… two… and one."

And on the last count the panel door slid out from beneath Allura's feet and she and Lance dropped out of sight.

xxx

The High Priest gazed mournfully out across the table, preparing his last funeral rites as acting High Priest. For after this ceremony they would begin a new Purity of Sin ritual and he would offer himself as a sacrifice that he dearly prayed would be enough to guarantee their protection for the trying times ahead.

He stepped to the front of the dais, paws spread wide, and the wails and cries trickled to an end.

"Brothers and Sisters," he called, trying to project strength into his voice although he felt only a bone-deep exhaustion. "Tonight we prepare to send our departed kin on to—"

He cut off as loud gasps filled the otherwise silent night in a way that had nothing to do with funeral rites. The congregation in front of him was staring past him, paws shaking and covering mouths in wonder as hope filled their eyes.

Turning, the High Priest felt his own mouth threaten to drop at the sight before him.

Lady Leora. A vision of pure white and silver was floating serenely down from the heavens, looking every bit as radiant as he imagined a goddess should from what he could make out of the shining lights that seemed to emanate from within her very skin.

And in her arms… it could not be. The sacrifice.

They were saved.

"Lady Leora," he gasped, dropping down into a full bow, aware of his kin doing the same, murmurs of awe and salvation racing through the ranks.

"High Priest," Leora intoned, voice echoing like a hundred, but still managing to sound beautiful and soft. He trembled in the face of her power but lifted his head at the address. "You disappoint me."

The words were like being impaled. The High Priest gasped, clutching at his heart as his mind frantically tried to figure out how to appease a goddess.

"My Lady Leora," he tried, "I am but a humble servant of—"

"Quiet," she growled, and the words echoed around the deathly silent chamber.

Her gaze turned then across the room and many ducked their heads back down, unable to meet it. "You all disappoint me," she continued and now there were inhales and soft sobs.

"Lady Leora," the High Priest whispered, feeling the despair rising. Had she not come to return their sacrifice? Had she discovered his intention to offer himself and found it wanting?

"You have distorted the Purity of Sin," she continued, voice booming. "You have all shamed me."

"I do not understand," the High Priest managed, somehow lifting his head to look in the goddess' direction. "We follow your scripture—"

"Fool!" and her word had him ducking his head back down. "Those words you practice are not my own! They are false. You truly believe that I, a goddess of protection, would demand a blood tribute? Whose words do you follow, High Priest?"

"But—"

"Silence!" Leora barked and he cowered back down. "You live a life of lies, High Priest. You all do. You must look within to find the true Purity of Sin for true salvation. Not this tragedy you have made of it. I have been bound and chained by your dark deeds, High Priest. Only the pure plea of a Paladin of Voltron gave me the strength to break free. Blood is not the answer, High Priest. It has never been."

The High Priest's mind was racing. What was she talking about? For as long as he had lived this had been the way of Macka, their sacrifice a sign of destiny.

It was wrong? All of the killings, all of the blood… all of it was not meant to have been? All of the lives lost, all of the families torn apart… none of it was fated?

"I do not understand," he admitted.

"Then you must learn," Leora intoned. "By starting with the reversal of Sin on this boy."

"The reversal?" he repeated. Was such a thing possible?

"Restore his Sins, High Priest," Leora ordered. "Restore them or suffer my wrath."

"But—"

"Now!"

The High Priest looked behind him, seeking out his sister's eyes where she was grouped with the other members of the Council of Elders. She looked as terrified as he felt.

"V-very well," he said. "If… if you could, Lady Leora, place the sacrifice" – her eyes narrowed dangerously – "the boy here, on the table."

Leora inclined her head and drifted forward as he backed up, afraid to touch such a being of power. She deposited the sacrifice with a tenderness that was not shown in her words before she retreated several feet and cast an expectant eye on him.

"Brother Milnew, my sacrificial blade," he called, "Elder Simone, retrieve the Book of Prayers." He glanced from the goddess to the prone Paladin of Voltron, whose sightless eyes were open and seeming to stare right through him. "We will now aim to reverse the… the Purity of Sin."

Or, at least he hoped so. Because otherwise he was going to bring the goddess' wrath down upon them all.

xxx

Lance twitched uncomfortably, heart racing and pulse pounding in this otherwise silent world, resisting the urge to try and sit up as even the thought of it sent pain rippling through him.

There was rough stone at his back now from where Allura had deposited him and her arms, no matter how furry were comforting because he knew they belonged to her, were gone now and he was utterly alone.

'Keith?' he mouthed, 'Allura?' but no one answered him with a soft touch to his cheek or his hair. He shivered faintly in the cold air, made more obvious now that he wasn't pressed up against Allura. Worse yet, he recognized this cold air.

He was on Macka.

Something lightly brushed against his head and something else on his hand and he whimpered, knowing in that instant it was not Allura. The grip was too harsh, the claws a little too sharp.

Something pressed down on his chest and then more paws were pulling at his neck. They were pulling the bandages off, he realized a tick later.

He squirmed to no avail, the paw on his chest pressing harder and making him gasp as pain exploded from the wound right underneath it.

Cold air nipped at his neck even as warm, sluggish blood dripped down it. All of his struggles came to a grinding halt as he then felt the too familiar sharp sensation of metal press against his jugular.

Was this it? Was this the plan? Let the Mackans finish their ritual? He let out a silent whimper as the blade shifted, not quite cutting but pressing against the existing wound with a sharp sting. A paw pressed down on his forehead, keeping him pinned as he tried to shift away.

'Keith?' he tried again, desperate. He knew, he knew, that this had to be part of the plan. And yet the rational part of his mind was warring with what was actually happening and the sickening feeling of helplessness.

The blade pressed deeper and this time Lance could feel the slow gush of blood. A tear dripped down his face, followed quickly by another. This was it then. This was how it ended. Just like all the previous times he'd already faced down death, no goodbyes, no gentle hands or comforting words.

And then his world was alight with fire. It was singing in his head and exploding out his ears in a torrent of agony and pain. He bucked against the hand holding him down, not caring if he somehow sliced through his own neck. At least it would be over.

" –shall heareth again."

Lance blinked as the absolute sound washed over him. What the…?

It was too much, like the crashing of a waterfall, but it was sound. He could hear. His neck was still stinging but he no longer felt the steady drip and the slight bite of the metal blade was resting not on an injury but rather making a tiny new one, although given how the paw was trembling Lance honestly did not think it was intentional.

"The… the first Sin has been reversed, Lady Leora," came a voice right by Lance's head, which he realized belonged to the trembling paw. The High Priest. "The sac—the boy, he hears again."

The knife lifted then and a sharp clap sounded right next to his head. Lance jerked in surprise, but given all of the paws still holding him down he did not get far. "It actually worked," he heard the High Priest murmur next to him, voice filled with awe. "The reversal…"

"Then proceed to the second Sin," called an echoing voice that even despite the extra ringing Lance recognized as Allura. He felt himself go limp. She was here and was apparently getting all of his senses restored.

He felt another tear slip down his cheek, this time out of sheer relief, even as his left hand stung as he felt the bandages being pulled back and the wound exposed.

The Mackan began chanting again and Lance realized with a sick jolt of fear that if he'd felt that level of pain for the first Sin then it stood to reason that—

"Maras!"called out the Priest and Lance's head slammed into the ground as fire seared into his eyes and then he was crying tears of lava all while his left hand burned as clearly as if it were being cauterized again.

He was screaming silently, tossing his head back and forth while he tried to kick up with his legs and free his arms to no avail. The pain slowly began to recede and Lance blinked open tightly squeezed eyes, closing them immediately thereafter as what looked like suns were hovering just outside and scorching him.

But he had seen something.

After over a day of nothing but darkness he had seen something, and that was what was important, no matter how painful the sight had been. He more carefully lifted his lashes, blinking quickly to dispel the tears that had gathered.

His gaze focused on the harsh amber tones of the High Priest, framed by dark fur. It was not quite what he'd have picked out to see first, but sight was sight. He looked beyond the Mackan's head, taking in the hot orange glow he'd seen – fire in scones – before lighting on a nearly glowing figure floating in the sky.

Allura. Even with her appearance as changed as it was he could still see her and realized the instant her gaze caught with his own. Her eyes widened and he saw her practically bite back a sob. He wasn't so successful, but it wasn't like they could hear it anyway.

Not yet, at least.

Hope bloomed in his chest, almost enough to chase away the still frigid air.

"He seeth again," the High Priest intoned and Lance could hear the gasps of awe from all around. He cast his eyes from his position, trying to make out where exactly he was.

And, his stomach churned, he was back on the stone table where it all began. All around him too were lumps of shrouded cloth and he tried desperately not to think too much on that. Not now.

There were no ropes this time, at least. Just other Mackans. In addition to the High Priest there was a cream colored female wearing a silver robe and a sandy male wearing green; the same two from when they'd cast their purification by fire ritual. They were pressing down on his legs and shoulders, keeping him in place.

He met the eyes of the silver-robed one and to his utter surprise she looked… happy? Perhaps that was too strong, but she did not look upset or angry. Content. Grateful.

Why though? What had he missed?

"I shall now reverse the last Sin," the High Priest announced.

Clawed paws pulled at the bandages now on his right hand and Lance silently whimpered as they caught against the burnt flesh. He couldn't see his hand, pulled as it was down by his side, but he was glad not to. He had a feeling he might be sick.

The silver-robed Mackan, holding onto his right arm, gave it an almost barely perceptible squeeze and Lance's eyes widened further. Was she… comforting him?

The blade was pressed against the gaping wound and Lance flinched back, not even the knowledge that that was going to be nothing compared to the pain he knew was coming making it hurt any less.

"Ladrás!" the High Priest all but shouted at the end of his chant, and this time with his sight restored Lance saw a brilliant blue light envelop down by his hand and a matching sheen pass over each Mackan's eyes.

But sight was gone then as he wrenched his eyes shut as liquid fire filled his lungs and throat and his hand felt as though he'd just shoved it into a furnace. There was screaming then – a horrible, rasping cry – that he realized was coming from him.

It burned, all of it. His own cry grated against his ears and up his throat and he could taste flecks of copper on his tongue as the scream turned into a cough that he could not stop.

The Mackans released his limbs and he curled in on himself, trying to muffle the hoarse gasping and hoping somehow that the fire traveling through his body would douse itself.

But unlike the previous time this time it was not relenting. Tears were pouring down his cheeks and he curled his legs up tighter, choking on the pain as his throat continued to burn.

"What is happening?" he heard Allura demand.

"This Sin was made directly on the body," the High Priest explained. "I… I suppose it is taking longer to release."

Too long, Lance thought, white spots dancing in his eyes. It hurt, Dios it hurt and it wasn't stopping. Voices were turning to sound around him and he hunched in further, the ache in his chest and hands not even registering on his pain scale.

And then finally, finally, it began to recede to the point where he gingerly let go of his legs, hands throbbing. The dizziness though, that was not leaving. Everything felt like too much, too fast.

"It is done," the High Priest said over the roaring of Lance's harsh breaths echoing in his ears. "The Purity of Sin has been reversed."

"Good," came Allura's voice. "Return the boy to me. I shall reunite him with his own kind in a show of peace."

"These… these Paladins of Voltron," and Lance heard the tremble in his voice even over his pounding pulse. "Will they seek vengeance upon us, Lady Leora?" Lance blinked. They thought Allura was Lady Leora?

"Please," called out the female, "protect us, Lady Leora. We… we have lost so many already."

"No vengeance shall be sought," Allura said, voice echoing," and Lance heard the sighs of relief from around the room and murmured thanks. "However… they ask though that you return their armor and ships to them. They will leave Macka in peace."

The High Priest nodded reverently. "It shall be done, Lady Leora. We will bring their 'armor' to their beast-like ships and remove the barrier."

"But heed my words, High Priest," Allura continued. "What has happened here is but a warning of what the future holds should you continue down this path. Sin lives in us all. It is a part of us. To Purify Sin is but a temporary state and one that is to teach, not to harm."

"I… I understand, Lady Leora. We will... we will find the true Purity of Sin so we may learn from it. We will not sacrifice any more in your name."

Lance saw Allura's muzzle curl into a smile and she inclined her head.

That was enough of a cue for the Mackans, as Lance found his arms being hoisted over furry shoulders and pulled forward to the edge of the table, unable to get his legs under him and feet hurting too much to do so even if he could. Allura floated forward and the two Mackans retreated, leaving Lance kneeling on the edge, trembling in a mixture of relief, pain and exhaustion.

Tears were sparkling in her eyes, although she held them in. Without any apparent effort, Allura leaned over and placed one paw on Lances back and swept him into her arms. Her hold was strong and secure and he pressed his face between her shoulder and chest, unable still to stop the tremors racing through him and the even more dizzying feeling of floating.

"Praise be to Lady Leora!" cried out the High Priest and all around the room the chant picked up in intensity. He nestled his head further in, hating how the very idea of the chant was making his skin prickle and his breath hitch.

But then they were moving. Somehow – Hunk and Pidge, he suspected – they were going up without the whoosh of jets or blasters, the voices of the chanting Mackans growing fainter. And then suddenly there was warm air and the hiss of a hatch door sliding shut. He kept his face hidden though, unsure of this sudden rolling in his stomach and just knowing that as soon as he saw the others he was going to lose it.

Silence echoed for all of a second before cries of "Lance!" sounded and Lance could feel hands grabbing at him and laughter and tears.

"Hold on, hold on," Allura called from above him, voice still echoingly beautiful. "Give us some space, please. Pidge, how do I turn this off?"

"Got it," he heard Pidge answer.

"All right, much better," Allura said, voice back to normal. She shifted her arms and Lance bit back the whimper as he felt her start to lower him.

"Here, put him on the bed," he heard Hunk say over Pidge talking into the comms and Coran's joyous whoop on the other end. "His feet are still really bad."

"Lance," Allura murmured as he still clung to her despite the pain it was causing. The Mackans may have healed up their wound, but they were still burned and infected and sporting scrapes and broken fingers. "What is wrong?"

"I…" he choked out, keeping his face pressed to her still. Everything was still moving though and his stomach gave another heave. "I d-don't know."

"Sensory overload," Pidge chimed in from above him. "Green, girl, can you dim the lights? Everyone else quiet."

"Let us get you lying down, shall we?" Allura asked gently and Lance felt her hands – and hands now, not paws – light upon his arm and give it the barest of tugs from where he had dug his fingers into the brocade of her dress.

He let her, finding himself lying on his back and propped up somewhat by what felt like boxes with a blanket hastily draped over it.

He kept his eyes squeezed closed, heart racing as he realized he had not yet heard one person's voice since boarding Green. He was too scared to look though. What if… what if he'd imagined it all? What if he'd just thought that had been his hand and he wasn't actually here because he was de—

"Lance?"

At Keith's voice Lance's eyes flew open.

"Keith," he gasped, lurching forward. And then Keith was there, arms tight around Lance in an embrace and a hand cupping the back of his head.

"I'm here," Keith murmured, breath hot against Lance's neck. "It's okay. We're okay."

"K-Keith," Lance repeated, hot tears stinging his eyes again. "Keith."

He knew he sounded like an idiot, but he didn't seem to be capable of saying anything else. He wrapped his own arms about Keith and squeezed as tight as he could despite the flare of pain it caused, feeling a soft huff of laughter mixed with a sob against his ear.

"We're okay," Keith whispered. "We did it. We're home."

Gradually he felt his pulse begin to slow, the tight feeling in his chest disappearing. Keith continued to just hold him while the others talked quietly around him – "That was amazing Allura!" – "I suppose I did always have a flair for the dramatics…"— "Five dobashes till we land." – "Black and Red are coming up on our six!" –and Lance felt his eyes growing heavy, this time with sleep.

Keith pulled back a bit from their embrace, purple eyes lined with tears. "Hey," he said, voice rough as they met Lance's deep ocean blue. "I think the others want to say hello too before we land."

The dimmed interior of Green did help and Lance let his gaze trace about his family, all beaming at him. Hunk pulled him into a tender side hug while Pidge gently held his hands and Allura pressed a hand against his hair.

"We make a really good team, don't we?" Keith murmured and Lance felt a déjà vu sweep over him.

"You guys are the best," he rasped, more tears pricking at his eyes as he looked about the assembled group.

"We are so happy to have you back," Allura smiled at him. "We shall get you in a healing pod once we arrive back at the castle and in a few varga you will be back on your feet."

He coughed weakly. "Sounds great to me. And then…" he coughed again, voice grating even on his own ears. "Food? Like, real food? No bugs?"

"Bugs?" Pidge's nose wrinkled.

"It was all we had," Keith said defensively.

But the smile Lance sent him made his hackles drop as he realized the other boy was just teasing.

They made it back to the castle without incident and Lance didn't even protest as Allura scooped him back into her arms to carry him to the infirmary where Coran was waiting with a pod at the ready. He was half-tempted to try a line about how she'd literally swept him off his feet, but exhaustion was winning out and was just too comfortable for Allura to drop him in protest (although given his injuries he didn't think she actually would).

"It's good to see you, my boy," he whispered, moustache quivering, as he pressed a hand against Lance's head.

"You too, Coran," Lance returned in kind, lip trembling again.

Coran and Hunk helped him into a cryo-suit over the weird white clothes he found himself in – more ritual garb that he did not want to know about yet – and then into the pod.

His eyes met Keith's as the door began to slide close and the swordsman gave a firm nod. He'd be staying right there until Lance came out.

And that reassured Lance more than anything else ever could.

xxx

 

Chapter Text

 

Lance stumbled out of the pod several varga later into the waiting arms of Coran, who was holding a super soft fleecy blanket that Lance appreciated more than words could describe.

"How are we feeling?" the advisor asked as he wrapped it firmly about Lance's thin shoulders and gave it a vigorous rub.

"T-tired," Lance yawned, trying to sort through the dull cloud that always came after a cryo-pod healing session. What had he ended up in there for this time? Training… mission… Mackans! Half-lidded eyes flew open. "Keith!"

"He's sleeping just over there," Coran said, pivoting Lance around with ease and pointing to one of the infirmary beds. "Poor lad tried to stay up, but he's suffering from some extreme exhaustion and I insisted he get some rest."

Lance's heart settled back in his chest instead of his throat as he reassured himself that Keith was indeed sleeping peacefully across the room. "What… what time is it?" he yawned again.

"Just past 0500 hours castle time," Coran said. "We landed on Sabodid a varga ago and their people should be waking up soon to the sunrise."

"Sunrise?" Lance perked up.

"Oh, it's a beautiful one it is," Coran said, finally freeing Lance from his hold but tucking the blanket firmly around the tall form. "They have two suns, you see, a yellow one and a beautiful orange one." He tweaked his moustache in delight. "They just make the whole planet glow. We'll be here for a few days so I'm sure you will have a chance to see one when you are feeling more up to it."

Lance shook his head. "I want to see the one today. Do I still have time?" And Dios, it was so weird to be able to say that without having to mime out or hope for good lip reading. He caught his arms dropping though as he went to tap his wrist and cock his head with an embarrassed laugh.

Coran didn't see it though as he was checking his intergalactic watch. "You've got about twenty dobashes before it begins, I'd say."

Lance flashed the Altean a thumbs up. "All right! I'll be right back. Gotta go get dressed."

"Be careful," Coran called after him. "Your body is still weak!"

And that was more than an accurate statement Lance learned as he felt his legs shaking by the time he reached his room and his heart beating doubletime. But he pushed past it, knowing he'd put it through far worse in the desert.

Besides, this was important.

He dressed as quickly as he could in his own clothes – and man, was that a nice feeling – and pulled on actual shoes, relishing in the way they took the brunt of his weight.

He'd spared a quick moment in the bathroom to toss back some mouthwash and try to scrub the grit from his eyes. He really needed a nice, long shower but it was going to have to wait. He had noticed though, even in all his hurrying, that despite the Sins being reversed and his wounds healed he did have one reminder from the ordeal on Macka.

A burn scar ran the whole width of his right palm. It wasn't raised and didn't cause him any pain. But there was a dull pink line of flesh that felt off compared to the rest of his skin. He opened and closed his hand as he walked quickly back to the infirmary, not noticing any residual pain or hindrance.

He made a note though to try and not let Keith see it for a little while. Dios knew the mullet would blame himself even though by doing so he'd saved Lance's life.

He would never forget that. This scar was one of friendship and love and doing what was needed to save each other. He'd treasure it always.

And speaking of the mullet, Keith was still fully asleep on the infirmary bed although Coran had vacated the room in that time. Lance wasted no time going over and poking Keith firmly in the forehead and repeating the gesture when all Keith did was wrinkle his nose in discomfort.

"Keith," he finally hissed, remembering that yes, he could speak now. His hand lightly touched his throat, a frown marring his features for a second. It was going to take getting used to again. His voice still felt… off, the thrumming it made through his vocal cords more obvious than ever before.

Finally, between the poking and his name, Keith cracked open an eye heavy with sleep. "What?" he all but growled.

"Get up," Lance grinned, poking him again for good measure.

Keith blinked at him and then realization struck and he sat up so quickly he nearly brained Lance. "You're awake!"

"And you are still the master of stating the obvious," Lance laughed. "Come on, we have to hurry."

He leaned forward and wrapped his left hand about Keith's, yanking him up and then tugging him along as the half-Galran tried to regain some sense of his usual grace after the forceful awakening.

"Where are we going?" Keith finally asked as he got his feet fully under him, but made no move to get Lance to release his hand and actually went to reciprocate the hold.

"Outside."

"Could you be a little more specific?"

"We're on Sabobid," Lance said as they reached the main foyer. "Hurry, hurry, or we'll miss it."

"Miss what?" Keith grumbled as Lance yanked him out the door. "Where is everyone? What time is it?"

Because the skies in front of them were nearly black with the night and not a speckle of starlight or moon to be seen. Lance wasn't deterred, although he did realize that maybe he ought to have grabbed something to light the way. But the castle's exterior lights were bright enough for him to pick his way up an apparent trail to the top of a hill made up of entirely metal. Very odd, but he'd take it. It was nothing like Macka after all.

Even despite the darkness the night was not cold and Lance was comfortable enough in his jacket. He sat down abruptly on a chosen plot of metal, pulling Keith down with an 'oof!' as well.

"Are you going to actually tell me what is happening?" Keith asked, making himself as comfortable as he could on the hard ground. "Or do I have to guess?"

Lance grinned, white teeth flashing in the dim light. "You were getting pretty good at that."

Even in the darkness Lance could feel the deadpan stare.

"Too soon?" he asked, although the humor fell flat, an unsettling feeling filling him, as yes, it most definitely was. He shivered slightly and not from any outside elements.

"I should be asking you that," Keith retorted without any actual heat, concern instead leeching into the words. "Are you? Okay?"

Lance sighed softly, clenching and unclenching his fists. "I… It's a lot to take in, you know? A lot happened. I still…" His hand went back to this throat. "This feels weird. Talking. Like, I can feel it, you know? And I just… I keep expecting it to disappear again and…"

He let out a soft laugh that wasn't humorous at all. "It feels too quick. Too… sudden."

"I know," Keith said softly. "I feel it too."

"We were dying out there and fighting and running and…" Lance's voice tapered down. "And now it's just over. We're okay and we're safe… but it doesn't feel real. Like any second I'll blink and we'll be back on Macka and I… I won't have these again," he said gesturing at his face to indicate his senses.

"I didn't believe it at first either," Keith told him, trying for a comforting smile that he was relieved Lance returned. "When we got rescued I thought I was hallucinating from the pain." He shook his head, recalling the way Hunk had seemed to materialize in front of him. "They… they literally came right in time, Lance. Another minute even and…" He shook his head. "We got lucky."

"We did," Lance said quietly. "But I like to think it's less luck and more about love, you know?"

Keith felt himself color, still not used to the easy way Lance could speak of such things. Love had always been something so far out of reach; something he'd wanted but hadn't ever had. Not since his dad. And Shiro. And both of them were gone now. And he didn't know if he'd ever see Shiro again.

"Hey," and Lance intertwined their fingers and held their hands up, barely visible in the twilight. "You've got me. And Pidge and Hunk and Allura and Coran. We're your family now and we all love you and I know you love us, even if you're not so good at saying it."

Keith nodded, not trusting himself to speak.

"But you show it," Lance continued. "Out there you… you were amazing Keith. You looked out for me and protected me and you… you did a lot of things I know were hard – I don't know if I could have, to be honest – but you did them to keep us safe. And…" Lance squeezed their hands. "Thank you. I know that's not really enough, but—"

"Lance," Keith interrupted, swallowing past the lump in his throat. "Thank you. For being there. For me. I…"

"Anytime."

"Just…" And purple eyes nearly seemed to glow. "Don't do that again."

He felt Lance flinch. "I—"

"Promise me," Keith demanded. "I don't care what the situation is. You don't get to offer yourself up like some sacrifice," and his voice caught on the word and Lance inhaled sharply, "like that. I told you once and I'll tell you again. None of us want to live at the expense of your life, Lance. You mean too much to us… to me," he swallowed thickly, "to do that. Okay?"

There was a very long pause before he felt Lance nod. "Okay."

"Okay?"

"Okay, I won't do that again," Lance said. "I'm… I'm sorry for scaring you. I just… I wanted you to be safe, Keith. I got us into that mess and—"

"Don't you dare start that up," Keith said hotly. "None of what happened down there was your fault. And even if you did screw up it's never anything that you need to pay with your life for. You got it?"

"… got it," Lance said quietly.

"Good."

"Anyways," Lance said after a pause, bumping their shoulders together, "I brought you out here for something nice and fun."

"What could you possibly want to show me in the middle of the night on a foreign planet?" Keith asked dryly.

"Just watch."

Keith let out a huff that had no heat to it. He didn't even stiffen when he felt Lance's head descend on his shoulder, relaxing instead at the familiar weight. It... it was nice, this closeness. Especially when Lance could enjoy it too without being in pain.

They sat in silence for a few more minutes. Just when Keith was going to ask what they were waiting for so he could go back to bed, a faint orange glow lit up the far sky.

"Is that…?"

"Mhmm," Lance mumbled. "It's a sunrise."

Keith watched, mesmerized, as a second orb lifted above the horizon, this one a dark yellow. The light was still weak, but already it was stretching across the metal planet and lighting up the area with soft golden hues.

"It's beautiful, isn't it?" Lance murmured, the orange overtaking the yellow in a dance of light.

"Yeah…"

"I don't think those sunrises on Macka counted," Lance continued, eyes staring straight out at the suns. "So think of this as your first real once since…"

"Since my dad died," Keith finished quietly.

"I know you miss him," Lance said, turning his head slightly so he was looking up at Keith. "And maybe this is a little painful now. But it's something you used to look fondly back on and I think it's a nice way to think of your dad. Maybe he's up there watching the same sunrise and thinking about you."

"Thank you, Lance," Keith whispered. "This… I'm glad to see one again. You're right. It feels…" he pressed his free hand to his heart. "It feels like home."

"Well good," and Lance smiled up at him, the orange glow turning his mocha skin even warmer. "Because we're your home now. And we can watch sunrises every day if you want to… unless it interferes with my sleep and beauty routine too often. Then we might have to limit it to like, once a week. I mean, you could get up and watch one on your own, but me? I need my beauty rest and—"

"Lance," Keith cut in, stopping the ramble.

"Sorry, sorry," Lance sat up, looking embarrassed. "Still getting used to talking again, you know? I feel like once I get going I'm just not going to stop for a while."

"Lance," Keith repeated, and before Lance could say another word he pulled him into a tight hug. "Thank you."

"No problem," Lance said, voice thick. He squeezed Keith back. "Thanks for being there for me, Keith."

Keith let out a happy sob, tightening the embrace. "You too. You're… you're my brother." The word still lodged in his throat, a joyous disbelief that still made his heart feel too big for his chest and he heard Lance's breath catch at the address and then the hug tightened on his end with a whispered, "you're mine too."

"And you know," Lance said, and Keith could hear the smile and tears in his voice. "We finally had that bonding moment and you got to cradle me in your arms. And I remember it."

Keith lightly cuffed the back of Lance's head, earning a laugh even as he felt his own face widen into a grin.

Lance pulled free of the embrace, only to loop an arm about Keith's shoulders and face them both front. "Now come on and watch the pretty sunrise so then we can go back to bed, all right? I could sleep for like a week."

"I am leader right now," Keith smirked. "I suppose I could order us to stay planet-side for some time and relax."

"Yes. Oh yes, please. And order Hunk to make more garlic biscuits too."

"I'll get right on that."

"You are the best leader ever." And although there was a teasing lilt to the words there was something more solemn behind them and Lance gave Keith's shoulders a gentle squeeze. "You really are, Keith. You're doing a great job. I owe my life to you. I won't forget that."

"…just watch the sunrise," Keith choked out, feeling that traitorous lump in his throat again.

Lance chuckled next to him. "Sir, yes sir."

Blue and purple eyes turned as one to watch the golden rays spread across the landscape, warming the cold metal and turning the entire planet into a glowing field of yellow and orange.

It was the start to not just a brand new day but the promise of a new friendship. And just like the two suns, slowly rising together above the horizon, it was looking so, so bright.

xxx