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I tried so hard and got so far (but in the end, it doesn't even matter)

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"Back off or he gets it!"

Keith presses the knife against the throat of the Galra prison guard kneeling in front of him, stopping the other guards and the warden in their tracks, several feet away.

"Let me leave, and he lives," Keith snaps, blinking the sweat from his eyes.

It's his third escape attempt from the Galra prison he was thrown into god knows how long ago. He had been caught each time, and has the bruises and a growing number of other injuries to show for it. But he can't just sit around waiting for a rescue that may never come. He needs to be out there, helping the other Paladins.

It's up to him to get himself out, but every failed attempt has cost him and his body is growing weaker. The first time they caught him trying to escape, they beat him almost to the point of unconsciousness. The second time they gave him ten lashes with a whip about as long as he is tall.

It took him a while to recover from that before he'd even been able to think about trying again.

And now here he is, busted again, holding a prison guard hostage. It's a move of utter desperation. He was so close. One more corner and he would've made it to the escape pods.

He struggles to keep the knife steady against his hostage's throat; his body is running on its last wisps of adrenaline, and the pain from his half-healed injuries is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. Sweat is rolling down his back, making the prison garb stick to skin that has only just begun to scab over.

The warden – a Galra three times Keith's size – bristles and glares, not at Keith, but at his hostage.  Keith's reflexes must be shot, because the warden has pulled a blaster on them before he even registers the guy's hand moving.

His hostage comes alive under his hands, startling Keith.

"Vrepit Sa!" he shouts, and Keith barely manages to keep from slashing the man's throat on reflex.

Then the warden pulls the trigger and it's all Keith can do to duck down behind his hostage. The guard slumps against him and Keith collapses under the weight, crashing to the floor, the knife flying from his fingers.

The body pinning him doesn't move, and shock hits him when he realizes – they murdered his hostage!

Keith gulps and tries desperately to shove the heavy weight off of him, but when he looks up, the warden and his guards are already on him. Two of the guards grab him by the wrists and drag him out from under the corpse.

"Hold him still," the warden orders, and immediately the guards pin Keith's arms and legs to the floor.

The man raises his blaster once more and Keith's breathing picks up, panic bubbling close to the surface, while he writhes and bucks and snaps his teeth at the hands holding him down.

Then the warden presses the barrel of the gun against Keith's knee. Keith's eyes widen in horror.

"This is the last time you will try to run from us," the warden spits.

"NO! N—"

The gun goes off, and all Keith knows is pain. Blinding, white-hot agony makes him scream and gag, and he tries instinctively to reach for the source of it, but he's still being held down. He writhes and whimpers, desperate to curl around his knee and alleviate the pain, until his vision finally grows gray around the edges.

It's a relief when darkness drags him away.

oOo


"Alright, Pidge, take us in nice and slow," Shiro says, leaning over the back of Green's pilot chair, watching the Galra prison barge grow larger in the windscreen.

"Uh…Shiro?" Lance speaks up from beside him, and with great effort Shiro tears his gaze away from the looming ship to glance at him. Lance is staring at his prosthetic. "You okay?"

Shiro follows his gaze and realizes he's about to crush Pidge's headrest if he's not careful. He takes a breath and loosens his grip a little. "I'm fine. Just got to get Keith out of there."

Lance nods. "We will."

"Okay, I think this is about as close as we're gonna get," Pidge says when they're approximately two hundred meters away from the ship.

Shiro gives her a pat on the shoulder before turning to Lance. "Alright. Let's get ready to jetpack over there, and—"

"Wait, look!"

At Pidge's shout, Shiro whips back around, just in time to see a streak of red flash across their screen, hurtling towards the prison ship.

"Uh…is that Red?" Lance demands. "What the hell is she doing?"

"Paladins! The Red Lion has just left her hangar!" Allura's voice crackles over the comms.

Pidge rolls her eyes. "Thanks for the heads-up."

"Oh no," Shiro breathes as they watch the Red Lion open fire on the prison barge.

Lance flings his hands up. "So much for our covert infiltration op!"

"Alright, team, change of plans," Shiro says, immediately switching gears. "Lance, you and I are still gonna jetpack in there, but since we don't need to worry about stealth anymore we're gonna go in hard and fast. It's probably going to be chaos in there, so Pidge, you stick close. Be ready to pick us up at a moment's notice."

"Got it," Pidge replies. "Be careful."

As expected, sheer chaos reigns on the prison barge when they clear the airlock. The ship's shaking with the force of Red's attacks, and the screeching sounds of metal buckling mixed with the screams and shouts of those aboard the ship make Shiro's ears hurt. Aliens of all shapes and sizes are running around the corridors in a panic; there are even a few charred bodies lying prone in the hallways.

Lance snaps his bayard up when a Galra soldier comes thundering their way and Shiro activates his prosthetic, but the Galra doesn't even look at them, apparently too preoccupied with trying to make it to an escape pod.

"Let's go," Shiro says, taking off at a run. "Keep your eyes peeled for Keith!"

They make their way to cell block C3, which is where Keith is supposed to be, according to the intel provided by the Blade of Marmora. When they reach the block though, all the cell doors are wide open and the cells themselves are empty.

"Damn it!" Shiro slams his prosthetic into the wall in frustration. Keith should be here!  What if- god, what if they killed him?

"Wait," Lance says suddenly. "Shiro, look!"

Shiro turns to follow Lance's outstretched finger, and sees a thick trail of blood leading away from one of the cells. The blood could be anybody's – humans aren't the only species in the galaxy whose blood is red – but Shiro's heart starts pounding with equal parts hope and fear.

They follow the trail, dodging panicked inmates and evacuating Galra guards alike. They turn a corner and spot something on the ground up ahead. At first Shiro thinks it's another dead body, but then he realizes it's moving, dragging itself along with very human-like arms.

"Keith?" Shiro calls, almost afraid to hope.

There's no response, but as he and Lance draw nearer, Shiro recognizes the dark hair and the lean build—

"KEITH!"

Both he and Lance race towards him, catching up to him easily. Shiro crashes to his knees beside him while Lance keeps watch.

"Keith! Keith, are you okay?"

Shiro takes in the filthy prison garb that hangs off Keith's shoulders, the greasy hair and the dark bruise on one cheek, and his heart clenches. One pant leg has been torn open, revealing a gaping wound to the back of Keith's knee. It's drenched in blood. Shiro swallows and turns his attention back to Keith, who is still trying to drag himself forward on his elbows. He doesn't even seem to have noticed them, but he's muttering something. Shiro leans in to hear.

"Gotta…get out…got- gotta…get out…"

Shiro wants to gather him into a hug. "Keith, hey, can you hear me? It's Shiro," he says, putting a careful hand on Keith's shoulder.

Finally, Keith freezes and turns his head. Glassy eyes squint up at him, and Shiro bites back a gasp at the hollow cheeks and the bruises on his face.

"Shiro?" Keith mumbles, disbelief heavy in his voice. His skin is so very pale, but his cheeks are flushed. He must be running a fever.

"Yeah, it's me, buddy," Shiro says, trying to smile. "Lance is here too. We're getting you out of here."

Keith heaves a sigh and nods, getting his hands under himself. Shiro tries to immobilize his injured leg as best he can as Keith turns himself over so he can sit up. Keith still cries out, and when Shiro gets a good look at the front of Keith's leg, he understands why.

Keith's knee has been blown to pieces.

Shiro's seen a lot of grisly stuff in his time, especially during his year in the arena, but this is one of the worst injuries he's seen. It makes even his iron-clad stomach roll, not least of all because it's Keith.

"Oh my god!" Lance exclaims, and Shiro looks up to see him staring at Keith's leg in wide-eyed horror. "Did- did he drag himself all the way over here with his knee like that?!"

Shiro nods. A strip of cloth has been tied around the knee in a haphazard attempt to bandage it, but all it's done is embed itself into Keith's flesh. Eyeing the torn pant leg, Shiro suspects Keith might have tried to bandage it himself.

The ship lurches again, throwing Lance almost off his feet and prompting Shiro to curl himself over Keith to shield him from any falling debris.

"Shiro, we have to go!" Lance says, when he's managed to right himself again.

Keith grabs onto Shiro's arms. "What- what's happening?"

"Red's attacking the ship. Can you tell her to stand down?"

Keith blinks sluggishly. "Red..?" Understanding dawns and he closes his eyes. "I'll- I'll try."

His words are beginning to slur; Keith is losing too much blood. They're running out of time.

"Okay, while you're doing that, I'm gonna pick you up, okay?" Shiro says, already slipping his arm around Keith's shoulders. He feels like a furnace. "We've got to get you to the castle."

As soon as Shiro's arm comes into contact with Keith's back though, Keith cries out again, eyes flying open. He arches his back like someone just stabbed him with a hot poker.

Shiro practically yanks his arm away. "Keith! Keith, what's wrong?" Without waiting for an answer, he carefully lifts the back of Keith's shirt a little.

He gasps at the sight of the wounds there, some of them scabbed over, others clearly inflamed. Anger surges, and his prosthetic creaks as he clenches his fist. Shiro wrestles it all back, carefully pulling down Keith's shirt again.

"Keith, I'm sorry, this is gonna hurt, but there's no other way," he says, trying to project calm.

Keith nods and braces himself.

Moving even more carefully than before, Shiro gently slides his arm around Keith's shoulders again, clenching his teeth when Keith cries out once more and tries to squirm away. It gets even worse when Shiro slips an arm under Keith's legs and his injured knee is forced to bend – Keith screams, and the sound rips Shiro's heart wide open.

But he has no choice. He tightens his hold and shoots to his feet. Lance, looking rather pale himself, pulls himself together and takes point.

The corridors are considerably emptier now, though there appear to be more dead bodies on the floor than before. The ship shakes and shudders, and Shiro and Lance both keep colliding with the walls. It's all Shiro can do not to bump Keith's injured leg into anything.

He glances down at his charge. "Keith, you still with me?"

Keith's eyes are squeezed shut, his face twisted in pain, but there's a furrow of concentration in his brow. A few seconds later, the ship stops shaking and Keith opens his eyes. "Red's sorry," he murmurs.

"You got through to her?"

Keith nods, the movement weak against Shiro's chest. "She…was mad."

Despite his worry, Shiro snorts. "No kidding. Good job, buddy."

Now that Red is no longer trying to rip the ship to shreds, their mad dash back to Green is made a lot easier.

"Pidge, we've got Keith!" Shiro barks into the comms. "Can you dock?"

"Already on it, Shiro! Meet me at docking bay one, I'm sending coordinates! Is Keith okay?"

Shiro glances down at Keith again. His stomach drops at the sight of the closed eyes and slack face. "Keith?" Shiro squeezes him a little. "Keith, hey, can you hear me?"

Keith's head lolls against his shoulder, jaw slack, and Shiro's heart thumps against his chest.

"Shiro?" Pidge's voice echoes through the comm. She sounds scared. "Is- is Keith-?"

Shiro clenches his jaw. He can't give her any reassurances. "Just meet us at the cargo bay."

oOo

Keith's brain registers the sensation of falling before he manages to pry open his eyes. He brings his arms up on reflex and braces himself, but warm, strong hands catch him before he crashes.

"I've got you, Keith, I've got you, it's okay."

Keith doesn't need to look to know it's Shiro. He frowns, because the chill on his skin tells him he was just released from a cryopod, but…why was he even in there?

As Shiro guides him down to sit on the steps, his brain catches up to him and he remembers…the Galra prison, the beatings, the hunger, the isolation, the whipping…his knee!

Eyes wide open now, he surges forward, digging his fingers into his knee, and is relieved to find it's in one piece and doesn't hurt anymore. A shudder runs through him then, and Shiro wraps an arm around his shoulders.

"It's okay, Keith, you're okay. You're safe now."

Keith finally looks up at him and the expression on Shiro's face makes him swallow, throat suddenly thick. He looks like he hasn't slept in a year, dark smudges under his eyes, and the smile he's wearing is fragile.

"God, I've been so worried about you," Shiro says, pulling Keith into a proper hug.

Keith stiffens for a moment, the sense memory of aching wounds on his back surfacing, but then he leans into it, returning the embrace with as much strength as he can muster, and breathes in Shiro's familiar scent.

He's back at the castle, with Shiro.

He's home.

He doesn't register the tears slipping down his cheeks until Shiro starts to rub his back.

"It's okay," Shiro's murmuring, sounding oddly choked. "You're here, you're safe."

After a while, Keith takes a deep breath and pulls back, wiping his cheeks with the sleeve of his cryosuit.

Shiro gently tucks a lock of hair behind Keith's ear. "You okay?"

"Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine." Keith smiles. "Just. Glad to be home. How- how long was I gone?"

"Two weeks and three days." Shiro says it like it physically pains him. "I'm so sorry."

Only two and a half weeks? It felt like years to Keith. "It's okay—"

"Keith! You're awake!"

Keith looks up just before two arms wrap around his neck and Pidge's weight almost knocks him over.

"Whoa there, Pidge!" Shiro exclaims with a laugh. "Careful, he only just got out of the pod!"

"Sorry," Pidge mutters, but she doesn't loosen her hold. "I'm so glad you're okay."

Keith smiles and gives her an awkward pat on the back.

"Pidge! Stop hogging him!"

Keith peers over Pidge's hair to see Lance and Hunk grinning down at him. Hunk is clutching Lance's arm and looks about ready to burst into tears. Behind them, Allura and Coran are keeping a polite distance, but they're both smiling, eyes bright.

When Shiro squeezes his shoulder, Keith swallows hard.

He's home. Safe. With his family.

He's not alone anymore.