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The Cold Embrace of Starlight

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Keith sat on a round chair at a round table in a round room, arms folded and feet flat.  They, Voltron, were negotiating with the leaders of yet another planet; tall, thin creatures that shared a striking resemblance with the damselflies he used to see flitting about on earth, and who apparently had a thing for circles.

Luckily for these aliens, their planet was nearly, if not entirely, tidally locked, the days and nights lasting for thousands of earth years.  This left a relatively small belt of habitable land around the edges of their planet and not nearly enough resources to be worth harassing. As the sunlight on the horizon slowly moved away over the decades, their civilization would follow, building new cities on the burning edges of the light and abandoning the old ones to the icy darkness creeping in from behind.  As luck would have it, they seemed eager to help with the war

He clenched his jaw, forcing himself to breathe evenly.  This was all good and necessary, but Shiro was still out there, alone, and Keith?  Keith was just sitting in the same induction meeting for the seventh time that phoeb.  It took everything he had not to run off by himself to search, but he couldn’t just abandon the others, as much as he wanted to find Shiro.   He glanced around the table, eyes landing on Pidge, who raised an eyebrow at the attention.

Guilt tangled with the impatience in Keith’s gut.  He’d been so angry at Pidge when she’d tried to run off to find her family, abandoning the whole universe in exchange for a handful of people.

Now there were nights when Keith stared into the dark and considered doing it for just one.

“Excellent!”  Allura clasped her hands, smiling at the room in general.  Lance and Hunk made silent guitar motions to each other, and a few of the aliens turned to stare, one quietly attempting to replicate the motion with its insectoid limbs (to Lance’s extreme delight).

“As promised, a communication device will be placed in your care.  Should you ever require aid, Voltron will answer your call, and should Voltron require aid, we will ask for the same in turn.”

That was his cue.  Keith reached for the pouch on his belt, and felt his stomach drop all the way down to his toes, even as the aliens stood around him, rustling their long prismatic wings in what must have been their equivalent to clapping.  It wasn’t there. He didn’t have the communicator in his pouch. 

It was his one job in these meetings, and he’d gone and left it on the black lion.

“Keith?”  Allura was smiling at him expectantly. He shook his head with a grimace.  He didn’t have it.

“We’ll give you the communicator later,”  Lance's voice cut above the rustling, “no need for it when Voltron is already here with you!”

Allura caught on, nodding, and Lance shot a wink at Keith as he turned to speak with one of the diplomats.  Keith deflated.

This was exactly why they needed to find Shiro.

Keith stood, making his way toward the exit.  At least this was something he could fix, efficiently and immediately.  Pidge called his name from somewhere behind him, but he continued forward, raising one hand in farewell.  He needed to get out of that room. She would probably be annoyed later, but she’d understand.

Three turns later found him inside an open exit port.  He was met with a blast of winter wind, snowflakes biting into his face with icy teeth. He slid his helmet on with a click before stepping out into the snow.  It wasn’t insulated in the way a snowsuit would be, but if a paladin suit could take on the hot and cold and vacuum of infinite space all at once, it could get him one kilometer through a snowstorm.

He walked.

The rounded shapes of buildings stood tall around him as he walked, silent observers to his passing.  This city’s main function was in harvesting the abundant ice, which would then be shipped to the hot edges of their civilization, allowing for crops to grow long before they should on the scorching outer edges.  This would continue until the next city was close enough to be used for the ice harvest, at which point this one would be left to the long dark, abandoned for warmer climes.

Left behind.

The storm was far worse than when they’d landed, obscuring the dwindling light from the horizon and leaving Keith to rely heavily on his helmet display.  He could feel the snow crunching under his armored boots, but the sound never reached his ears. Snowstorms had a way of muffling everything out until he could almost believe he was the last person left in the universe.  That or a ghost, wandering among the buildings and vehicles that were draped in sheets of white like the furniture in some abandoned house.

The edge of the city came in the form of a wall, tall and thick to shade from intense sun and then later keep the ever shifting dunes of snow at bay.  Its presence was loud in the quiet of the snow, and Keith paused for a moment to acknowledge it before activating one of the ports and stepping through.

The solid wall of dark white that met him was disorienting.  He almost lost track of gravity in the endless grey, tilting as snowflakes whirled into the teal glow of his suit before darting away into obscurity.

He walked.

The first stretch was easy, but once he was out of the lee of the wall, things became more difficult.  The wind whipped back and forth, pushing him forward one moment and to the side in the next. Snowdrifts piled haphazardly across his path, and he sank into the snow when he tried to walk over them.

Walking through it all was a long, slow, and surprisingly intense workout.  Beads of sweat dripped down his back before soaking into his undersuit, joining countless others.  He angled his mouth and tried to blow the hair away from his forehead where it stuck to his skin and prickled uncomfortably.  

It didn’t budge.  He swallowed the urge to remove the helmet and wipe it away.

He was going to look like a mess when he returned with the communicator.  Lance would probably have something to say about his helmet hair. Lance, who had covered for his mistake at the meeting.  The whole team always had his back, even though his back was the only thing he ever let them see, and he didn’t always quite have theirs when it counted most.

He regretted his sudden departure, shame burning through him.  That wasn’t how a leader should act. Shiro would be disappointed. 

Keith hesitated, turning to check on his progress.  He debated as his display outlined the city walls. He was almost as close to the lions as he was to the city, so it would be a waste to turn back now.  If he walked in a straight line, the lions would be straight ahead and slightly to the right.

He turned back towards the lions, display glitching at the movement. The first twinge of unease flickered in his gut, but he pushed it away.  He wasn’t in danger. He almost reached out to Black, but pulled away at the last second. It was still uncomfortable, this bond he had actively tried to reject.  It was a reminder that Shiro was missing; a reminder of the responsibilities he didn’t want to accept, because accepting them was accepting that Shiro was gone.

He could feel the cold seeping in through the black fabric of his suit, and he shuddered even as he huffed and sweated from exertion.  He needed to keep moving.

He walked.

 

-0-0-0-0-0-

 

He’d run away.  Again. Fighting wouldn’t work, and hiding was too much like being trapped, so he ran.  

He’d planned for everything but the bus being on a different schedule for the weekend, and hadn’t worn more than the light jacket on his back.  His breath puffed in the pre-light of early morning, and he shivered. It started out intermittently, but progressively worsened until it consumed him, teeth clacking and legs shaking uncontrollably against the frozen metal of the bench where he sat.  He hugged his arms to himself as much as possible, trying to force it to stop.  

A homeless man had passed him then, possessions piled in a wagon that whined as it bumped over split concrete.  The man nodded, in greeting or understanding, Keith wasn’t sure. He slowed his trudge to a stop, looking back towards Keith, but not quite meeting his eyes. 

“The sun will rise soon.”  The man mumbled after a moment, nodding sagely as he pointed toward the horizon.  “It’ll rise, if you can wait.”

Keith shook his head at the memory, clenching his jaw to keep his teeth from making so much noise.  He had been cold then, and he was definitely cold now, but the sun wasn’t going to rise, couldn’t rise.  Not here.  He just had to keep moving, even if he couldn’t tell whether or not he was getting further or closer to his Lion, the city, anything.  It was frustrating, and he almost reached out to black again, pulling away just before contact. He didn’t want help, didn’t need help.  He could do this himself.  He always had. He stopped, looking back to where his trail was whipping away in the wind.  Maybe he’d overshot the lions. He grit his teeth and turned around, trudging back through the drifting snow.  The city wall would reorient him if he passed the lions again.

His helmet buzzed, the display flickering again.  That— probably wasn’t good. Maybe the suit wasn’t as suited to snow as he’d assumed. Just his luck.

“Sssshhhhhhhk-eith, wessssshhshshshshhhh—” the comms crackled.

Definitely not good.  He frowned vaguely, huffing with exertion.  

He’d been out of breath, but he shouldn’t have stopped earlier.  The shivering was getting harder to control, shaking him to the core.

Time was lost to him, lost in the barren stretch of eternal grey, just as lost as he could grudgingly admit he’d become.  Lost like Shiro. He had to stop to catch his breath again despite his misgivings, hating the way it echoed in his ears. He could fix this.  He had to.

His could feel his joints creak like tree branches, like an old wagon taking a corner.  The helmet glitched in and out, comm hissing in his ears, display flickering on and off and on and off and on before finally going dark.  Keith didn’t care as much as he should have. It was less annoying this way.

At least wading through the snow seemed to be warming him back up.  The shivering receded, hitting him in little waves that he fought until they'd stopped entirely.  His breath felt almost too warm where it swirled back around from his visor and hit his face. Even the stinging in his fingers had faded.

Something black loomed behind the swarming snow. 

“Finally,” he mumbled, pressing forward. 

To his dismay, the closer he got, the less lion shaped it appeared.  Maybe Black was— laying down in the snow. Did the lions just lay down whenever?  He didn’t know.

He tapped at his visor, misjudging the distance and knocking the helmet much harder than he’d intended, hands numb.  The display flickered back to life for a moment, and he blinked as it outlined an opening between two icy slabs. It was a cave.

Better than nothing

He stumbled forward.  It was dark inside, but he didn’t care.  It was getting much too hot in his suit, like the time his fan had broken and he’d spent the entire week lying on the bare wooden floor.  Even the thought of his t-shirt had been too much in the heat of that Arizona summer. He needed to take off his armor before he suffocated.

He reached for his helmet.  He could take everything off in the cave, protected from the snow and wind, and leave it in a nice pile until he cooled back off. He fumbled with his helmet for a long minute, hands thick and slow.  They felt swollen and weak, like they would after a long climb in the desert. 

He struggled on, frustration mounting, but froze as a growl echoed off the walls around him, causing an entirely different kind of chill to dance up his spine.

Something was in the cave with him.

He turned slowly, lowering his hand toward his belt.  Something moved, something big. His helmet display flickered alongside his heart, and he staggered back as a hulking form materialized seemingly out of the back wall, eyes gleaming and dark.  It growled again, and he might have yelped, but the sound of it was lost to his own ears as every tall tale he’d ever heard about the yeti manifested before him in physical form.  

It was huge.  It was hairy. It was white, and vaguely humanoid, and it was at least three times his height, hunched forward in the near dark.  Though, now that he’d stopped reeling back from his initial shock, it didn’t seem to be doing much more than growling in his general direction.  Maybe— maybe it wouldn’t mind sharing the cave?

Keith stared much longer than he meant to, zoning at the thought of— what had he been thinking about?  He flinched when it growled again, though it still didn’t move.

Huh.

The display flickered, and he swiped at it in frustration, which only grew when his hand bumped off of his helmet with a twinge.  Why did everything hurt so much more when it was cold—?  

—he wasn’t cold though, he was hot?  That was right, his suit felt like a furnace, and he couldn’t stand it another moment, abominable snowman or not.  He pulled and twisted at the helmet, ice cracking and flaking from the edges where helmet met suit.  

The helmet finally came free with a whoosh, and he tossed it to the floor, triumphant.  The creature stopped growling, black eyes glinting as it looked between Keith and the discarded helmet.  Its apparent confusion was the funniest thing he’d witnessed all week.

“Suuurprise,” Keith slurred.  His mouth didn’t seem to be working correctly, tongue slow and infinitely difficult to move the way he wanted it to. “Not— my reeeal— head, hahhahah—“

He pried at the edges of his armor, but his fingers just weren’t working the way they were supposed to, fumbling and sliding over the gaps. Keith grunted in frustration.  Usually the armor came right off. The creature shifted, growling quietly in its corner. Keith looked over to where it had curled in on itself, pulling at— another foot?

He abandoned his fumbling and tripped closer, receiving a deeper growl in response, which he ignored.  The way it hunched forward didn’t seem natural. Something was wrong. A few steps to the left revealed a complete second set of hind legs, not unlike those of a polar bear, one of which was caught in the jaws of a metal trap reminiscent of the bear traps he’d seen back on earth.  It hunched over the injury protectively and watched him with lidless eyes.

“Woah.”  Keith tried to whistle, but no sound came out.  Weird. A polar bear yeti—centaur?—thing. The injury around its foot was matted with something, though he couldn’t exactly make out the color from the faint teal glow of his flickering suit.  

He made eye contact, and while he wasn’t really feeling very much at all at the moment, he could feel the helpless anger in its alien glare, the rage at being trapped like this.  Keith knew that, knew the need to fight and to run. To not be trapped by steel hands and cruelty and expectations that he could never meet.  He felt his lip tremble as he staggered forward, sloppy and slow. He was a defender of the universe, and this creature was clearly in need of his assistance.  At least one of them didn’t have to be trapped.  

He dropped to his knees next to the creature, completely ignoring the threatening noises from above.  He reached for the trap, and the creature pulled away despite its clear size advantage. The chain pulled taut against wherever it was attached to the back wall, eliciting another growl.

Keith growled back, or tried to at least, and scooted slowly toward the injured leg.  He reached out a second time, gingerly feeling along the edges of the trap for buttons or some sort of release mechanism.  His numb fingers didn’t give him much to go on, and he felt his frustration mounting. Plan B, then. Several moments of struggling later, he released his marmora blade from its sheath.  He slid it into the gap in the jaws of the trap, next to the back hinge, and then activated it without further ado.

This had two immediate consequences. 

First, the blade sliced cleanly through the jaw of the trap as it morphed into a sword, severing them from the hinge and allowing them to fall away from the creatures leg.

Second, the creature, either from surprise or pain, flung Keith across the cave, where he landed in a pile of powdery snow that had formed a drift near the entrance.

The creature howled, and Keith struggled to his knees, gasping for the breath that had knocked loose.  The shifting powder fluffed into his eyes and nose with each sluggish swipe of his arm. He wheezed. The air burned.

And then the thing came for him.  He felt it before he saw it, stomping across the cave floor, and he cursed, forcing his stiff limbs to pull him forward in the sad mockery of a desperate scramble.  What had he thought would happen? The thing was probably a predator, all teeth and claws and hungry from being trapped like this for who knows how long, and he’d just let it free.  Stupid stupid stupid !

Keith staggered to his feet, leaning forward to get some momentum, but the snow was impossible to run through, fine powder up past his knees.  He didn’t get far before the creature bowled him over a second time, and he cried out as something smacked into his face. He tried to get to his feet again, reaching for his bayard, but then the thing had him by the ankle.  

It was dragging him back to the cave, he realized; back into its lair.  He tried kicking out, tried grasping for a handhold, bucking and twisting as much as he could manage, but the thing had a grip of steel, never letting up as it dragged him through the burning snow. 

His jet pack scraped loudly, echoing as it dragged across the cave floor like an old snow shovel.  He twisted again, to no avail. Why couldn’t he just move ?  Everything was so slow, like he was running through deep water.  He tried for his bayard again, but the creature knocked his hand away, leaning in towards his head.  He shielded with his arms instinctively, kicking out as he felt the creatures hot breath hit his face.

Something heavy settled over his legs, and panic flared up anew.  The thing had his legs pinned. He was trapped, and nothing was worse than being trapped.  That was why he always fought, fought and then ran ran ran away when he couldn’t fight. Anything was better than nothing, and being trapped, Keith knew, was the worst kind of nothing, because you didn’t get to choose it.

Then it started pulling at the edges of his armor, large furry hands feeling and prying along the seam he’d been trying to release earlier.  He screamed then, full of rage and fear and desperation. He bucked, back arching in an attempt to dislodge the creature, but it just kept scrabbling at his armor.  Something clicked, and the plate on his upper leg came loose.  

He grabbed at its hands, wrestling them away, but the creature was much stronger than he was.  It snuffed at his face, eyes glinting as it growled deep and low in the back of its throat, before pulling itself forward.  It pinned his legs down with its one good back leg, two front legs shifting forward to hold Keith’s arms to the cave floor. Its claws extended, anchoring into the icy ground.

And then it resumed, picking and pulling at his armor with its monstrous hands, Keith pulling away in desperation.  Another click, and his breastplate came loose with an icy crackle. The cold air rushed in to fill the empty space, but Keith couldn’t feel it, didn’t register anything beyond the sharp white panic sparking through his brain.  

“Nnno!”  He pled with the creature, with the universe, with anyone who would listen, as another piece of his armor was thrown to the side.  He felt tears pricking at the corners of his eyes, “Please.”

He couldn’t die yet.  The team needed— he had to find— couldn’t leave—

He shook his head back and forth against the ground, straining his arms under the weight pinning them.  A tear burned down the side of his face, leaving a frozen track in its wake. 

The creature had figured out the mechanism that released the armor plates, stripping the armor from his arms before moving on to his other leg.  It reached back, and he barely felt when it removed his boots, tugging and twisting until they slid from his feet.  

He was completely exposed.  Or at least, that’s what he thought, before the creature moved on to the black undersuit.  Keith cried out again, though it was more of a sob than a scream. Even if he escaped somehow, it would be a matter of minutes before he’d freeze, alone in the endless white of the snow.  Keith slammed his head back against the ground. Useless, but it was the only thing he could do. He grit his teeth as the fabric was tugged back and forth, rubbing the skin on the back of his neck. 

He tried bucking again, and the creature huffed at the weak attempt.  Its face lowered towards his own. He tried for a headbut, missing and falling heavily to the icy floor, teeth bared at the creature above him.  

It growled and reached for his neck. He turned to the side, but it caught him easily, fingers finding the edge of the suit and lifting.  The fabric gave way beneath a claw, tearing down its bias with a loud zip and a crackle, and Keith fell back against the ground. He squeezed his eyes shut, tears leaking freely before freezing to the sides of his face as the creature pulled every last bit of fabric from his body.  He couldn’t fight it anymore. He was utterly exhausted.

But, somehow, it wasn’t as cold as he’d expected.  Maybe—

“The —sunnggh?” he slurred, tilting his head towards the caves entrance.  The sun was supposed to rise soon— he was waiting— or had he waited long enough?

But no, the sun didn’t rise on this planet, not like it did on earth. 

He was going to die.

The world faded into silence.  He couldn’t feel the ice as it scraped across his exposed back.  His hands were too cold to register the tiny snowflakes that landed on them without melting, singular and crystalline and perfect, too numb to feel when gravity shifted beneath him.  

He didn’t feel the thing snuffling against his face again, or the scratchy fur that encompassed him like the storm and the darkness and the cold.

He didn’t feel it when he started to shiver.

 

-0-0-0-0-0-

 

Keith was warm.  

Toasty warm, like he’d fallen asleep wrapped in the huge quilt his father used to drape over the back of the couch, or snuggled in the nook next to the fireplace.

Except the quilt was scratchy, and something was tickling his nose.  Also the something was moving. And it smelled—?

Keith stiffened as the some-thing moved again.  It was— sniffing?— at his hair, and that triggered a memory, one of something much bigger than him, of flashes of white and black and helplessness, huge hairy limbs and the smell of fear and ice in his nose. 

He shoved away roughly, clearing arms and fur to land in a puff off powdered snow.  His body screamed at the sudden cold, and he realized, in mounting dismay, that he was buck nude.

He scrambled away through the biting powder, but the creature caught up to him quickly, scooping him up from behind and plopping down in the snow.  Keith stilled, stunned, as the creature again enfolded him in a scratchy, warm, embrace.  

He shivered as the snow melted, cold liquid trailing down his skin before it was wicked away by the creatures fur.  It made a humming noise deep in its chest, long and slow like the hum of a cello string. His heart slowed as nothing else happened, and he relaxed cautiously into the warm blanket of fur, taking a quick inventory.  He was alive and apparently uneaten thus far.  

He tested the creatures hold.  It wasn’t entirely restrictive, just firm enough to keep him from sliding to the ground now that he’d stopped struggling.  He squirmed, and it allowed him to move until his head popped out from the top of the fur cocoon, air nipping at his face as he took a long, cold breath.  He looked up.

The thing stared at him, and he stared back.

“Hello—?”  Keith croaked, throat scratchy and sore. 

The thing skipped a beat in its humming, head tilted to the side as it observed him.

Keith cleared his throat, but quickly shrunk back as the thing leaned in and sniffed at his head, the same way it had been doing when he woke up.

“Um, you like Altean shampoo?”  He guessed.

The thing hummed, settling down further in the snow and staring out into the far distance. 

The air caught in the back of his throat as he turned to see what it was looking at.

The storm had stopped, the sky clear and black and deep.  The air shimmered as the last few snowflakes kicked up in their scuffle settled back to the ground, joining the endless fields of ice that stretched beyond the horizon.  The snow reflected starlight in a muted rainbow of colors as far as he could see.

It was beautiful.

The creature snuffed at his hair again, continuing to hum low and deep.  They sat like that for a long while, something aching deep in Keith’s chest while the thing hummed into the bright darkness.  When he finally looked up again, the creature met his gaze with black eyes.

“You saved me.”  Keith realized.  

“Thank you.”

He swallowed his pride then, hesitantly reaching out to Black with his mind.  The lion immediately brushed back in acknowledgement, taking a moment to greet him before pulling away, something not quite like a reprimand filling the space between them.  

Black would always come, if he’d only ask.  Always

Keith swallowed the lump in his throat.

 

-0-0-0-0-0-

 

They came, bright specks rising from the horizon and growing in size until Keith could make out the shapes of the lions.

The creature set him down in the snow once they’d disembarked, black eyes never blinking.  He shivered, waving as the other paladins approached. It was really cold out here when— oh yeah, his clothes were gone .  He hunched over in a sad attempt to preserve his dignity. That lasted all of five seconds before they were crowding around, pulling him up into an icy cold armor hug, pink and yellow, green and blue.

“We were so worried about you!”  Hunk sobbed, and Keith almost collapsed under the weight of the combined embrace.  “You didn’t respond, and we couldn’t get a read on your suit, and, and, and I don’t even know if the pods can fix frozen people, because don’t they work by freezing people or something?!”

Keith shrugged weakly.

“You’re an idiot.” Pidge sniffed.

“Yeah, but he’s our idiot.” Lance replied.  

Keith looked up, bristling.  It’s not like he’d gone and tried to get lost in a snowstorm— but then he saw the way that Pidge’s lip was trembling, how Lance’s face was pinched around the edges, and the retort got lost somewhere in his mouth.  He didn’t pursue it.  

He ducked his head instead.  “Sorry.”

Pidge let go first and tossed a blanket at Keith’s face, which Hunk promptly used to roll him up into a burrito, shooing the others aside. Keith blushed, or would have if his body wasn’t busy shunting blood to his core.  Pidge rolled her eyes at his expression. “I have a brother, you know.”

Allura smile fell as he shivered.  “You seem to be turning blue.”

“Yeah, let's get you inside before your toes get freezer burn.”  Hunk fussed, lifting Keith out of the frozen powder. It was hard to resist, arms pinned as they were in the blanket, so Keith resigned himself to being carried.  Again. Speaking of which—

Something crunched in the snow, and they looked up to see the creature already walking away.  Keith wanted to say something, to help it or thank it somehow, but then it was gone, shaggy fur blending into the grey-white twilight of its icy world.  Gone like the old man who had shuffled away from a bus stop on that cold morning so many years ago.  

Keith peered into the night for a long second, catching the final glimpse of a shadow against the faint sparkle of the snow.

Thank you .

They hustled him aboard the yellow lion (ignoring Keith’s protest that he could drive himself) , retrieved his belongings from the cave, and before long they were airborne.

Keith stood by the pilot chair, watching the screen.  The sky grew lighter and lighter as they rose through the air, though the sun never quite breached the horizon as they pulled away into space.

I can wait a little longer, he thought.  He would find Shiro.  The sun would rise, and he would be there to see it.  They all would. But until then—

“What are you thinking about?”  Hunk interrupted, giving him the side-eye.

Keith didn't answer right away, watching the planet shrink as the castle of lions grew bigger and bigger on screen.  He fiddled with the hem of the blanket, searching for words.

“—The world can be dark, and it can be cold, but the starlight is awfully beautiful reflected on the snow, you know?”  Keith hunched, pulling the blanket tighter as he turned away from the screen. “And, well, you’d never be able to see that if it was never dark or cold.”  

Hunk smiled quietly, and they shared the rest of the flight in contemplative silence.