It was late. Very, very late. Lance and Hunk were dozing in their paladin chairs, and Pidge had already renounced the whole business and scampered off long ago, leaving Shiro, Keith, and Coran to wait up for the Princess’ return.
Shiro paced from one end of the room to the next, his paranoia preventing him from relaxing until all crew was back aboard. Coran fiddled about on the control console, and a few feet away Keith stood quietly, gazing out the windscreen at the moon they now orbited.
The whole place was rather intimidating. Small, but made of entirely black rock, with multiple volcanoes dotting its surface and spewing magma in thick rivers. Needless to say Doriath wasn’t exactly a tourist destination, and the locals behaved accordingly. Only one of them would be allowed to visit the surface to negotiate the alliance.
And, despite Coran’s protests, the obvious choice was Princess Allura.
Time didn’t matter much in space, but the clock at least said that the night was progressing into morning before Keith spotted the shuttle returning. He spared a moment to examine it for damage (finding none) before alerting the rest of the team.
When the shuttle docked they were all gathered in the bay waiting for it, except Pidge and Hunk, who, content with the knowledge that she was safe, had decided to go to bed without waiting to see the Princess.
She emerged from the pod looking tired but pleased. She was also covered head to toe in gray dust that made Lance immediately start hacking up a lung.
“Welcome back, Princess!” Coran said cheerfully, hooking an arm through Allura’s when her shoulders slumped, “How did the negotiations go?”
“They went well,” she replied, “tiring, but our alliance is set. We’ll be free to move through Doriathian space without hindrance.”
Shiro gave a relieved smile. “That’s great to hear.”
“What about troops?” asked Keith. “Did they agree to send backup to help with the Galra base?”
Allura’s eyes moved to him and her brow furrowed, her previous smile dropping into a frown.
“I was getting to that,” she said, more than a bit testily, and Keith’s eyebrows rose. “Yes, they have agreed to all of our terms. They were surprisingly lenient, actually.” Allura looked back at Coran and her smile returned. “Perhaps we can discuss the rest in the morning?”
“As you wish, Princess. Goodnight, paladins!”
They all exchanged goodnights and split off for the paladins’ quarters. At the time Keith didn’t think much about Allura’s snappy attitude. After all, it was late, and most people got irritable when they were tired.
So he shrugged it off and went to bed.
The next day started like every other day on the Castle ship. Keith got up before everybody else and ate breakfast and trained for an hour or two. By the time he was done showering off most of the others would be awake and he could go join them on the bridge.
Shiro and Allura were already there when he arrived, dressed and discussing the upcoming battle over a holographic map. For now Keith hung back, and within the next half an hour the rest of the paladins and Coran wandered in, each in varying stages of alertness. The dark bags under Pidge’s eyes said she’d pulled another all nighter, foregoing sleep in favor of searching for her family. A habit none of them could convince her to break.
“Paladins,” Allura called over Hunk and Lance’s chatter, “gather around, please.”
Keith took his customary place on Shiro’s right side as the briefing began.
The base they were going to be trying to destroy was a well defended one, on the far side of Doriath. Due to the rebellion from the natives the Galra had been forced back to a perimeter of four square miles around their base, but those four miles were absolutely covered in traps, anti aircraft weapons, sentry patrols-- the whole shebang. And the base itself was nothing less than a maze, as the schematics Lance had gotten with Blue could attest.
“We’re still not sure what kind of security the doors will have,” Pidge said as they went over their entry plan, “but I’m fairly certain I can hack whatever they have. The gate on the western side looks like it gets patrolled less, so that one would be a good place to start.”
Allura frowned and shook her head. “We know even less about the security inside the gates than we do the outside. It’s entirely possible that gate is patrolled less because there’s more security on the other side.”
“There’s never a route that’s one hundred percent guaranteed,” said Shiro with his grim battle grimace.
Keith studied the map closely for a moment, then said, “What if I took the west gate and distracted the sentries so you all can go in another way? It’s right by a lava flow-- Red and I can handle the heat.”
Pidge’s expression changed to one of consideration. “What do you think, Allura?”
When Allura’s eyes met his, Keith was surprised to watch them grow cold and hard, and she looked away, back to the map, without uttering an answer.
Pretty much everyone’s eyebrows raised at that.
“Uh, Allura?” said Lance, “Are you gonna answer the question?”
The Princess primly tossed her silver hair over one shoulder. “Such a method is foolhardy,” she answered in a voice like a frozen sigh. “Splitting the team up has never done us any good.”
Keith frowned, stung by her reaction. “Except for when we split up for the Weblum and Beta Traz.”
She shot him a glare. “I said no. Pidge, have you any other suggestions?”
For a moment Pidge said nothing, looking between the two of them in bafflement. But eventually she seemed to let it go and return to the matter at hand, and the others followed her one by one. Except Keith, who took a step back from the table and turned the encounter over in his mind.
For a minute there she looked like she had before; those two weeks after they found the Blade when she’d iced him out and ignored every indication of his existence. But that had been more than a month ago. She had said she had gotten over it.
Maybe she lied, he thought, and his heart sank. She’d seemed friendly enough these last few weeks, but suddenly Keith’s stomach felt like it was full of lead. Maybe she hadn’t gotten over it. Maybe she was still angry with him for being Galra, but pretended not to be for the sake of the team dynamic, and now it was slipping out again. It hurt, the idea that the Princess still hated him, but what made him feel sick was the fact that she was so good at hiding it he’d genuinely believed they were friends again.
Stupid, he reprimanded himself, you should know better.
He didn’t offer his opinion again for the rest of the briefing. Allura didn’t seem irritated with anyone else and was perfectly pleasant, which only reinforced his certainty that his Galra DNA was the cause of her sudden ire.
He elected to ignore how the thought made his throat tight.
“That will be all for today, Paladins,” said Allura, waving her hand over the table to dismiss the map. “Please report for the operation in two vargas.”
Keith left the room quickly-- so quickly he didn’t notice the Princess walking over to Coran’s console.
“That. Freaking. Sucked.”
“You can say that again,” Hunk groaned, wincing as he rolled out a kink in his shoulder. “We should have gone with your idea, Keith.”
“Yeah, maybe then we wouldn’t have had to fight the entire base all at once,” huffed Pidge.
“It was a hard one today,” Shiro said in reluctant agreement. “Good job though, everybody.”
Keith didn’t bother saying anything. He was too tired. He just wanted to get back to his room, strip off all the bulky, uncomfortable armor, and crash-- preferably for the next fourteen hours at the least.
He kept himself half braced as the group walked through the halls of the Castle, waiting for a random alarm to blare or for Allura to announce another surprise training exercise over the intercom. Thankfully no such thing occurred, and he made it to his bunk without incident.
It was blissfully dark in his room, and cool. Through the armor it was hard to tell, but by the time he’d stripped down to the flight suit he was realizing it was too cool. His room was practically arctic, and without the protection of his armor he could feel goosebumps beginning to spread up his arms.
Wrapping them around his torso with a shudder, Keith made his way across the freezing metal floor to the thermostat and tapped the screen. But instead of opening to the usual screen it flashed red a few times, then showed a message that he barely had enough grasp on Altean to understand.
He turned away with a muttered curse and shuffled over to the closet to find warmer sleeping clothes. He dressed on autopilot, occupied with his thoughts.
The optimistic part of him said it was just a system malfunction, and if he mentioned it to Pidge or Coran in the morning they would get it fixed. But that part was small and untinged with experience. The rest of him wondered… he refused to give that thought any credence.
It was just a malfunction. Pidge would fix it in the morning.
Keith woke up feeling absolutely miserable. His muscles were all taut and achy from being coiled against the cold, and the low temperature had made it nearly impossible to sleep at all. He had to force himself out of bed, and with a hiss at the chill, he rushed to get dressed.
Stepping out into the hallway was like going into a warm log cabin after a night in the snow. He stood for a minute, just relishing it, before moving on to the kitchen to get his food goo breakfast.
When the door slid open he was surprised to find the room wasn’t empty, as it usually was so early in the morning. Allura was leaning against the far wall in her nightdress, eyes closed and head tipped back as though in thought, or resting. She did look tired, now that he thought about it, with deep bags under her eyes and frown creases pressed into her brow.
Keith hesitated, but decided it would be better to announce himself and possibly be unwanted than sneak up on a woman who could kill him with her pinky finger.
Awkwardly he cleared his throat and Allura’s eyes snapped open. And just like the night before, her blue gaze froze over the moment it fell upon him. She straightened up from the wall and Keith cringed back a bit. But she wasn’t saying anything. Just staring. So, even though he knew he would come to regret it, he made himself speak first.
“Good morning. Um, Allura.”
A muscle in her jaw twitched when she clenched it. Keith bit the inside of his lip.
Ok, ouch. What had he even done to make the Princess so cranky? He shifted from foot to foot, then decided to risk one more attempt at friendliness before declaring defeat.
“Was it, uh, cold in your room last night? I think the temperature controls are glitching.”
Her eyes glimmered, and there was just a hint of what he thought was a cruel twist to her lips. “I can assure you they are not glitching. I checked them myself. The temperature controls are working as intended.”
Keith’s gut gave a sharp twist, and he dropped his eyes to the floor.
It wasn’t broken. He was being punished. Whether for some specific grievance or just for the general crime of being Galra, he couldn’t tell, and he didn’t dare ask. He knew from experience that punishments only go on longer if the punisher doesn’t think you’ve learned your lesson. Better to just wait it out.
Besides, he told himself as he slinked over to the goo machine, the Galra did kill her entire planet. She’s owed a little vengeance.
The next few minutes were full of tense silence. It remained unbroken until Keith was within three steps of the door, bowl of goo in hand.
He paused, turning his head slightly to indicate he was listening. He felt a lurch in his stomach, a quick stab of what if that makes her angrier, but at least this time the Princess didn’t comment.
“I think it would be best if you addressed me according to my title.”
Keith winced to himself. It would be humiliating, being the only person on the whole ship not allowed to address her by her name, but he bit his lip again and stifled the protests rising in his throat. It would be ok. Maybe, if he was quiet and stuck to the background, she’d cycle back around to pretending to be kind. If only to prevent inter-team conflict. He just had to wait her out.
Like Shiro always said.
Patience yields focus.
The next few days were a practice in testing that motto. The temperature remained the same in his rooms, and with his thin Altean blanket not nearly warm enough to keep him comfortable, he found himself seeking refuge in Red, sleeping on the metal floor of the cockpit. He kept quiet during the day, never addressing Allura directly, and while most of the others didn’t seem to be able to tell his normal quiet from his anxious quiet, he still found Shiro shooting him some questioning looks every now and again.
And every time their eyes met, the Princess’ somehow managed to look even colder than the last time.
Three days passed, three days of flying through open space on their way to the next distress beacon. Keith told himself it was fine, even as it seemed that the Princess’ attitude wasn’t going to change anytime soon. He’d put up with two weeks of this behavior before-- he could do it again.
He thought that all the way up until the fourth morning, when he went to the goo machine for breakfast, as usual, and it didn’t dispense the usual amount of green food goo. Instead it churned for a moment, like something was caught in the cogs (did Alteans even use cogs?) and after a moment of hideous grinding, it spat out half the usual amount of goo with a sickly lavender hue.
He wrinkled his nose. For a blissful few seconds he thought it was another Castle malfunction… until a sound by the door drew his attention.
It was the Princess, watching him with satisfaction bright in her eyes, her cheeks pale and flushed.
“Don’t worry,” she said while Keith tried to remember how to breathe, “I’ve looked over your medical scans. That should be more than sufficient.”
Keith forced a lungful of air, but it stung behind his ribs. She was still angry, he was still being punished, and he didn’t know what he’d done or how to fix it and was too afraid to ask. And now he was being starved.
Her expression darkened. “Your… other DNA makes you more difficult to kill.” A chill ran down his spine at the choice of her words, and with one last preening glance, the Princess strode away down the hall.
The new food goo was even more disgusting than the old; Keith ate it anyway, and didn’t bother trying to get the machine to give him more, even when it felt like it barely touched the gnaw of hunger within him.
Because he was being punished, and he was Galra, and compared to everything Allura had gone through, it was nothing.
Shiro caught up with him later that morning after the day’s briefing. Doubtless he’d noticed how quiet Keith had been, how his eyes had been darting all around, trying to avoid Allura’s. Shiro always could read him like an open book.
“Hey,” he called from down the hallway, jogging to catch up. Keith paused and waited, an odd coil of dread curling in his chest. Shiro would want to talk about Allura, and Keith wasn’t sure what to say about it when he wasn’t even sure what to think about it yet. But, all the same, he waited.
Shiro came up alongside him, a look of soft concern in his grey eyes. “Hey, Keith. How are you holding up?”
Keith gave a noncommittal shrug. Shiro frowned for a moment, but propped it back up into a smile when he saw Keith’s shoulders tense.
“I’m sorry, bud. I thought she’d gotten over it.”
Keith allowed himself a bitter mumble of, “I did too,” with a dejected scuff of his boot over the floor. Shiro looked down on him sympathetically.
“Well, I’m really proud of how you’ve been handling it so far. She just needs time.”
Keith nodded. He didn’t mention his room or the food change-- like Shiro said, she probably just needed time. And if she didn’t, if this was going to be a long term thing, Allura was the Princess. She had all the authority. If he told, if he kicked up a fuss, if he made it a problem, she could just as easily kick him off the team.
He wanted to stay. He wanted to stay with Shiro, and Red, and be useful for once in his misbegotten life. If he had to put up with a cold room and some shitty food to do that, well… so be it.
Shiro, oblivious to the thoughts racing through Keith’s head, hooked an arm around his neck and pulled him into a side hug.
“It’ll be ok,” Shiro promised.
Keith didn’t respond, and when Shiro finally released him he continued on his way to the training deck. He needed to clear his head. Stop thinking about it for a bit.
He certainly got what he asked for.
Keith had barely beat level one and already he was panting and covered in sweat, and could feel red bruises blooming on his skin. Was it just him, or was the Gladiator being more aggressive than usual? Fighting with more strength?
Wary of a repeat of the haunted castle incident, Keith called for the simulation to end. The gladiator powered down as expected. A cursory look over the system settings didn’t reveal anything out of the ordinary, either.
But then he lost to level two, when the week before he’d been past level five.
Would the Princess…?
He considered the possibility, but almost immediately discarded the idea. As much as the Princess seemed to hate him again, Allura would never do something that would put the other paladins at risk of real bodily harm. If anything that would get in the way of Voltron.
It was him, he eventually decided after a water break and a chance to catch his breath. He wasn’t trying hard enough, or he’d grown lax, or overconfident, or something. In any case he needed to catch back up.
That night he went to Red covered in bruises and stuck on level three, and curled up on her floor with his stomach growling and his body aching, he quietly tried to ignore the tears rolling down his cheeks.
It had been five more days. Or maybe it was six? He wasn’t sure. Right now he was pouring everything he was worth into fighting this gladiator.
The Princess’ attitude hadn’t improved. If anything she was getting meaner, crueler, to the point where even Lance was looking a bit alarmed at some of the things she said. Sometime that afternoon (maybe eight hours ago… or ten… or twelve) they’d returned from a battle and the Princess had absolutely torn into him, dissecting every mistake he’d made on the field in front of everyone else. And Keith, already feeling worn thin from hunger and sleeping on metal and strung out on constant anxiety and wariness, had nearly cried.
But he didn’t. He held his breath and bit his tongue and clenched his fists until the urge retreated.
Then, when the Princess had finally dismissed them all, he made a beeline for the training deck. Possibly not the smartest idea since he was so weak and shaky (what kind of data had she found that told her Galra could run on less food? Because Keith really wasn’t feeling it) and also kind of sick to his stomach, but he had to get better. He had to prove himself to the Princess.
The gladiators remained tougher than he thought they were before. He was on level four now, and the gladiator was moving so fast, dancing around him at the speed of light and smacking him all over with its staff, hard enough to bruise with every impact.
Keith, sweating and trembling and with black dots spotting over his vision, struggled to keep up. His thoughts ran choppily through his head, separated from one another with each strike from the staff, which if he listened too closely started to sound like the snap of a belt.
He could make it better.
He’d been a bad teammate in the last battle.
If he stopped being a bad soldier, Allura would forgive him.
If he was a good paladin the Princess would stop hurting him.
If he was good, she’d be nice again.
He had to be good if he wanted to stay.
He wanted to stay.
He could be good.
The last hit fell across his shoulder blades and slammed him to the floor with a hoarse cry of pain. He wasn’t sure if the dripping he felt on his cheek was sweat or blood or tears. The sweat sticking his hair to his neck turned cold. His stomach whirled, his muscles gave, and everything went black.
He awoke an indeterminate amount of time later to the sound of the gladiator powering down. Judging by the pain that flared up all over his body the moment he opened his eyes, Keith guessed it had kept running the whole time he’d been unconscious. Just whaling away on his limp form.
This is why we don’t train alone, chimed a voice in his head that sounded a lot like Shiro. He pushed it away and, with great effort, rolled onto his side to see who had turned the bot off.
He nearly choked on his own spit when he saw the hem of Allura’s dress.
“On your feet, Paladin,” said the Princess’ cold voice, and despite the pain Keith scrambled to obey.
She practically loomed over him, despite them being nearly the same height, and Keith shrunk away from the almost feverish brightness of her eyes. For the last few days her skin had been taking on an eerie pallor, and though he’d noticed Coran’s worried glances, nobody has tried to confront her about it yet. Keith definitely wasn’t going to.
“What level was that?” she demanded.
Keith, knowing the answer wouldn’t be satisfactory, hung his head. “Level Four, Princess.”
The Princess scoffed and rolled her eyes, and somehow that was even worse than if she’d decided to yell at him.
“Get out of here. I expect to see better in training tomorrow.”
With that pathetic murmur, Keith fled from the room, swallowing back emotion until his throat ached as much as the rest of him.
Keith’s fingers itched at his sides.
It had been another three days. The food change was still in effect, and ever since the disaster in the training room, Keith had taken it upon himself to start up an old habit. For when the Princess decided he wasn’t worth the cost it took to feed him anymore, or when she decided to send him packing, or when she figured out how well a locked door could serve as a punishment.
The little box of stolen ration bars fit snugly under his bed and there were out of sight, only visible when Keith pulled it out to add to it or, as he was doing now, stare at them and agonize about them.
He was so hungry. His stomach had ceased to growl, now it just hurt, if he felt anything at all. And he knew the Princess would be watching him in training, knew he’d regret it if he couldn’t perform.
But on the other hand, he had no idea how much he would need to keep himself going when things really hit the fan.
He didn’t know. He couldn't make the decision. Anxiety over every possible outcome was shredding up his insides-- he couldn’t even sleep anymore for fear of waking up to the Princess’ bright, cruel eyes staring down at him. But he had to. He had training, he had to go, he couldn’t be late or she’d be mad.
Keith was just about to push the box back under his bed when his bedroom door whooshed open. He whirled, heart rate skyrocketing, only for his stomach to drop out through the floor.
It was the Princess, and she was angry.
“Princess,” he said without thinking about it, “Princess, wait, please--”
“Thief!” she hissed back, not acknowledging his words. “I knew it! I knew you were just like the rest of them! Like the rest of the Galra!”
She advanced a few steps, the wane, peaked appearance to her face only making her more terrifying. Keith scrambled back until he hit the far wall, but still the Princess kept coming.
“I’m sorry, please, I’m sorry, Princess I’m sorry--”
She grabbed a fistful of his hair, and with a harsh yank, pulled him to his feet. Keith cried out with pain and clawed at her wrist to no avail. She had Altean strength, and he was weak. His struggling accomplished absolutely nothing as she began to haul him from his room and down the hallway. Keith had no idea where they were going-- for all he knew the Princess was marching him down to the airlock to be disposed of.
Then she made a turn, and he realized she was going to do something infinitely worse.
She was going to take him to the others.
The lounge was rowdy as all hell. Lance was loudly chattering about anything and everything to Hunk and Pidge, who were just as loudly talking to each other about the project sitting between them, and overtop all of it Coran was chasing one of the mice around the room, trying to retrieve a bolt or something that the rodent had taken.
Shiro, for once not caring about his leaderly facade, sighed and let his head fall against the back of the sofa. It was moments like these where he really missed Keith, but he could understand why he wanted to make himself scarce. It worried him, but he understood.
His head picked up a little at the noise he heard, barely, on the other side of the metal wall. He wasn’t sure what it was, but he wasn’t going to have to wait long to find out.
The door to the lounge opened, and immediately everyone inside fell into a stunned silence. Because there stood the Altean Princess, tall and intimidating despite the fatigue that she’d been complaining of these last few weeks, holding a struggling, crying Keith by his hair.
“I told you!” she proclaimed before any of them regained their senses. “He is just as treacherous as any other of his race. We took him in, gave him so many privileges, and how does he repay us? By stealing!” She gave a harsh shake of her hand and Keith let out a cry choked with a sob at the pull.
“I’m sorry,” he gasped, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
“Allura, what the hell?” exclaimed Pidge, the first to speak. “Let him go, what the fuck, what are you thinking?!”
Hunk was too startled to say anything, just staring at Keith with an expression of pure shock. Lance got up and approached a few steps, saying something in a cajoling tone, but the Princess backed away from him. There was something wild burning in her eyes that Shiro had never seen before.
He didn't know when he got up. But now he was on his feet, and when he spoke it was with a grim tone he barely remembered he had.
“Let him go.”
The Princess scowled at him. “No! I was right all along, we were fools to allow someone like him on our ship! He’s a traitor!”
“Now, now, Princess,” that was from Coran, who was shuffling closer much more slowly than Lance had, arms outstretched, “why don’t you tell us what Keith stole, so we can judge properly, hm?”
The Princess tightened her grip, and Shiro’s fists clenched. “Ration bars. He has a whole stash of them, squirreled away in his den like an animal!”
This time when Keith’s lips moved no sound escaped, but Shiro could still make out the words. More apologies. For a moment his mind blanked, and then it all clicked together and his blood boiled.
Coran moved a bit closer. “Well, that’s a matter easily solved, isn’t it? The Castle can easily make more.”
The Princess bared her teeth, a frightening, feral flame flickering in her eyes. She looked like she could fall over at any moment, but when she hauled Keith upright and gripped his arm with her other hand, her hold was like iron.
“None of you understand,” she snarled, and her fingers tightened until Keith winced. “If you won’t listen to the threat,” she gave him another shake, “that he poses, I’ll take care of it myself!”
With that she turned on her heel and, dragging Keith along with her, stormed out of the room.
All of the paladins pursued her in a group, all voicing various entreaties and reasons that did nothing but tangle with each other in the air. Pidge got close enough to grab her sleeve, but the Princess easily shrugged her off and continued.
A moment later she turned a corner, and Shiro’s heart rose to his throat when he realized.
“Coran,” he choked to the advisor as he hurried alongside them, “Coran, she’s--”
“I know!” He was busily fiddling with his little handheld controller. “I’m sealing the airlocks now.”
Not a moment too soon, either, as the Princess reached the first airlock and pressed her palm to the scanner, only momentarily letting go of Keith, only to hiss in anger when it refused to open. She pressed it again, and again, and after a third attempt struck it in frustration and turned.
By then the paladins had spread into a ring, enclosing her against the airlock door. Keith, Shiro noticed with horror, had tears streaming down his cheeks. His lips still moved, murmuring silent apologies like prayers.
“Allura,” said Shiro, “I’m not going to ask again. Let. Him. Go.”
“You are weak,” she spat back, so viciously it startled him, “You don’t have the strength to do what must be done.”
Shiro clenched his jaw, and with great reluctance, activated his Galra arm. The glow cast in the Princess’ eyes turned them an unsettling magenta. But before a fight could break out, Coran forced his way through the ring.
“Allura,” he said, almost too quietly to be heard over the hum of the prosthetic, “Look at me, Princess. This isn’t what you want, you know it’s not.”
For a moment she stared at him blankly, then she blinked. Once, twice, and her expression of rage melted away into confusion.
“Coran?” Allura murmured, “I… I fear… something is… terribly wrong.”
“I know, Princess,” Coran answered. Shiro let his arm power down, but still he watched with a wary eye. “Come to me, I can help.”
Allura hesitated, then began to look down, only for Coran to catch her attention again.
“No, Allura, don’t look at him. Look at me. Keep your eyes on me.”
Allura obeyed, and after a long few seconds while all of them held their breath, she loosened her grip.
Faster than they’d ever seen him move Coran darted forward, gathering Allura in his arms, and began to hustle her off down the hall.
Shiro went to Keith, catching him as he began to crumble. His face was dead pale and his breath came so fast he was practically hyperventilating, his tears staining Shiro’s vest. He was still whispering apologies between the sobs.
“It’s ok,” Shiro soothed, smoothing a hand through his hair, sticky with cold sweat. “It’s ok, you didn’t do anything wrong, you’re ok, you’re safe.”
Dimly, Shiro could hear the other paladins gathered, murmuring to each other, and footsteps as one walked off somewhere.
Keith’s hand curled into his collar. He was still apologizing.
“I didn’t want to, Shiro, I swear I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t be sure, and I had to be strong enough, for Voltron, and I didn’t know what else to do--”
“Hey, hey, you’re fine. I know, I understand, I’m not mad at you.” In truth he didn’t know exactly what was going on, nor did he understand anything that had just occurred, but if Allura was telling the truth and Keith had reverted to his old food-hoarding habit, then something must have happened to push him to it. Allura’s cold attitude alone wouldn’t have been enough.
Quick footsteps sounded down the hall, and when they paused to speak, he realized it was Pidge.
“I knew something was fucky, I knew it, damnit!”
Shiro looked up. Lance and Hunk were hovering nearby, concerned expressions on their faces but clearly unsure how to handle the situation. Pidge stood beside them, face twisted in fury at whatever she was reading on the tablet she’d fetched.
“What, Pidge?” asked Lance.
Pidge took a deep breath to calm herself. “The other week, after the battle, I noticed some of the Castle settings were different. I told Allura about it and she said she’d fixed them. I should’ve checked myself.” She took another breath and held the tablet out for Shiro to look at. “See?”
He did see, and it made him sick to his stomach. Lance and Hunk leaned over his shoulders to get a look for themselves.
“Half rations?” Hunk exclaimed, horrified. “Why would Allura do that?”
“Look at the temperature in his room,” added Lance with a finger pointed at the screen, “No wonder he was so sluggish in the mornings, he was practically hypothermic!”
That certainly explained the food hoarding, but what made Shiro’s hands shake in rage was the Gladiator settings. The gladiator that Keith had been throwing himself at for the past week was set to a height that even Shiro wouldn’t attempt without help. He unconsciously tightened his grip on the figure huddled against his chest.
Honestly, Shiro wasn’t all that surprised at Keith’s current state of distress. Seeing it all laid out, what he’d been enduring for the last two weeks without help or assurance, it only made sense that he would crack.
(And, after all, Allura had tried to kill him).
“Why did you let this happen?” It took him a moment to realize Pidge was talking to Keith and not him. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
Keith shrunk away from the question, and Shiro chided, “Pidge. Keith didn’t let anything happen. None of this is his fault.”
Pidge looked alarmed. “That’s not what I meant, I didn’t mean it was his fault, I just wanna know why he didn’t tell any of us what was going on.”
Shiro had a sneaking suspicion he knew. A suspicion that was confirmed when Keith decided to answer in a hoarse, trembling voice.
“Zarkon took everything from her. It’s only ri-right she get a little back.”
“Oh that’s so fucked up,” whispered Lance while Hunk and Pidge cried out vocally against Keith’s statement. Shiro said nothing, knowing words alone couldn’t fix what the last two weeks had done, and held Keith a little closer.
“You didn’t deserve it,” he said, so quietly only Keith could hear. “It’s not your fault.”
Keith made a choking noise in the back of his throat, but besides that didn’t answer.
Outside of their little bubble, the other paladins were discussing Allura, and what could possibly cause her to snap in the way she had.
“Even when we first found out about Keith’s heritage she wasn’t this violent,” Pidge observed, frowning and fiddling with her glasses. “She was a jerk for awhile, sure, but she never got physical.”
Hunk gnawed on his lower lip as he thought. “She has seemed tired the last few weeks… maybe she’s sick? She was pretty pale.”
“What kind of sickness makes you randomly attack people?” Lance asked, “I know things are crazy in space, but this is pretty out there, even for us.”
“Coran seemed to know,” said Shiro. Keith’s breathing was finally beginning to slow, so as carefully as he could Shiro returned to his feet, pulling Keith along with him and keeping him tucked against his side. “He’ll probably tell us sooner or later. Pidge, will you put all of the Castle settings for Keith back to normal?”
Pidge bobbed her head in assent, already tapping away on the tablets screen. Shiro, intending to take Keith back to the lounge while his room returned to a tolerable temperature, made to start walking. But Keith hung back, and when Shiro sent a searching look at his face, found his eyes darting every which way-- trying to ascertain emotions and danger levels.
“Am I…” he started, only to stop and gulp and start over, “Am I in t-trouble?”
God, his heart couldn’t take much more of this.
“No, bud, you’re not in trouble.”
Keith’s brow furrowed in fearful confusion. “But she-- she was right, I did ste-steal.” Little hiccups, echoes of sobs, kept interrupting him. Shiro lightly rubbed his arm, hoping the gesture would be comforting.
“The food is for all of us. You can’t steal something that’s already yours.”
Keith didn’t look like he quite believed him yet, but went along when Shiro guided him back to the lounge. Somewhere along the way Hunk had disappeared, Pidge was still slamming her fingers into the tablet screen like it owed her money, and Lance was dragging a half step behind, fidgeting with his sleeves and casting looks down the hallway. Shiro bit back his sigh for Keith’s sake.
“Lance,” he said, and the boy gave a guilty jump. “You don’t have to stay.”
Under his arm he felt Keith’s shoulders hunch. Lance’s eyes widened.
“No, I don’t-- I mean, it’s not like that, it’s not that I don’t care, I just--” he faltered for a moment, then sighed and slumped. “I’m just wondering about Allura. We don’t really know why she freaked out.”
Shiro stole a glance at Keith’s face. It was drawn and tight, tear streaks like canyons in his cheekbones. It was clear what his theory was, but Shiro wasn’t convinced. Contrary to what Keith told himself (and had been told), he didn’t drive people to abuse. And Shiro didn’t doubt for one second that Allura had done all of these things, but the fact remained: her behavior was strange. Almost unbelievable, if Shiro hadn’t seen for himself how her eyes burned like wildfire.
“Why don’t you go find them, Lance,” said Shiro, “and find out what’s going on.”
Lance’s expression split between relief and dread. But he nodded, and with his hands shoved in his pockets, headed off on his quest.
A few minutes later they arrived at the lounge, now silent as a crypt. Shiro sat Keith down on the sofa and fetched a blanket to wrap around his shoulders. Keith snagged the edges in his hands and pulled it closed until he was completely cocooned, and when Shiro sat beside him, Keith listed to the side and leaned on him. Shiro fit him under his arm and squeezed, just enough to provide comforting pressure, but Keith winced and too late he remembered the gladiator.
“Do you need a pod?” he murmured, too quietly for Pidge to hear.
Keith shook his head. “No, it’s just bruises.”
Shiro frowned, but didn’t argue the point, instead saying, “It’s not your fault. I wish you would’ve said something, but it’s not your fault. And no matter what’s wrong with Allura, it doesn’t excuse what she did.”
Keith tucked his knees to his chest under the blanket, turned his face into Shiro’s neck, and said nothing.
They sat there quietly for awhile. Slowly Keith’s breath began to lighten, and more and more of his weight leaned on Shiro as he relaxed. Shiro didn’t complain-- after all of that, he must be exhausted.
At length Pidge shuffled over, still clutching her tablet.
“I got a ping from Lance. He says Allura’s in a pod.”
Shiro blinked a few times. “... Why?”
“Coran thinks she’s sick or something,” she answered, her lips giving an unhappy twist. “Sounds like an excuse to me, but stranger things have happened, I guess.”
Shiro wasn’t sure about that, but he didn’t say anything.
A few minutes later, when Keith was most of the way asleep on Shiro’s shoulder, the door to the lounge slid open and in came Hunk, several bowls in his hands. Keith went tense as a statue at the sound, but Shiro rubbed his arm and murmured an assurance.
“I made food!” proclaimed Hunk with false cheer. He sat down on the floor near Shiro’s feet and arranged his offerings: a bowl for all of them. He passed one to Pidge, one to Shiro (which he balanced on his knee), one he put on the floor in front of himself, and one he set aside for Lance. Only then did he look at Keith, only to move his gaze to Shiro in question at Keith’s closed eyes.
Shiro knew he was still awake, so he nodded.
“Hey, Keith, I brought some for you, too.”
Keith’s eyes slitted open with a certain amount of caution, and after a minute of silent watching whispered, “Are you sure? The Princess will get mad.”
“Let her be mad,” replied Hunk with surprising ease. “Everyone needs to eat.”
Keith gnawed on his lip anxiously, but after a second of indecision, managed to untangle one of his arms from the blanket to take the bowl. It was mostly normal green food goo with a spoon sticking out of it, but sprinkled over the top was some of the Olkari herb that Keith absolutely loved. He’d never said so, but Shiro knew, and apparently he wasn’t the only one to notice.
“Where’s Lance?” asked Hunk, drawing the attention away from Keith as he took a few apprehensive bites.
“With Coran, in the infirmary,” Shiro said.
“Allura’s in a pod,” Pidge continued, “Coran thinks she’s sick.”
Hunk thoughtfully stirred the goo in his bowl. “Well, we are in space. It’s not out of the realm of possibility.”
Pidge opened her mouth, but was cut off by the lounge door opening again. Again, Keith went stock still, his knuckles turning white around his spoon.
“Hello, paladins. Everyone alright?”
Shiro relaxed at the sound of Coran’s voice, but Keith didn’t. He looked like the rabbit in front of the wolf, poised to flee at the first flash of fang or claw.
Pidge ignored his question. “What’s going on with Allura?”
“She’s in a cryopod,” Coran answered with an awkward clearing of his throat. “Lance volunteered to stay with her.
“Well,” said Hunk, “that’s great and everything, but not really what Pidge meant.”
Every part of Coran, even his mustache, seemed to droop. Keith was still frozen, breathing short and shallow.
“I ran a few scans. It looks like Allura may have contracted an illness when she visited Doriath.”
Shiro’s eyebrows rose. His doubt must’ve show clearly through, as Coran winced a bit.
“As far as I can tell there’s no name for it in Altean, but the Doriath call it veneeur; in their tongue, wrath.”
“So Allura caught a space cold that turned her into a monster?” Pidge, based on the accusing hand on her hip, didn’t believe it.
“It’s a virus that affects the mind,” Coran explained with surprising patience. “It causes paranoia, irritability, and aggressive behavior.”
“But it’s not a coincidence it was focused on Keith, was it?”
Coran wilted again under Shiro’s question. After a moment of contemplative silence, he said, “No. It cannot create fears out of nothing. Evidently she was still struggling to accept Keith’s heritage.”
No one was expecting Keith to speak.
“So she was sick,” he said in a small voice. He kept his head down, staring into his bowl so Shiro couldn’t see his face. “It’s not her fault.”
All of them exchanged confused, helpless looks, until eventually Shiro dared to respond.
“That doesn’t make it alright. It doesn’t mean you’re wrong for being… upset.” He avoided the idea of fear. But still Keith closed in-- turned his head away from Shiro’s searching eyes.
“We should just forget it. She didn’t mean it.”
“What?!” Pidge was flabbergasted, as were Hunk and Coran. “We can’t just forget it! She was torturing you for weeks!”
Keith hunched over his bowl. “It wasn’t… that bad.”
“Not that bad? You’ve got to be kidding. You’re kidding, right?”
Keith didn’t answer, and with a held out hand Shiro indicated she should stop. Pidge subsided, though reluctantly.
“Keith,” he began, softly, for his ears only, “We care about you. You matter to us. When something hurts you, it matters. We’re not going to forget this. Actions have consequences, even for Allura. She might not have meant it, but she still hurt you. It’s ok to acknowledge it. It’s ok to feel it. It’s ok to be angry.”
Keith had no answer. A quiet sniffle told him why, so Shiro gave him a little squeeze and looked back up at the others.
“When does Allura get out of the pod?”
Coran straightened. “About twelve vargas.”
Shiro nodded and turned back to Keith.
“You can finish your food, bud. We don’t have to worry about it for awhile.”
“Are you sure you want to do this? You can wait a few more hours.”
Keith’s answer was a stubborn shake of the head. It had been a while-- Keith had eaten, taken a long nap, showered, and even let Shiro put some healing cream on his bruises, and now he was back to the version of himself that the rest of the Castle knew best-- serious, brooding, and slightly grumpy. Shiro knew better.
They were about to go down to the infirmary to see Allura, who had woken up from cryo a few minutes before, and Keith was terrified. It showed in his crossed arms, where his hands clutched fistfuls of his jacket, and how his eyes bounced around the room, and how every few seconds he rose up on his toes as though preparing to run.
But Keith wasn’t one to give up in the face of fear. And Shiro knew, no matter how many misgivings he had, he wouldn’t be able to keep Keith away once he’d made up his mind.
“Alright,” he said reluctantly, “Let’s go then.”
It wasn’t a long walk to the infirmary, but still by the time they arrived everyone else had already gathered. He caught all of them shooting Keith at least one concerned look, but Keith didn’t acknowledge them. His attention was on Allura, who was perched on a cot, dressed in one of the white pod suits. The pallor had vanished from her skin, taking the feverish fire in her eyes with it. Now her gaze was soft as she and Keith regarded each other from across the room.
Slowly, Allura rose to her feet. Shiro saw Keith stiffen, but he didn’t move back. He didn’t drop his eyes, even as Allura padded closer on bare feet.
She paused a few feet away, carefully out of arm's reach, and folded her arms awkwardly around her torso; it was probably the least regal thing Shiro had ever seen her do.
Allura swallowed hard before finally speaking.
“Keith, I owe you an apology.”
His eyes slid away. All of them were watching with unfailing attention.
“It’s fine, Princess,” Keith murmured. “It wasn’t your fault. You were sick.”
“Yes, I was sick.” She raised her chin, the force of her gaze compelling Keith to meet it. “But that excuses nothing. The virus amplified things that were already there, the fault of which lies with me, and it doesn’t change how I’ve wronged you.”
“I do not expect forgiveness. I only wish that eventually I can fix what I’ve broken. And I need to say that I’m sorry.”
Keith was gnawing on his lip. He stood a moment, pondering how he was going to react, then, eventually, he answered.
“I don’t know if I can forgive you yet. But… I think I can eventually. If that’s alright, Princess.”
Allura’s eyes softened, glittering with tears. Hunk and Coran were near the same on the sidelines, and even Shiro felt his throat tightening.
“Please, Keith. Call me Allura.”