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You Gave Up Halfway (and It Cost Me)

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First day back on Earth

 

Iverson leads them through the biosecurity gates so that the paladins can disinfect their armour and Coran and Romelle their boots. Keith would like to argue necessity, but given the current state of the Earth the last thing they need is a biological hazard from space wreaking havoc on the planet also.

Kosmo’s a bundle of curiousity, eyes wide and nose twitching as he takes in their new surroundings. Keith smiles at him, but that smile vanishes when another dog walks into the hangar.

Keith’s throat constricts. It’s wearing a muzzle.

James has stopped beside him, eyebrows raised. “Uh, Keith? You never seen a biosecurity dog before?”

“Are you worried about your, uh…your wolf?” Rizavi asks.

Everything but the dog blurs and whites out in his vision.

“Don’t worry, it’s on a leash. See?”

He should move. But he can’t. If he takes one more step, he’ll be walking through those gates. They’ll do the same thing to him. As soon as they find out he’s Galra…

Keith sucks in a breath, tries to force himself forward but takes a step back. He bumps into James, and before he can move away, he’s being lightly shoved forwards with an impatient comment.

Keith staggers, a wobbly mess of adrenaline and fear. He gulps down air, grips the sides of the gates –

But he can still see the dog – he can’t take his eyes off it – and his heartrate’s too fast and his throat hurts from trying to get enough air into his lungs.

In his peripheral, he sees a flash of green. Pidge follows his line of sight and freezes. She mutters a curse beneath her breath a moment before Keith chokes on the start of a scream.

 


 

 

Before Keith left Voltron for the Blade of Marmora

 

You’ll be fine, he tells himself. Allura’s made sure they don’t mind. Nothing’s going to happen to you.

Keith does his best to reassure himself it will be fine, but he’s anxious. Visits to alien planets on the basis of creating an alliance have never gone well for him, and the last few times he’s been insulted, shunned and glared at all for doing nothing more than being there in paladin armour. It’s never been anything serious, it’s just…

One of these days something’s going to go wrong, for sure.

The paladins file out of the Castle where they meet their escort. He seems friendly enough. His gaze doesn’t linger on Keith so that’s a positive, and they follow him down the hill to the city without incident.

Keith lags behind the group, staring down into city. There’s a lot of buildings. Alleyways and clusters of smaller structures that look like markets are everywhere to be seen. There’s a high wall of defence wrapped around the city, sloped inward and built up high enough to keep sentries out – and, Keith thinks, Galra invaders in.

He tries to stop thinking too hard, tries to convince himself he’s just worrying too much, but then they arrive at the city gates and Keith’s gut instinct is proven correct.

Their escort takes a set of equipment from the security box and turns to Keith.

“I’m afraid you’ll need to put these on,” he says. “While Galra are indeed permitted inside our city walls, we must remain diligent in our risk management practices.”

Keith swallows. “I…”

It’s a muzzle. And a collar, with a leash attached to it.

No.”

Keith turns his head to see Pidge looking ready to shred the green alien guy with her bayard. Beside her, Hunk’s eyes are blown wire in horror and Lance’s face has lost a shade of colour.

“Why was this not conveyed over our video communication earlier?” Allura asks tightly. “I find this highly disrespectful.”

The escort blinks. “You merely asked if your Galra-blooded paladin was allowed within our walls and the answer, as I did convey to you, is yes. It is law that Galra are permitted entry under the condition that they do not speak and are controlled at all times. We have had a few…incidents of late that brought about the necessity of this law.”

Controlled…

“You couldn’t pardon him, could you?” Shiro frowns. “We’ll all be staying together as a group. Keith isn’t a threat to anyone.”

“With armour and a weapon on his person, he most certainly is.”

Lance glances at Keith, worried. “So what, you’re asking him to strip now, too?”

“Just the armour and the weapon.”

“Won’t the Queen and her ambassadors be wondering why there’s only four paladins present?”

Keith tries his best to look small, shoulders hunched, eyes down, arms crossed tightly over his chest. His knees are shaking a little at the thought of what they want him to do. He clenches his jaw and focuses on keeping his breathing steady.

Shiro shifts uncomfortably on his feet. “Well, the shoulder pads on our flight suits are coloured, so they’ll be able to see Keith’s a paladin.”

His heart plummets. They’re going to make him do it.

Pidge stares at Shiro in disbelief. “No. We are not making Keith wear a quiznaking muzzle.

Allura winces. “Pidge, language. We must respect the terms of entry.”

“And it’ll be just for a few hours,” Shiro adds.

Pidge draws in a sharp breath. “No. This isn’t right, at all. How would you like to – ”

I’ll do it.

Silence. Keith regrets his words immediately.

Hunk shakes his head. “No, Keith.”

The mission is more important than the individual.

“Look,” Keith says, voice pitching. “If it’s just for the duration of us being here, which isn’t that long, I’ll do it. I can handle it.”

No one says anything.

He takes off his armour, slowly. Every piece that comes off leaves him more and more exposed. No one stops him, so he keeps going until he’s standing only in his flight suit and boots, his armour piled into a box that security will keep safe until he returns to get it.

Then comes the real humiliation.

The escort flashes him an approving half-smile and hands him the muzzle. Keith’s blood runs cold at the weight of it in his hands. The alien gives him directions on how to put it on and everyone watches, disturbed, as he shakily complies.

As he brings the device to his face, Shiro takes a step towards him.

“Do you need help to put it on?” he asks slowly.

Keith wants to be sick. “No, it’s fine.”

It’s not fine, not in the least.

The buckles make a sickening click as they connect and automatically fasten behind his head. As they do, the pressure from the strap over the bridge of his nose increases and the synthetic cloth presses tighter over his mouth. But it’s the hum against his jaw that freaks him out the most, forcing his teeth together with barely enough time to avoid catching a lip.

Keith breathes hard through his nose. It’s on him now. There’s no manual release mechanism, so it’s on him until they get back here after the walk to the ambassador hall and the meeting in the hall and the walk back…

He could back out now. He could shake his head and gesture that it’s too much, and he could go back to the Castle with whoever’s willing to skip the meeting to go with him. But it’s not like Pidge, Lance or Hunk are about to say anything for him, either, despite insisting against the idea just a minute ago.

The escort hands him the collar. It locks in place around his neck and the escort gives the other end of the lead to Shiro. Keith’s face burns. He avoids all eye contact and tries to ignore the way the hair of his neck stands up.

Shame, is what this situation reads, but he has to endure it now. There’s no taking the muzzle or the collar off until they get back; there’s no manual release mechanism, meaning they require a passcode that security has to unlock them.

In the meantime he has to walk through the city like this, arms folded uncomfortable over his chest, his last line of defence. Shiro keeps the leash slack the whole way over to the ambassador’s hall and checks on Keith with a glance over his shoulder every couple of minutes.

The others are too disturbed for words, even Allura who a month ago would’ve probably supported this city’s measures of risk management. No one knows what to say and in the meantime, while they don’t, Keith tries to forget his own name.

 

 

As it turns out, Galra aren’t allowed beyond the ambassador hall foyer. Apparently the rooms within ‘should not be tainted’, so Keith has to wait outside.

He’s not sure what’s more humiliating – being walked on a lead down a public street by someone he calls his brother or being left outside like a dog at the supermarket, lead tied (according to protocol) to a post at a point that’s too high for him to reach.

If he moves more than a step the collar jerks him back. The leash won’t give so, frustrated and close to tears, Keith tries fiddling with the collar instead. Of course nothing works. The muzzle remains tight against his face, too, only adding to the distress he can’t get away from now.  

He’s being treated like a dog. That’s what this is.

But the worst part about it is that none of the others stood up for him. Sure, Pidge, Lance and Hunk may have said no to these terms and conditions to begin with, but they didn’t keep saying no. Now Keith’s out here, separated from them by a couple of heavy, sound-proof double doors –

“What do you think you’re doing?”

Keith freezes. His fingers hover beside the strap he’d been trying to stop putting so much pressure on the bridge of his nose. He turns, slowly, to see two lanky green aliens headed his way.

Quiznak.

“You’ve been given special permission to be here,” the taller one says. “You keep that on, mutt.”

Keith bristles, face red in humiliation. He suddenly wishes the flight suit didn’t have a translator built into it.

“What? Got nothing to say?”

The shorter guy snickers at Keith’s glare. “You look like you could do with a walk. That sound good? I know, how about we take you out for some fresh air.”

They grab him. Keith fights them, but they wrestle him down, the collar pulling at his neck, and in seconds have his wrists bound behind his back and then the leash is untied from the post and they’re making him walk...

They’re kidnapping him. They’re kidnapping him and he can scream for help all he likes but no one’s going to hear him – not with the sound proof doors and the cloth muffling his voice. Voltron won’t notice he’s gone until the meeting’s finished, which will be an hour at least.

All Keith knows is that he’s screwed.

 

 

Ten minutes into the meeting, Pidge stands up abruptly. “I’m not okay with this.”

The planet’s queen and her ambassador’s frown deeply, but Pidge doesn’t care about that. All she cares about right now is Keith.

“Pidge,” Allura says politely. “Please sit down.”

“No, I’ve had it. I’m taking Keith back to the Castle with me.”

Another chair scrapes back, quickly followed by another. Hunk and Lance move out of their seats, each giving her a nod.

Hunk makes his way to the door and pauses with a grimace. “We apologise for our rudeness, we really do, but there is something that we can’t ignore and that’s how disrespectful we've been to my own teammate – our friend. I hope you can understand.”

“Sorry, Allura,” Lance says with an awkward bow. “Sorry, Your Majesty.”

They leave the meeting room and don’t look back.

Hunk barges through the second lot of double doors. “We should’ve done this a heck of a lot sooner.”

“I don’t know if I can forgive myself,” Lance whispers.

They burst out into the foyer and come to a startled halt. It’s empty. The post Keith had sat down to wait by is unattended and Keith himself is nowhere to be found.

Footsteps sound behind them and Allura comes marching through the doors, a hard look on her face – until she glances sideways.

Whatever reprimand had been on the Princess’ lips, it’s gone now.

“W-where is Keith?” she asks. “Could he have slipped away and gone for a walk?”

Pidge holds her tongue. She curls her hands into fists and concentrates hard on not spilling out all the retorts and curses and expressions of anger she can think of. But it’s hard, because it’s not just Allura she’s angry at – she’s enraged at herself, that she’d tell herself how important her family meant to her and then go ahead and just let all of this happen to Keith.

Since when did Keith ever stop being found family to her? How could she let this happen?

“He was taken, Princess,” Shiro says, coming through the doors to stand beside them.

Shiro looks absolutely ridden with guilt and Pidge isn’t ashamed to say she's glad he is. They all should be. They’re the ones who let this happen in the first place.

“Alright, well…we need to go find him,” Lance says. “Pidge, Hunk and I will do that while you keep the queen and her associates happy. Sound good?”

Allura nods. “I’m about ready to simply be done with the idea of having an alliance with these people if this is how others are treated in their borders, but yes, Shiro and I will see to the rest of the formalities.”

Shiro lays a hand on Lance’s shoulder, gaze steely.

“Go find him.”

 

 

Once outside the side door of the ambassador hall, they throw Keith on the ground and give him a swift kick to the stomach.

“How did you –

Another kick, to the shoulder.

“ – become one of the – “

Stomach.

“ – Voltron Paladins?”

Keith curls in on himself, in on the pain in his abdomen. He gags on lack of air behind the muzzle.

A heel to his shin.

“I can’t believe the Queen even let you in,” the alien holding onto the leash mutters. For good measure he gives is a jerk.

Keith chokes.

“Should’ve stayed away. Guessing you know that now, though.”

His head hits a rock jutting out of the ground.

Paladin. We are still bonded. I come.

A kick to the ribs.

No, Red, Keith thinks. He screws his eyes shut. There’s –

Another. Another.

Red, there’s too many people. You’ll kill them if you come.

A rib cracks. He screams, muffled.

Paladin –

I’ll be fine.

Winded.

PALADIN.

…just get the others…

 

 

They fan out and search around the ambassador hall to start off with, but they find no trace of Keith except a splattering of blood on the ground. It’s not much, but it’s still blood and it’s Hunk who finds it.

There was a scuffle of sorts here. Someone was definitely on the losing side and Pidge knows who. The scan from her gauntlet confirms the blood is human-Galra blood.

“We would’ve heard him,” Lance whispers. “He was probably calling for us but we didn’t hear him…”

“Because of that stupid quiznaking muzzle,” Pidge finishes.

Even the heavy doors of the meeting room wouldn’t have cancelled out the noise of such a commotion, had Keith actually been able to raise his voice to make one. It’s sickening to think they let him put it on in the first place.

And now he’s…Keith is…

“Alright,” Lance says. “Let’s split up and search. Let’s check this side of the city to begin with. Whoever took him can’t have gotten far.”

Hunk takes a deep, shaky breath. “We need to stay close to each other, in case one of us finds him and needs help.”

“Good plan.”

“I think we should make ourselves less conspicuous first,” Pidge says. “If the whoever has Keith sees us coming – which they will, since we’re in bright white Paladin armour in a dark, cobbled city – they’ll take Keith away before we can get to him.”

Lance frowns. “Where are going to get disguises from?”

“Steal ‘em from the marketplace?”

“We don’t have any money.”

Hunk lets out an exclamation and points to the far end of the ambassador building. There’s no windows or glass panes running along the wall there, so Pidge presumes it must be some kind of washing up area. Then her eyes catch on the navy sheets hung up on the washing line and she grins.

Hope the queen doesn’t mind a few missing tablecloths.

They fashion the large rectangles of material into cloaks in the space of a minute. They’re crude, nothing more than a makeshift cape to drape over their shoulders like a kid pretending to be Superman, but they cover their Paladin armour well and it only takes a few slashes of Pidge’s bayard to adjust the length for each of them.

Pidge takes to the outskirts, checking along the perimeter. Hunk and Lance take to the streets, heading towards the marketplace. Pidge’s route also takes her into the same area. She decides at once she doesn’t like this place in the least.

A tangy, metallic smell overwhelms her senses the further she heads into marketplace. There’s trees on the other side of the city walls, but they do nothing to absorb the smell. She ends up having to cover her mouth with a piece of material she cut off from the bottom of her makeshift cloak.

It’s awful and this place is full of shadows and disturbing air, but it gets worse. It gets worse because, as she’s passing an alleyway that leads to the back of one of the marketplace stalls, she catches a glimpse of Keith.

“Guys?” she whispers. “I found him.”

Hunk and Lance answer back with a sharp intake of breath.

“He’s – ”

She pauses, squinting. She can’t see what’s on the other side of the stage Keith is on, but he’s kneeling and he’s bound and there’s an extravagantly dressed alien holding a microphone in one hand and the leash attached to Keith’s collar in the other.

“Pidge?”

“You’re freaking us out, man. What is it?”

Pidge has to force herself not to run straight in there. “He’s being sold.”

Lance and Hunk try their best to not draw attention to themselves, blending their curses and horrified exclamations in a low string of syllables. Pidge has to restrain herself from uttering even one word or else she’ll lose it completely.

“I’m about fifty metres from him, but I need a distraction. I don’t know how many people are on the other side of the stage but I think there’s a lot.” She pulls up a thermal scan on her gauntlet and grimaces. “Yep, there’s a lot. I can’t take all of them on and get Keith out of there on my own.”

“We’re on our way,” Lance says.   

While she waits, Pidge listens. If she hears anything that tells her time’s up, she’ll charge in there, but for now the best thing to do is wait for back up. Patience yields focus, as Keith always says.

Patience, right. She has none.

This is a market where misbehaving Galra are sold to wealthy families on this planet to be ‘reconditioned’. To live as pets and learn good interactions with others. To teach children about good interactions with species of a different kind, including Galra.

But Pidge knows that’s not even the half of it. This is just the tame version of what the public hear on the streets – and Keith knows it too. She can see it in the resigned slump of his shoulders. The seller’s hand lands on his head and strokes his hair, but there’s nothing he can do but flinch.

Why isn’t Red responding? she thinks, then realises Keith probably asked her not too.

Which means he’s waiting for her and Hunk and Lance and Shiro and Allura for a rescue – one that he might even think will never come. She’s seen how his foster families treated him. Those are memories Keith desperately tries to hide from them whenever they do a group mind-meld, but there have been times when he accidently slips. Bruises all over his body and neglect. The one time he had enough courage to ask for help and then was beaten even worse when he got found out.

The moment she hears Lance’s voice above the crowd, she moves. Keith will be treated far worse if they lose sight of him now.

Not happening.

“No, sir, I don’t think that’s an acceptable price at all.”

Pidge’s stomach churns. Oh no, Lance…

“First of all,” Lance is protesting from the crowd. “He’s only a half. You can’t sell him at full price. That’s a rip-off.”

She wants to hiss at him to stop, but she needs this distraction. If she’s going to get to Keith without anyone see her approaching, she needs him to keep going.

“I’ve heard rumours about the Red Paladin. He’s a handful, apparently. Doesn’t listen. Hot-headed. Glares all the time.”

Pidge makes it to the stage and ducks down out of sight. The distraction’s working. She can see Hunk positioning himself at the other end of the stage, creeping down a narrow alleyway with bayard at the ready.

“He’ll probably need to be tamed.”

Keith sobs. Pidge’s heart shreds in two.

“You’re telling me you’re trying to sell him for 20,000 GAC?”

Hunk catches her eye and transforms his bayard into his hand-held cannon.

“He’s not worth that much, if you ask me.”

Pidge lets loose a guttural battle cry and flings herself onto the stage.

The crowd erupts in panic. Good. Panic is good. Lance sidles out of the way and brings out his bayard. Hunk rams into the seller, sending him over the edge of the stage. Pidge slashes at the lead before Keith can be yanked down with him.

Oh no…

Keith’s a mess. There’s blood caking one side of his face. It’s matted in his hair smeared over the straps on the muzzle. His eyes are dull and rimmed red, one of them discoloured black and forced half-shut because of the blood.

Pidge does a quick check around her, making sure there’s no one coming, then wraps her arms around him and shuffles them both to the back of the stage. The first thing she does is use her bayard to slice through the locking mechanism on the muzzle. Keith’s ears burn red in humiliation when she turns his head to the side to do it and he flinches violently when her bayard meets lock.

The muzzle releases. The straps loosen and Keith lets out a whimper. Pidge hooks her fingers between his face and the thick synthetic cloth and gently pries it off.

She swallows hard. “Breathe, Keith. Come on.”

His jaw opens and he lurches forward with a strangled gasp. Pidge cuts through the collar and he doubles over, chest heaving, mouth hanging open and tears streaming down his face.

“I’m so sorry we let this happen. We never should’ve made you come into the city with us.”

Pidge pulls him back against her so she can cut him free of the cord pinning his arms to his sides and his hands behind his back. Keith inhales sharply. She readjusts her hold around him, feels something give way –

Keith shouts in pain. Pidge jumps, quickly moving her arm off his ribs.

“Quiznak, what the heck did they do to you?”

What did we do to you?

The cord binding him comes free with a quick nick of her bayard and finally, after a couple of seconds unwinding it from his wrists, Keith’s free. He slumps against Pidge, breathing too fast and too shallow to be good. He’s shaking, badly.

“Keith!”

With the crowds gone from the street and Lance keeping watch, Hunk deactivates his bayard and jumps back up on the stage. Keith flinches at the impact of Hunk’s boots on the floorboards.

“If this is a market,” Lance says, coming over but still scanning the street, “there’s probably others.”

A moment of hesitation. They all glance at Keith, taking in the injuries they could’ve prevented…

“It’ll take too long,” Pidge says. “We need to get Keith back to the Castle now. He needs a cryopod.”

The comms crackle. “Pidge, it’s Allura. Head back to the Castle now. We’re coming back.”

Lance narrows his eyes at the salesperson who peers around the corner of a building.

“The queen isn’t sending out forces to apprehend us, is she?” Pidge asks.

“No. We made it quite clear that we will use necessary force if anyone gets in our way.”

“Good, because Keith’s in bad shape and it’s going to take us a little while to get back. ETA ten to fifteen dobashes.”

“Go. Shiro and I will contact Coran and retrieve Keith's armour on the way.”

They don’t waste time. Pidge shifts so that Hunk can scoop Keith up in his arms, face paling at Keith’s cries of pain. Hunk tries his best to hold him without putting pressure on his broken rib, but it’s impossible not to if they’re going to carry him back.

Pidge’s eyes widen. “Wait! We can use our cloaks as a stretcher!”

She slips the tablecloth off and frowns. Too short. But Hunk’s already nodding at his own shoulder.

“Use my one,” he says, lowering himself into a crouch so that Pidge can take his cloak from him.

After tying a second loop at the hem, they have a makeshift stretcher with a handle at each end. Hunk lowers Keith onto it, being extra careful not to let him knock his head. Lance is automatically allocated their lookout and guard, so Hunk takes the end of the stretcher by Keith’s head and Pidge takes the other.

Hunk nods at Pidge. “Alright, lift!”

“Stay with us, Keith,” Lance says, walking ahead of them. “We’ll have you back at the Castle in now time.”

Keith doesn’t say anything. Pidge can’t see him when she’s watching where she’s walking, but when she glances over her shoulder to check how he’s doing, she’s alarmed to see his lower lip quivering. Those tears aren’t just from physical pain.

He’s been utterly humiliated.

 


 

 

 

Back on Earth, Present Day

 

 

“Just focus on breathing, Keith.”

Shiro pulls him against him with his arm. Keith tries to calm himself, tries to stop shaking but he can’t, he can’t, he can’t…

“You’re okay, Keith,” Shiro murmurs. “Just focus on breathing, okay? In and out, nothing else.”

Keith’s legs go weak. Shiro sinks to the ground beside the gate with him. Kosmo flashes into appearance beside them and presses himself against Keith’s back, a solid presence, warm and reassuring and protective.

Everyone’s staring, bewildered. Keith doesn’t have to look to know. He can’t imagine what the other Paladins must be thinking – their leader, having a breakdown in front of all the people in the Garrison they’re meant to be showing their strength to.

This is ridiculous. It’s been almost three years since that happened. Why am I…?

Kosmo shifts as a pair of arms wrap around Keith’s back.

Pidge. He remembers the long hug she’d given him after he came out of the cryopod. He hadn’t returned it for how shaken he was, but the way she’d held onto him was enough to convey the apology she couldn’t find sufficient enough words for.

Lance kneels down between Shiro and Pidge and joins the hug. Keith hadn’t been able to face the others while recovering from his ordeal on that planet, so he’d left for the Blade of Marmora only a couple of weeks after. Lance had kept trying to contact him, but Kolivan had restrictions on Voltron’s communications with Keith until he was ready to talk to them. That hadn’t stopped Lance from calling and checking up on him every third movement or so though.

Hunk takes the space Kosmo opens up for him. Hunk… he hadn’t stopped looking for him. When Keith hadn’t shown up to meals, Hunk had brought it to his room for him. He’d offered to do Keith’s washing when he was too tired to from sleeping badly, and he’d stayed up late with him when Keith wandered into the kitchen to get away from being alone.

There’s barely enough room, but Allura, Coran and Romelle join in the hug also. Allura ended up officially flagging the alliance the moment she heard the report of Keith’s injuries. Coran had concocted various remedies to help with Keith’s recovery and Romelle, though not aware of the full story, has never hesitated to give Keith a hug when she sees he needs it.

All activity going on around them stills. People stare but it’s out of awe at the closeness of the team huddled on the floor, a group of friends who have messed up countless times but haven’t stopped supporting each other.

Because if there’s one thing they’ve learnt, it’s that when your team is family you don't stop halfway in helping them – you go the extra mile.