The rippling secondary explosions dancing across the hull of the Galra ship tossed his craft like a ship on the ocean. He had managed to pull back from the worst of it, Lotor’s ship hovering just on the edge of his field of vision, but in the violent jerks and lurches, Keith’s head collided with the dash in a sickening crack. His last conscious moments consumed by blinding light and a dark thought.
‘I... failed… But, at least they’ll make it, that’s all that matters... They’re fine without you, they’re strong, they don’t need you… They didn’t really ever need you.’
. . .
The sun shone through the window, warm on his face, but the chill bit at his fingers and toes. Keith pulled the threadbare blanket tighter as he rolled over. His eyes slowly focused on the small potted cactus on the table, a lopsided paper star speared through on one of the spines. Keith frowned, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
“Mmm- weird dream,” he grumbled to the empty shack.
Keith shot up. Or well, he shot up as much as he could, tangled in the blanket. One shoulder leaned against the door, Lotor watched him unamused. Keith scrambled for his Marmora Blade under his pillow and took a defensive stance, the coffee table the only thing between him and the Galran Prince.
“Oh, please,” Lotor said, straightening, expression nothing more than bored. “I believe we have more important thi-”
Keith was lunging at Lotor before he could even finish his sentence. He sliced his blade through the air, catching himself on the door and wheeling around. His shack sat empty and silent in front of him. Labored breaths huffed from his lungs as Keith whipped his head back and forth, ready for whatever attack was sure to come his way.
The seconds dragged by and Lotor was still nowhere to be seen. Aggression bubbled in Keith’s veins, and he threw open the door, the harsh wind grabbing at his hair and shirt. He searched around his home to no avail. Whatever trick Lotor had managed to pull, it was working. As the adrenaline began to wan, Keith registered the cold seeping into his bones and reached just inside the door to grab his beat up red leather jacket from the back of his desk chair. As he pushed his arms through the sleeves, he heard a voice over his shoulder.
“I believe I saved you from needlessly dive bombing my father’s great weapon, you think you’d be a bit more grateful,” Lotor drawled from the porch.
“Screw you,” Keith bit out as he turned to face him. “It looks like I didn’t make it out anyway-”
“Yes, well... not all plans go accordingly.”
“So, what is this, the… afterlife… or-”
“It appears to be a hovel on your home planet,” Lotor said as he wrinkled his nose at the decrepit building.
“Must be hell…” Keith mused as he closed the door behind him. “So what, I’m just supposed to endure you for all eternity, or what?”
“You can do as you wish.” Lotor blinked out of existence only to appear more than a hundred yards away, walking in the direction of the Garrison.
“Crap.” Keith dug into his pocket, just hoping they’d still be there. When his fingers wrapped around the jagged metal of his keys, he pulled them free and ran towards his hoverbike.
Keith followed at a breakneck speed, never quite able to gain on Lotor. He only considered he should be worried about being spotted as he drifted to a stop behind one of the older hangars with far less student and staff foot traffic. He pulled an old mottled tarp from one of the sidebags and draped it over the giant red beacon to his presence. The yard was empty. Gauging from the sun, it couldn’t be much later than noon. He slipped through a side door, ducking his way through empty halls and keeping an eye out for Lotor. Keith peeked around a corner, body hugged tightly to the wall as-
A deafening alarm rang out above his head. Oh god, had he been spotted? His hand grabbed the hilt of the blade strapped behind his back, prepared for- the droves of students filling the halls?....
Keith’s panic shifted. Eyes raked over him as cadets passed by. He pushed his way through the crowds until he was in a more sparsely occupied area. He caught his breath, trying to determine his next move before he glanced up to see Iverson headed his way. Keith cursed under his breath knowing full well he was about to be tossed out on his ass all over again. Iverson loomed over him, brows pinched.
“Where is your uniform, cadet,” he barked.
“Failure to adhere to dress code is an automatic write up.” Keith ducked the spittle flying from his old instructor’s mouth. Could he be written up if he technically didn’t go there anymore? “What is your name, cadet?”
Had they forgotten him so quickly? “Kogane, Keith… sir…”
“Kogane… I better not catch you out of uniform again!”
Iverson marched on through the hall in the direction of the teacher’s lounge. Keith could feel the frown deepening on his face. He turned his attention back to the halls, slowly dwindling to fewer students. He felt a presence at his side and turned to see Lotor, for all the world walking through the halls as if he belonged there. Keith braced for the adverse reaction from those nearest, but none came.
“Why is nobody freaking out at the giant purple jerk?”
“They can’t see me, obviously.”
“Yeah, right, of course,” Keith said sarcastically. It’s not like today could get any more bizarre. He took notice of the student bulletin boards, all bright reds and greens and blues and yellows popping on the black background and declaring ‘Merry Christmas’ and ‘Happy Holidays’. He walked in a haze for a few moments before a familiar form crossed his path.
“Hunk! Hunk,” Keith called as he wove through the crowd. Hunk turned at the sound of his name, a questioning look on his face. When Keith reached him, he put a hand on his shoulder, panic ebbing the longer he was near his friend.
“I’m so glad to see you.”
“Uhhh… nice to see you too? Do I... know you?”
Keith blanched. “What do you mean do you know me? We’re… friends… we-”
“Oh, um, are you in my chem class, or…” Hunk smiled apologetically. “It’s kind of a big class, and I kind of laser focus in there so-”
“What, no, I’m not in- It’s me, Keith, your…” Keith’s shoulders fell when Hunk continued to stare at him. Suddenly Hunk was nearly being bowled over, wrapped in long limbs.
“Hunk! I can’t believe classes are out early, we can actually celebrate Christmas Eve!”
“Lance,” Keith breathed. Lance would remember him.
Lance seemed to take notice of Keith for the first time. “Who’s this?”
“Oh, uh, this is…” Hunk gestured to him. Keith broke. He grabbed Lance’s arm, desperation contorting his face.
“C’mon, Lance! It’s Keith! Y- y’know, Lance and Keith… neck and neck…”
Lance looked at him like he’d grown an extra head. “Uh, sure….” He gave Hunk a look, clearly indicating that Keith was off his rocker. He attempted to break Keith’s hold on his arm, but Keith held tight. Lance had to remember him, he had to. “Dude get off of me,” Lance shrieked, reaching for Hunk. “I don’t know you!”
Keith let go, Lance’s response a shock to his system. Lance and Hunk stepped further away, keeping a careful eye on Keith. He could hear their whispers of how apples and bananas this guy was.
“Anyway…” Lance seemed to visibly shake off their encounter. “It’s Christmas Eve, and we should celebrate,” He suggested.
Something caught Lance’s attention, and Keith’s hope that it was his obvious anguish was dashed the second he called out, “Ay, Gunderson!” Keith whipped his head around to see Pidge passing by discreetly on the other side of the hall. “Party tonight, you in?”
“Yeah right,” Pidge muttered. “I wouldn’t be caught dead.”
“C’mon, contraband- eggnog and cheesy movies, lights-” he called after their retreating back. Lance shook his head and turned back to Hunk. “Man, he’s such a wet blanket.”
Pidge had stopped at a locker and Keith was caught halfway between wanting to stay with Lance and Hunk or running to Pidge. If anyone was smart enough to figure out what was going on it was them. Keith started to turn Pidge’s way, Hunk and Lance still animatedly discussing their plans for the evening. Lotor stood idly in his path.
“What’s happening,” Keith barely managed to choke out.
“It would appear to be some Earth holiday,” Lotor supplied unhelpfully.
“Why don’t they remember me?” Keith stopped in his tracks, pulling at his hair.
“I believe your exact words were ‘they didn’t really ever need you.’” Lotor swept a strand of hair away from his face.
“You risked everything for your team, to save them of course, but part of you feels like they never needed you in the first place, yes?”
“I- I mean.” Keith tried to swallow the lump in his throat, mouth suddenly drier than the desert outside.
“You’ve been given a gift, paladin. To see what the world would be if you simply never were.”
The air was punched from Keith’s lungs. “I- I never…Voltron never... they- they aren’t even friends with Pidge,” Keith all but sobbed. A shiver ran through him as his entire body tensed. “Where’s Shiro?” His voice was small, and when Lotor gave him no answer, he looked up, a fire burning in him. “Where. Is. Shiro?” He grabbed Lotor’s collar.
Lotor seemed unbothered by the whole exchange. “You won’t like my answer.”
“You weren’t there the day he crashed back down. You weren’t there to cause a diversion and help rescue him.” Keith’s arms fell limp at his sides. “He was forced to give the Garrison information and when he became of no more use, well…”
Keith could feel the hard floor connecting with his knees. The warm tears starting to streak down his face.
“Strange, isn’t it? How each man’s life is woven into so many others? When he isn’t around he leaves a terrible hole, doesn’t he?” Lotor’s nonchalant drawl was like daggers on his skin.
Keith was aware of the people staring. Pidge had turned from their locker, Hunk and Lance had stopped talking and stared openly. He pushed himself up on wobbly limbs. He didn’t want this. This world was not his, these friends were not… He would make this right.
A melodic tone crackled from the loud speakers, and suddenly it was as if Keith had never caused a scene in the first place. Students hurried to close up their lockers, turning to stand stock still with their backs against the wall.
Keith heard Lance whisper to Hunk as they positioned themselves with the others. “Holy crow, on Christmas Eve?”
Double doors at the end of the hall slammed open and Keith couldn’t help his mouth dropping open as a team of Galra soldiers entered the hallway. Keith pushed himself between two students before he could be spotted. Every head was turned down, eyes glued to the floor. The large commander paced along the rows of students, a disgusting smirk painted across his face. Lotor was nowhere to be seen, Keith wasn’t even surprised, useless son of a-
The hulking monster stopped before a young cadet, gripping his cheeks and forcefully turning his head side to side. The young boy struggled to hold back tears, his eyes squeezed shut. Finally the commander pushed the boy’s face back towards the ground and continued down the hall. “We’ll only be taking one tonight,” the Commander chuckled as he appraised each cadet he passed. “Any volunteers?”
The halls were silent, no student moved, but the Commander seemed even more delighted by this. He finally stopped in front of Pidge. “How about-”
“I- I volunteer!” Hunk was desperately trying to pull Lance back to the wall as he choked out the words. The commander smirked, turning towards him, boots clacking across the two feet of concrete until his throat met the tip of a blade.
“W-what-” The commander stopped abruptly the moment Keith slid into his path.
“You’re not taking anyone.”
“You dare-” The Commander’s yellow eyes bulged. “You want so badly to meet the Druids yourself, cadet?”
Keith didn’t care what happened to him in that moment. He knew he would fight tooth and nail for his friends, even when they didn’t know they were his friends. He would single handedly fight Zarkon himself. He would crash headlong into a ship if he thought it would save them. Because, he realized, he needed them. He didn’t want to have never been there, because he needed these people, this mottled together, weird, family of his. He needed them, and right now they needed him.
Keith began to push forward with his blade.
“Hold him,” the Commander bellowed.
Before Keith could react, two sets of strong, familiar arms latched onto him. Hunk and Lance looked terrified as they held him back. He could hear them whispering how sorry they were, but Keith smiled brokenly at them. It didn’t matter, real or some bizarre dream or afterlife or whatever, he would always be there for them. Christmas lights twinkled in the door frame behind them.
“We need each other!” Keith looked at Lance. “We need each other,” he repeated, desperate to make them understand as he looked from Hunk to Pidge. “Lotor, I don’t care what it takes! I want to be there for them, I want to live! Let me live, please, I want to live,” he cried out as a heavy purple fist collided with his head.
. . .
“See, paladin? You’ve had a wonderful life. Don’t you see what a mistake it would have been to have needlessly sacrificed it?”
. . .
Dark and cold and damp surrounded him. Every inch of him stiff and sluggish.
His heavy feet carried him forward. The hiss of air filled the quiet space. Strong arms gripped him tightly.
“Woah, hey man.” Keith looked up into Lance’s worried face. “You shouldn’t-”
Keith leapt back as agile as he could manage. He whirled around in search of the Galra, coming full circle to Lance slowly advancing. “Stay back, Lance, I don’t want to hurt you.”
“What?” Lance stopped in his tracks. “Keith, I think you need a little more time in the healing pod. Must have hit your head harder than we-”
“Wait, what? What did you say?” Keith’s hands, raised and ready, dropped to his sides.
“I think,” Lance said loudly and slowly, pausing only a moment before continuing. “You hit your head harder than we thought.”
“No, no, the other-”
“About the pods?”
“No!” Keith huffed. “You said my name, you said- you, you know me?”
“Oh, yeah buddy, we’re definitely putting you back- Coran!” Lance shouted towards the doors of the med bay.
Keith finally registered where he was. That Lance had said healing pods. That Lance had said his name and Coran’s name.
“I’m- I’m back?” Keith barked a laugh. Lance looked like he was two seconds away from trying to find a straight jacket, but Keith threw his arms around him. “Merry Christmas, Lance!” He laughed again, pulling back. Coran had entered the room, a couple mice in tow.
“Merry Christmas, Coran! Merry Christmas, mice!” Keith pulled away from Lance. “Merry Christmas, CastleShip, healing pods-”
. . .
“Merry Christmas, Voltron!”
Seven voices rang out in the common area. The room was laden in strips of bright fabric, illuminated by a multitude of holodecks. Pidge had rigged a projected image of what appeared to be a doodle of a Christmas tree, and Lance had one of Coran’s cubes repeating Christmas carols back at him. Hunk and Shiro mixed milkshakes with flavors Hunk swore would taste like mint or egg nog.
When Keith had been thoroughly checked over by Coran, and given a clean bill of health, he had explained away his outburst. It had all been a dream anyway, right? Still, he couldn’t quite bring himself to say what exactly he had witnessed, leaving it simply at “it was Christmas.”
Pidge said they couldn’t be certain, but by their approximations, they figured it was close enough.
“You know,” Lance started, a wistful gleam in his far off look. “Before I moved to the Garrison, every Noche Buena my family would go to midnight mass. I always hated putting on the stuffy suit my mom would make me wear, and it was always so hard not to fall asleep after eating so much food.” Lance laughed quietly. “I think I spent most of the service trying to keep my nieces and nephews awake and out of trouble. They just wanted to get home and wait for Santa... Never thought I’d miss that so much.”
The room was quiet for a moment as they soaked in Lance’s words.
“After we opened our presents, the aunts would always start up their bingo games,” Hunk said, a small smile on his face. “They’d play for hours, so me and my brother and some of the kids on the street would go see a movie. After sundown, we’d go caroling until our throats were sore.”
“I moved away from my family a long time ago.” Shiro cleared his throat a little. “But, every year, I’d turn on the 24 hours of
A Christmas Story
, and let it run on repeat all day long, even while I slept. Then Christmas Day I’d always go out for Chinese food, just like they do in the movie.” He shrugged good naturedly, a shy smile on his face.
“So, we’re Jewish,” Pidge laughed. “So this is my first Christmas. But, I guess I missed Hanukkah... Matt and I used to always fight over who got to set up the Menorah and everything. We would play a game of Dreidel for it. He was so bad at it. I think I beat him almost every year, but we always ended up doing it together anyway. I’m gonna make a Dreidel, and when he gets back in a few days, I’m making him play.”
Suddenly all eyes were on him, fixed with expectation.
“This is-” Keith looked around at this family he had found and worked so hard to keep. They needed each other. “I’m going to stay here.” The others began to murmur and he could see the questions already bubbling up, but he kept on. “I need you guys, and even… even when I fail, I still know I made the right decision being part of this team, and… I hope you need me too…”
Keith found himself in the center of a group hug.
“Of course we need you,” Shiro said.
“No man is a failure who has friends,” Coran added.
“I think I rather like Christmas.” Allura beamed at him through the tangle of arms.
Hunk ruffled his hair and Pidge squeezed just a bit tighter. “We’re glad you’re back, Keith,” Hunk sniffled.
“Best. Space. Christmas. Ever!” Lance was bouncing as he cheered, causing the huddle to wobble and finally break apart as Lance’s voice rang out. “Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to miiind! Should old acquaintance be forgot and auld lang siiiine!”
Through the laughter and ribbing, they joined in. “For aaauld laang sine my dear, for aaaauld laaang siiine, we’ll drink a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang siiine.”
And maybe they mumbled through another verse, more words made up than not, but it didn’t matter. This Christmas was perfect. His life was wonderful. He felt like the richest man in the universe, and Keith couldn’t imagine anywhere else he’d rather be.