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Pleading the Fifth

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Shiro woke with a pounding head. He moaned softly as he forced his eyes to open, squinting against the light. He wasn’t sure what was happening, but a distinct sense of something isn’t right pounded behind his eyes. Military training, a year in captivity, another bout of captivity, and an unspecified number of months fighting a galactic war with the lives of teenaged soldiers in his hands had left him with a constant underlying anxiety, a need to know what was going on, even when he was waking from a clearly drug-induced sleep.

He shifted and forced his eyes to open all the way. He felt for his limbs, his head. He was lying on his front, face turned to the side. He slowly pushed himself up on both arms. He went through his mental checklist. His team – they had all been with him. Were they all with him now? He looked around the room. Pidge was nearby, lying on her side, and Allura was lying next to her on her back, chest rising softly with her breaths. Hunk was a few feet away from her, Lance draped over his leg. Keith was the only one conscious, standing near the door of the room, facing away, every nerve in his body tense.

“Keith,” Shiro croaked. “What happened?”

Keith turned around, his body language sparking with energy and anxiety. He reminded Shiro of the cat his grandparents used to own – she’d been a stray they found on the side of the road, and even though she’d learned to live indoors, there was always a bit of a feral side to her. Nine times out of ten calling her name, however gently, resulted in her whipping around, claws out and ready for a fight.

Keith’s gaze softened when he saw Shiro, and he hurried over, stepping carefully over Hunk.

“I’m not sure,” he said, his face tight with anger. “We were having the meeting with the Flaxcians. We were all gassed, I think – you guys started to droop in your seats. I thought it might have been the food, and I was going to – ugh, I was trying to get them to tell me what they’d done to you all – but a few moments later it affected me, too. By the time I passed out it was strong enough I could smell it. Galra thing, I guess.” Keith looked gently concerned. “Do you remember anything?”

Shiro frowned, then nodded slowly as the memories filtered back like blood coming into a limb that had fallen asleep. They had been visiting the planet of the eight-limbed aliens called the Flaxcians, who came in a full spectra of green to blue skin tones. They were participating in a long-anticipated full-day peace summit. The governing Flaxcians of all the nations on their large planet had gathered. Allura had been sleepless for a week with nervous energy, trying to prepare, her eyes heavy with the weight of her job. Even though she was now working full-time on their efforts to build the coalition and no longer piloted the Blue lion, aside from flying for fun or taking over if Lance was injured, she was still overworked and exhausted. This alliance meant a lot to them, as the Flaxcians had suffered many casualties to the Galra but were still a powerful people, and had major advances in medicine. Their medical supplies were one of the main reasons for this visit, as several rebel bases were in desperate need of provisions. If Allura could secure this alliance, many lives could be saved and they would make a powerful partner.

The Flaxcians had been paranoid about their visit, having each of the guests, Paladins and Flaxcians alike, walk through a large scanner, not unlike the ones in earth airports. No weapons allowed, and none of them wearing armour, either. Everyone was wearing formal clothes Coran had got for them, aside from Keith, who had insisted on wearing only his regular clothes plus a simple rust-coloured jacket from a swap moon. Coran had been sorely disappointed that he hadn’t dressed up more, but Allura, to Shiro’s surprise, had reasoned that none of the Flaxcians knew earth traditions and that Keith could probably pass off his casual outfit as formal.

They’d all sat down in a large room, seated at a table with the Flaxcians. They’d been served food and casual conversation had started up, a precursor to the negotiations.

Shiro remembered bits and pieces of what had happened after that, but very little. He remembered looking around at the others as he tried to navigate the conversation without yawning. Lance was getting along well, chatting up a storm with a deep blue alien, while Pidge was fidgeting in her chair, obviously bored. Hunk was asking to speak to the chef because the food was incredible, and Keith –

“You were having an argument with someone,” Shiro began slowly, coming back to the present. “Just before we all passed out. Weren’t you?”

Keith grimaced. “It wasn’t so much an argument as it was – ”

They were interrupted by the door to the room suddenly opening. Keith bolted to his feet, ready to fight. Shiro balanced himself on the wall and also stood.

A group of armed Flaxcians entered the room. Pidge, Lance, Hunk, and Allura all began to stir at the noise, groggy and disoriented but only half-conscious.

“What’s the meaning of all this?” Shiro asked, stepping forward to confront the Flaxcians. “We were having a peaceful meeting. We came here to help you, we freed five of your nations from the Galra. Why have you drugged us and locked us up?”

The front Flaxcian, an enormous teal-blue alien, stepped forward with a frown, completely ignoring Shiro in favour of addressing Keith. “You know why, Paladin,” they said coldly. “You tried to deceive us.”

Keith glanced sharply at Shiro. “We didn’t mean to deceive you,” he said evenly, obviously trying to copy Allura’s use of diplomatic language. If it weren’t for the stress and impending sense of danger, Shiro would feel proud. “If there is, um, information that has been withheld that you felt you should have been told –”

“We were told the Paladins of Voltron are from earth,” the alien snapped. “And yet our scanners tell us that you are Galran.”

Keith scowled, but he didn’t look surprised. “Half-Galra. And why does that matter?”

The Flaxcian stepped forward, their eyes narrow with anger. “Because there is a death penalty on our planet for anyone of Galran blood. We would never have considered this alliance if we’d known what you are.”

Shiro stepped forward angrily, standing in front of Keith protectively. “You never told us about this law,” he said through gritted teeth, suddenly completely awake. “It’s utterly barbaric. You can’t condemn someone because of their heritage! Keith was born on earth, the same as any of us. He didn’t even know he was Galra until recently – and even if he had, this is completely inappropriate.”

“What is going on?” Allura asked from behind them. There was an edge to the groggy tiredness in her voice. She got unsteadily to her feet. “What is the meaning of all this?”

The Flaxcian gave her an imperious look. “We are currently holding a court to decide your punishment for this infringement on our laws. Bringing a Galra to our planet carries a heavy charge.”

“This is ridiculous – ” Shiro started angrily, but a hand on his arm stopped him. He turned to look at Keith, who was looking up at him with a strange, pleading sort of look.

“What are the charges?” he asked, calmly, although there was an anxious edge to his voice. He crossed his arms over his chest, a sure sign he was feeling unsafe.

“A Galra coming to our planet faces the death penalty, as I explained,” the Flaxcian said, their voice eerily cool. “As for the others – they will be suitably penalized. We will prohibit them from coming to our planet without escort, perhaps issue a fine . . . the alliance between Flaxce and Voltron will need some extensive reviewing and revision . . . ”

“Wait, what?” Keith interrupted, looking aghast. “You can’t – you can’t do that! The medical supplies – the alliance – innocent people need your help! They need Voltron’s help! You can’t do this just because of me. You can do what you want with me but you can’t just abandon people – ”

The Flaxcian’s nostrils flared with anger. “You’ll find you don’t have a say in what we can and cannot do, Paladin.”

“Please,” Keith pleaded, “just – just let us – let us have a trial. Let us talk about it. It’s – I don’t care what you do to me but you can’t – ” he cut himself off with a growl of frustration. “You can’t let everyone else suffer because I’m Galra!”

Shiro put a hand on Keith’s shoulder; he was shaking with anger and – something else. A sharp-edged, wide-eyed anxiety that Shiro hadn’t seen since Keith was a young cadet, black-eyed and bloody-knuckled, shoulders hunched to hide the way he shook under the pressures of never fitting in.

“Keith is right,” he said, and he felt way Keith tensed under his hand. He didn’t have time to wonder why. “There are so many people relying on this alliance. I won’t pretend that we don’t have a lot riding on it. For our cause to succeed, we need as much help as we can get, and there are so many who need the aid that we had hoped you would provide.” He fought to keep the anger out of his voice. “But you must also know that we are a team. We had no idea of this law, or we would not have come here. And even so – Keith’s heritage isn’t who he is. He fought alongside us and sustained injuries recently protecting your people. You owe him the same debt you claimed to owe all of us.”

The Flaxcian didn’t take their cold, unwavering gaze off Keith, but their lip curled up in disgust, as if they thought Shiro was lying.

“Even if we let you take him, even if we wanted to find a replacement paladin, the Red Lion will not accept anyone else,” Allura said, coming up behind them. They all knew she was ignoring the fact that Red had already once accepted Lance and probably would again, should they lose Keith. Her voice was cold and haughty. “We need Keith, and I won’t stand for this. You cannot have my paladin; I demand negotiations.”

The Flaxcian considered silently. They gave a motion to the others surrounding them, then turned away. “We will return shortly with our answer.”

Shiro curled his prosthetic into a fist. God, he was angry. Those motherfu—

“Well, we certainly don’t need to be signing any treaties with them,” Pidge said heartily. Shiro looked around at where she was sitting up, looking a little out of it with the gas but mostly awake.

“But what about the medical supplies? And the manpower they promised us?” Lance asked quietly. “What are we going to do?”

Shiro realized they were all looking to him – all except Keith, who had his face downturned, away from the others, hugging his arms over his chest. Shiro sighed and ran his fingers through the tuft of hair over his forehead. “We’re going to talk to them. The Flaxcians are intelligent people, surely we can reason with them.”

Allura looked apprehensive. “Intelligent, yes. Reasonable . . . not always. They’re – they take their laws very seriously, Shiro. And they hold their grudges.” She looked a little shame-faced. “Not that I am one to talk, I know – ” she stopped as Keith gently put a hand on her arm, shaking his head gently. She coloured a bit, but smiled back at him. They had come a long way since Allura’s first emotional reaction to his heritage. “They’ve had millennia-long wars with each other over meaningless feuds, all for the honour of maintaining the black and white of their rules. And – they hold onto the idea of guilt by blood. They genuinely see Keith as being guilty for his race.”

Hunk and Lance glanced at each other. “So you’re saying we’re screwed,” Lance interpreted.

Shiro gave him a Look, but he was secretly thinking the same thing.

“Not necessarily. Just – it will take some discussion. I’d like it if we had a chance to talk to Coran about this, he knows more about it than I do . . . if we could just get together our argument, perhaps we could get out of here and leave this wretched place behind . . . ”

“Whatever happens,” Keith interrupted, “you can’t let go of the alliance. It doesn’t matter what happens to me, you gotta make sure it goes through.”

“That’s enough, Keith,” Shiro said, perhaps a little firmer than he needed to. Everything was happening so quickly, and to hear his brother talking like this about his own death penalty . . .
The door opened then, and the group of Flaxcians walked in.

“We will take the half-breed into custody,” the lead alien said calmly. “You others are free to return to your castle; we have decided that, based on the aid you afforded us recently, your guilt has been expunged, although we will be prohibiting your free movement on our planet and will require that you have a guard at all times. We will need a few days to prepare for the trial – you do not need to come, of course, but if you would like to speak in the half-breed’s defence you may.”

Shiro started forward, but Keith stopped him by grabbing his arm. “Shiro,” he said quietly, “We don’t have anything else to work with right now. Just go back to the castle, explain everything to Coran, and you can come back for the trial. It’ll be okay.” His arms crossed tightly over his chest said otherwise.

“I want to stay with Keith,” Shiro argued stubbornly.

The Flaxcian shook their head. “That is not permitted. You can come during your allotted visiting hours to construct an appropriate defense, if you wish, but that is all.”

It took some discussion, but in the end, there was little they could do. Shiro bit the inside of his lip till it bled; it felt so wrong, standing by without protest while the aliens bound Keith's hands behind his back and took him roughly by the arms.
“If you hurt him – ” Shiro grit out through his teeth.

The lead Flaxcian just smiled. “Oh, don’t worry, Paladin. There will be plenty of time for that after the trial.”

It took everything Shiro had not to drop the entire negotiation right then and there, just to grab Keith and take him back to the castle and fly away. But Keith was right. They had nothing else to work with – no contact with Coran, no lions at their disposal, no weapons. They were, as Lance had so aptly put it, screwed. And so he watched as Keith was led away down one hallway, and the rest of them were escorted in the opposite direction. He had to force himself to keep walking, every footstep a battle.

He felt something press up against his side and looked down to see Pidge, walking close by his side. She looked up at him with that familiar determined gleam in her eye. “We’re not going to let him go, Shiro,” she promised. “I’m not losing another brother.”
Shiro pulled her under his arm as they walked, suddenly having a very hard time finding his voice. “You’re not going to,” he agreed quietly. “You’re not going to.”

Chapter Text

Keith hated being touched. The feeling of the Flaxcians holding his arms as they led him away from the others made him shudder and retract into himself, trying to separate his mind from the feeling of their hands holding him, restraining him, keeping him from running. The sound of his friends’ retreating footsteps wasn’t helping. He tried to focus on what he was doing, the fact that he was doing this for the others and for the rebels who needed medical supplies. It’s just prison. You’re just one person. Shiro knows where you are, he’ll come back. Shiro isn’t going to let them hurt you, Shiro isn’t going let them kill you –

Keith held his head a little higher, trying to instill the kind of confidence he needed to survive this. It felt so strange, so degrading, being marched down these halls like a criminal for a heritage he’d never asked for. They glared at him, and one of them gave a slap to the back of his head, keeping their hand on the base of his skull so he was forced to keep his chin lowered. Patience yields focus. He grit his teeth and kept his gaze downturned. All the crimes, all the terrible things the Galra had done, were on his shoulders; he was the scapegoat these people wanted, a blank canvass they could pour their hatred and anger onto. He could understand that, in some way. They didn’t know him. They didn’t know he’d never known his mother or her people. They had no idea the amount of torment he’d already put himself through, trying to reconcile himself with his background. How many hours he’d spent wondering if all his problems weren’t related to who he was, deep down inside. These people had suffered, and they wanted payback. It wasn’t that complicated. Maybe . . . maybe he deserved this.

“That’s right. Keep your head down, Galra scum,” the Flaxcian next to him purred. “The paladins may fight for you, but they can’t take you away from us now. You owe us a blood-debt for the crimes of your people, and we will have what we are owed.”

Keith took a deep breath, filling his lungs as full as they could stretch. “I’m a paladin of Voltron,” he said evenly. “We came here to help you, not to harm you. I’m not – ”

“Silence!” His head snapped to the side as he was backhanded across the jaw. He bit his own tongue and swallowed down the taste of blood.

From then on, Keith was quiet.

They took him to a small, dark room. The Flaxcians let go of him and uncuffed his hands, only to start grabbing at his clothes. One of them took the waistband of his pants, while another started to unzip his jacket.

“St-stop! Let – let go of me!” he yelped, pulling away, falling to the floor in his panic. They grabbed him by the arm and hauled him back to his feet. He knew what this was, this wasn’t the first time this had happened, this couldn’t be happening, he couldn’t be going through this again, not again, please –

“Stop your snivelling, mutt,” the Flaxcian growled. “Stars, it’s shaking. Stand still, half-breed. Your clothes will be kept in custody. You are required to wear the prison uniform while you’re here. Stand still!”

Keith clenched his jaw so hard it ached, forcing himself to stay still, but he couldn’t help the trembling in his body or the way he flinched away every time they touched him as they removed his clothes. You aren’t back there, this isn’t the same, it’s going to be alright, it’s going to be alright. When he’d been stripped down to his underwear, they brought him a grey prison uniform, too large for him, and he gladly let them put it on him. He shivered violently in the cold, the rough material scraping his skin. He could feel his mind disconnecting itself from his body and watching, like an outsider in his own head, as they fastened a heavy chain around his waist and cuffed his wrists to it. They led him to a cell down the hall, a small space with a bed hardly big enough to fit him, and chained his ankle to the wall so he could just get within arms reach of the bars. They slammed the bars shut and locked them carefully. The lead Flaxcian gave him an eerie smile, but said nothing, before turning away.

They left him there, alone, with orange-tinted lights so bright they made his eyes ache. He curled up on the bench, trying to arrange his limbs so the chains didn’t press into him so badly, and closed his eyes. He buried his head in his knees and tried to block out the light, which was already getting under his skin in the worst kind of way.

Patience yields focus. Patience yields focus. He breathed deeply, in and out, the way Shiro had taught him, trying to quell the shaking that wouldn’t stop wracking his entire body. He tried to recall Shiro’s voice, sticking up for him, fighting for him.
“T-ten minutes in a prison cell and you’r-re already a – m-mess, huh, Kogane?” he huffed in a trembling voice. God, the stutter was even coming back. He forced out a choked laugh. “Some h-hero you are.”
He prayed tomorrow would come soon.

* * * * * * *

The next day, sometime in the afternoon of the Flaxcian planet, the Flaxcians contacted the castle and told the paladins that one of them could come to see Keith for his visiting hours. Shiro went, while the others stayed behind to construct their defense. They were currently in the middle of going through Coran’s old books and educational videos about the Flaxcians, trying to find anything that could help preparing for the trial.

Shiro took a pod to the planet’s surface, as bringing the lions had been prohibited, since they were technically weapons. He left in in a small hangar, while a prison guard came to meet him. He had to sign a paper, go through a scanner, and agree to stay within fifteen feet of the guard. It felt odd, to be coming here like this. The prison reminded him of earth prisons, with the procedures and rules. The cells were somewhat smaller, and the guards somewhat more imposing; but the harsh, impersonal air was the same. Shiro gave a shudder; being here reminded him of too many painful things, vague impressions of his half-remembered captivity. The fact that he was here, on the other side of the bars, visiting Keith and not busting him out – the fact that he would have to leave him here in a jail cell . . .

The cell in question was small, and brightly lit. He knew Keith would hate that; bright lights always irritated him and gave him headaches. He wondered, briefly, if that had something to do with Keith’s Galra heritage.

Keith himself was on the far side of the cell, curled over himself, head resting on his knees, dark hair tumbling over his narrow shoulders. He looked up as they approached, a half-smile forming on his lips but not quite reaching his eyes when he saw Shiro. He unfolded himself from his curled-up position and dropped his legs to the floor, where Shiro realized for the first time that he was cuffed by the ankle, a short chain leading to the wall behind him. His wrists were cuffed in front of him and he was wearing some sort of prison uniform, a grungy deep grey that made his pale skin look sickly.

Shiro pushed aside the nausea and forced a smile. “Hey, buddy. How’s it going?”

Keith came as close to the bars as he could and stood, somewhat awkwardly, his fingers fiddling with the edge of the chain connecting his wrists to the chain about his waist. “I mean, not bad, all things considered,” he said, his voice low. “There are worse places to be on death-row, I guess.”

Shiro felt his composure crumble. “Keith,” he exhaled sharply.

Keith immediately looked guilty. “Sorry. Guess I get my fatalistic sense of humour from you, huh?” He offered a small lop-sided grin, which Shiro forced himself to return. He hugged himself. “I’m okay, Shiro, seriously. But you don’t look like you’ve slept at all.”

“Neither do you,” Shiro scoffed. “Are they making you sleep in that getup?” He indicated the chains.

Keith raised his hands, which could only extend seven or eight inches from his waist the way they were bound. “Uh, yeah, they did. Not exactly prime accommodations, and it makes for a hell of a time if you’ve got an itch on your nose, but it could be worse.” He shrugged. “They took my clothes, though,” he grumbled, his first real complaint.

Shiro glared at the guard. He knew Keith needed his own clothes, clothes with the right sort of texture, to be comfortable. Having them taken away forcibly could not have been easy for him. “You took his clothes?”

The guard didn’t even deign to look at him. “They’re in custody until after the trial. All prisoners are required to wear the standard uniform.”

Keith shrugged helplessly, but it turned into a shiver. Shiro frowned. “You okay, buddy?”

Keith hastened to nod, huffing impatiently at Shiro’s “hovering”, as he’d always called it. “Yeah, of course. I’m fine.”

“You shivered. Are you cold?”

Keith rolled his eyes, which was clearly a yes. “You’re worrying too much, Shiro.”

Shiro raised his eyebrow. “You said it yourself. My little brother is temporarily on death-row on an alien planet. Forgive me if I’m moderately concerned for his well-being.” He added the “temporarily” with a good deal of emphasis.

Keith shifted uncomfortably. “It’s gonna be okay, Shiro,” he said. “You guys will figure it out.” He looked down at his wrists and twisted them, as if testing the strength of the bonds. “Guess this isn’t the first time you’ve had to come bail me out of jail, huh?”

Shiro smiled softly, thinking about the first time he’d really met Keith. At juvie. “It isn’t,” he agreed gently. “And it probably won’t be the last, knowing you.”

“Hey,” Keith said, pretending to go along with the joke but failing to hide the way he flinched. “Excuse you. Pidge is way more likely to end up doing time than me.”

“And yet,” Shiro said, eyebrows raised, “here we are.” There it was again, the flinch, and Keith pulling away just a miniscule amount, tipping his head a little further forward. Did he think Shiro was seriously upset? Was he hurt by the jokes about him going to prison? They would have to talk about it, but he made a mental note not to do it anymore.

Before he could say anything more or ask about it, Keith looked back up at him. “Is everyone else okay?”

Shiro blinked. “Um, yes, of course. Why wouldn’t they be?”

“Oh, I don’t know. That gas didn’t make me pass out as quick as you guys but it made me feel kinda nauseated, so I thought, you know, maybe Hunk had thrown up again or something . . . or . . . ”

“Hunk is just fine. So is everyone else.” He frowned. “Are you ok? How sick are you?” He tried to maneuver his hand through the bars to feel Keith’s forehead, but the younger boy just swatted him away.

“No, just a little nauseated last night. I’m fine, Shiro, god.”

The tone of voice, defensive but irritated, reminded Shiro so much of the young cadet Keith used to be, wide-eyed and temperamental, defying anyone to worry about him or give him advice. He’d used that exact same tone of voice when he got a stomach flu and didn’t want to worry Shiro with it. Then he’d gone and thrown up all over Shiro after he’d said he was fine to fly in the sims.

Shiro remembered the panic as the scrawny thirteen-year-old tried frantically to clean up his own vomit, shaking all over, apologizing over and over and breaking into tears when Shiro finally pulled him into a tight, vomitty hug and told him it was all okay.

“I’m sorry,” Keith had whispered. “Please don’t go, please don’t leave me, please don’t go, I’ll clean it up I promise . . . ”

Shiro shook his head and came back to the present. He opened his mouth to respond to Keith, but before he got a chance to say anything, the heavy presence behind him shifted.

“Visiting time is over,” the guard intoned.

Shiro glared. “I hardly just got here!” he protested. “Please, just let us finish – ”

“Time’s up,” the guard repeated, reaching forward to grab Shiro’s arm. “You can come back tomorrow if you don’t cause any trouble.”

“Shiro,” Keith said. He looked solemn, but a small smile quirked up the corner of his mouth. “Patience…”

Shiro stopped resisting and shook his head. “ ‘Yields focus’. Don’t you dare quote me to me,” he said, but he returned the smile sadly. “I’ll be back tomorrow, I promise.”

Keith nodded. “I’ll be here,” he said dryly, but Shiro didn't miss the flash of panic in his brother's eyes and the guard escorted him away.

* * * * * * *

Shiro had hoped when he got back to the castle he would at least have some good luck. But when he strode onto the bridge, he was met with grim faces and tired eyes.

“How’s it going?” he asked, forcing his voice to hold a note of hope. “Find anything?”

Allura pursed her lips. “Nothing very helpful; not yet, anyway. Coran and I haven’t stopped looking, and we’re coming up with the structure for an argument that will fit their judicial system, but . . . ”

“No loopholes,” Shiro sighed. “Well, at least they’re giving us time to sort this out. We can still keep working at it.”

Pidge turned around in her seat, her expression both exhausted and tense. “Not really. Shiro, we got another distress call from a nearby rebel base. People are dying. Even if we don’t get the Flaxcians to fight with us, we need their medical supplies. We don’t have long to make this work.”

Shiro felt the last of his energy and hope drain out of him. “Shit,” he murmured under his breath. Lance looked up with him in surprise – Shiro didn’t often swear, a habit he’d developed out of respect for his grandparents when he lived with them and had maintained ever since. Lance’s surprise, which probably would have been delighted any other time, quickly dissolved back into gloom.

“What are we gonna do, Shiro?” he asked, uncommonly serious, his voice small. “We can’t let them kill Keith, but – ”

The but hung in the air. Trading the life of one for the life of hundreds, maybe thousands. Shiro couldn’t do it, he knew he couldn’t; Keith was his brother, and he had made a promise he fully intended on keeping. But the alternative crushed down heavy on his shoulders.

“We aren’t leaving without Keith,” he said firmly. “But we aren’t going to give up and rush in, guns blazing.” He looked to Allura. “But . . . if we need to . . . ”

She shook her head. “Going in to retrieve him by force will be risky. They could kill him as soon as we attacked – they have the bargaining chip, as it were. And so many innocent people would die . . . there’s no way to attack them without civilian casualties. And while the Flaxcians are no Voltron, they do have a decent military, and we’re down one.” She spread her hands out helplessly. “We are left with very few options, Shiro, and none of them so far are good.”

“Then we make a new option,” Shiro said, setting his jaw. He looked around at them, pushing aside his exhaustion to put on his commander-voice. His team needed him. Keith needed him. “We’ve only had a day. Pidge, what kind of supplies do the rebel bases need? Can we get some of them anywhere else?”

“The Olkarians have some, but really only enough for themselves in event of an emergency,” Pidge said slowly.

Hunk looked thoughtful. “But we don’t need all the equipment right away. This is just a for-now kind of thing, a band-aid solution until we figure this out and get Keith back. We could ask them if they could provide the most essential medical equipment to the rebels, as long as we were able to return it eventually . . . ”

“Alright. Good. Hunk, you and Pidge can go to Olkari to get the supplies, and Allura, can you wormhole them to the rebel base?”

Allura nodded. “Of course.”

“Lance,” Shiro instructed, “I need you to contact any allies we have nearby. Talk to them, try to find out what you can about the Flaxcian judicial system. Perhaps they have some more up-to-date information.” He offered a half-smile. “Turn on the charm, sharpshooter. Whatever it takes.”

Lance’s chest swelled with pride, although his eyes still looked serious. “On it, Shiro,” he nodded.

Coran looked up to Shiro from where he was still focussed on his tablet, his smile weary but his eyes holding a sort of light. “We’ll get him back, my boy,” he said firmly. “Don’t give up.”

Shiro smiled back tightly. “We will,” he agreed.

* * * * * * *

His first night in prison, Keith hadn’t slept at all. He’d kept himself awake, trying to fend of the nightmares he knew were just around the corner. But he knew he couldn’t keep it up forever, and despite the harsh lights, he fell asleep the second night.

His dreams were exactly what he’d expected, but of course that didn’t make them any better. The rush of panic, the feeling of hands on his body, the limp, helpless way he just took it all, trying to cry out for it to stop, but his jaw was wired shut and he couldn’t, he couldn’t make a sound –

He woke with a start, falling off of the bench and onto the ground. He was heaving, shivering, his body damp with sweat, his heart racing erratically. His back ached from the way he’d fallen asleep hunched over, and he could feel bruises forming where he’d hit the ground. His eyes burned with tears he couldn’t stop from falling.

“K-keep it together,” he whispered to himself through chattering teeth. “Patience yields f-focus. Don’t fall apart, not yet. You’re going to be ok-kay. You’re going to be okay.”

He felt stupid all over again. He should be fine. He shouldn’t be falling apart. He wanted to be brave and strong and self-sufficient; he wanted to be done with his past, with the nightmares. But second night in a jail cell and he was falling apart again. He pressed his back against the wall, the floor hard under his tailbone, looking down at his sock-feet and rocking back and forth, back and forth. His eyelids were heavy, as if some warm, gentle, oppressive hand was insistently pressing them down . . .

It was a long night. He fell asleep again, even though he tried to stay awake. He kept reliving things he’d buried deep – foster homes he’d tried to forget, people whose faces he’d tried to erase. All the people who never came back. All the times he thought he’d seen the last of Shiro. It wasn’t just the past, though. He dreamed of things he’d feared for far too long, things that hadn’t happened but that he always believed were just around the corner.

“Shiro, wait, please!” he begged, tugging at his chains, which were suddenly so much heavier. “I didn’t know about my mother, I swear. I’m not – I’m not like Sendak or Zarkon, I would never hurt you, please – please don’t leave me, please don’t go – ”
“You’ve taken enough from me, Keith,” Shiro said. He didn’t snarl, didn’t snap. Keith could handle anger, he could fight it, or take the blame, accept the wrath and try to do better. But Shiro just looked tired. Done. Done with Keith. “Please, just stop. I know what you are and I can’t be around you anymore. This is for the best.”
Suddenly, for some reason, Adam was there too, standing next to Shiro, even though they were still in the Flaxcian prison. His arms were crossed over his chest, that critical glint in his eye as he tilted his head in that Adam sort of way he had. It had taken Keith a long time to get along with Adam, to recognize that his bluntness wasn’t anger or displeasure – and they had gotten along well, eventually – but now, all his old fears came true: the terror and absolute certainty that Adam had seen through him, right to the rotten core that Shiro was somehow blind to. Adam stood next to Shiro, hand on his fiancé’s shoulder, and glared down with that critical gaze. “Haven’t you ever wondered why no one ever comes back, Cadet?” he asked frankly. “You’re the common factor. Stop wrecking things for everyone you come into contact with. Just – leave us alone, me and Takashi.” He began to pull at Shiro. “Come on, let’s leave him. Iverson will deal with him and you don’t have to worry about this anymore. You know you’ve wanted to for months now.”

“Shiro, please!” he begged, sobbing, as Iverson himself dragged him away, fixed a noose around his neck. “Please, Shiro, please – ” Shiro watched as Iverson tested the knot around his throat, then turned away, as if he was already bored with the whole thing. And then the ground dropped beneath him, and he was falling, falling, falling . . .

When he woke up, he couldn’t breathe. His heart pounded, his tongue was thick and dry. He was shaking so hard his teeth clattered together. Panic attack, his brain supplied unhelpfully. He hadn’t had one this bad since they’d lost Shiro – and even then, he hadn’t been alone like this. Even just knowing the others were nearby helped, and he’d been able to go sit with Red to calm down, but here – here he was alone. He couldn’t even pace back and forth, as he often did to calm down, because the cell was so small and the chain around his ankle made it impossible to move more than a few feet.

It took him the rest of the night to calm down, and by the end of it he was utterly exhausted. He scrubbed at his tear-streaked face with his hands. How was he going to make it through any more nights like this?

“Shiro’s coming,” he tried to reassure himself. He pulled his knees up to his chest and rocked back and forth, the movement doing at least a little to calm him down. He was so tired. “It’ll be okay. Shiro’s com-ming, and Allura is going to t-talk to the Flaxcians, and L-Lance and Hunk and Pidge – and Coran are – ” his breath hitched as he said their names. He hated himself for being so weak, for falling apart like this on the second fucking night. Nothing bad had even happened. Shiro had been captured and tortured for a year, and, yeah, sometimes his PTSD was pretty bad. Keith had had to use Shiro’s own methods to help him calm down some nights. But Shiro was always able to put it behind him when he needed to the most. And that had been after a year of unspeakable things. Keith was having nightmares on his second night in a too-bright jail cell. Aside from getting pushed around a bit and having his clothes taken, he hadn’t even been hurt, definitely not tortured.

“They’re coming,” he told himself, trying to shove the self-loathing to the back of his mind as the thought of torture made his heartbeat quicken. The thought of pain didn’t bother him so much as everything else that came along with what he knew of torture – the touching, the staring, the feeling of being inspected and invaded, the centre of someone’s sick attention. He shuddered and pulled his body in on itself. “They’re coming for you. They’re coming for you. They’re coming . . . ” After a while he wasn't sure if he was reminding himself of the promise, or the threat.

Chapter Text

When Shiro went back the next day for visiting hours, something had changed. He felt it as soon as he approached the cell and the half-surprised way Keith breathed, “You came back.”

“Yeah, of course I did, buddy,” Shiro said gently, approaching him the way he had his grandparents’ cat the night she got into an altercation with the neighbour’s dog, trying not to spook her as he stepped closer, trying to ascertain the extent of her injuries. He squinted at Keith, who was still seated on his bench at the back of the wall, playing nervously with the cuffs on his wrists. Keith kept his head downturned and made no move to come any closer to the bars. “Keith?”

“I’m fine, Shiro,” he said, too defensively, too quickly for it to be true.

Shiro knew he wasn’t. “Keith, did they hurt you? Did someone do something, or say – ”

Keith shook his head. “No, no, I’m fine. I’m fine, Shiro.”

“Then come here, Keith.”

He hesitated, but obeyed, shuffling closer to the bars and lifting his head. They were red-rimmed and puffy, as if he’d been crying for hours.

“Bud,” Shiro murmured, reaching through the bars to take Keith’s hand. “What happened?”

Keith inhaled shakily. “Nothing happened,” he said obstinately. “Just – just the nightmares. That’s all.”

Shiro squeezed his hand, maybe a little harder than he needed to. He knew how bad the nightmares could get. He remembered nights when Keith would be locked in a dream, shaking and sweating, unable to escape the grasp of memories and terrors that came back so vividly behind his eyelids. It had taken time, and some counselling, but Keith had finally got to the point where the nightmares were less frequent, less severe. He could wake up after a dream without having a panic attack. But they still came back, especially when he was stressed, and Shiro knew that Keith shouldn’t be alone when they happened.

“Keith,” he said softly. “I’m sorry you were alone.”

Keith looked uncomfortable. “It’s fine, Shiro. You don’t have to worry about me. I spent an entire year alone, before.”

Shiro winced. He knew Keith hadn’t meant it as a dig at him, but he felt that one like a knife. He didn’t think he’d ever stop feeling bad when he thought about that year, even though he knew it hadn’t been his fault he’d been captured by aliens. Picturing Keith getting kicked out and having nowhere to go, living alone, surviving without someone to talk to, to help him through the nightmares, to care that he was grieving his entire world falling apart – even though part of him knew it wasn’t really his fault, Shiro couldn’t think of it for too long without the thought of it overwhelming him. “And you shouldn’t have had to,” he said quietly. “Just because you can handle something alone doesn’t mean you should have to, Keith.”

Shiro pressed forward against the bars and held his other hand out to fold over both of Keith’s – god, his hands were cold – and held on as tight as he could without hurting him. “Keith,” he said, with a sudden urgency to say the words and make him understand, “it doesn’t matter how many times we have to do this. As many times as it takes, okay? We’re not leaving you. It isn’t your fault you’re here, and even if it was, we wouldn’t leave you. We’re not going without a fight. I will tear this place apart before I let them take you away from me.”

Keith went very still, tilting his head forward so his hair covered his eyes. Another shiver went through him. “Shiro, I – ” his voice cracked, so he cleared his throat. “You can’t do that, Shiro. This alliance – ”

“Keith,” Shiro whispered, “the alliance is important. Of course it is. But you are more important. I’m not leaving this place without you.”

Keith looked up, his eyes suspiciously shiny. “Shiro – ” He choked off into a laugh. “God, sorry, I must be tired. I just – ” he sniffed – “this is how I figured I’d end up. It’s where everyone said I’d end up, behind bars. I guess they never figured it’d be on a faraway planet because I’m part of an alien race that wants to destroy the universe, but . . . everyone always knew it was bound to happen. And – and I always thought, when it did happen, I’d be here alone.” He shut his eyes tight for a moment. “I’m just – I’m just glad – ”

“Visiting time is up,” the guard behind them said gruffly, laying a hand on Shiro’s arm. Shiro didn’t bother fighting it this time, instead keeping his gaze locked on Keith’s, not bothering to give the Flaxcian even a second of his attention.

“As many times as it takes, Keith,” he promised firmly. “As many times as it takes.”

* * * * *

“Any news?” Shiro demanded as soon as he walked onto the bridge. Allura turned from where she was leaning over a console next to Coran.

“Well, Pidge and Hunk got some supplies from Olkari, but it’s not as much as we’d hoped, and Olkarians are sorely in need as well,” she said. “And Lance and Coran have been helping me build our legal defense. We are hoping to have it ready as soon as possible, as the Flaxcians have yet to set a date for the trial.”

Shiro hardly dared to hope. “Is it – what kind of defense have you got?”

Allura looked uncomfortable. “It’s – well, it isn’t what we’d like, but it’s the best we have so far.” Lance nodded next to her.

“Yeah, I don’t like it much, but it’s better than anything else we’ve got.”

“What is it?” Shiro demanded.

“There is no way for us to make this alliance and just walk away with Keith,” Allura began. “In fact, there isn’t a way for us to simply walk away with Keith unless we enter into full combat with the Flaxcians. They’ve suffered much at the hands of the Galra, and their laws are ironclad. They don’t want to let a single Galra survive without retribution. To them, every Galra caries the same guilt, whether they’re a commander, foot-soldier, or child.”

Shiro took just a second to respond, holding back the rage that welled up inside him; it would be no good to take out his anger at the Flaxcians on his team by snapping at them. “Still waiting for that good news,” he said tersely.

Allura clasped her hands together. “I wouldn’t call it ‘good news’ so much as I would a loophole.”

“The Flaxcians believe in ‘blood guilt’, as Allura was just explaining,” Coran said, taking over. “If you belong to a species, you suffer the consequences of your heritage just as if you were guilty.”

“But Keith is only half-Galra,” Lance chimed in.

Shiro didn’t see this as too much of an improvement. “So . . . ”

“In addition to blood-guilt, the Flaxcians also have some pretty airtight laws around debts owed. They don’t accept gifts or free help. They believe in maintaining relationships by being consistently on equal grounds with people. They take a debt of gratitude for aid, even aid they didn’t request, very seriously.”

“Keith sustained injuries saving their people,” Allura said. “And although the laws about blood-guilt tend to override those concerning debts, we believe that we have a solid argument using his status as a half-blood and as someone to whom they owe a debt.”

Shiro was still very lost. “So . . . they’re just going to let him go scot-free?”

Allura winced. “Not entirely. We have found some cases, however, where leniency of a sort was granted. They’ll still want to take their vengeance for the blood-guilt . . . but it would be reduced to a penalty of sorts, rather than an outright execution.”

“What kind of penalty?” Shiro asked through his teeth.

“Since Keith isn’t a citizen of Flaxce and can’t have any of his rights there stripped away – ”

“ – because he doesn’t have any rights there,” Lance supplied, unhelpfully.

“ – it would probably be some form of corporal punishment,” Allura concluded.

Shiro was already protesting. “No, no way. I won’t allow it. This is – ”

“It might be the only way, Shiro,” Allura said softly, looking sad. “I don’t like it anymore than you do, I promise, and we will keep looking. We won’t rest until we’ve settled this. But we’ve almost run through all our resources, and . . . I really don’t think we’ll find another way.”

Shiro ran his hand through his hair. “Allura – ” his voice broke, thinking about Keith, spending another night alone in the cell, stimming with his own handcuffs to keep from losing his mind. Keith was strong, he could survive this – but he shouldn’t have to. “You don’t – you don’t know, the stuff he’s been through. I can’t – we can’t ask him to do something like that, because we all know he’ll say yes even if it kills him.”

“And what would he say if you told him the other options?” Allura asked, her voice gentle. “What would he say if we rescued him at the cost of other lives, and he found out that there had been another way?”

Shiro bit his tongue at the scathing words he wanted to say. He want to say it didn’t matter, they could lie to Keith, there was no way he’d need to know that they had sacrificed others’ well-being for him.

But he couldn’t do that. It was the one thing Keith had always had from him, the one thing that had brought him to trust Shiro – honesty, no matter what, even when it hurt. Keith wouldn’t get over being lied to like this anytime soon, even if he understood the reasoning behind it.

Shiro slid down until his was sitting in Keith’s chair, scrubbing his face with his hands. “We need to try to find another way,” he mumbled into his hands. “I’ll help you. We can’t give up.”

“We won’t, Shiro. But we also need to come to a conclusion.”

At that moment, the viewscreen lit up with an incoming transmission. Allura waited for Shiro to get to his feet before answering it.

It was the Flaxcians.

“We have set a time for the trial,” they said without any opening formalities or prelude.

“How long do we have?” Allura asked, shooting a glance at Shiro.

“We will host our trial in eight quintants, after our international renewal of treaties have concluded as previously scheduled among our national leaders. Have your defense ready, or else feel free to leave the system and your paladin. Re-negotiations of our alliance may be discussed after the trial has been completed.” Without a wasted word, they hung up.

Shiro turned to Allura, his eyes flashing with anger. “Show me what you’ve found.”

 

* * * * *

 

“What do you mean I can’t see him?” Shiro growled at the Flaxcian on the viewscreen. He’d left at the usual time to go visit Keith, but he’d been denied access to even land on the planet.

“Now that we have entered into the waiting period before the half-breed’s trial, you, as his defense, are no longer legally permitted to enter our government institutions, which includes the prison in which he is being detained. Also, we do not allow foreigners to our planet during international treaty renewals. You will have to wait until the date of the trial to see him.”

“Can I at least speak to him? Let him have a communication device, let me explain – ”

“That is not permitted. The detainee is to be kept in isolation until the trial date.”

“What are you talking about – ”

“I am sorry, but we are stretching the limits of our allowances towards your half-breed on account of the aid you already afforded us, Paladin. In any other circumstances he would already be dead.”

Shiro ground his teeth until a sharp ache in his jaw told him he needed to calm down. He took an agonizingly deep breath and ground out, “Then can you please tell him – ”

“We will inform him of these arrangements at our own discretion.” And the transmission cut off.

Shiro yelled and slammed his fist against the dashboard of the pod. I’m sorry, Keith, I’m sorry. Keith had saved him, time and again, and it felt like Shiro was just failing him.

Shiro felt the beginnings of something very like a panic attack coming over him. Keith wouldn’t know that they were coming, wouldn’t even be allowed the comfort of Shiro telling him to his face that he was coming back for him. He would be alone. For eight. Fucking. Days.

It was all he could do to fly back to the castle. He had to go to his quarters for a good half hour just to calm down enough to talk to the others.

Everything had been happening so fast, it was all too much. His capture and subsequent rescue, the lion swapping, everything finally now just settling into place. He and Keith had hardly had a chance to talk since it had all happened, he hadn’t been able to talk about how Keith felt taking back Red while he returned to Black, to find out if the sudden demotion had affected him, to discuss what had happened while he was gone, what Keith had done or how he’d felt. He hadn’t got to talk about his own experiences, how terrifying it had been to be back in that place, back in Haggar’s clutches; how big a set-back it had been, after he’d worked so hard to get to where he’d been before –

“Stop it,” he told himself aloud. “It’s going to be okay. You’re going to be okay. You’re going to be okay.” He growled and slammed his fist against the wall. “You’ve both been through too much to let something like this get in your way.”

Then he stormed back to join the others. He wasn’t going to win this by having emotional breakdowns.

“We’re coming, Keith,” he murmured, just because he needed to hear himself promise it to believe it.

 

* * * * *

 

At first, Keith put it down to a distortion in how he was perceiving time. After all, his cell was constantly lit with the same sickeningly bright lights, and the guard seemed to bring his food in irregular intervals; he estimated he was being given food and water twice a day but the time between each delivery varied, so he couldn’t tell. So maybe it only felt like Shiro had missed visiting hours, but it was just him and his mind getting fucked up by the solitude.

He’d always liked the quiet – he’d felt at peace, whenever he was in the desert back home – but this silence wasn’t like that. The silence of the desert hadn’t been silence at all. It had been the wind sifting through the dry red earth, the rattling of tree branches or the rasping of tall grasses, the howl of a coyote, a burst of birdsong, rain slapping on the windowpanes, the soft drone of Garrison aircraft overhead. It had been a living, breathing silence, his only company that lonely year.
The silence here was dead. It was the absolute silence of being utterly and completely alone. The acoustics were strange, even when he and Shiro had spoken, their voices deadened by the material and structure. Now he was alone, separated from even his jailers by at least two doors and with no other prisoners in the same block. Completely and utterly alone. If he screamed, he doubted anyone would hear him, nor would they bother to check on him.
The second day without Shiro – he estimated it was his third or fourth day since the arrest but he really wasn’t sure – he knew it wasn’t just his circadian rhythm being off. Shiro really hadn’t come back. No one had. They hadn’t even bothered to tell him what was happening.

In his mind, of course, he could reason through it. Something had come up. The Flaxcians were being difficult. Voltron had been needed. There were a million good reasons that didn’t include Shiro abandoning him.

But his mind still chose to fixate on the ones where he had.

It would make sense, wouldn’t it? Just to leave him here? Maybe they’d thought it was the most merciful thing. Shiro wouldn’t be able to stomach it, he knew, coming to his cell only to tell him that they were going to allow him to be executed for the sake of the universe. Just leaving the system without telling him would be the easiest way . . .

“Do you really think he would do that to you?” he asked himself out loud. The sound of his own voice being swallowed whole by the silence made him clamp his mouth shut; it was better to hear nothing than to hear how hollow his own words were.
Shiro wouldn’t leave me. The others – they don’t hate me that much. And he believed that, he really did. He knew it wasn’t a simple matter of being left behind, just like that. They wouldn’t just leave him here. He’d seen the seriousness in Shiro’s eyes when he made his promise.

As many times as it takes.

But it was one thing to know it, and another to convince his mind to believe himself. The days stretched on in meaningless lumps of time, formless and vague, sometimes feeling like months were passing by, other times feeling as if he’d only waited a minute between meal drop-offs.

“Excuse me,” he said finally, when the guard came by. The guard had never spoken to him before, but maybe – “can you tell me what’s going on? Why has no one come? How – how long have I been here?”

As expected, the guard didn’t look at him, let alone answer. Keith knew this should make him angry, but it just terrified him. Speaking without being heard, existing and no one knowing he was there . . .

His dreams became too distorted to really tell them from his waking moments. He started to get confused, wondering if he had dreamed something or if it had really happened. For the most part he could differentiate, but when he first woke up, or when he tried too hard to remember how long he’d been there and what the last thing Shiro had told him was, the dreams mingled with reality. Far too often he would dream that he had already died, and even though he finally found his team, they couldn’t hear or see him. He would stand in front of Shiro, screaming, and Shiro wouldn’t know he was there.

Sometimes the dreams weren’t awful, in and of themselves. He would see the others, living their lives, moving forward. Mostly happy, regular, good things. Getting married, making discoveries, doing good things. But he would wake up feeling sick to his stomach after the dreams – the feeling of being so left out after finally daring to call them family – the feeling of being Something Else while they all fit together just fine without him, was sometimes even worse than waking up screaming because he’d had another nightmare about Shiro himself fixing the noose around his neck and letting him drop.

In one dream, he was finally acknowledged. The others were all going for a picnic on Altea – somehow they’d found Altea? – and they were thrilled, racing ahead towards a glowing beautiful hilltop with food and blankets in tow. They were laughing and teasing each other. Shiro called out to them, lagging just behind. Keith tried to keep up, tried to follow, but somehow he couldn’t; they were always getting further ahead of him and he was strangely immobile.

“Shiro!” he called. “Wait, I – I want to come with you!”

Shiro turned around, his gaze callously calm, not unkind but simply unfeeling, as he answered easily, “You can’t, Keith. You’re dead.”

Somehow that was the worst one of all.

 

* * * * *

 

The next six days, or quintants, were a whirlwind. Everyone was exhausted. They were interrupted by a distress call from a nearby sector, four days after the Flaxcians announced the trial date, and even though it was a close fight without Voltron, they managed to save a colony of aliens from a rogue ro-beast and procure their alliance. A small win, although Hunk and Lance both ended up in healing pods for a few hours; but it took time, and effort, and it brought them all to crashing point. They finally got to Flaxce on the sixth day since the announcement of the trial date.

Shiro had been watching his team, the bags under their eyes, the sag in their posture, the gravel in their voices. They were worn out and they still had two days before the trial. He sighed, running a hand down his face. They had exhausted their resources, and still found no better options than before. They all wanted to keep working, keep searching, but they couldn’t go on like this; they were still teenagers.

As he stood with Pidge outside the healing pods, waiting for Lance and Hunk to emerge, he realized just how much stress she was under. Her hair was messy and greasy, unwashed since Keith had been arrested; her posture was stooped, her bright eyes dim with exhaustion. He placed a gentle hand on her shoulder.

“You’ve done good work, Pidge,” he said quietly. “Thank you. I’m proud of you.”

She looked up at him quizzically. “Yeah . . . thanks, Shiro. You, too.” She frowned. “Why does it sound like you’re giving up or something?”

Shiro shook his head. “Not giving up. Taking a break.” He sighed and looked at Lance and Hunk. “You all – we all need to take the night off. There’s going to be nothing left of us when the trial comes up.”

“I’m fine,” Pidge said quickly, but broke off into a painfully wide yawn. She blinked away tears indignantly. “Just fine, Shiro. Keith needs us.”

“He needs us healthy and whole,” Shiro corrected. “We aren’t going to help him any by working ourselves to death.” He frowned. “Besides, we’ve spent hours going over our resources. We don’t have much else to work with. Maybe we need a fresh perspective of the old ideas, you know?”

Pidge grimaced. “It just doesn’t feel right, stopping when Keith isn’t home with us,” she murmured softly, tugging at the fabric of her shirt. Shiro felt his throat close up. Keep it together, Shirogane, he chided himself.

He cleared his throat. “I know. But we can’t afford to run ourselves down the way we are. Keith needs our help, but so do a lot of others. And we can’t help anyone if we’re too exhausted. It’s late. We’ll take the night off. Tomorrow we can start again, okay?”

Pidge tried to cut off another yawn. She leaned against Shiro, and he wrapped her under his arm and guided her to sit down.

“We’ll wait for the boys to get out of the pods,” he said. “Then we can all go rest. Have some of that space cocoa that Hunk makes.”

Allura joined them soon after, and when the pods had released the boys, they all went to the kitchen, where Hunk immediately volunteered to make space cupcakes and cocoa before Coran could offer his culinary services. Shiro sat at the counter, with
Pidge still leaning tiredly against his arm and Lance on his other side, also beginning to lean in. Allura was slumped over the counter, her hair frazzled, her mouth open a little as she dozed. Hunk worked quietly, his movements slow and heavy. Even Coran was still and said little, but stood behind Allura with a gentle hand on her shoulder.

The mood was heavy. Shiro wanted them all to rest, but everyone seemed to be getting more exhausted by the minute. No one spoke. They were tired, dispirited; they were fighting an unbreakable legal knot. The silence grew heavier every moment. He needed to break it.

“Did I ever tell you guys about the first time Keith tried s’mores?” he asked quietly.

Hunk paused in his ladling of the hot chocolate. Pidge sat up a little where she was leaning against him, and Lance and Allura both looked up.

“What are ‘s’mores’?” Coran asked curiously.

“They’re a special treat on earth, usually for kids. You make them over a fire. You put a marshmallow – it’s like a fluffy kind of candy, I guess – on the end of a stick, and you hold it over the flames till it gets golden brown and melty. Then you sandwich it between two graham crackers and two pieces of chocolate. They’re very sweet and messy.”

“They sound delicious,” Allura said, smiling dreamily.

“They are,” Shiro agreed. “Anyway, it was the summer after Keith got accepted into the Garrison – he must have been about fifteen. He was staying in the Garrison over the summer, so I had him move into the apartment with me and Adam while school was out. He’d just tag along while I did things, maybe do some drawing, sometimes getting antsy when I ignored him too long and trying to climb up on my back.” Hunk snickered at the idea. “And one day, he’d gotten heat stroke being out in the sun too long – I’d been working on something all day with Iverson, and Adam was out, and Keith decided he was going to clean out the back garden shed for us. We’d been meaning to do it for ages but just never had the time. He spent eight hours outside without taking a break, and he was so sick by the end of the day . . . and all he wanted to know was if we liked it. He was so anxious he wouldn’t be done by the time we got back, he didn’t even notice how sick he was till we’d finished going through it and come back inside to make supper.” Shiro smiled at the memory. Then he cleared his throat. He was getting sidetracked. “Anyway, I ended up taking the next day off to stay home with him since he was so unwell. He felt so bad that he was keeping me at home, but he was also really on edge – couldn’t sit still, even though he threw up a few times. So I sat down with my old family photo albums to show him embarrassing pictures of me as a kid.” He remembered the feverish warmth of Keith’s body pressed close against him, the soft tickle of his too-long hair under his chin as he pulled him in for a hug. He remembers reluctant laughs turning into uncontainable giggles, and giggles turning into quiet solemnity when Keith saw a picture of Shiro’s father that must have struck a memory of his own.

“There were pictures of me as a kid at camp, eating a very messy s’smore, and we got talking, and – I found out he’d never eaten a s’more. So I started planning to have a fire with him and Adam so he could try them.

“Once Keith was all better, we waited for a perfect night. We had hot dogs and salad and watermelon for supper – Keith hardly ate any of it, he was so excited for the s’mores – and then we finally got down to it.”

Lance snorted, but there was a fondness in his voice when he said, “Let me guess, Mullet was the kind of heathen who sets the marshmallow on fire and blows it out?”

“No, actually,” Shiro smiled. “He was absolutely scientific about it. He was so determined to make what Adam had told him was The Perfect Marshmallow – golden brown on all sides, gooey and dripping, no burnt pieces. He spent ages focussing on that marshmallow, turning it, fretting over it, shifting around the fire so he had the best spot.

“And then – then, the marshmallow went the way of many marshmallows in the past – it caught on fire. Keith was so upset and surprised, he yelped and yanked it out of the fire – but it had been melting so long it was a molten mess. It flew off his stick and into my hair.” Shiro starts to laugh despite himself, remembering what it was like. The panic of realizing there was a fiery marshmallow in his hair, Keith yelling and apologizing and panicking, Adam laughing his goddam ass off. . . he chuckles. “He was so upset about ruining that first marshmallow and getting it in my hair, he actually snapped at Adam, because he was laughing and doing absolutely nothing to help me out . . . ”

Pidge scoffed. “For the record, I would just sit back and laugh, too, if I got to see Takashi Shirogane with a headful of flaming marshmallow.”

“Hey!”

“Did he make another one?” Hunk asked. “Or was he too scared to try again?”

“Keith? Oh, he tried again. But not until he’d taken a marshmallow and held it over the flames and let it catch on fire and watched it burn itself into a crisp, like he was getting some sort of vengeance over it. Then he made at least eighteen marshmallows, and he was so damn focused on making them work out perfectly that we didn’t have the heart to stop him, even though he made himself sick eating them.”

Allura smiled. “That sounds like Keith,” she agreed. “Shiro, why did Keith need to stay with you over that summer? Did he not have a family to return to?”

Shiro’s mood turned more serious. “Er, no. No, he didn’t. It isn’t my story to tell, but – Keith was in foster care for a long time before I met him. He didn’t have anyone before I met him.” He cleared his throat and forced a smile. “But now he has all of us.”

Lance nodded. “He does,” he agreed solemnly. They fell into a silence, not quite as grim as the last, but still heavy.

Pidge was quiet, gnawing at her lip. “Keith wouldn’t take a break if any one of us had been arrested,” she said dully. “He’d be tearing down the entire planet to get one of us back.”

Shiro was surprised. “Keith would fight for any of us, you’re right,” he answered carefully. “But he also knows that some fights you can’t win with just your fists. We aren’t giving up on him, Pidge. We’re just making sure we’re capable of fighting another day.”

He reached to wrap his arm around her, but Pidge just slid off her seat and walked away.

“I’m okay,” she said gruffly, hugging herself. “I’m just – gonna go to bed now.”

The others watched as she walked away, the mood suddenly deflated. Shiro sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose.

“I’m going to go talk to her,” he said. “I’m sorry, guys. Get some rest, okay? We’re going to start again tomorrow.” He hesitated, his voice dropping lower. “I’m proud of you all, and so grateful. You’re the kind of friends I always hoped Keith would have.” He
clapped his hand on Lance’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze before turning to follow the Green Paladin.

He went to Pidge’s room, but she wasn’t there, just her tangle of cords and machinery and tools, and the space trash friends she’d made. He smiled sadly at them, happy that, in some way, in her loneliest hour, Pidge had still relied on her friends.

It took him a while of looking around, but he found her eventually, not in Green’s hangar, but in Red’s. He came up to see her sitting on the Red Lion’s paw, talking softly.

“ – and then, I couldn’t sleep, and I was sitting up trying to fix that control panel Coran was complaining about, and I dropped a wrench on my way out, and I guess he must have heard me, because he came into the room like ten minutes later with hot chocolate and some of Hunk’s cookies.” She sniffled. “And then – and then he just sat there, watching me work, drinking his cocoa. And I couldn’t help it, I just started talking, about missing my mom and dad and Matt, and how frustrated I was we couldn’t save all the people from the rebel base, and how I was afraid Bae Bae might forget me, and – and he just sat there. And listened. And let me rant as long as I needed to. And when I stopped talking because I was crying, he just kinda . . . hugged me. And he didn’t say anything till I was done crying, he just let me get it out. And when I was all done, he started telling me about – ” she sniffed – “about the s’mores. The same story Shiro told tonight. And he – he acted out how Shiro yelled when he got the marshmallows in his hair, and Adam being useless, and himself freaking out, and I started laughing until I was crying again, and we ended up staying awake for another hour telling each other stupid stories about our stupid brothers.” She took her glasses off to wipe her eyes and put them back on tiredly. “I miss him, too, Red,” she whispered. “I promise, we’re going to get him back. I promise.”

Shiro waited until she’d gotten quiet again, then decided to walk in as if he hadn’t heard anything – he felt guilty enough, listening in as he had.

“Hey, there you are,” he said, coming up behind her. “You okay?”

Pidge looked up and offered a watery smile. “Just keeping Red company.”

Shiro held his hand out to her. “Come on. You need your sleep. We’ve got a long day head of us getting Red’s boy back, don’t we, Red?”

The lion’s eyes flashed gold as he helped Pidge to her feet and walked her to her room.

Chapter Text

Keith no longer even attempted to calculate how long he had been imprisoned. He’d be surprised if he’d been there more than three days; but he’d also be surprised if he’d been there less than a month. He couldn’t tell anymore which was more reasonable.
But at some point, after about thirteen food deliveries, a group of five Flaxcians came to his cell. He sat up at the sound of their footsteps thudding dully down the hall. His chest ached with relief and anxiety when they unlocked the cell door and all filed in; they were people, at least, and that meant something had happened, that there had been some kind of resolution; but dread twisted his gut when he began to wonder what that resolution had been.

“Is Shiro coming?” he asked hoarsely as they filed in. His voice was gravelly with disuse.

“No,” the head Flaxcian said coldly. “The black paladin has not contacted us about you for some time, although they did leave the system briefly.”

Keith felt his stomach drop. They’d left. They’d gone off without him. That meant they didn’t really need him. That meant that maybe they really would just leave him here . . . he tried to slow his breathing, but his heart rate was heading into panic mode anyway and his mind was racing out of control.

“Stand up,” the Flaxcian ordered, looking vaguely bored. Keith tried to obey as quickly as possible -- they’ll be angry if you hesitate, hurry up or they’ll hit you, hurry hurry hurry – but he ended up catching one foot in the chain on his other ankle and tripping onto the ground. He heard the impatient huff overhead and felt the grip of two pairs of hands grabbing him, pulling him up.

“Let go of me!” he protested, trying to twist away; but he was exhausted and underfed and stumbling over his own chains. All he did was piss them off even more.

“Stand still so we can get this over with,” the Flaxcian hissed impatiently, smacking his head harshly. “We won’t hesitate to beat you into submission, Galra. Stand still and let us complete our examination.”

“W-what examination?”

“We have just today completed our international treaty renewals, so we finally have time to complete your physical examination.”

“You can’t – ”

“I think you’ll find we can, halfbreed. You are in our custody as a racial offender and we are well within our rights to observe your physiology. Now stand up!”

Keith tried, he really did. He froze, hunching his shoulders up, flinching away from their hands every time they touched him; he was a coward, to be behaving this way, but he couldn’t help it; old instincts took over, even as he tried to stand still. He tried to
imagine his feet were cemented into the floor to stop himself from moving away. But when they started to take off his clothes, he began thrashing again.

“No, please, p-please stop,” he begged breathlessly, fighting the inevitable. “Please just – just leave me alone – what are you d-doing – stop – stop – I was good, I’ve been good, you d-don’t have to do this – ”

The lead Flaxcian made an impatient noise. “Chain him up,” they sighed. The aliens who had been trying to take his clothes instead unfastened his hands from the chain around his waist. They pulled his hands over his head, no matter how hard he tried to keep them down – being curled up made him feel safe, but being stretched out like this sent his mind into a frenzy. He thrashed and fought, but of course it took little for them to overpower him and hang the chains over a large hook hanging from the ceiling. His toes just barely brushed the floor.

The Flaxcian in front of him took his jaw in their hand and said firmly, “Don’t fight it. Just let it happen. It will be over soon. Keep your mouth shut and stop fighting, or we will have to put you under.” Keith froze at that. No, no, no, he needed to be awake. He didn’t want to think about them doing things to him while he was asleep.

There was nothing he could do as they took his clothes off of him, pulling apart the detachable seams along the arms and tugging them down, stripping him completely. He tilted his head back and bit his lip, just barely stifling the whimper that crawled up his throat. Hot tears gathered in the corners of his eyes as the cold air hit his bare skin. Goosebumps rose along his flesh and sporadic trembling raced through his nerves. God, he just wanted to be away from here, why couldn’t it just stop . . .
When they started touching him, with grotesque fascination but a scientific scrutiny, taking notes and poking him relentlessly, commenting about him as if he wasn’t there, as if he couldn’t hear them, as if he wasn’t a fucking person, he stopped existing. Or rather, he stopped existing inside his own body. He sort of floated just outside it, as though his consciousness were a balloon, bumping along the ceiling, unable to entirely leave the room but not quite inside himself. He knew, distantly, that he was dissociating. He knew, even more distantly, that this had happened before, that he’d felt this awful helium-filled feeling before. But he couldn’t bring himself to care. He couldn’t bring himself to feel anything.

Even when they took blood or scraped away skin samples, plucked out samples of hair from different parts of his body, poked at the scar from the Trials, the scars on his arm, the scars along his back – even when they touched him all over, no part of his body sacred, and tried whatever they could to make his body react in any way they could think of – he felt nothing.

In the back of his mind, though, a final thought occurred to him – I hope Shiro doesn’t come back. The idea of Shiro knowing any of what had happened made him feel sick, in the floaty, distant way of all his feelings. He knew he would feel the shame later, when he was able to feel again.

He didn’t notice when they finally took him down. He didn’t feel them redressing him and chaining him back to the wall. He didn’t come back into his own body until the middle of the night, when he awoke from yet another nightmare. He realized, as he sat on the floor shivering, that he didn’t care anymore if they killed him. He just wanted them to get it over with and stop the shame that threatened to drown him.

* * * * *

The day of the trial, Shiro woke with every muscle tense, his body thrumming with nervous energy. He and the others met on the bridge; they were all wearing their armour, although they were required to leave their weapons behind.

“Be waiting for us to contact you, Coran,” Shiro instructed. “If anything goes badly or Keith is in danger, we’ll let you know. Hopefully we won’t need an extraction, but . . .”

Coran looked solemn. He put his hand on Shiro’s shoulder and said, in an uncharacteristically dark tone, “We’ll tear that place apart before we let them take him, my boy.”

Shiro nodded, briefly putting his hand over Coran’s. He turned to the others. “Everyone ready?” Lance, carrying a tablet with Allura’s notes, nodded solemnly. Pidge pursed her lips, her gaze fierce and unwavering. Hunk clutched the first aid kit in front of him; none of them had spoken about it, but by silent agreement they had prepared a kit with any medical aids that would work on Keith’s hybrid biology. Just in case it was needed.

They took a pod down to the planet’s surface, since the Flaxcians had said they wouldn’t be allowed to bring the lions, which were technically weapons. Shiro flexed his hands anxiously on the controls.

They were received formally by a group of guards. They were scanned for weapons and led down the long hallways – hallways which had once seemed impressively large and elegant before, now looming hostile and oppressive. Shiro shivered.

They were lead to a large domed room that reminded him of a university lecture hall, with seats going up around the centre platform in tiers. The platform had a long table, behind which the Flaxcian version of a jury sat. There was a short, thick post, about four feet high, with a metal ring attached to the top of it, just in front of the table and to the side.

Already the hall was filling up with the blue-skinned, eight-armed aliens. The paladins were lead to a separate seating area, like a theatre box, about five rows from the centre platform. As soon as they stepped inside it, the Flaxcian guards pulled back. A shimmering barrier rose up around them with a faint hum.

Shiro fought to keep his panic down. The others looked to him, their eyes wide.

“Standard protection for the sake of the jury,” the guard informed them primly. “You are foreigners defending a racial offender. Forgive us for taking necessary precautions.” They turned and walked away before they could answer.

“Coran,” Shiro said into his com, “we have a slight problem. They’ve got us trapped inside some kind of particle barrier – Coran? Coran?” He was met with only static.

“Well,” Pidge said grimly. “There goes our backup. Let’s hope our defense is good, I guess?”

Shiro inhaled. “Right,” he agreed tightly.

Once the remaining Flaxcians had come in and taken their seats, the jury entered and walked solemnly up to the stage. Shortly behind them followed four armed guards, weapons at the ready and surrounding a lone figure in the middle. Shiro felt his heartrate pick up.

“Keith,” he whispered.

Keith shuffled up to the centre platform, head bowed, hands clutched tightly in front of him, held close by the cuffs. His ankles were also chained together, which would explain how cautiously he was walking up the aisle. Shiro bit his lip as he watched him; his
shoulders were bowed as if with a heavy burden, and maybe it was just the too-big uniform over his narrow frame, but it looked as if he’d lost weight. It was hard to tell much with his head tilted forward the way it was, his hair covering his face. Shiro knew how Keith would feel about this, about being paraded in front of dozens of people like this, the centre of attention, to be shamed and degraded for something he couldn’t help, and it took everything in him not to slam his body into the barrier until he broke it down and was able to grab Keith and take him far, far away.

They lead him up to the platform and in front of the post, where the lead Flaxcian took Keith’s chains and reattached them to the ring on the post. When they stepped away and went to stand to the side, Shiro finally got a good look at Keith. His breath caught in his throat.

His skin was waxy-pale, and there were deep bags under his dull, red-rimmed eyes. His hair was matted and tangled, as if he’d been pulling at it. But the worst part – the part that made Shiro’s body go numb and cold – was the muzzle covering the bottom half of his face. A metal contraption, spanning over the bridge of his nose, under his jaw, clamping his mouth shut and locked tightly behind his head, so tight it pressed into the skin, already rubbing a spot on his nose red.

They’d fucking muzzled him.

“Shiro,” Pidge whispered.

“I know,” he said, his voice more of a growl than anything else. Memories of a similar contraption rushed back to his mind, vague and some half-formed, and suddenly he could feel the jagged edge of the scar covering the bridge of his own nose. He turned to the Flaxcian guard standing nearest their box. “What is the meaning of this?” he demanded, finally finding his voice. “How is he supposed to defend himself if he’s – gagged?”

The Flaxcian turned to them, looking one part smug and one part incredulous. “The defendant, speaking for themselves? Absolutely not! The jury may speak, and anyone who wishes to testify on the behalf of the accused may speak. But the accused, defending themselves?” They laughed shortly. “Ridiculous.”

Shiro clenched his fists and met Allura’s gaze. She pursed her lips.

“I knew – that they have done this before,” she said carefully, in answer to his unspoken question. “But typically they just instruct the defendant not to speak. The muzzle . . . I believe it is something only used for their worst war criminals and a rather archaic courtroom practice, even for them. People they don’t trust to respect the dignity of the court, and so on.” She swallowed. “I’m – I’m sorry, Shiro. I didn’t think they’d – I never thought – ”

He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “It isn’t your fault, princess. If you’d mentioned anything like this before I probably would have torn this place apart instead of dealing with it the right way.”

“I’m not so sure this is the right way anymore,” Lance muttered, arms crossed, looking disturbed. Hunk nodded, a small movement, but his lips were pulled in tight.

Shiro forced himself to take deep breaths. They would wait this out. They were outnumbered and at a serious disadvantage – he didn’t even know if they could break out of the barrier, and if they decided to react violently the Flaxcians could just decide to kill Keith before they got to him. They needed to see where this would go.

With a great deal of ceremonious talk, the trial finally began. Shiro kept his eyes trained on Keith, watching his reactions, hoping to catch his eye if he ever looked up. So far he’d kept his gaze down.

The trial was surprisingly reminiscent of earth trials in many ways, with a few alterations. Shiro hardly paid attention to it, just watching Keith, who stood still as stone, hunching forward, trying to be as small and unseen as possible.

As expected, the Flaxcian version of a prosecutor spoke at great lengths about blood guilt and so on, painting Keith a monster, a product of a corrupt race with an inherently evil origin. The crowds were appreciative, lapping it up like it was a performance, nodding and murmuring, casting eyes flashing with anger at the boy huddled over his own bound hands in front of them.

Shiro’s rage was bubbling up almost uncontrollably by the time Allura finally began her defense. When her voice rang out, clear and even, Keith’s head snapped up, just for a moment, his eyes wide as if with shock. His gaze met Shiro’s for just a moment, glinting in the harsh light, before he turned his face back down, face flushing a furious red. Shame.

Allura’s defense was impartial for the most part, citing as many rules as she could, as was expected in the court. They hadn’t wanted it to sound like they were begging for Keith, at least not until they needed to; her plan was to win by manipulating their own rules, rather than trying to appeal to their emotions. Shiro really hoped it paid off.

They went from the defense into a back-and-forth, a debate of sorts. It dragged on far too long and with far too much formality, although a distant part of his mind appreciated how precise and detailed Allura was being, seamlessly dropping clauses and paragraphs as if she’d grown up memorizing them. Shiro participated, gave his input, said what he had to say, added as much fire behind his words as he could, watching Keith as he presented the legal jargon Allura had coached him in. Lance, Hunk, and Pidge watched the two of them, their gazes flicking between Shiro, Allura, the Flaxcians, and Keith.

Between the long-winded prosecutions and the needless formalities, it went on for hours. Shiro felt his energy draining out of him; it was hard to hold onto so much anger without burning out. But as soon as he looked to Keith and saw the way his body sagged over the post, exhausted, legs shaking, the fire was renewed.

By the end of the day, it felt like the arguments were coming to a close. Allura had been demanding that the charges be dropped entirely, defending Keith’s innocence as long as possible, as they’d discussed. But the Flaxcians hadn’t budged, and they all knew what had to come now.

Shiro felt his stomach clench as Allura brought up her final resort of an argument: half-punishment for a half-blood Galra. He knew it was their best bet, but still . . . seeing the way Keith’s shoulders got higher and higher, tenser and tenser as Allura’s calculating voice continued back and forth with the Flaxcians. . .

The head of the jury rang a sort of gong on the table.

“Defense,” they said loudly. “We have reached an agreement then, have we? We will take what is owed us by punishing the Galra halfbreed, and you will leave our planet, with a portion of the supplies from our previous negotiations in return for your aid in fighting the Galra. Do you consent to permitting us to exact our blood debt from this halfbreed in the form of a corporal punishment of our choosing?”

And then, each of them had to say it. Had to stand there, in front of Keith, and consent to letting the Flaxcians have their way.

“I concede – ” Shiro’s voice felt like thistles scraping through his throat. “I concede the guilt of the defendant as a racial enemy and oppressor of the Flaxcians, and consent to allow the Flaxcian court to exact their blood debt from the half-blood Galra, Keith, Red Paladin of Voltron, in the form of a corporal punishment of their choosing, to any extent not including death or dismemberment.” He choked on the last words and had to clear his throat. This felt so, so wrong. He couldn’t see a way out, but . . . but this wasn’t the way it should have happened. He shouldn’t be saying these things, and Keith shouldn’t be in front of him hearing them. He knew he would spend many sleepless nights after this, trying to figure out what he should have done better.

A Flaxcian, larger than the others, came forward. They were dressed in darker clothing, with a large mask covering their face.

“The executioner will carry out the sentence, here and now,” the head of the jury proclaimed. “Jury, please rise for the payment of the blood-debt ceremony.”

Shiro felt Pidge’s hand wrap around his. He was scared he’d break her fingers if he held her hand, but he looked down at her.

“Please,” he said quietly, “don’t watch.” She looked ready to protest, but he added, “Keith wouldn’t want you to. For him, please.” She bit her lip, but nodded. Lance and Hunk looked to him, and he gave them each a brief nod; they lowered their gazes. Allura caught his eye for a moment, her eyes shining with tears and unspoken apology. Shiro shook his head; she had done her best. Then she, too, bowed her head.

The executioner approached Keith and reached around his shoulders. Ripples of excitement raced through the crowd, a bloodthirsty wave of anticipation, as the Flaxcian undid Keith’s uniform and tugged it off of his shoulders, pulling it down so he was only half-covered. Keith twitched away from the hands touching his bare skin. The hands landed on his shoulders and pushed him down to his knees, but Keith tripped on the way down, landing hard and smacking his face against the post in front of him. A resounding laughter echoed through the hall. The trial was over, Shiro realized, watching the trickle of blood run over the edge of the muzzle where it had been slammed into Keith’s nose; the show was just beginning.

It started with a beating. Shiro bit back a shout as, out of nowhere, a fist shot out and struck Keith’s side, knocking him sideways, held up only by the chains. It didn’t stop at that. Fists and boots slammed into his side, his back, his face, the force so great it would have knocked him over if he hadn’t been held up by the shackles on his wrists. Shiro could hear soft oofs as Keith’s body was battered back and forth, bruised all over, the skin broken in a few areas; but he didn’t cry out. Shiro knew, unfortunately, that Keith knew from experience how to take a beating silently. The executioner had thick metal gloves, heavy boots, and a whip at their side, and they pummelled him with purpose. But Keith stayed quiet, his eyes squeezed shut, even as his body rocked back and forth with the force of the blows.

“Keith!” a voice rang out. It was Hunk, his eyes shining with tears as he stared at the floor. His fists were clenched. “Hang on, Keith. Just – just hang on.”

Shiro finally felt the knot in his throat ease enough for him to call out. “Keith!” he yelled, slamming a fist against the barrier, “Keith, buddy, I’m here. It’s going to be okay, Keith. You’re going to be okay.”

Keith sobbed audibly at the sound of his voice, but it was cut off by another fist.

“We’re here, Keith,” Pidge shouted, still not watching. “We’re not leaving here without you!”

Hope rose up in Shiro when the executioner finally stepped back, surveying the trembling, broken form in front of him, hanging by his chains, panting for breath. Were they finally finished?
No, it wasn’t over.

They brought out the whip next. It flashed through the air; but the crack of it meeting Keith’s back, and the spray of blood, was nothing compared to hearing Keith’s first cry of pain, a wordless shout torn from his throat behind the constraints of the muzzle.

Shiro felt Pidge’s hands tighten on his arm at the sound, and he gave her shoulder a brief squeeze. Drops of blood sprayed across the jury, who sat immovably, eerily calm as Keith’s blood splattered against their clothes and even landed on their faces.

“Hang in there, Keith,” Lance called out, his voice cracking, dangerously close to tears. “Please, mullet, hang in there.”

Keith regained his silence for the next few lashes; but when the executioner took the whip and went across the lines already on his back, flaying the closed cuts open, his ragged cry cut through the arena, loud even from behind the muzzle.

“Enough!” Shiro roared at the same moment Pidge whimpered, turning to burry her face in his chest. Allura was pale. Lance and Hunk were pressed close to each other, Hunk shouldered in front of Lance almost protectively.

“Silence!” the head of the jury ordered. “Enough of this behaviour, or you will be removed from the court room. No more shouting! Besides, the debt has not yet been paid,” they continued, “and the court has not yet let out.” They nodded to the executioner. “Continue.”

Three lashes later, and the whip, dripping blood, was finally discarded. The executioner took Keith’s hands and disconnected the chain from the metal ring in the middle of the post. He slumped forward bonelessly. They took his body, limp, hardly conscious, and hung the chains over a hook jutting out from the larger pole on the platform. He cried out as his arms were stretched above his head, opening the wounds on his back. He dangled, bare feet just above the floor, as blood ran down his legs and dripped off his toes. His chest heaved as he fought to breath, tilting his head back to reveal his bruised, tear-streaked face.

And while he hung there, suspended, gasping for breath, the Flaxcians began the closing ceremonies for the trial. It involved some sort of closing speech, some sort of procession, some sort of bowing or something; Shiro saw none of it aside from being distantly aware of how calmly they continued while Keith continued to writhe in his bonds. His eyes were trained on the agonized face, the closed eyes still streaming tears, the heaving bruised chest.

The ceremony continued, but Shiro’s vision went dark around the edges when Keith’s struggling went still and his head, which had been tilted back as he fought to breathe, dropped forwards, eerily still.

“This is enough!” he thundered, slamming his fist against the barrier. “You’re killing him!”

The Flaxcians didn’t even acknowledge he had spoken. But they had almost finished; when all that was left was the group of guards and the executioner, they finally let the ceremony come to and end.

As soon as the barrier dropped, Shiro was hurtling himself over the rows in front of him, rushing forward to the platform. He slammed his hand, now glowing white with heat, against the chains. Keith dropped, but Shiro’s other arm was already around him, guiding him gently to the ground, already slick with blood. Shiro’s hand was shaking as he felt how cold and still the body in his arms was. His fingers fumbled with the clasp of the muzzle, which was slippery and wet; he had to wipe the blood off on his pants before he could get the ugly contraption off. He winced at the mark bridging Keith’s nose as he eased it off his face, but there wasn’t time to worry about that. He pressed his face towards Keith’s, feeling for even the faintest breath.

“He’s not breathing,” he confirmed as Allura and the others joined him. "I - I think he choked on all the blood trapped inside the muzzle." Lance sucked in a breath.

Shiro already had Keith on the ground and was doing chest compressions. His stomach turned as he felt at least one rib grating beneath his hand. But they could deal with broken bones or even punctured lungs later; right now, he needed to get Keith breathing again.

“Come on, Keith,” he whispered, pounding the heels of his hands against the chest, which suddenly seemed far too delicate to be handled. He tilted Keith's head back, breathed into the cold, blood-slick lips, pulled back and continued.

Keith jerked into consciousness during the third set of compressions, a pained gasp tearing out of him as his body jackknifed up.

“Shh, it’s ok,” Shiro soothed gently, supporting him from behind. Keith’s eyes flickered up, dazed with pain.

“Shiro – ” he rasped, but it tapered off into a whine as he arched his back. Shiro realized his hand was covering the lashes on Keith’s back, and quickly moved it so he was supporting his shoulder instead.

“I’ve got you, buddy,” he murmured, pressing his lips to Keith’s forehead. “You’re safe now. You’re safe.”

“You came back,” Keith breathed, his eyes unfocused, flickering over Shiro’s face as if in disbelief.

Shiro choked. “Of course we came, buddy,” he murmured, trying to hide how his voice broke.

Keith sobbed, turning his head into Shiro’s shoulder to hide his face, still gasping for breath, his shoulders jerking as he gulped in air and forced out shuddering breaths.

Behind them, Lance and Pidge were demanding that Keith’s clothes be returned. Allura laid a hand on Shiro’s shoulder. “We should get him to the pod,” she said gently. Shiro nodded, supporting the back of Keith’s head with his hand, running his fingers
through his hair.

“We’re gonna get you home now, Keith,” he murmured. “It’s going to hurt, I’m sorry. I can’t carry you without hurting you.”

Keith didn’t answer; he just burrowed his face into Shiro’s neck, which Shiro took as consent. Gently, he wrapped one arm under Keith’s legs, keeping the other buried in his hair. Keith whimpered against him, fresh tears falling against Shiro’s neck, but he didn’t say a word. Hunk stood next to Shiro, laying a careful hand against Keith’s shoulder, supporting him from behind.

They made their way back down the aisle. Shiro held Keith close, glaring over the bloody shoulder at any Flaxcian they passed, his lip curled up in a protective snarl. The others walked close by, surrounding them protectively, reminiscent of the guard that had ushered Keith in. But they weren’t trying to keep Keith contained; they were trying to keep him safe. Keith said nothing, only let out small, uncontainable noises of pain every now and then. Shiro took him into the shuttle and knelt in the back. Carefully, he set Keith down on the blanket Pidge pulled out for him, still cradling him close, holding his front against his chest. Keith kept his eyes firmly shut and his face hidden; but as soon as he felt the pod moving, his eyes shot open.

“We’re leaving?” he whispered.

“Yes, Keith,” Shiro answered, carding his fingers gently through the tangled hair. “And we don’t ever have to come back.”

“What about – the alliance – ‘nd the medical supplies . . . ”

“It’s okay, Keith. They gave us the medical supplies. We’ve . . . settled upon negotiations. It’s all okay. Everyone is going to be okay.”

Keith slumped in his arms, tension ebbing out of him. A trembling breath punched out of his lungs, and he leaned his weight against Shiro. They didn’t move for the rest of the trip home.

By the time they got to the Castle, Keith had passed out again, although he was still breathing. Coran was waiting for them, having been contacted by Allura as soon as they’d gotten out of the courtroom barrier. He took one look at Keith and pulled his lips in, his eyes suddenly looking very old and very tired.

“I’ve prepared a pod for him,” he told Shiro. “Bring him this way and we’ll get him in a suit.”

Shiro hated the feeling of the deadweight in his arms, so heavy and yet far too light, but he nodded, following Coran. Keith’s arms dangled limply, and his head sagged.

They changed him quickly into one of the white suits, which was quickly soaked through with blood, and eased him into a pod. Shiro breathed his first sigh of relief as the glass closed over Keith’s face and the readings came out, Coran nodding with satisfaction as he looked them over.

“He’ll be fine, my boy,” he told Shiro, looking at him with those sad, tired eyes. “I would tell you to go get some rest while you wait, but I feel like that would be a futile attempt, wouldn’t it?”

Shiro cracked what he hoped was a smile. “It would,” he agreed shakily.

“Go along, my boy,” Coran advised. “Get washed off. You don’t want him waking to find you covered in his own blood. Shower, change into something comfortable. Hunk and I will prepare something for you to eat. You don’t have to be away for long.”

Shiro wanted to fight it, he really did. But the feeling of the blood drying on his hands and armour, the smell of it, was making him nauseated. He nodded reluctantly. “Let me know if anything changes while I’m gone. I’ll be right back.”

“I know you will,” Coran smiled. “Now go.”

Shiro was shaking as he got into the shower, and watching the swirl of blood running off his body and down the drain didn’t help any. He scrubbed himself mercilessly until his skin was red as a boiled lobster, the water as hot as he could stand. Then he was out, running a towel over his body and slipping into a pair of sweatpants and a soft grey sweatshirt – off-duty clothes Lance had recently insist they all have. They’d be warm and comfortable, and he’d be there for a while. As long as it took.

When he got back to the lounge, he was surprised to see that everyone else had set up camp. Lance and Allura had dragged in a bunch of mattresses, and Pidge was carting in components of her computer gear and the gaming system she and Lance had cobbled together. Hunk was just coming through the door with a steaming pot, while Coran followed behind carrying a stack of bowls, mugs, and cutlery.

“What’s all this?” Shiro asked, surveying their efforts incredulously.

“We all know you aren’t leaving Keith’s pod till he comes out,” Pidge said, eyebrows raised. “And neither are any of us. So we’re just going to set up here and make sure we can all be relaxed and ready when he gets out.”

Lance looped Shiro’s arm in his and lead him over to the mattresses, which had been built up with a nest of blankets and cushions.

“Settle in, my good sir,” he said, “and prepare to watch me demolish Pidge in a round of Killbot Phantasm.”

“In your dreams, McClain.”

Lance stuck out his tongue at her and continued talking to Shiro. “Hunk, my good man here, has prepared you some of his finest delicacies: a steaming bowl of stuff, and for those of us with refined palates, a chilled plate of things.” He indicated that Shiro should sit, and when he had, Lance draped a blanket over his shoulders and began arranging pillows around hm.

Allura, dressed in her puffiest nightgown, her hair down in flowing waves, approached him with a gentle smile. She sat next to him, and let the mice tumble out of her cupped hands. Two of them proceeded to roam through her hair, already intent on styling it, while the other two clambered over Shiro. The big yellow one – Shiro could never keep their names straight – rolled over into Shiro’s hand and almost immediately began snoring. The other, the little pink one, climbed up his arm and settled in on his shoulder, nuzzling close to his neck, whiskers ticking his chin. Shiro gently stroked the yellow mouse with a finger and watched on as Pidge and Lance began to argue over controllers and Hunk, rolling his eyes at their antics, dished out bowls of food. He set Shiro’s on the table next to him, then put an empty bowl next to it.

“For Keith,” he murmured softly, a hopeful smile on his face. He began arranging pillows, making a nest/pillow-throne right next to Shiro. “We’ll have his place all ready for him when he gets out so he can see just how well he fits in with this crazy group, right, Shiro?”

Shiro choked. He’d thought he wasn’t going to cry. “Hunk,” he whispered, dashing at his eyes. The others stopped to stare at him, Lance and Pidge glancing at each other with momentary concern while Allura just smiled sadly.

“What’s wrong?” Hunk asked anxiously. “Did I say something . . . ”

“Sorry,” Shiro sniffed, “it’s fine. I just – I meant it, what I said to Lance the other night. You’re the kind of friends – you’re the kind of family I always hoped Keith would have.” He looked through his tear-blurred vision at the pod, feeling the emotions of the past two weeks crash over him in waves. “I – I was hardly older than he is now when we met, and it was like I was the first person to ever show him kindness, to let him in. Even when he got settled at the Garrison, Adam and I were about the only people he ever spoke to – well, and Matt, too, when he was around. I wanted him to have more than us, I just – didn’t know how to make it happen.” He laughed shakily and wiped his eyes. “Who knew all it would take was an alien invasion and magical flying robot cats.”

“I could have called that,” Lance supplied. Pidge elbowed him, but she was smiling. She put down her game controller and sat down next to Shiro, leaning her head on his shoulder.

“Told you I was going to get my brother back,” she said quietly. “No one gets between a Holt and their family.”

They settled in to wait together, then. Shiro didn’t fall asleep, but he was able to relax, at least. He watched Keith, still and silent in the pod, and then looked to the people surrounding him: Allura, her hair wild and outrageous as the mice played with it; Lance and Pidge, arguing over gameplay, and Hunk trying to mediate; and Coran, sitting nearby, telling old stories no one was paying close attention to but that nobody wanted him to stop telling.

“If only you could see them all now, Keith,” he whispered.

Chapter Text

Keith wasn’t released from the pod till well into the evening of the next day. Coran had been giving out updates on his condition almost hourly, which Shiro in all his brotherly paranoia appreciated.

“He’ll be out soon, lad,” he finally told Shiro, a kind smile lighting up his tired face. The old Altean hadn’t slept much the night before, opting to stay awake and keep his eye on Keith’s condition.

“Keith’s waking up?!” Lance called from across the room. “Pidge, hurry up and let me win so we can go see – wait – ” A dismal sound came from the game controller, along with the standard “YOU DIED” message.

“Or I could just hurry up and win for you,” Pidge smirked.

Hunk was at the ready with a tray of Keith’s favourite alien dessert, some type of cupcake-like treat with a fluffy, mousse-like centre. “He doesn’t have to eat anything right away, but, like, I want him to know it’s here so he can have some when he feels like it, because, like, I don’t think prison food can be very good, even though the Flaxcians did have some exquisite cuisine, but – ”

“He’ll love them, Hunk. They smell delicious.”

Hunk smiled, flushing. “Thanks, Shiro. I just – I just want him to know I remembered what he likes.”

Shiro smiled and put a hand on his shoulder. “He might not know how to tell you, but he’ll appreciate it. He cried when you made him the chocolate chip cookie dough that tasted like the frozen stuff from the grocery store.”

“Really?” Hunk looked like Shiro had just made his day.

Before Shiro could answer, Coran was calling out, “Be ready, everyone. Just a few more ticks.”

“Everyone back up a little,” Shiro instructed. “We don’t want him to be overwhelmed. The last thing he was conscious for was pretty traumatic, so he’ll need his space.”

The others nodded, immediately serious, and backed up. Shiro smiled tightly at them.

And then – the pod was hissing, and Keith was tumbling out, into Shiro’s arms. He flailed a little, pulling away frantically, and Shiro let him have his freedom.

“It’s okay, Keith,” he said gently. “It’s just me. Just Shiro. You’re home, now. You’re safe.”

Keith looked to him from where he was pressed up against the healing pod, eyes wide and frantic. “Shiro?” he gasped.

“I’m here,” Shiro answered.

Keith stared at him as if in disbelief. “You’re – you’re here,” he rasped. “You didn’t – ” his breath hitched and his face crumpled, and Shiro pulled him into his arms as he broke into quiet, shuddering sobs. Shiro rubbed his back with the firm, steady movements he knew were most calming to him, letting him cry into his shoulder.

“I didn’t – I thought you – I – ”

“It’s okay, Keith,” Shiro soothed. “We don’t have to talk about it now. This is real. I’m here, and you’re here, and you’re safe. You’re not there anymore. You’re with me. Okay? You’re safe. You’re safe.”

Keith let out a strangled noise and buried his face deeper into Shiro’s neck. Shiro let him stay that way until his breathing evened out and the trembling in his body had gone down, still rubbing his back and whispering soft assurances. Shiro felt the others behind him back away, slowly leaving one by one, silent and careful not to be detected. He felt a pang of emotion. God, he loved this family.

Finally, Keith pulled back a little. “Thank you,” he said hoarsely. “Thank you for coming back for me.”

Shiro smiled sadly, wishing Keith didn’t feel the need to thank him for something like this. “As many times as it takes, buddy. I meant it when I said it. I’m not going anywhere in the universe without my brother. Not anymore, okay?”

Keith shut his eyes tight, as if willing away the fresh wave of emotions coming over him. Even so, two tears stubbornly squeezed out the corners of his eyes and trickled down his pale, blotchy face. “Okay,” he whispered.

Shiro hugged him again, and Keith hugged him back, not saying anything but not really crying anymore; it was as if all the energy had gone out of him with those last two tears. “Are the others okay?” he mumbled into Shiro’s neck. Shiro laughed gently.

“Take a look around the room, buddy.”

He felt the shift as Keith pulled away enough to survey the mess of blankets, pillows, Allura’s hair elastics and brushes, Lance’s beauty supplies, Pidge’s game, Hunk’s stack of food plates, Coran’s moustache oil and comb kit.

“We were here all night, waiting for you,” Shiro confirmed. “They set all this up. We’ve been here since we brought you home.”

Keith looked around with wide, bewildered eyes. He opened his mouth as if to say something, but he shut it again in favour of just staring. “Shiro,” he croaked, and then ducked his head again. Shiro laughed and ran a hand through his hair.

“They left the room to give you some privacy waking up. Didn’t want to overwhelm you. But I can guarantee they’re right outside waiting to see you.”

“Yeah, we are,” a muffled voice called from behind the door. Shiro laughed again. He looked at Keith for permission, and Keith nodded, a shy smile at the corner of his mouth.

“Come on in, guys,” Shiro called.

The group of them piled in then, Lance and Pidge arguing over who got to hug Keith first, Allura with shining eyes and four mice nestled in her hair, all squeaking loudly, and Coran at the back with a warm, happy smile. Hunk got there first, though, and took Keith out of Shiro’s arms with a firm but gentle hug, lifting Keith’s feet clean off the floor for a second.

“I’m so glad you’re safe, man,” he told him earnestly. “Welcome home.”

“Thanks, Hunk,” Keith choked.

“Did you see the Klorarian truffles on the table?”

Keith laughed shakily. “I did,” he admitted. “You – you remembered.”

Hunk snorted. “Of course I remembered. You looked like you met God when you tried them the first time.”

“Yeah, and you threatened me with your knife when you saw me trying to take the last one,” Lance added dryly. “You’re hogging all the mullet, Hunk, come on.” He pulled Keith into a deep hug. “The castle wasn’t the same without you. We’re – I’m glad you’re back.”

Keith returned the hug with shaking hands. “Me, too,” he said.

Pidge threw herself at him, grasping his waist and squeezing tightly. “Butt out, Lance,” she said, her voice muffled.

“Listen, Pigeon – ”

“Bite me,” she growled. Lance backed off and Keith let out a short laugh as he returned the hug.

“Missed you,” he said. Pidge butted his stomach gently with her head.

“Missed you more,” she grumbled. “Fuck off, Lance, I’m still hugging him.”

Lance let out an offended squawk but stepped out of range.

Allura approached slowly, hands clasped in front of her. “Welcome back, Keith,” she said, smiling warmly.

Keith met her gaze and smiled back. “Thanks for getting me back home.” She took this as invitation to drape herself around his shoulders, while the mice scrambled off of her and onto Keith.
“I’m just sorry it took as long as it did,” she said. She sniffed next to his ear, her voice suddenly small. “Keith, I’m – I’m sorry we had to – I’m sorry that we had to let them – I – I didn’t know what else to – ”

“Allura,” he interrupted, pulling back to look at her. Shiro could see the concentration as he fought to find the words, to say them the way he wanted to. “I kn-know. You d-did everything you c-could. I’m h—h-here. That’s m-more than I could have ex-p-pected.”

Allura frowned at that, as did Pidge. Pidge looked up at him. “More than you expected?” she parroted. “Keith, you know we would have torn that place to shreds before we let them take you away from us, right?”

Keith swallowed, and Shiro saw the tension creep back into his expression. “Uh, y-yeah, of c-course.”

Pidge’s frown deepened, but before she could say anymore, Coran had stepped up and was shooing them away.

“Now, now, there will be plenty of time to fight over who gets to hug Keith and where he sits in the ‘cuddle pile’. Right now, this boy needs to take a nice warm shower and get into some comfortable clothes. If there are no aches or pains for me to tend to, my boy . . . ?”

Keith shook his head, obviously relieved. “I’m okay,” he said quietly. “I just – a shower sounds nice. Thanks, Coran.”

Shiro moved closer and put an arm around him. “I’ll walk you there, okay?”

Keith nodded, too exhausted to say more.

Shiro helped him out of the room, the sound of voices following them as they walked away as the others began negotiating cuddle pile positions and Pidge needled Lance about losing the video game. As soon as they were out of sight of the others and the door had slid shut behind them, Keith slumped in Shiro’s grip. He was still standing, but it was as if every bit of energy and tension melted out of him. Shiro rubbed his shoulder bracingly.

“Let’s get you all cleaned up,” he said gently. “You’ll feel better once you’re out of the suit and wearing something more comfortable.”

Keith nodded, out of the energy for speaking. Shiro helped him to the shower.

“Do you need me to help you?” he asked, watching as Keith opened the bathroom door clumsily, his movements wooden and awkward. Keith paled.

“N-no, I can – do it, I’m f-fine.” He bit his lip, as if he could cut the stammer out of his voice.

“Alright,” Shiro said calmly, even though inside he knew what kind of trauma was behind the simple speech impediment, even though his temper was boiling with questions he knew he couldn’t ask; not yet, anyway. “Is it okay if I wait here for you?”

Keith nodded, not able to meet his gaze. “Mmhm.” He turned and walked into the bathroom, shut the door, and quietly locked it. Shiro heard the hiss of the shower turning on.

A few moments later, the sound of heavy sobs filtered through from the bathroom. Shiro’s chest ached at the sound of it, and he wanted to break in and fix it, make everything better. He finally had his brother back, but he was still playing the waiting game.

And he knew it would continue to be a waiting game. He knew, firsthand, that setbacks like this weren’t something you just bounced back from. An experience like Keith’s wasn’t something you just got over, and with past trauma, he would need time. Shiro knew he could expect patience and support from the others; but he also knew that Keith was his own worst enemy. He would tear himself down when he was like that, hating himself just as much as the people who had brought him down in the first place.

But, he resolved, they would finally work through it together. He had started out as a mentor to Keith, bringing a frightened, angry, fragile kid to stability and happiness and even, eventually, confidence. Then he himself had been captured, and things had gone downhill – but whenever he’d finally given up hope, there was Keith, already next to him and supporting the weight he couldn’t carry himself, rescuing him from literal enemies or the ones inside his head, bringing him home from battle or bringing him back to his own mind.

And now – now they’d both had their setbacks. He was still processing his second imprisonment; Keith was processing renewed trauma. They could do it together this time.

The sobbing from the bathroom became gut-wrenching, rather than abating quickly like Keith’s tears usually did. Shiro was getting concerned; there was a franticness to the sounds. He’d wanted to let Keith have this catharsis, cry out the feelings that he knew were overwhelming him; but this was starting to sound more like panic than processing.

“Keith?” he called, knocking on the door. “Are you okay in there, buddy?”

The sobbing cut off abruptly at the knock. The shower continued to run. Shiro held his breath.

“Keith,” he tried again, “I won’t come in if you don’t want me to. But I’d really like it if you’d let me help you through this. I’m here for you. You aren’t alone anymore.”

“I – I can’t – you can come in, I just – I can’t – ” the voice broke off into another choked sob.

Shiro tried the door again. Locked. “Keith? I need you to unlock the door, okay?”

“I – I – ”

Definitely panic. Shiro tried again. “Keith, I know you’re scared right now, and that’s okay. It’s okay to feel this way, and I’m going to help you, just like you helped me. Now, if you can stand up, can you please unlock the bathroom door? Then you can get comfortable and I’ll wait a few seconds to open it, okay, just like we used to do, remember?” This was something they’d had to do before. Keith had had a terrible nightmare his first night staying at Shiro’s apartment. Shiro had woken to the sounds of him crying and whispering apologies to some unseen phantom from his nightmare; but when he’d knocked on the door, Keith hadn’t been able to answer it. Shiro had ended up being so worried that he took the door handle off to get in, and that in itself had frightened Keith even more.

It had been . . . a long night.

But later the next day, Shiro brought it up and asked Keith how he could best respond to something like that happening again. It had taken some coaxing to get an answer out of him, but finally they’d come to an arrangement: if Keith told him not to come in, and if Shiro didn’t think he was in any immediate danger, then Shiro would wait outside the door.

“But what about if it’s like last night? You wanted me to come in, but you wouldn’t open the door for me.”

Keith had hung his head low. “I – I wanted to,” he’d said, “but I – I couldn’t. I – I f-felt safer, under the bed, and I – I was scared to come out and – and have you at the door right – right there, in front of me – I know it sounds stupid, but . . . ”

“Doesn’t sound stupid at all,” Shiro had assured him. “Sounds perfectly reasonable. However, if I need to get to you, we need to have a system. You’ve already said you don’t want the lock removed from the door, right?” Keith nodded quickly. He couldn’t sleep without a locked door. “But me just taking off the doorknob made you feel pretty unsafe, which is understandable. So what if we have a system. If you need me to come inside, you get to come to the door and unlock it. Then I wait till you’re back under the bed and feel okay with me walking in. I won’t come in until you say so. Okay?”

It had become their system, and one of Shiro’s first big “wins” with Keith. They hadn’t had to use it in a while, but . . .

The soft snick of the lock turning brought him back to the present. Then silence for about thirty seconds, until a hoarse voice called,

“You can come in now.”

Shiro opened the door slowly and stepped through.

Keith was sitting in the shower under a stream of steaming hot water, still wearing the pod suit. His knees were pulled up to his chest, his head buried in his arms as the water cascaded over his bony frame. He was breathing far too fast, his body shaking and the occasional whimper escaping as he hyperventilated.

Shiro crouched down low next to him. “Is it okay if I touch you?”

Keith shook his head, unable to speak.

“Okay. I’m just going to sit across from you on the floor, okay?”

Keith gave a tiny nod, but no other indication that he’d heard. Shiro moved to sit down, resting his back against the wall. They just sat there, the water continuing to fall over Keith’s back.

“Do you think you can breathe with me, Keith? Just like you did it with me, in nice and slow – and hold it – and then out.” He led with audible breaths for a while. Keith tried, he did, although sometimes his breath would hitch on a sob and he’d start breathing too fast again. “That’s it, that’s perfect. Keep it up. You’ve got this.”

After a few minutes of this, Keith finally drooped, as if releasing some sort of tension. His head burrowed deeper into his arms, and his shoulders shook as he heaved with a fresh wave of crying. Heavy, guttural sobs tore out of him, sometimes so enormous that he went silent for a while as another sob tried to force its way out. The panic had, for the most part, passed, giving way to the tears.

“Is it okay if I touch you now, buddy?”

Another sob broke free, but Keith nodded. Shiro shifted, staying low, and moved to sit beside Keith under the blisteringly hot water, letting it soak his clothing.

“I’m going to put my arm around your shoulder, okay? Tell me to stop if you need me to.” He laid a firm, slow pressure on Keith’s back and began to rub circles under his shoulder blades. Keith was stiff at first, but soon melted into the touch. Shiro could feel the trembling, so violent he winced in sympathy. The tightness of every muscle in Keith’s body made him ache with empathetic memories.

They sat like that for a long time, letting the bathroom steam up, just sitting under the hot water until Shiro felt his fingers wrinkling up. He didn’t want to leave yet, though, because Keith was slowly coming down from the panic. The sobs had finally given way to long silences, sometimes resuming in quiet shudders and renewed tears, and then subsiding again into silence. He didn’t raise his head once or attempt to speak.

Finally, when the sobbing had completely died away and Keith was listing over, leaning lightly against Shiro’s shoulder, did he say quietly, “You wanna get out of the shower now? Maybe dry off and get some food?”

It took a moment, but he felt the nod against his shoulder.

“I’m going to stand up now, okay? I’ll get you a towel and leave it here with you. I’ve got you some clothes all ready, too, ‘kay?”

Keith nodded, face still firmly tucked away. Shiro eased away, feeling the burn in his limbs as the blood rushed back to them after sitting still so long. He handed the biggest, fluffiest towel he could find in the closet to Keith.

“Give me a moment and I’ll get your clothes and leave them on the counter, okay?”

He left Keith to dry off and get changed, while he himself dried off in the bedroom. He didn’t have any clean clothes, but his room was next door. Should he tell Keith he was going to get his own clothes, or would that cause him unnecessary anxiety? Should he just dash over? He decided it was better to tell him, just in case he came out and Shiro wasn’t there.

“I’m just going down the hall to grab my clothes from my room, I’ll be right back, okay?”

A pause, and then – “’Kay,” came a hoarse voice.

Shiro dashed down the hall and snatched up some clean, comfortable clothes before racing back to change in Keith’s room.

“I’m back!” he called out as he peeled off his soaked clothes, drying his bottom half first and sliding on pants before drying the rest of his body and pulling on a sweatshirt.

A few quiet moments later, the bathroom door opened cautiously and Keith crept out, head bowed, dressed in sweatpants and a thick red hoodie. The clothes hung off him in a way that Shiro, quite frankly, did not like to see.

He looked up at Shiro, peering from under a wet fringe of hair. Shiro smiled sadly and opened his arms wordlessly. Keith hesitated; then he stepped forward and melted into his arms.

“I got you. It’s okay. You’re okay.”

Keith didn’t answer, but he twisted his hands in the fabric of Shiro’s shirt and held on a little tighter. Shiro also tightened his hold.

“Do you want to sit down?”

A nod.

“Okay. Let’s go sit.”

They maneuvered to the bed and sat down. Shiro held him as his breathing slowed down and the trembling was reduced to the occasional tremor.

“Keith,” Shiro asked carefully, after a while, “do you mind if I ask you a question? You just need to tell me yes or no, if you can. Is that okay?”

Keith tensed up, but after a moment he breathed out, “Th-they didn’t – d-do anything, Shiro. I – I just – ” He ducked his head with shame, the tips of his ears burning red; the stutter was back full-force; it was painful just to hear him trying to force the words out and getting frustrated with himself.

“You don’t have to explain it now, Keith,” Shiro soothed. “It’s okay. I just wanted to know if there were any things we needed to take care of right away. We don’t have to talk about it yet. Okay?”

Keith let out a shaky sigh and nodded.

Shiro continued to rub his back as he spoke in a low, constant tone. The same tone that had brought Keith out of many a panic attack and that the younger man had, more recently, used on Shiro himself. “Now, we can sit here if you want. Or we can go out and join the others. Would you like to go see them and have some of Hunk’s soup?”

Keith took a few moments. Then – a nod.

“Awesome. I know they’ll be happy to see you.”

“I – I d-don’t w-want to – I c-can’t talk t-to them like th-this – ”

“You don’t have to talk to anyone,” Shiro murmured, pulling him closer. “Would you like me to explain it to them if they ask?” Shiro already knew he wouldn’t want the others to know. Keith had always been ashamed of the stammer, and it had taken him counselling and speech therapy before he’d finally gone from being almost completely mute to communicating with anyone other than Shiro and sometimes Adam.

Keith was quiet again for a long while, long enough that Shiro thought he’d fallen asleep or maybe hadn’t heard the question. So he was surprised when Keith shifted against him and whispered, “Okay.”

Shiro pulled back a little in surprise. “You want me to tell them?”

Keith nodded. He pulled away from Shiro’s grip and looked up, a determined, much more Keith-like expression on his face than Shiro had seen in a while, and signed, They’re my team. They helped bring me home. I trust them.

Shiro could have started crying right then and there, but there had been enough tears for today. Instead, he just smiled back at Keith. “Okay. I’m proud of you, buddy.”

Keith huffed, looking simultaneously annoyed and pleased. Shiro let out a short laugh and pulled him into another hug.

“You ready to head over and see them?”

Keith nodded. “Yep,” he whispered.

They found a note on the bedroom door when they left the bedroom. Come join us in the lounge. Shiro showed it to Keith.

“They must have relocated.”

Indeed, when they had made their way to the lounge, they found the others already set up. Lance was wearing a face-mask and combing out Allura’s hair, while she sat just behind Hunk and was braiding his hair in some kind of elaborate twist that somewhat resembled a French braid. Pidge was teaching Coran how to play Killbot Phantasm.

Everyone looked up as they walked into the room, Shiro’s hand on Keith’s shoulder, Keith retracting into his hoodie.

“Mullet!” Lance sang out, standing up on the back of the couch. “Come! We have reserved you a spot in the blanket kingdom.” He gestured to a well-formed blanket nest.

Keith approached slowly, offering a tiny wave in response to Allura’s welcoming smile. Shiro walked just behind him, staying close.

Hunk let Allura tie off the ends of his braids, then went to fetch Keith’s food while he and Shiro settled in. Pidge turned around from her game and set a hand on Keith’s knee, smiling up at him.

“Glad you made it. And just in time, too, because I’m teaching Coran how to utterly humiliate Lance.”

“Hi-yah!” Coran squealed, still completely engaged in playing.

Keith broke into a small smile as Lance protested behind him.

Hunk brought over a small fold-out table he must have got from Coran and set a bowl of steaming hot soup and the entire plate of truffles, still untouched. “There ya go. I filled the bowl up real full, just in case you wanted lots, but don’t worry about finishing it. I can save whatever you don’t finish. Or the mice can finish it – I think it’s the Gaularian bean sprouts I used, but they’re absolutely addicted to this stuff.”

Keith nodded his thanks, smiling at Hunk and taking a tentative sip. His eyes widened as he tasted it. Hunk beamed as Keith began to eat more, clearly enjoying it.

Keith had been uneasy when he first walked in, Shiro knew; being the centre of attention was hard for him. But as everyone went back to their activities, breaking off every now and then to ask Keith for his opinion or make a joke at someone else’s expense, he began to relax.

Lance approached them a moment later, a basket of hair accessories in his hand. “Hey, man. Would you mind if I tried messing around with your hair? I promise, I won’t cut it if you don’t want or anything you don’t like.” He scratched the back of his neck. “My sister used to give me face-masks and do my hair when I was a kid and had a nightmare or a bad day at school. And I always used to do braids and stuff to calm down my nieces and nephews during storms. It just – feels nice, having someone treating you like a celebrity, and those shivers you get when someone playing with your hair is heavenly.”

Keith absorbed the rushed offer, and nodded. Shiro moved over a little, making room for Lance. Lance grinned widely and sat down.

“Now, do you want braids? Or maybe, I don’t know, I could do some moisturizing treatment first. Coran has this moustache oil that’s absolutely amazing, and then I could use these curlers I found, or like – there are these little braids I could do, but I could also do just one big one, or maybe I could put little gems in it, or – what do you want me to do?”

Keith didn’t respond. Shiro put a hand on his arm, and he felt him deflate with relief.

“Mullet?” Lance asked, frowning at Shiro. “Did I do something wrong?”

“N-no!” Keith protested quickly. “No, no, y-you d-didn’t, I – ”

Shiro gentle squeezed his arm, and his frantic explanation cut off. He looked to Lance, who was wide-eyed with concern.

“It’s okay, Lance. You didn’t do anything wrong.” The others were all watching now, staring at Keith with worry. “Keith had some . . . difficult experiences as a kid. And that ended up coming out in a speech impediment, which is pretty common for kids. But other kids don’t always understand that, so to avoid them making fun of him for it, he just . . . didn’t talk a lot. And so he didn’t get any help for a long time.” He looked to Keith to see if he was okay. There were none of the usual signs of panic or anxiety, so he continued. “So sometimes, when Keith is really stressed or something reminds him of those experiences, the stammer comes back and it can be difficult to answer people directly or make decisions on the spot. Having a lot of choices to discuss can be kinda stressful, that’s all, Lance. You didn’t do anything wrong.”

Lance nodded, biting his lip thoughtfully. Keith, who was flushed with embarrassment and not really looking anyone in the eyes, broke Lance out of it by reaching over to the basket and pulling out a small transparent container with little red rhinestones. He shook the box, keeping his face downturned.

“I like these ones,” he said gruffly.

Lance beamed and took the box. He started to run his hands through Keith’s hair, massaging his head and gently working out any tangles.

“You know,” he said, as Keith leaned back into the touch, his eyes fluttering shut, “I got bullied one day because I used the wrong word in class – I think I said orgasm instead of organism or something, and people kept calling me stupid and stuff – so I refused to speak English for most of grade one.”

Hunk laughed. “I remember that, Veronica told me about it.”

Lance shrugged. “It worked, pissed my teacher off enough.”

“Matt didn’t talk until he was, like, eight,” Pidge said from where she was teaching Coran. “All his teachers thought there was something wrong with him, but Mom knew he was smart. He just didn’t wanna talk yet. So she homeschooled him for the first six years so he could, you know, learn his own way. He ended up being, like, three grades ahead by the time he went to ‘real school’.”

“I get anxious talking in class, so if I have to answer a question out loud I always have to write it down before I say it. If I don’t I end up tripping over my own words,” Hunk offered. “I’ll know a thing just fine in my head, but it doesn’t always come out that way, you know?”

Shiro watched as the group slipped easily into quiet conversations. Keith’s head was tilted back, completely trusting Lance as he worked through his hair and deftly slipped the tiny rhinestone beads into the long, dark strands. His heart ached when Keith opened his eyes and found him with his gaze, offering a tired smile and giving him a thumbs up. He reached out till he found Shiro’s hand; Shiro squeezed it.

He loved this family. He never would have thought they’d go through so much trauma; but he also never would have foreseen something like this. Keith had been drifting for so long; now, seeing him like this, smiling at Pidge’s antics and leaning into Lance’s touch, letting Hunk walk him through the entire process of his truffle-making, laughing silently when Coran challenged Lance to a Killbot Phantasm battle – he was with a family. He had finally found a home.

Chapter Text

Hey guys, I'm sorry, I pulled a literal all-nighter last night working on an astrophysics paper and didn't get to finish the chapter for today unfortunately :(. I was hoping I'd be done editing it on time, but it's getting late and I'm exhausted, so I'm gonna to go to bed. I'll be posting as early as possible tomorrow, so stay tuned for the final chapter - it's a long one.:) Thanks for your patience, love to you all!

Chapter Text

Keith was grateful for the others, he really was. He loved them, and he knew they loved him. He would never forget that night, sitting in the lounge together, feeling finally at home. Feeling safe.

But real life wasn’t just sitting and doing each other’s hair. Real life was being a paladin, fighting a war, getting tired and cranky and snapping at each other. Real life was waking up at night with another nightmare and feeling a sick sense of guilt every time he accidentally woke Shiro up. Shiro was only ever patient with him, but he was only human, too. And Keith’s nightmares had been frequent, so Shiro had been woken up more nights than he’d gotten to sleep lately. He never said anything, never expressed impatience or frustration, never told Keith to just deal with it; but the more he came over, the more Keith began to imagine the frustration and anger, and the more he began to wonder if Shiro would finally get tired of him and leave him alone. He knew, somewhere in the back of his messed up mind, that this was not rational. And he knew for a fact that he could not project these fears onto Shiro, who really had done nothing to indicate that he would ever walk away from Keith. But he couldn’t help closing himself off, hoping that it would assuage his own feelings of guilt, hoping that if he pulled away and became less of a bother, Shiro wouldn’t get tired of him and leave.

Keith tried to remember the night in the lounge, he really did. He would close his eyes and remember how good Hunk’s food was, the feeling of Lance’s fingers in his hair, the warm pressure of Pidge edging as close to him as she could without outright sitting in his lap, Allura talking gently to the mice and giving him little smiles, Coran getting far too invested in his game, and Shiro holding his hand, making sure that nothing could hurt him.

But recovery was taking longer than he liked. The stammer wasn’t going away, and the more he tried to force himself through it, the more frustrated he became, and the worse it got. It came up during missions. It came up during dinnertime conversation when a random topic would spark a flare of anxiety. It came up in the middle of the night when he awoke to the feeling of hands on his body, trying to stifle his own crying so that Shiro wouldn’t hear him as he whispered pleas for it to just stop.

But they didn’t just stop. And he knew he couldn’t keep asking for help. Everyone else only had so much to give, and he knew he was draining their resources. Sooner or later he’d have asked for patience or understanding or help one too many times, and he wouldn’t get it when he needed it most. He’d make them hate him, or at least just exhaust them, even if they didn’t realize it. It wasn’t their fault. It was just him, being too much.

About two weeks after the night in the lounge, they had a minor mission to a nearby planet, helping the inhabitants of a city evacuate during an acidic volcanic eruption. Nothing too major. But at the end of the day, after everyone had been safely moved to the next city, they had been invited to a small ceremony of gratitude. It was his first time attending something like this since the meeting with the Flaxcians, and walking in gave him a decidedly sick feeling. Anxiety prickled up his back and settled in the back of his throat. He could feel the tension coiling in his shoulders, his hand resting on his hip near his weapon, his eyes darting around the room.

Shiro had definitely noticed, and hung back next to him. “You ok?” he asked softly, so that no one else could hear.

Keith frowned up at him. “Yeah, of c-course. Why wouldn’t I be?” Because it might happen again, they might take me away, they might touch me and hurt me and say those things again, and maybe this time you won’t come back for me, and maybe this time they’ll actually kill me, and maybe –

“It’s just the first time we’ve had to go to a meeting like this since the last one, and you looked kinda tense, that’s all,” Shiro said, tilting his head and looking at Keith as if waiting for him to confess his anxieties. Normally Keith would be okay with this; he liked knowing that Shiro noticed things, that he cared enough to read his body language. But now, all he felt was irritation. He fought the urge to pull away. Stop caring, you’re going to use yourself up on me and there will be nothing left.

Keith shook his head. “Just. T-tired.” He scowled at the stammer. It hadn’t really stopped and it was getting fucking annoying. “Lance was – on my nerves. That’s all.”

Shiro didn’t seem to quite believe him – damn his perception – but nodded. “Okay, well, as long as you make sure to tell me if you get uncomfortable. We can leave. It’s okay.”

“Let’s just g-get it over w-w-with.” His nostrils flared with anger. God, he was so sick of this, he just wanted to fucking communicate without his own words getting stuck in his throat, he wanted to walk into a building with high ceilings and not feel he was walking into a literal execution.

He wanted to feel safe again.

Shiro pulled his hand back, knowing the signs, knowing that Keith needed some space; Keith was relieved, but part of him also wished Shiro hadn’t. He wished he was still touching him, still physically close. He felt too much like he could be pulled away like this, dragged off to another dungeon, one that he wouldn’t escape this time. “You don’t have to talk,” Shiro said gently. “You can sit quiet. I can say you have a sore throat or something.”

And Keith knew it was kind of Shiro to say that, and he was relieved, he really was, that he wouldn’t be expected to talk; but his mind was taking Shiro’s words and twisting them, turning his message into something darker, something that sounded a lot like You don’t really need to talk because we don’t need to hear what you have to say. You can sit at the table like a placeholder for a real paladin and let us do all the work. It sounded a lot like he was replaceable.

The dinner was fine. The food was fine. Everyone seemed fine. Keith sat quietly, picking at his food, watching everyone, glancing over his shoulder every now and then.

He got up about halfway through the meal. Shiro looked up at him, half out of his seat, opening his mouth already to ask what was wrong.

“Bathroom,” Keith said, waving him off, trying to look nonchalant. Shiro nodded, sitting slowly back down, still watching him as if asking for confirmation that he was ok. Keith gave him a nod and a half-smile before walking away.

He had to ask one of the aliens – tall, blubbery pink creatures with a fine layer of soft-looking fur – where to go, and they pointed him down yet another hallway. He was just turning away when he saw a large poster, some kind of notification. He’d seen several of them today in the buildings, but he couldn’t read the language.

“Excuse m-me,” he called back to the alien, cringing at the way his mouth refused to work with him brain. “Um, w-what do the p-p-posters say?”

The alien looked over it. “The only good Galra is a dead Galra,” they said evenly.

“W-what?” Keith croaked, feeling his stomach drop. Why had they said that? How did they know?

The alien looked at him calmly. “The poster. That’s what it says. Trying to keep people on the alert. We had a half-breed among us for some time a while ago, trying to pass as a full-blooded Kreptian.”

Keith’s head was spinning. His mouth was cotton-dry and his vision was tunnelling. “W-what h-h-happened?”

The alien frowned. “Well, we got rid of them, of course. We can’t afford to have Galra living among us. You’re a paladin, you should know that.”

Keith nodded, swallowing thickly. He didn’t want to know what they meant by “got rid of” and he didn’t have the nerve to ask. He gave the alien a rigid wave and turned away quickly, heading towards the bathroom.

He shut the door and locked it, then stuck his knife in the handle to make sure no one could break in. He went to the far side of the room and ducked down into a tight ball, curling his head over his knees and grasping at his hair with his hands, tugging it frantically.

They would know, they probably knew already, any second now they would come for him, they would take him away, he couldn’t do it again, he couldn’t go through that anymore, not again . . . .

God, he was so done with crying, with feeling this fear all the time, but he couldn’t help it. His eyes began to tear up spontaneously, and he bit into his arm to stifle the sobs that threatened to take over. He rode it out, letting the feelings tear through him and scrape his insides raw, until he was numb and too exhausted to feel much more.

Slowly, he was able to calm the hyperventilating. He was able to uncurl himself from the corner. He was still shaking, but the thought of Shiro noticing he was gone and worrying, coming after him, ruining this meeting, gave him the motivation to get up. He splashed water on his face and gulped it down, trying to erase any signs of tears or distress. He looked at his expression in the mirror, carefully schooling his face into nonchalance. That, at least, was something he was good at – although, Shiro was good at reading him anyway.

When he finally got back to the dining room, Shiro was leaning over, talking to Allura, his face lined with concern. As soon as he saw Keith the worry melted, and he offered a smile that was way too relieved. Keith took his seat, refusing to look anyone in the eye.

“You okay?” Shiro asked, leaning over and whispering as he pretended to offer Keith a second helping of a strange green sponge.

Keith tried to answer, but all that came out was a strangled grunt of affirmation. God, he couldn’t even talk. Shiro was watching him closely, but Keith glared back, shaking his head firmly. Back the fuck off, his actions said.

Shiro pulled back, his expression unreadable. He didn’t touch Keith, and gave him space for the rest of the visit. Keith was grateful for the space; but his chest also ached with the desire to lean in, to be able to ask for a hug without the overwhelming anxiety, to have the courage to ask for help.

The meal concluded peacefully, but Allura continued to talk with their alien hosts, the conversation easy-going and natural. Everyone was talking casually and enjoying sitting down; but Keith could feel the tension in him building up. He just wanted to go home. He just wanted to be safe.

Finally, finally, they were indicating that it was time to wrap things up. He shot to his feet far too quickly, and before they’d even properly finished their goodbyes he was heading for the door. His vision had begun to tunnel again and he was hardly aware of the others around him, stalking towards the door with his shoulders hunched up high.

He jerked away as a hand touched his arm. He whirled around, hand on his weapon – but it was just Lance.

“Don’t touch me,” he growled instinctively. Lance pulled back, eyes wide.

“Whoah, okay, calm down, man.” He frowned. “You okay?”

Keith nodded curtly and began to walk away again. “Fine. Just – wanna get back.”

“Yeah, but they want us to stay for a bit longer so they can present us with some kind of gift, it’s like, a ceremony thing, it shouldn’t take long but – ”

Yeah, no. The last time he’d heard the word “ceremony” he was chained down and getting beaten senseless in front of an audience. Not again. He shook his head and continued walking. “Not interested. I’ll be waiting in Red.”

Lance grasped his arm again. “Come on, man, it’s just a quick thing, you’re being rude – ”

“F-f-fuck off!” Keith snapped, shoving Lance off of him and knocking him to the ground.

Lance glared up at him, shock and anger bleeding together. “What the heck, man!?”

Allura was just behind him, glancing between the two of them and the alien council, who were staring at the two of them. Shiro close behind.

“Keith,” Allura hissed. Shiro was helping Lance to his feet.

“Keith,” he said firmly, and although he didn’t even sound angry, Keith’s stomach dropped when he continued, “we need to talk. Go to Red, you can head to the castle. We can discuss this later.”

Keith definitely couldn’t find a way to form words after that. He turned on his heel and stormed up into Red, slumping into his chair and gripping the controls far too tightly. Her presence, warm and reassuring, rolled over him, trying to ease his tension, projecting love and protection into his mind.

But he pushed back.

“Don’t,” he snapped at the lion. “Just – just leave m-me alone.” She pushed against him, like a cat nudging under his hand for pets; but he pushed her away, closing his eyes and shutting himself of from her.

Again, she leaned into his consciousness, persistent, concerned, growling softly as she tried to reach him; but he shoved back.

“Get out of my fucking head!” he shouted, gripping his hair and tugging it. “Get. Out!”

And she did. He felt sick as her presence pulled back a bit, still there but less insistent; but when she attempted to approach him again, he just snapped back with a growl. Like he was some sort of feral animal.

Like a fucking Galra.

He didn’t bother getting out of Red once he landed in the hangar. He curled up in the chair, unwilling to move or leave; as much as he had pushed her away, he felt safer in Red. He felt like nothing could get him here.

When the others got to their lions almost a full twenty minutes later, he heard them coming online in the comms.

“Alright, let’s head back,” Shiro said, his voice tired.

There were some muttered agreements as the others took off from the planet.

“Shiro, what the heck was up with Keith?” Lance demanded, his voice somewhere between concerned and annoyed. Keith realized, with a cold chill, that they didn’t know he was still in Red, listening.

“He’s just having a hard day, Lance,” Shiro sighed. “I’ll deal with it, okay?”

Deal with it. Like he was a problem. Something to be done away with. Keith froze, knowing he shouldn’t listen but unable to stop listening, unable to move.

“He shoved me,” Lance continued. “I don’t know what kind of day he’s having, but I’m not exactly having a good one, either. I’m tired, and I want to go to sleep, and I didn’t feel like sticking around any longer than I needed to, either. I get that he doesn’t like these meetings and that’s fair and all, but he can’t just push me like that in front of people.”

Keith squeezed his eyes shut. Lance was right, and he knew it. He knew it all too well. He felt a flash back to the anger, the irritation, the brief moment of satisfaction when he pushed Lance away from him. He’d had no right to do that. It didn’t matter how upset he’d been, he’d hurt Lance and probably embarrassed him.

“Lance is . . . right, Shiro,” Allura agreed tiredly, although there was no anger in her voice. “It’s been tiring for everyone. And having to explain his outburst to new allies . . . ”

We can’t afford to have a Galra among us. He was a monster, a Galra freak, and their new allies had seen that, and he’d made all of the paladins look bad with his temper tantrum.

“I know,” Shiro said, his voice quiet. “I know. I’ll deal with it.”

“You need to sleep, Shiro,” Pidge said. “You can’t keep dealing with stuff when you’re this tired.”

“I’m fine, Pidge. It’ll be fine.”

“No, it won’t be,” Pidge insisted. “I hear you last night. You were awake again. And you were up with Keith the night before. And you were awake with Hunk the night before that. And two nights before that you were up with me.”

“I’m sorry, Shiro,” Hunk’s voice, so soft and fragile, interrupted. “I didn’t – I shouldn’t have woken you up. You’re tired.”

“Listen, all of you,” Shiro said, and he sounded so exhausted , so tense, “you’re all going through a lot right now. Okay? This has been a really difficult time for you, for all of us, and we’re still processing it. What happened to Keith was terrible, and I’m so proud of you all for saving him, and you’ve been supportive of Keith and that’s – that’s beautiful.

“But you need to give yourselves a chance to heal, too. Just because you weren’t the victim doesn’t mean it wasn’t traumatic for all of you, too. We had an exhausting eight days of fighting without Voltron, and all day, every day – you were fighting for your friend’s life, knowing that if you slept through one extra document you could watch someone you care about die. And then you had to – we had to see what they did to him, and – and I know how hard that was.” Shiro cleared his throat. “You feel guilty. You wish you could have done more. You wish you didn’t have to sit through seeing and hearing all of that, all that violence, all the disgusting things they said, and then – and then you feel guilty for having nightmares about it, because it wasn’t you up there, and you don’t feel like you have a right to be suffering when it wasn’t your trial to go through.” His voice was cracking with emotion, but it came back strong when he said, “But you don’t. You can suffer, and you can have nightmares, and you can feel all the things you’re feeling without being ashamed. What Keith went through was horrific, and we need to support him, but – but you all need support, too. His pain doesn’t diminish yours.”

Keith brought a trembling hand up to his face to try to stifle the emotions ripping through him, but not in time to muffle the first sob.

The line went silent.

“Keith?” Shiro asked tentatively. “Keith, are you there – ”

Keith switched off the channel and threw the helmet off his head. He got up from his chair and went to the back of the cockpit, huddling in the corner, his back flush against the wall.

Self-loathing pulsed through him. Everything they’d said was hitting him like dozens of fists, slamming into his mind and bruising on impact. He’d been so selfish, so unfair, so cold – he’d been so locked inside his own mind, trying so hard just to make it through the days himself, that he hadn’t even really noticed the others and how much they were suffering. And of course they were suffering, of course they’d been affected. They had worked so tirelessly to get him back, they’d been there to support him when they should have been processing their own pain, they’d been patient even when he closed himself off and pulled away. And he’d completely ignored that. He hadn’t even cared to ask them how they were doing.

Guilt twisted him up inside. He wanted, so desperately, to go out and explain himself to them, to apologize, to make it up to them – but he also wanted to hide, to not exist. He wanted to erase himself.

A quiet presence brushed up against his consciousness, and this time, he didn’t push it away. He leaned into it, wishing he hadn’t dried up all his tears, wishing he had the energy to cry everything away.

“What have I done, Red?” he whispered hoarsely.

A warm purr tickled the back of his mind, comforting, soothing.

“Don’t tell me I didn’t do anything. I haven’t helped them, I didn’t even notice that they needed help to begin with. They’ve been doing everything for me, and I’ve – I left them on their own.” He curled his legs up to his chest and hugged them close. “I don’t want them to see me like this. I don’t want them to have to worry about me anymore. But if I cut them off, I can’t – ” he sniffed – “I can’t support them if I’m hiding from them.”

Red leaned deeper into him, warmth pouring over the ache of guilt and shame that still clung to him; memories of his bond with the other paladins projected into his mind. Hanging out with Hunk talking about engines and how he used to take care of his hoverbike; laughing about Matt and Shiro with Pidge, awake later than anyone else on the castle and laughing harder and harder as the night wore on; sitting quietly with Lance, talking about the astronomy books his dad used to read with him and pulling up star maps of the constellations back home, teaching Lance to recognize the star formations; helping Allura bathe the mice and talking about Shiro’s cat back home, laughing as the little creatures tried showing off for them; listening quietly to Coran late at night as he told stories about Altea and Daibazaal, letting the older man go on and on, asking questions to keep the conversation going on longer; and Shiro – trying to cook and burning it to a crisp, teaching him how to train, sitting on the edge of his bed till he fell asleep on bad nights – holding him up, supporting him, saving him from himself time and time again . . .

“You’re right,” he murmured, tilting his head back. “I’m going to fix this, Red. I’m going to fix this.”

He stayed there for a long time, letting his mind slow down. And finally, when all the tension had finally eased out of his body, and the sting of the guilt had faded to a dull ache, he got up.

“Thanks, Red,” he said, smiling at the purr that greeted him.

When he stepped out, he was surprised to see Shiro, leaning up against the far wall of the hangar. There was an untouched plate of food next to him and a cup of water. Shiro had fallen asleep, waiting for him.

Something clenched painfully in Keith’s chest when he saw it. He stepped past him quietly, heading out into the hall and towards Shiro’s room.

He almost ran into Lance in the hall, heading towards his room with his facemask on. Lance froze when he saw Keith. Keith swallowed and offered a tentative wave.

“I’m just – getting Shiro’s blanket, he fell asleep in the hangar, and I just – ” He stopped himself and took a breath. “Lance, I’m – I’m sorry.”

Lance looked rather surprised, but he smiled sadly. “It’s all good. I’m sorry, too.”

Keith shook his head. “You don’t have anything to be sorry for, but – but we’ll talk about that. About everything. Okay?”

Lance nodded. “You okay?”

“Yeah, I – ” then he shook his head. “I don’t know, but – I will be. You know?”

Lance held his gaze for a moment before also nodding. “Yeah,” he said quietly. “Have a good night, Keith.”

“You too.”

He carried the blankets to the hangar, where Shiro was still sleeping. As gently as possible, he covered his brother up and settled down next to him, shoulder to shoulder.

A moment later, Shiro shifted, still sleeping, and slumped over so his head was resting on Keith’s shoulder. Keith leaned his head on top of Shiro’s, listening to the quiet sound of his breathing, and eventually he fell asleep too, in front of Red, feeling completely safe again.

* * * * *

Shiro woke with a start. Wait – where was he – he wasn’t in his bed. It took him a moment to realize he was in Red’s hangar, covered in blankets, a weight in his lap –

He looked down to see Keith, curled up half in his lap, his knees drawn up and his hands clenched at his chest, chin tucked down. Shiro smiled fondly at the familiar sight, running his fingers through the long dark hair.

Keith seemed to wake at the movement, stiffening for a moment before relaxing as he realized where he was.

“Hey,” Shiro said softly. “Had a good sleep?”

Keith moved as if to sit up; then he leaned in closer. “Yeah. You?”

“Didn’t wake up once, so . . . that was good.”

This time Keith did sit up, but he didn’t move away from Shiro. He pursed his lips, looking so heavy, so sad, that Shiro ached to make him feel better.

“Keith – ”

“I know. I know, we do need to talk.” He pulled in a deep breath and let it out. “All of us.” He reached around behind him and held up a couple of pens and a few pieces of paper. He looked up at Shiro from under his hair, offering a tentative smile. “I was thinking, uh, maybe we could do a – a problem chart?”

Shiro reached out, projecting his movements as he pulled Keith into a firm hug, tugging him close to his chest. “I think that’s a good idea,” he agreed. “Do you want to get some food first?”

Keith shook his head. “No. I – we need to fix things. I want to do it now.”

Shiro let him go and took one of the pens. “Alright, then. Let’s get to work.”

* * * * *

About half an hour later, they’d completed the chart. It was something they’d done together when Keith was younger and Shiro was first mentoring him; he’d gotten overwhelmed so easily, and talking was still difficult for him; his only safe reaction to stress had always been to bottle it up and hide it away until it exploded. Shiro had started walking him through the problem charts to try to sort out what was bothering him, why it bothered him, and what steps he could take to fix it. It had helped so much; Shiro still remembered the relief apparent on the younger boy’s face when he realized he’d finally been able to communicate his feelings to someone else, someone who wasn’t going to react badly to it. They hadn’t had to use the charts in a while, but Shiro was happy to see that Keith still felt safe doing it, laying out his problems and working to solve them.

Shiro looked down at the chart they’d created. The answer, it turned out, was pretty simple. Well, simple in theory. In practice, he knew Keith was going to find it a lot harder. But the determined look on his face said that he was going for it no matter what.

“I’m proud of you,” Shiro said quietly, watching as Keith scribbled distractedly on the corner of the paper. Keith looked up, his eyes wide, before blushing and looking away.

“For what?” he asked, with a self-deprecating chuckle, “d-doing arts and c-crafts to solve basic interp-p-personal relationship issues?”

“For caring enough to put aside your own pain and discomfort for the sake of the team.”

Keith ducked his head. “Yeah, well,” he said at last, his voice husky, “they did th-the same for m-me.” He got to his feet abruptly. “Come on. Let’s – let’s go get ‘em.”

While Keith went to the kitchen to make warm drinks, Shiro went to get the others, knocking on each bedroom door and asking them to join him and Keith in the kitchen.

Twenty minutes later they were all gathered in the kitchen, sitting at the counter in front of warm cups of Hunk’s space-cocoa recipe, prepared by Keith. Hunk leaned over his cup and sniffed appreciatively.

“Did you use . . . the Telmaurian spice crystals in this?”

Keith nodded. “Uh, yeah, I thought – it tastes kinda like cinnamon and cardamom and – I figured it’d be good on the cocoa.”

Hunk sipped. “Oooh, buddy. You need to get in the kitchen more often.”

Keith quirked a half-smile. “Thanks.”

“So,” Pidge asked, yawning and rubbing at her face – she looked tired, and had almost definitely been up late with her computer. “What’s going on here? Group therapy?”

Keith hoisted himself on the far counter and nodded, chewing on his lip. He looked to Shiro before answering, “Well, um . . . kinda?” He scratched at the back of his neck. “I – Shiro and I, we did a – a problem chart.”

“A problem chart?” Lance asked curiously. He had his morning moisturizing mask on and was sipping at his cup carefully.

Shiro could tell Keith was feeling a little on-the-spot right now as he explained, all eyes on him, so he stepped in. “Yeah, we used to do them together. They just help you to identify a problem when it’s bothering you. The idea is, if you can outline the problem and why it bothers you, it becomes a lot easier to figure out a solution. And I don’t think any of us are going to deny that we’ve had some problems lately.” He looked to Keith, who gave him an affirmative nod, before continuing. “So Keith asked me to help him figure out how to help us, as a team, work through whatever it is that’s bothering us. And we realized that it isn’t just one thing – there are seven of us in the castle, and we all have our own unique struggles.

“Now, the way the problem chart works is first identifying the problem. But we can’t identify the problem for you guys. We each have to identify our own problems; then, as a team, we can work through them. So Keith and I thought that maybe we should all just . . . talk. That’s been our biggest problem – not communicating. So, if all of you agree and feel up to it, we thought that maybe . . . maybe we could just talk. Just sit, and identify what’s been bothering each of us, and then find ways to work together to support each other through them. Are you all able to do that?”

Lance nodded right away, his face lighting up with something like relief. “Yeah, I like it. My family used to always talk about things at the end of the day to make sure we were supporting each other when we needed it. We always knew when someone was going through a hard time and needed the rest of us to take on some of their chores or sit up with them at night. It was nice.”

Everyone else quickly agreed. Allura and Coran were sitting close to each other, Coran’s hand on her shoulder, while Pidge was sitting near Hunk, her head leaning on his shoulder. Lance was between Hunk and Shiro. Keith sat on the counter across from them.

“So,” he said, somewhat awkwardly, “who – who wants to start?”

“I hate it when you close yourself off,” Lance said, surprising them all and diving in head-first. He was looking at Keith, but nothing about his tone was accusatory. “I know that you like to take care of things yourself and all, and the lone-wolf thing is how you operate and stuff, but – I care about you, man. And it really hurts when you don’t trust us enough to let us help you. Helping my family back home, it was good for them because they got support, but it also felt good for me. I felt proud of being able to support the people I loved, and I felt secure knowing they trusted me to take care of them. So it really makes me feel bad when you shut us out.”

Shiro looked to Keith, wondering how he would take this. He knew that, to Keith, things like this could sound like an accusation; but Keith just nodded, taking a deep breath.

“I – I understand,” he said slowly. “A-and I – I’m sorry. I – ” he cleared his throat. “I n-need – I need a minute t-to – ” he inhaled again and closed his eyes. “But thanks, Lance. For saying that.”

“Thank you, Lance,” Shiro echoed. “I appreciate you sharing.”

“Yeah,” Hunk said. “I agree with Lance. But also, words are hard, sometimes. Even without a stammer or getting anxious about talking, sometimes it’s just so exhausting to explain how you feel, or you don’t even know how you feel.” He ran his finger along the rim of his cup. “When my mama was sick or tired or having a bad day, I knew exactly what kind of comfort food to make her. When I had a bad day, she knew what comfort food I liked. My siblings and parents and I, we had these little codes we could use, because sometimes we couldn’t really talk about the things that were bothering us; but we knew how to take care of each other when we needed it most, even if the talking part had to come later.” He looked around at the others. “I try to make nice things all the time, just to make people feel better, but I don’t feel comfortable asking you guys to do the same for me yet. I don’t know all of your ‘code words’ or tells. I want to feel like I can have a bad day, and someone will make sure they make me my favourite drink or sit next to me so I don’t feel lonely. And I want to do the same for you. I want you, Keith, to be able to look at me and just say – oh, I don’t know, ‘knives’, and I’ll know that means you don’t have words for what’s upsetting you, and I can feel okay taking care of you.” He shrugged. “That whole eight days was terrible. I was anxious all the time like I haven’t been in ages – I still wake up with nightmares and it’s been a couple weeks. I feel bad, waking up Shiro or Lance to talk – because I don’t feel like I can pay them back. I don’t feel like we’re . . . connected enough.”

Keith nodded. He lifted his face, and even though his eyes were glinting with unshed tears, he gave Hunk a small smile. “Knives,” he croaked. And Hunk got up, then and there, and folded him up in a bone-crushing hug.

Shiro wasn’t crying. It must have been some of the space-onions Hunk had used in the soup last week. That was all.

When Hunk had released Keith and returned to his seat, Pidge spoke up.

“I’m with the others,” she said, “but I also get the whole ‘take it on yourself’ thing. I brushed Matt off a lot of the time when he tried to help me. I mean, heck, I was disguised as a guy at the Garrison and I didn’t have anyone helping me out till I met you guys. I like to work alone; fewer unstable variables that way – no offense.” She shrugged. “But honestly, I need you guys. You’re my family. I want you all to talk to me and ask for support, so that I don’t feel weird coming to you when I need it.” She looked pointedly at Shiro. “And don’t you play the whole ‘I’m older than you so I can be strong and silent’. You can shut the fuck up, Shiro, I know what you’re already thinking.”

“Language?” Shiro said weakly. Pidge just glared.

“And Keith – ” she stopped, then started again. “No, I wasn’t going to say anything, because I keep being afraid I’ll hurt your feelings or make you feel guilty, but we’re being honest here, and – I was scared, Keith. I hardly slept for eight days while those assholes had you. I wanted so badly to go down there and tear them to pieces, to grab you out and take you away, and I couldn’t, and I was just sitting and staring at computer screens, and even if I wanted to there was nothing I could do to save you. It didn’t matter how hard I worked, in a moment they could have taken you away from me, and it felt like losing Matt and my dad for the first time all over again, and – ” she sniffed, and Shiro realized that sometime during her slowly accelerating ramble she’d started crying, “ – and I couldn’t live with myself if that happened. I’d lose hope for my brother and my dad, but also I’d lose you, and I love you.” She swiped furiously at her face, pulling away when Shiro reached out to put his hand on her shoulder. “Give me a moment, Shiro, I’ve gotta finish now or I won’t be able to.” She sniffed again, then squared her shoulders. “I – I hate what they did to you, Keith. I hate that they hurt you, and humiliated you, and made you stand up there and take all that shit. And I – I was so scared, and I felt so sick, and I can – I can still hear it all at night, and I can’t get it out of my head because I’ve been too afraid to talk about it. We were all there, we all had to sit through that – and you had to through it – and I feel bad asking for help, because I don’t want to make you feel guilty or make the others feel sad – and I just – ” She was actually crying now, and Allura pulled her into a hug, rubbing her arm. “It wasn’t your fault, Keith. It wasn’t your fucking fault. It was them, it was all them, and I hate them for it, and I need you to stop looking like you did something wrong because you didn’t.” She buried her face in Allura’s arm.

“I’m finished,” her muffled voice said. “Someone else can go now.”

Everyone was quiet. Keith had pulled his legs up onto the counter now, hugging them close to his chest. Lance was pale, leaning tiredly against Hunk.

Allura finally spoke up, even while she ran her fingers gently through Pidge’s hair.

“I feel – guilty,” she said at last, her voice quiet and carefully measured. “I – I keep waking up to nightmares where it isn’t the Flaxcians, it’s me hurting Keith, and I – ” she paused, gathered herself together, and continued. “I’ve been wanting to reach out to you, Keith, to talk. To support you. But I feel too guilty to do so. I – I never hated you, not like they did, and I know I could never hurt you like that, could never go to those lengths, but – I did hurt you, and I was scared of what you were, and I turned against you when you could have used a friend. And so I feel like I don’t have a right to ask you to come to me for help, and I don’t feel like I have the right to come to any of you when I’m frightened or scared, because – because I feel like I’m just as bad as they are. And I want to be a leader, I want to support you, and I don’t want you to see me being afraid – ” she buried her face in Pidge’s hair. “I don’t know. I don’t know what to do.”

Shiro wanted, so badly, to reach out and support them. To give them strong words, encourage them. His heart was aching, his stomach twisting; he just wanted to make them feel better, to take away all of their pain. He would be fine, he could brave it, but –

What had his grandfather said, when he was young?

The best leaders lead by example. And that means showing weakness so that your team knows you know pain, and you know how to work through it; and then they will respect you. They will understand you. Don’t hold back when you’re hurting, and don’t shy away from the pain. Let them support you.

He took a shaking breath.

“I feel – much like Allura just said,” he confessed slowly. “I don’t want you to see me being afraid, or in pain. I feel like, if you see me being weak, or having a bad time of it – you’ll feel less secure. Like your safety-net is breaking. And I’m scared that, if you know I’m tired or afraid or suffering, you won’t feel like you can come to me.” He hugged himself, letting out a shaky laugh. “And, to be honest, I’ve been scared a lot lately. It – it was terrifying, being captured by Zarkon the first time. Being captured a second time, after finally finding security with all of you and Voltron – it made my whole world feel unsafe and unsteady. I haven’t felt safe for more than short periods of time since I got back, and Keith being taken away – I felt so out of control all over again, except it was worse, because before at least I knew it was just me. I knew that all of you were safe. The idea of losing any one of you and not being able to save you terrifies me. Thought of not being enough for you . . . ” He shook his head. “I don’t want to let you down. So I figured, if I could just be better, and stronger, and hide all of my weaknesses, I could . . . keep you safe.”

“Fear is not a weakness, my dear boy,” Coran said quietly. “After all, if we have nothing to fear, then we cannot be brave. And all of you are the bravest young people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.” He smiled at each of them. “I lost everyone I loved, my entire world, aside from Allura. And I often feel like I failed. Like I could have done better, saved more people, made sure Allura had her real father when she came out of the cryo-sleep.” His shoulders slumped. “I have made my peace with that now. I know I did what I could. But every time I stay behind and all of you head into that war to fight the same evils that took my people away from me – I cannot help being afraid that I am making some sort of mistake, and that I could be doing more.”

By this point, Shiro knew, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. Everyone let the words settle, leaning in for mutual support. Keith sat alone, and for once, Shiro let him, even though he ached to go give him a hug. Keith would need to speak eventually, and Shiro knew he needed to have his space.

Finally, his voice, broken and rough, broke the silence.

“I – I spent a lot of time alone, when I was younger,” he began slowly. “There were a lot of times when I really needed someone, and I – I didn’t have anyone. Only the people who were hurting me. And – and when I finally got someone who was nice, who could help – they didn’t want all of me. All of the problems that came along with me. It was okay for me to get help, but only what they offered, and if I let on about all my – my baggage – if it was too much for them – they’d send me away. I was – I had too many problems for anyone else to handle. So I learned to hold onto them myself.

“I trust all of you. With my life. But it’s – it’s terrifying, to have a family like you. I’m – I’m not used to it, and I don’t want to be too much for you to handle. I don’t know how to say that without it sounding like I don’t trust you, but I can’t help it, no matter how much I tell myself it isn’t true. I don’t want to lose you, so I pull away before you can push me away.” He closed his eyes, and Shiro saw two dark spots where the tears hit his pants. “But I know that I’ll only end up losing you that way.”

“Keith – ” Hunk said, sounding heartbroken. But Keith held up his hand.

“I was – I was terrified, with the Flaxcians. I was terrified of them, but I was more terrified of – of losing you guys. Of all of you leaving. And I know that that’s – that’s a really horrible thing to think you’d do. I didn’t really think you would. But it’s – aside from Shiro, it’s happened before, every. Single. Time. And Shiro – you came back, Shiro, you always do, but twice now I thought you weren’t going to, and – ” he drew in a shuddering breath. “Anyway.

“The Flaxcians – they did things that made me feel ashamed. I didn’t feel like a person anymore. They didn’t talk to me, didn’t explain what happened when Shiro stopped coming. And the – the night before the trial, they – ” his voice cracked, and he took a few moments. “I don’t – it wasn’t awful, but I just – if you don’t want me to go on I won’t, but I just – I want to tell someone, because I was alone, and I still feel alone, and I don’t want to feel like this anymore – ”

The others were all sitting up at this point, looking more and more concerned as Keith’s panic picked up speed. Pidge looked at Shiro with concern. But before he could go try to calm Keith down, Keith did it himself. He held up a hand to stop anyone from approaching him.

“Can you – c-can you walk me through the breathing, Shiro?” he said, his voice so small.

“Sure, buddy,” Shiro answered softly. “In – and hold it, that’s right, that’s perfect. And out.”

After a few moments, Keith nodded. He was fine. He hugged his knees tighter to his chest. “The night before the trial,” he resumed, and Shiro’s blood suddenly ran icy cold, dreading whatever Keith was about to describe. “They came into my cell. A-and – and they took my clothes, and they – they hung me up so I couldn’t – I couldn’t stop them, and they – ” he shuddered. “It was – they said it was a physical exam – they just looked at me, like I wasn’t even there, like I wasn’t a person, they didn’t listen to me, I couldn’t stop them – ” His breaths were uneven and jerky, but he finished, “it was – that was it. They just – they just looked at me. But, before that night, I was so afraid to die – but when they did that, I was – I felt so ashamed, I wished they would just kill me so I could stop feeling so bad. I didn’t care if we lost the trial if I meant I could stop feeling that way.” Shiro felt sick, but he forced himself to keep listening without rushing forward and wrapping Keith up in a never-ending hug. “Even during the trial, I wasn’t afraid of them killing me, I was just so – so ashamed. I just wanted it to stop. Because I knew – I knew that I could never tell anyone. That I was going to have to live the rest of my life with that feeling inside of me, because it was too big to share.

“And then you were all – you were all there for me. You saved me. And the first night back, sitting with all of you in the lounge, I realized that I wanted to fight to be okay. I felt – safe.”

He swiped at the tears now rolling down his face steadily. “But the problems didn’t just go away, and I’ve been feeling bad, having to ask for so much help and expecting so much patience when all of you are feeling scared, too. And the other day, at the council – I started to feel bad again. Being a paladin made me feel like I could help people, like I could be bigger than my problems – but then, when we went into the building, I got so scared again. I felt weak. And I remembered that, no matter how far away I got from the Flaxcians, from everything bad – it would all still be there, inside of me, making me feel small and ashamed. And they had these posters, that said ‘the only good Galra is a dead Galra’.” His breath hitched. “And I just – I just wanted to get away – and I couldn’t tell anyone – and I was angry, and scared, and I didn’t want to be that way anymore and being angry was the only thing that felt safe.”

“Keith,” Lance said, his voice small, “I had no idea.”

Keith nodded. “I know,” he rasped. “And you couldn’t have. Because I didn’t tell you.” He shook his head. “I – I know that you all care. And I know that I’m safe with you. But sometimes – sometimes I don’t feel like that. And I can’t help those feelings, not all at once.” He looked at Lance. “But when I have the words, I’ll try to talk. I’ll ask you for help, and you can come to me.” He smiled weakly at Hunk. “I like ‘knives’. And – and you can have a code, too – and I promise I’ll try to let you guys know when I can’t use words.” He looked to Pidge. “I love you too. And – and you can talk about the things you felt. I can’t promise I won’t feel some kind of guilt because – my feelings are all over the place, honestly, but – but I’ll listen. And I’ll tell you what I’m feeling. Okay?

“Allura – ” he had to pause. “You are nothing like the Flaxcians. You were scared, and angry, and processing a huge betrayal. You are kind, and caring, and a wonderful friend. You’re nothing like them.” He looked between her and Shiro. “You’re both wonderful leaders. But you’re – you’re both part of us, too. You’re part of the team. It’s okay to be afraid.” He gave Coran a watery smile. “Coran, if everyone in the universe was like you, my life would have been a lot easier. Even one person like you in someone’s life can make it so much better. We’re all so lucky to have you. I feel safe knowing I have you.” He was looking at all of them, not hiding his face, forcing himself to meet their eyes, even while his body was pulled in tight. “All of you. I – I love you.” He buried his face in his arms then, unable to face them.

Shiro couldn’t hold himself back after that. Before he knew it he was crossing the kitchen, and Keith was unfolding just long enough to wrap himself around Shiro, and they were holding each other and crying, and everyone was piling in, and they were a big snotty, teary mess.

“My skin is going to be so dehydrated after all this crying,” Lance’s muffled voice commented. “Ouch! Pidge, stop pinching.”

“It’s a hug pile,” Pidge said innocently, her voice still thick with crying. “It could have been anyone.”

After a few moments, everyone pulled back. Shiro didn’t want Keith to feel too crowded, not after all that. He smiled down at his younger brother, pulling him into a one-armed hug.

“Problem charts, huh?”

Keith shook his head. “Damn problem charts.”

“Watch your fucking language!” Pidge called out.

“Everyone head to the lounge,” Hunk said, already turning away as he wiped his tears on his sleeve. “I don’t care if we were going to do training today. We’re watching that Altean version of The Great British Bake-off, and we’re going to figure out what everyone’s code word is, and – no, Pidge, your code word can’t be fuck.”

Pidge gasped. “Hunk said the f-word!” she exclaimed, her eyes still red-rimmed but delighted at this turn of events.

Hunk turned calmly away. “No I didn’t. Did I, Shiro?”

“I didn’t hear a thing,” Shiro promised.

“Shirooo,” Pidge complained.

Little by little, all of them left the room, Allura taking a moment to give Keith’s shoulder a squeeze. Finally, only Keith and Shiro were left.

“I’m proud of you,” Shiro said softly. “That was a lot to talk about. Are you okay?”

Keith sighed, running a hand through his hair. “N-not – not really?” He laughed shakily. “I – I wasn’t scared, talking, I just had t-to do it, you know? And n-now, it’s hitting me that I – I said all that, and I c-can’t take it back.” He shrugged. “I – I’ll be okay. And I’ll tell you when I’m n-not. I – I think I’ll just be quiet for the rest of the night. Maybe th-the rest of the month.”

Shiro laughed gently and pulled him in. “As long as you tell me about it. And, Keith – you know we can talk about the other things, too. The things that happened when you were a kid. I know – I know that all this has brought up a lot of memories. It doesn’t matter how many times we need to talk – ”

“As many times as it takes,” Keith finished, leaning into him. “I know. And you, too, okay? Hunk and Lance and Pidge – they’re right. Give and take. You need to turn to us, too.”

Shiro nodded reluctantly. “I know. I’ll – I’ll work on it.”

Keith nodded. “That sounds good.” He pushed himself off the edge of the counter.

“You ready to go?” Shiro asked.

“N-not sure,” Keith admitted. “But – if I sit here any longer I’m gonna think about all the stuff I said and freak out.” He looked up guiltily. “I might – I might have a hard time sleeping tonight . . . ”

“And I might, too,” Shiro said. “When the others head out, we can commandeer the lounge and stay up, okay?”

Keith smiled. “Okay.”

Shiro knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Not by a long shot. Keith was definitely going to pull away after talking so much, and the others were going to misunderstand him sometimes, and they were all going to have their bad days. But they were learning together, growing together. And at the end of the day, even when they had hit the worst point – they all cared. They would always come back to moments like these, because they cared enough to fight through the bad times. And maybe, one day, Keith would come to really believe that. He would stop being afraid of having bad days, knowing that they would eventually give way to better ones.

As he surveyed his family, gathering once again in a brand-new cuddle pile, he smiled. They’d get there eventually. One day at a time.