When Keith left the Castle, he did it with a whirlwind of thoughts dancing behind his eyes. Thoughts he’d been thinking for months, for years, that had all been proven true under the Paladins’ glares.
As he walked down the echoing halls, not towards the Lion hangars but instead to the shuttles, he reached out in vain for Red, or Black, or any of the Lions. One last (pathetic) ditch attempt at finding an excuse to stay.
But, as he’d feared, they were silent.
As much as it hurt, Keith understood why. Red had found something in Lance that she hadn’t in Keith. Maybe all of his bragging hadn’t been pointless, maybe he was just better than Keith, but whether in skill or personality, the Lion had found her true Paladin.
(And that was good, he tried to tell himself. After all, this was a war. They needed the best on their front lines.)
Black, too, had discovered her true pilot, and this one didn’t hurt as much. Shiro had spent so long trying to bond with her, fighting Zarkon for her-- it wouldn’t be fair if she’d stayed with Keith. Besides, both Black and Shiro had finally realized the truth about him.
Keith climbed aboard one of the Altean shuttles and started the flight sequence with numb fingers. He could still feel the ghosts of the group hug he’d been given, but the impressions made his stomach twist, knowing they weren’t sincere. The way they’d looked at him just before… there was no coming back from that.
Even Shiro had glared then. He must have finally realized Keith was everything everyone had been telling him from the start.
Broken. Worthless. Talented, sure, but would never amount to anything. He’d been fooled by Keith for years, if unintentionally, and it was only right that he’d be angry over all of the lost time and effort.
Well, not anymore. He wasn’t needed or wanted on the team anymore-- if there was one thing he was good at, it was telling when people wanted him gone.
So he did. He left the Castle of Lions, not letting himself look back, and never expecting to return.
It wasn’t better at the Blade.
He hadn’t necessarily expected it to be, but it still made his chest ache and his eyes burn anytime he slowed down long enough to breathe.
Keith was reckless, impatient, and had a deep attachment to the lives of others, even if they didn’t know or like him in return.
This was the exact opposite of everything the Blade was.
Every mission he went on, he screwed up. Whether it was blowing their cover or trying to save a fallen member, he always made something go wrong, and every time Kolivan leveled that disappointed look at him, he burned.
He knew the only reason he was still there, still allowed to go on missions, was because of his former position as a Paladin, and Keith hated it with surprising intensity. He hated knowing he was a liability, only tolerated because of pity. And as the months wore on, he came to realize that the only thing he really had to offer, the only thing he could give to the universe saving cause… was his life.
So he doubled down on his attempts to save other Blades, took more and more risks on his missions. It made Kolivan more cross with him, but that would only be temporary. If he could accomplish something, anything, with his death, it would be worth it-- a net positive for the universe.
And it wasn’t like anyone would really mourn him, anyway.
Naxzela was the perfect opportunity. He didn’t plan it, or even really think about it that hard at the time. He’d been flying high through the first half of the battle, riding adrenaline and what seemed like impending victory. Then communication with Voltron was lost and he dropped into panic.
Then, sitting in his stolen jet, staring at the particle barrier around Haggar’s ship, he knew what he had to do.
He heard Matt scream his name and blocked it out. He knew what he was doing, he knew how it would end, he knew that the probability of one kamikaze jet actually breaking the barrier was slim to none.
But, he thought as he closed his eyes and braced for impact, even if it doesn’t work, the universe will be better off without me.
Without him. Without Keith; bitter, broken, useless desert boy who could never hide his flaws well enough for anyone to bother loving him.
Then the barrier disappeared, along with his chance, and he had to spend the next varga listening to the mission debrief, shaking all the while.
The Paladins didn’t consult him about allying with Lotor. Of course, it was stupid of him to expect them to.
He wasn’t on the team anymore. His connection to all of them, even to Shiro, especially to Shiro, was broken. He didn’t have any reason to want to be involved.
Voltron wasn’t his family anymore. If they ever had been.
So he went on with the Blade, doing what he’d done before. He kept fucking things up (because he was so fundamentally terrible that he couldn’t help following his instincts, even if they were wrong) and any day now he expected Kolivan to kick him out or send him on a suicide mission just to get rid of him.
No one said anything about Naxzela. No one said anything about the Kral Zera. Probably no one even knew he was there, except for Acxa, who kept saving him even when it didn’t make sense and Keith didn’t want her to.
Then came The Mission, the one that changed everything, the one that flipped his world upside down.
“I finally understand why you left.”
The mission is more important than the individual. The mission is more important than me.
He’d heard so many times that mothers would do anything for their children. But now, it seemed to him, he knew the truth.
A mother would do anything for her child-- so long as the child was worth doing anything for.
But when he looked at Krolia, expecting to see the same iron will that had been in her eyes since they met, instead she looked… almost sad.
Her voice confirmed it when she spoke, telling him what he hadn’t heard in so long.
Keith didn’t believe her. Not at first. For the first month on the space whale he kept his distance, certain they’d be able to get on with their mission at any moment and they’d go back to the Blade; Krolia probably going back undercover, unlikely to see each other often, if at all, as the war dragged on.
But it didn’t happen. That month passed, then two, then three. Finally, after half a year, Krolia took matters into her own hands.
Night had fallen outside of their cave. The fire was crackling merrily, splaying shifting shadows over the stone walls. Keith sat on a fur skin facing it, nibbling on a bit of roasted meat on a stick while his other hand scratched the wolf pup behind the ears.
He’d tried not to get attached to the wolf either, knowing Kolivan wouldn’t allow him to keep it, but eventually the puppy dog eyes had gotten to him. It would hurt when they’d inevitably have to part, but this time he thought he could handle it. After all, he should be used to it by now.
Krolia sat on the other side, her own piece of meat still in the fire. She watched it with eyes that simultaneously seemed empty and oddly focused, staring down her piece of meat as it slowly blackened with char.
Strange behavior from her (Keith knew by now that she liked her meat rarer than he did) but as of yet he didn’t say anything. Whatever was going on in her mind was her business, and if something was wrong it wasn’t as if he was any good at comforting people.
Only good at hurting, murmured the poisonous little voice at the back of his mind. It had gotten significantly quieter in the months in the Abyss, but only so much as required for them to survive in this alien place where everything wanted him dead. In quiet moments like these it still made an appearance, to remind him that he didn’t deserve happiness. That it wouldn’t stay forever.
“Keith,” she said suddenly, breaking the silence, “I need to tell you something.”
Still gnawing on his food, he looked up at her. There was a vague feeling of dread in his gut as that voice pushed worst case scenarios at him, like Krolia deciding he wasn’t good enough to keep going and abandoning him here to carry on their mission, that she didn’t really like him as much after knowing him as she had when he was a child, that she no longer regretted leaving.
But for a moment nothing escaped her lips. She stared into the fire for a moment longer, then with a heavy sigh, drew her poker out of it and set it to the side.
She took a breath, and Keith raised his eyebrows. She almost seemed… nervous, which he’d have never expected.
“I’ve been holding off saying it for a while, because I know this is difficult for you, and I know you might not know how you feel yet, about me or anything that’s happened, but…” She had to pause for another breath. By now Keith had also been distracted from his food, which the wolf was now eating right off of his stick without him noticing.
Clearly, something important was about to happen.
But for good, or for ill?
“All of these flashes that we’ve seen, especially the ones that I’ve seen of your life-- they worry me. I worry that you don’t know.”
Mystified, Keith asked, “Don’t know what?”
Finally Krolia’s eyes met his. With one final gulp, she replied, “That I love you.”
Keith was stunned into silence. He felt like he’d just been run over by a train-- he’d felt the impact in his chest, felt his heart pause for a beat too long.
When was the last time he’d heard that phrase? He couldn’t remember. His father had said it often, he remembered that, but he didn’t let himself think about it in any amount of specificity. It hurt too much.
Krolia’s eyes welled up with tears at his expression. She didn’t yet move from her place, however, which Keith in his daze could appreciate. He wasn’t sure how he’d react to being touched right now.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured, barely audible over the crackling of the fire, “I should’ve told you earlier. I should’ve left a communicator with your father and told you every day. I should’ve stayed and told you myself. I’m so sorry.”
Keith still couldn’t find his voice. He’d lost track of how long it had been since he joined the Blade, since Shiro disappeared and put him and all of his shortcomings center stage, but that entire time he’d based everything he did off of two assumptions: One, that he’d eventually give his life for the war, and two, that no one would miss him after.
Krolia had just destroyed that entire foundation, and without it he felt lost. He’d been numbing himself to the pain for so long, and now she was asking him, his mother was asking him to feel again. For her love, yes, but also the hurt.
He didn’t know if he could do it.
With a soft repetition of his name, Krolia came around the edge of the fire to sit beside him, wrapping an arm around his shoulders. The wolf rested his head on Keith’s knee, whining low in his throat like he could tell something was wrong, but Keith was having trouble noticing either.
In his ear Krolia was still talking. Repeating the same phrase over and over, I love you I love you I love you, like a prayer to a god she’d forgotten she believed in. With no other option he could see Keith sank into her.
Did he believe her? No. Maybe. Not entirely. But, for the first time in a long time, there was another voice in his head aside from the poisonous one-- one that ever so quietly suggested hope.
Maybe she was telling the truth. Maybe he could have a purpose besides dying. Maybe, one day, he could be… well, not happy, probably. He would settle for content. Or even just not miserable.
Was maybe enough? He wasn’t sure, but…