Keith tapped a pattern against the wall with his fingers, restless. With an impatient huff he rolled onto his other side and kicked the blanket off of his body, the fibers prickling against his bare legs, and glared into the shadowed interior of his bunk.
On nights like these he really wished he was back on earth, where such miraculous drugs as Benadryl existed. This was the third night in a row he had to struggle for hours to fall asleep, and he was so freakin’ over it.
After a few more minutes of frustrated thinking he flopped onto his back. Before all of this, back on Earth, he could’ve gotten up and went stargazing, or driven around on his hover, or buried himself in research until his eyes cemented themselves closed. But here the Alteans were so strict about the Paladins getting enough sleep, and so was Shiro-- if he got caught out of bed he’d be in for a hell of a lecture.
So he was trapped.
A chill raced over his skin, making Keith grit his teeth as he fumbled for his blanket. He had his eyes closed, trying to trick his body into dozing, but he couldn’t find his blanket solely by feeling and was forced to open them again.
His breath caught.
There was a shadow at the end of his bed. Of course, the room was full of shadows, strangely shaped by unfamiliar Altean furniture, and Keith hadn’t been afraid of dark lumps in his vision since he was ten years old.
But this one… he could’ve sworn it wasn’t there before.
It was tall and thin, nearly reaching the ceiling, a shade darker than the blackness around it. Something in it shifted and something gleamed-- teeth, needle sharp, in a slowly widening maw.
Keith’s heart pounded in his chest. It probably wasn’t real, it might be his brain, tired of staring at nothing, or maybe he had succeeded at falling asleep and he was dreaming, but all the same his veins were filling with chilly adrenaline.
The shadow moved again. At the foot of his bed the creature’s eyes opened.
For a split second he saw blue; violent blue, shining like lasers and burning like hellfire. Then, suddenly, he was fast asleep, eyes slamming shut without his permission, and he was falling straight into the arms of a nightmare.
He woke when he fell out of his bunk and hit the floor with an ear shattering clang. The Castle had progressed into the day cycle, that was obvious from the lights, but Keith was still shaking and the room was blurred.
That was probably the worst nightmare he’d ever had. Shiro was torn limb from limb by Sendak in awful, bloody detail. Red disintegrated, ashes sliding through his fingers. Earth burned, the Castle crashed, bodies everywhere, both ones he recognized and ones he didn’t, then a door closing in his face and an all too familiar voice saying it was all his fault.
“Fuck,” he whispered to the air, if only for the comfort of sound. Still on the floor he pulled his knees to his chest and huddled behind them, trying to catch his breath.
He couldn’t hear any of the others yet. It was still early-- he’d have time to come down before facing anyone.
“It wasn’t real,” he murmured. Stupid and childish, he knew, but the only comfort he could give himself in times like these. “It wasn’t real.”
The shadow creature too (he remembered with a shudder) wasn’t real. Just the beginning of the nightmare.
Slowly, Keith began to calm. As the fear leaked out, exhaustion sank in, until he felt heavier than lead. But it couldn’t be helped. He was a Paladin now. He had responsibilities.
So, after five more minutes of allowing himself to chill out, he got to his feet.
Breakfast was the same as always. Everyone was tired and grouchy, so Keith didn’t think his heavy eyes would be noticeable. Alas, he was wrong.
“You ok, Keith?” Shiro asked about halfway through the meal. “You seem tired.”
For a moment Keith was tempted to snap at Shiro, something about how he never slept, either, but managed to hold it back.
“Didn’t sleep well,” he grunted, stabbing his fork into the goo. “It’s whatever.”
Shiro made a sympathetic face. Lance said something snarky that made Hunk laugh, but Keith didn’t process the words. Today was gonna be a hard one, he could tell that already, and he would need every scrap of energy he had left to face it.
As expected, the day was long and hard. Everyone turned in early that night, even the Alteans, and as Keith stumbled from Red’s hangar towards his bunk, all he could think about was his mattress.
Even so, when he reached the door he paused, an inexplicable stirring of dread in his chest.
Stop it, he told himself sternly. You’re not a little kid, afraid of the dark.
And to prove it, he put his shoulders back and marched inside.
The room was dark, but a comforting dark, not a threatening one. That made it easier for him to change out of his armor and into his pajamas, and as he crawled under the covers, his only emotion was relief.
Keith lay there, eyes closed, the quiet thrumming around him like a living thing. Sleep felt like it was coming easier tonight, thank God, and he was beginning to drift off when his arms prickled with goosebumps.
Bunching his blanket under his chin, he gritted his teeth and didn’t open his eyes. He wasn’t going to check for monsters, for fuck’s sake. There was nothing there. It was just a bad dream.
He held on to that resolution for approximately ten seconds before giving in and slitting his eyes open. What he saw made his heart leap into his throat.
It was back. Looming at the foot of his bed, teeth bared. As Keith stared in confused horror, its blue eyes opened.
Once more he was dragged into immediate sleep, unable to stop it no matter how hard he tried.
At least I didn’t fall out of bed this time.
Once again his sleep had been far from restful, full of so many terrible images he felt like he couldn’t even process them in his waking mind. All he knew for sure was how he felt now-- shaking and scared.
Get it together, Kogane.
With an anxious gulp he clenched his fists, trying to ground himself, only for his wrists to give an indignant throb in return. When he looked down to investigate the source of the pain, his mouth went dry.
On each of his wrists, right over the veins, were two red marks. Large dots, like someone had carefully drawn circles on him with Sharpie while he slept.
Swallowing hard again he prodded at the marks with his thumb, only to immediately suck in a pained breath.
He took a deep breath to calm himself before forcing himself out of bed. It was going to be another tiring day, but there was nothing for it. If Shiro could make it through despite nightmares and troubled sleep, so could he.
When he dressed he took special care to make sure his jacket sleeves and gloves covered his wrists. Maybe they were Altean bed bugs, or space mosquitoes. Hell, maybe he’d done it to himself in his sleep, with his nails or his teeth. Whatever it was, it was his problem to deal with and no one else's.
Your problem, he reminded himself as he left the room. Just yours.
That night he went to bed with a game plan. Obviously the creature was part of a dream, but whenever he saw it, it didn’t feel like a dream. He still felt like he had control.
So maybe he did. Maybe he could escape the creature. Maybe he could fight back.
Tonight, as with every night, he slept with his knife beneath his pillow, but this time he lay on his stomach, wrapped a hand around the hilt, and waited.
This time, when the chill rolled in, he was ready. The moment he felt the hair on his arms begin to rise he tensed, drew the blade from its sheath, tossed the blanket off of him, and leapt.
The creature was there, as Keith had expected, in the same spot as always. It didn’t so much as twitch at Keith’s lunge, and the reason why quickly became clear: the blade whiffed right through it like so much air.
He hit the floor hard, but managed to turn the impact into a roll and came up on one knee.
The shadow turned towards him, rippling, darkness like tendrils writhing over the floor. Somehow, even in the dark room its teeth gleamed.
He didn’t have time to acknowledge the twist of fear in his gut. The creature seemed to be shifting again; he had to do something before its eyes opened.
Scrambling to his feet, he made a break for the door. He didn’t see the blue eyes this time. Just the door, and the dim light of the hall beneath it, then everything went black.
He woke with an uncomfortable groan. His left temple was throbbing in time with his wrists, and every muscle in his body was sore, like he’d spent the night on the floor.
Then Keith rolled over, peeled open his eyes, and realized he had spent the night on the floor.
Dizzy, and a little bit nauseous, he levered himself upright. The blanket was still sprawled on the floor a few feet from him, and his knife lay beside the door, the hilt slightly sticking out beneath it.
A sudden knock on that door nearly made him jump out of his skin.
“Keith,” it was Hunk’s voice, “Are you up? You’re missing breakfast.”
“C-coming,” Keith called, cringing at the tremble in his voice. Getting to his feet felt like hauling a house up a hill, but somehow he managed, and trudged into the bathroom.
Looking in the mirror made him flinch. He looked awful-- hair sticking up in a million places, cheeks too pale, bags under his eyes like bruises, and an actual bruise darkening on his temple.
He scrambled to make himself somewhat presentable. Once his hair had been flattened it covered most of the bruise, but short of busting into Lance’s room for some of his magic creams, he couldn’t do anything about his sallow complexion.
So, after scooping up his knife, Keith resigned himself to the inevitable questions and went to breakfast.
The others were almost done eating by the time he got to the dining room. Everyone seemed to be engaged in conversation, so he almost hoped he could slip in unnoticed, but it was not to be.
“Woah, Mullet,” Lance exclaimed, freezing Keith in his tracks. “You look awful.”
“Gee, thanks,” he responded acidly. His head hurt and he really didn’t want to deal with Lance’s bullshit, but unfortunately the interaction got Shiro’s attention.
His face took on that concerned expression he did so well. “Keith, you look sick.”
Keith grunted in reply, slouching into a random seat and thumping down his bowl of food goo.
Honestly he wasn’t hungry, the nausea still lingering, but he didn’t want Shiro to freak out. So he shoved a spoonful into his mouth and forced it down.
“‘M fine. Just tired.”
But Shiro’s expression didn’t waver a bit. Instead he set down his own utensil and focused even more attention onto Keith, which is the exact opposite of what he’d wanted.
“Still having trouble sleeping?”
He just shrugged and focused on keeping his goo down. It required a surprising amount of concentration, so he didn’t necessarily notice if his words were coherent or not.
“‘S fine. It’ll go away.” He didn’t lift his eyes from his bowl, but he could predict how the others would be exchanging confused looks over his head.
“Have you talked to Coran?” asked Pidge through a mouthful of food. “Maybe he can give you something.”
Keith gave an irritated shake of his head. He was mad; mad at them for talking so much when he was trying to think, mad at his brain for betraying him, mad at the food goo for being so damn inedible.
“It’s fine.” Technically he was right. He was sleeping. He just wasn’t feeling rested-- and even Alteans didn’t have magic nightmare destroying pills.
Thankfully, either because of his tone or because they were just annoyed with his stubbornness, the others dropped the subject, leaving Keith to choke down the rest of his breakfast in blissful silence.
Training that day was harder than it had ever been. Keith’s body was a lead weight that dragged and slowed his reaction time, resulting in even more bruises from the gladiator and the other Paladins. His wrists were swollen and achey and holding his bayard was painful. But what was the worst was knowing Shiro was watching him, and the effort of trying to hold up underneath his gaze.
When they were finally allowed to go to the lounge for post-training cool down, Keith was relieved. For a moment he gave in to his exhaustion and collapsed onto the sofa on his back, throwing one gauntlented arm over his eyes to block the lights and sinking into the cushions.
The others’ voices buzzed around him. Normally an annoying sound, today it was almost soothing, and before long Keith felt himself beginning to drift off.
He didn’t try to fight it. Maybe, if others were around, the nightmares wouldn’t come. But before he could make it all the way to slumber someone was shaking his shoulder, trying to rouse him.
“Keith,” said Shiro’s voice in his ear, even as Keith tried to bat him off. “You should probably go to your room, bud.”
“Nooooo,” Keith groaned.
“Oh really?” Shiro’s tone held a tinge of amusement as Keith rolled over to face into the cushions. “Why not?”
“Don’t wanna.” Keith was still more than half in a doze. He wasn’t entirely sure what he was saying. “There’s something in there. In the dark.”
Silence. It took him more than thirty seconds to realize what he’d said, and by the time he did it was too late.
“Awwwwww,” Lance said in a patronizing drawl. “Is the big bad Red Paladin scared of the dark?”
Shiro scolded him, but Keith was already levering himself upright, a scowl twisting his lips and flames licking over his face.
Why did he say that? It’s not real! Stupid, stupid!
“Keith?” Ugh, there was Shiro’s stupid concerned face again. “What do you mean by that?”
“Nothing. Never mind.” Roughly he shoved Shiro’s hand off of him and got to his feet. For a moment he nearly fell, all of his tired muscles refusing to cooperate, but he kept his balance and headed for the lounge door.
“I said never mind!” The words were a vicious snap that left the room in silent shock. Keith took the opportunity to scurry out the door, and as it closed behind him he closed his eyes with it, covering the unexpected burn of tears.
God, he just wanted to sleep.
But even as he turned towards his bunk, he knew that wasn’t going to happen.
For the next few days the other Paladins handled him with kid gloves, but that didn’t stop Keith’s temper from getting ever shorter. He felt bad-- it wasn’t them he was mad at, but he just couldn’t cope.
He tried running. He tried hiding. He tried fighting. Nothing worked. He just wound up knocked out on the floor of his room, or the training deck, or the lounge, or wherever he tried to find solace, and the nightmares came regardless. Always with the creature of shadow standing over him with its blazing blue eyes.
This couldn’t go on much longer. He didn’t know if the creature itself could kill him (which it couldn’t because it’s not real dumbass), but his exhaustion was compounding by the day. Sooner or later it was going to make him fuck up in battle. Get him hurt, or killed, or one of the others hurt or killed, and if it was the latter Keith was just as likely to step out the airlock himself just to make it all stop.
Finally, the other denizens of the Castle had enough. Six days after the first appearance of the creature, nine since this spell of rough sleeping had begun, he was called into the lounge for a Discussion.
When he arrived he found Shiro waiting for him, as expected, accompanied by Pidge and, surprisingly, Allura and Coran. Lance and Hunk were absent, which Keith appreciated. He’d been feeling shaky and sick and unstable for a while now, if he had to listen to Lance snark at him he’d probably cry, or scream, or vomit, or all three.
“Thank you for coming, Keith,” said Allura rather primly when he arrived.
“We’re not angry at you,” Shiro rushed to reassure. Normally the gesture would be appreciated, but right now Keith was too tired to even feel anxious. “You’re not in trouble. We’re just worried about you.”
For the moment Keith chose to say nothing. He shuffled over to the sofa and tucked himself into one of the corners, holding his aching wrists close to his middle. He had bandages wrapped around them, but that did little for the pain.
Pidge didn’t beat about the bush. “We know something’s wrong,” she said, blunt as ever, “and we’re gonna help you. You just need to talk to us.”
Keith didn’t fight it. The moment he’d received the ping asking him to come down, he knew he wouldn’t be able to get away without saying anything. So, with a sigh that turned into an eye-watering yawn, he let himself speak.
“I’ve been having nightmares.” His speech felt slower than usual. Even blinking seemed to take three seconds, at least. Judging by the looks on their faces, they all noticed. “I’m sleeping, but it doesn’t feel like I am. Not really anything you can do about it.”
Shiro sat forward, leaning his elbows on his knees. Keith shivered-- he’d been feeling cold, lately-- and wished he was brave enough to ask for a hug.
“Keith, a few days ago you said there was something in your room. What did you mean?”
He gave a listless shrug. “Every night the dreams start the same. A shadow in my room, with blue eyes.” He frowned at himself. “Kid stuff.”
Allura’s brow furrowed in confusion, but Coran merely sat back, arms propped leisurely behind his head.
“Well, I’ve certainly heard nothing about any such creature.”
Of course, none of them had been expecting him to.
“Maybe it’s sleep paralysis,” Pidge suggested. Keith just shrugged again. He didn’t bother mentioning how he could still move when it happened or showing them the wounds on his wrists. They would say the same thing he already knew-- that he was doing it to himself in his sleep. That it was nothing. That it was all in his head.
They discussed possible explanations for a few minutes. Keith zoned out, letting their voices wash over him without letting any of the words into his brain. He tucked his knees up, trying to keep his body heat closer to him, and after a few seconds of summoning the energy, spoke up again.
“Look, guys. I appreciate the concern. But there’s nothing you can do about it. All we can do is wait for it to pass, right?”
Allura and Coran exchanged a guilty glance, but they didn’t need to feel guilty about it. It was fine. Keith had accepted it. He dragged his eyes over to Shiro, only to be met with that same worried expression he’d been getting for days.
“Can I go now? I wanted to spend time with Red before lights out.”
Though clearly still apprehensive, Shiro gave him a nod, allowing Keith to rise and leave. He just hoped Shiro wouldn’t notice how he reached out for the wall to support his weight.
Shiro paced across his bunk, wall to wall.
It was well into the night cycle. By now everyone should be asleep, or at least attempting to be, himself included. But he couldn’t seem to settle down.
Something was wrong with Keith; it was blindingly obvious. Whether it was a physical illness or psychosomatic or something entirely different, his little brother was suffering, and he couldn’t just let it continue without doing something.
Maybe he could offer to share a room or bed with him. Maybe companionship would stave off the nightmares, or at least Shiro could wake him up if he started having one. The idea had occurred to him earlier but he hadn’t brought it up, not wanting to make Keith uncomfortable.
But now was as good a time as ever, right? In the past, Keith had been notorious for avoiding sleep, even if he was tired. Maybe he wasn’t asleep yet.
Shiro broke out of his pacing and headed for the door before he could talk himself out of it. With how volatile Keith’s temper had been lately he might get mad at him for being overprotective or what have you, but he had to try. He wouldn’t be able to rest himself until he knew he tried.
The halls of the Castle were dark and quiet. As they were meant to be after lights out, but still Shiro felt a bit of a shudder run down his spine. The last time it had been like this was after Sendak’s attack, when it was just him to protect everyone. Not a pleasant memory.
He kept his knock light when he reached Keith’s door. Just a few soft taps, followed by a murmur.
“Keith? Are you awake?”
No response. Shiro knocked once more, slightly louder, but still he couldn’t hear any indication that Keith was stirring in the room beyond. He bit his lip.
At this point the course of action should’ve been to go to bed and talk to Keith in the morning. But he’d always been protective over Keith-- sometimes to Keith’s chagrin, but always out of love. That same protectiveness now welled up in his chest, urging him to do something, anything, to ensure that he was safe.
Just a quick peek, he decided, already reaching for the door control. Just to make sure he’s alright.
His metal fingers clinked quietly against the glass control panel as he pressed the button. There was a barely audible whir, a hiss as the door retreated into its alcove, and Shiro peered into the darkness of the room.
His heart stopped.
Keith was flat on the mattress, prone on his back. Dead asleep, or possibly unconscious, and even in the low light filtering in from the hallway it was clear how distressingly pale his skin was, practically grey.
And draped over him, latched onto one of his bare wrists, was a mass of congealed shadow.
It jerked as the light fell over it. There wasn’t really a front or a back to the thing, but something twisted and suddenly it had a mouth pointed in his direction, long, needle-like teeth shining menacingly at him.
Shiro didn’t think. The glow of his arm ignited the room and he launched himself at the creature, poised to strike.
His swing went right through it. At first he thought it hadn’t been affected at all, then the shadow writhed and dissipated, vanishing into the air, and Shiro didn’t bother trying to figure out where it had gone. That wasn’t his priority.
His knees ached when they hit the floor. Shiro didn’t notice. He was already reaching out for Keith with his human hand, feeling for a pulse, and his stomach plummeted into his feet at the feel of Keith’s skin. Cold and clammy.
But before he could despair he felt a faint thrum under his fingertips, and relief nearly sent his head spinning. Keith was alive.
The thought kicked him into high gear. Sliding his human arm under Keith’s knees and the metal under his shoulders, he hoisted Keith into the air, his throat tightening when he felt his head loll lifelessly against Shiro’s collarbone.
“You’re gonna be ok,” he whispered hoarsely to no one in particular as he left the room. He moved at a half jog, the quickest pace he could manage, wary of the creature returning, and headed for the infirmary.
Shiro comforted himself with the feeling of Keith’s shallow breathing as they went. God, he knew something was wrong, he knew it. Why did he wait this long to do something about it? If Keith was hurt from this, he would never--
Arriving at the infirmary interrupted the thought. As hastily as he could Shiro deposited Keith onto one of the cots, sparing a moment to lay his head down gently and smooth his hair out of his eyes, before rushing for the intercom on the wall. He needed help, now.
By the time the Alteans arrived Shiro was back at Keith’s side, holding his hand. It was impossible not to notice the four lurid red wounds on his wrists, and mentally Shiro was running every moment of the last week through his head-- every smothered wince, every self-conscious tug at his gloves. The signs had all been there, plain as day. How had Shiro missed it?
“What’s happened?” Allura demanded the moment she set foot in the room. Shiro heard their footsteps approaching, Allura’s softer than usual without her heels, but he didn’t dare take his eyes from Keith. Not for a second.
“I saw it,” he blurted out. He didn’t have the mental real estate to be ashamed of the tremble in his voice. “The monster Keith told us about. It’s real. It wasn’t a dream.”
A hand landed on his shoulder. The grip said it was Coran.
“Tell us everything, lad. Quickly.”
Shiro rattled off the tale, trying his best to be coherent. The two of them listened without a word, and the moment he finished Coran had released him and was rushing to the central console. Allura remained still at his side, studying Keith just as intently as he was.
For several terrifying minutes absolutely nothing happened. Coran was scrolling through something and muttering to himself, Allura just looked frustrated, fisting her hands into her nightgown, and Shiro watched Keith’s chest rise and fall, praying it wouldn’t stop.
“Quiznack!” Coran eventually shouted, making Shiro nearly jump out of his skin. When he glanced over his shoulder, he found Coran looking immensely frustrated, not so much stroking his mustache as he was just pulling on it. “I can’t find any mention of a creature like that in any of our databases.”
Shiro would admit it. At that moment, he despaired. Then Allura let out a sharp gasp.
“Because we’re looking in the wrong place!”
Shiro watched in confusion as Allura suddenly ran from the room. Coran hesitated only for an instant before following. Shiro froze for longer. He didn’t want to leave Keith alone, but Allura seemed to know what was going on, and wherever she was going maybe she could find something to help?
There was no right answer. With a quick gulp and a whispered apology, Shiro stood and followed the Alteans.
He followed the sound of Allura’s voice into her quarters. She was standing in front of a bookshelf, thumbing rapidly through a worn tome, murmuring under her breath.
“I thought it sounded familiar, but it had been so long, and I couldn’t remember, it was driving me mad-- aha!” With that triumphant exclamation the Princess shoved the open book under Coran’s nose. Shiro sidled behind and peered over his shoulder.
It… looked like a children's story book. All in Altean, so Shiro couldn’t read it, but the script was fancy and the sentences looked simple. His eyes darted to the page opposite and his breath caught.
There was an illustration. A tall, thin shadow; a jaw full of needle teeth; eyes like blue flames.
“That’s it,” he croaked, “that’s what I saw in Keith’s room.”
“It’s a vasta.” Allura sounded equal parts relieved and stressed. “It’s a legend, a tale told to scare children. I never thought they were real, but…”
Coran just stared at the page, astounded, as Allura continued her explanation.
“The stories said that they form in dark places full of forgotten memories, and they prey upon people while they sleep, draining their life force night by night until the victim succumbs. It must’ve formed in the Castle while Coran and I were in cryosleep, and all of you coming here must have awoken it and drawn it out.”
Shiro tried to swallow and failed. His mouth was too dry. Something about the vasta’s eyes chilled him to the core.
“How do we kill it?” he managed to ask.
Just as a scream echoed through the halls.
Lance prided himself on his sleep routine. Every night he washed his face, put on his headphones, and was under the covers no later than half an hour after entering his room.
But tonight that schedule had been altered a bit. Hunk had kept him in his room for a while, talking through an engineering problem while Lance sat and nodded and pretended to understand until Hunk solved it. Then he discovered Pidge passed out over her laptop in the dining room again and had to wrangle her into bed before she got lectured by the Princess. By the time he made it to his own bunk it was well past the time he normally slept at.
Well, one late night wouldn’t kill him. He performed his routine, plugged his headphones into the little music player Pidge had gotten him, and climbed into bed, ready to settle down for a good night’s rest.
He never slept with the room entirely dark. He always kept it lit up a soothing blue, and he didn’t always sleep with the eye mask on, since it tended to slide all over the place during the night. So, when the light above him dimmed on the other side of his eyelids, he noticed.
Lance’s heart nearly jumped out of his chest when he opened his eyes. Keith, of all people, was in his bedroom, standing at the foot of Lance’s bed. Somehow he’d managed to slip in without Lance noticing.
“Jesus, man!” he shouted, unheeding of the volume as he sat up and pulled the headphones off. “You nearly gave me a heart attack! What the heck are you doing in here, anyway?”
Keith didn’t answer. He just stood there, unmoving, his chin tipped towards the floor and his mussed hair covering his eyes.
Lance ground his teeth in irritation and leaned forward a bit to snap his fingers before Keith’s face. “Uh, hello? Anyone in there? I asked you what you’re doing in my room.”
Keith was still for another second or two. Then, slowly, he tilted his chin up until his mouth was visible. It opened, and-- woah. Those were so not Keith’s regular teeth. These ones were pointed and very very sharp looking and a little bit scary--
Actually, not a little bit. Lance could admit it: when he saw that, he screamed like a little girl and fell out of bed so hard he bruised his ass.
After that adrenaline kicked in. He didn’t even look where he was running. He just ran, blindly and screaming through the halls, and really could you blame him because Jesus Christ Keith was fucking haunted--
He ran forehead first right into Shiro’s chest. Bouncing right off, he once again fell flat on his ass on the floor. He didn’t wait for Shiro to ask what was wrong, the second he caught his breath he started babbling.
“Keith has demon teeth!” he squealed, pointing back down the hall with a trembling hand. “Keith was gonna eat me, I swear to God--!”
Shiro charged past him, heading towards Lance’s room. A moment later he was followed by Coran and then, surprisingly, Princess Allura. All of them looked harried and afraid, and they left Lance there in the hall, sitting in the middle of the floor in his robe and Blue Lion slippers, headphones haphazardly hanging from around his neck.
He wasn’t sure what to do from there. Stay where he was? Go find Hunk and Pidge and warn them that Keith was possessed? Get his armor and his bayard?
Dimly, he heard Shiro’s voice echo down the hall.
“What do we do?” It was faint, but Lance thought he sounded winded.
“Light!” answered Allura, even more quietly. “We need light-- get him to the hangar!”
Well, now he knew what to do. He wasn’t going to like doing it, but what else was new? So, with a muttered curse, and after tripping on the edge of his robe, he climbed to his feet and returned the way he’d come.
He found them just outside the hangar door. Coran was punching in the code as quickly as he could, all while Shiro and Allura struggled to hold on to a writhing Keith. Or, rather, a writhing whatever-the-hell-was-in-Keith.
After Sendak’s attack, Lance had thought he was going to be immune to whatever space had to throw at him. Clearly he was wrong, as the scene before him was utterly terrifying.
Keith’s jaw was stretched open wide wide wide, too wide, inhumanly wide, and the spear-like teeth inside only seemed to be growing longer as his jaw moved to accommodate them. His skin had gone gray like ash, and maybe he was just seeing things but Lance could’ve sworn he saw little gray specks darting around in the air above his head. He had his feet planted on the floor, pulling against Shiro and Allura, and even the Princess with her Altean strength looked like she was straining to keep hold of him.
Lance felt like he was in a horror movie. Or a nightmare. Or both. Castle on Lion Street.
Even so, when Coran finally got the door open, Lance planted his back against it to keep the doorway open, and Shiro and Allura hauled Keith inside.
The second the light touched him Keith started screeching. But it didn’t sound like Keith-- it was a discordant mess of a sound that had Lance slamming his palms over his ears, head ringing. He could almost hear Keith’s voice underneath, but layered on top was some sort of high pitched keening and the roar of deafening radio static and maybe a hiss?
Despite the howling, Lance forced his eyes back open. Shiro and Allura, with extra assistance from Coran, had Keith pinned to the floor in front of the Red Lion. His head was thrown back as he screamed, and something was rising from him-- something grey, leaking out of him in tendrils-- it looked like smoke, like someone had set him on fire.
The darkness gathered above him, coalescing into a formless blob. All of them stared at it with wide eyes, and Lance found himself wondering hysterically if Allura and Shiro even knew what they were doing or if they were all going to die.
Then, metal joints creaking even louder than the unholy sound coming from Keith’s mouth, the Red Lion straightened up. Eyes gleaming a triumphant gold, she tilted her head to the ceiling and roared until Lance could feel the vibrations in his bones.
The shadow in the air squirmed and twisted in on itself. Later Lance would recall it as looking like a hagfish covering itself in putrid slime, but for now all he could do was stare, open-mouthed, as the darkness tore itself to pieces.
The screaming stopped. Keith went limp. Allura fell back onto her hands, exhausted, and Coran knelt beside her with a proud grin. Shiro gathered Keith’s body to his chest and rocked forward and back, forward and back, and paused for a moment to brush Keith’s hair from his face.
And all Lance could do was stand, and stare, and say, “What the fuck?”
The white glow around Allura was beautiful, but still Shiro watched with apprehension, pacing around the cot where the Princess was perched beside Keith’s body.
After a few more seconds she sighed. The glow faded and she opened her eyes, a hint of magic still hiding in the pupils. Shiro was more concerned with the fact that Keith was still unconscious.
“Why hasn’t he woken up?”
Allura ran a tired hand through her hair. They were all exhausted after the scene in the hangar, but Shiro couldn’t let go of the adrenaline. Not until he knew for sure that it was all over.
“I can’t give it back all at once,” she explained with exaggerated patience. “He’s not a Balmera-- if I put all the life force he’s missing back at the same time, he’d implode.”
Shiro winced, and Allura gentled her tone.
“He’ll be alright, Shiro. Just a few days of treatments. Nothing happened to him that we can’t fix.”
Shiro clenched his fists and muttered, “I hope so.”
Off to the side, there was the sound of a door opening before Hunk’s voice reached his ears.
“Are you sure this will work, Coran?” he was asking rather nervously as the group walked in, turning the flashlight over and over in his hands. “You guys needed all the light in the hangar to kill the last one, what if these aren’t enough?”
“The vasta from before was stronger due to feeding on Keith’s life force,” Coran replied as he tested the switch on his own flashlight. “Any others that have formed in the Castle should be weak and easily defeated.”
“I cannot believe we’re going freakin’ ghost hunting,” Pidge grouched.
“Mourn me if I die, Princess,” said Lance, striking a pose with his own light. It was dim, but still Shiro felt a warmth grow in his chest. No one was dead, Keith was going to be alright, and the sun had risen (metaphorically, of course).
The nightmare was over.
For the first time in a long time, Keith actually felt like he’d slept. Not for very long, nor very soundly, but compared to how the last week had gone feeling even the tiniest bit rested was utter bliss.
He was wrapped in something warm. Laying on something soft. A gentle hand was running through his hair. Almost enough to put him back to sleep, but he fought it. He needed to know what was going on, first.
When he got his eyes open the first thing he noticed was that he wasn’t in his room. He was in the infirmary, lying on one of the cots swaddled in a thick blanket that was softer than wool, and Shiro was sitting beside him.
“Hey,” Shiro said with a small smile. “You’re awake.”
“Mhm.” He couldn’t say much else-- his throat felt dry and his brain hadn’t woken all the way up yet, but he managed a slurred, “Wha’ happened?”
“Long story.” Shiro’s fingers twitched, just a bit, before returning to their rhythm. “But to sum up-- that creature you said you were seeing. It wasn’t a dream.”
Keith frowned. “Huh?”
Shiro chuckled softly. He could probably see Keith’s eyelids already fighting to close again.
“We’ll talk about it later. For now just focus on resting. You need it.”
As he drifted off, Keith couldn’t help but agree.