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Ever since he was young, Lance had always found solace in the ocean. There was something in the way waves would lap softly at his feet as he sat in the Cuban surf -or how foamy iron-grey water would rush up a rocky beach on stormy days- that mesmerized him. The power of the ocean and her lengthy, deep patience drew him in.

Underwater, things were quiet and slow. Peoples’ faces were indistinct in the green cast of seawater, their hair floating around in loose, gossamer sheets. There was an eerie beauty to being underwater, where the ocean could wrap you in her billion-year embrace and and the water darkened into a void below your kicking feet.

With all its beauty, even the ocean had a ferocious side. She created high swells, beating at cliffs and capsizing giant vessels, high as mountains, lit with lightning and punctuated by thunder. Hurricane winds blew off the water, strong enough to level buildings and cripple towns.Deep in her trenches, deep-sea vents exploded hot enough to melt flesh off the bone.

Lance knew the ocean. He knew the feel of her water, how the tide rushing back from the beach felt under his feet, how the sun looked from under the surface, how the smell of ozone at the shore meant a violent tempest was brewing, way out over an endless expanse of ocean.

He knew the feel of her waves, of rainwater hitting his face, of the roar of seaward storms. Blue was all of this. She was the mischeviousness, the power, the calm of the ocean, wrapped up in the consciousness of a living being.

So, when he was designated the Guardian of Water, paladin of the blue lion, he felt at home. He was familiar with this calm patience, masking slow-brewing storms and lightning at sea. He understood her. He understood her caution, her desire to wait-and-see, her strategizing mind. She didn’t speak any words, but communicated in emotions, urges, images, that would wash over him steadily. He was secure and safe in her pilot’s seat.

Then Shiro disappeared.

Keith was thrust into the black lion, practically kicking and screaming. Lance was ripped away from Blue and shoved into the red lion. Allura became the Guardian of Water, Keith the Guardian of Storm and Sky, and Lance was the Guardian of Fire.

Gone were the slow, methodical approaches and an ocean’s patience. Red shouted without words, sprang into any situation with immediate vigor, like striking a match. Red’s passion was an inferno, burning Lance’s insides with blaring adrenaline in the heat of battle. He felt Red’s determination, wild and raging like wildfire.

Go, go, go, go, GO, was Red’s constant inner narration. Blazing speeds and heat of the moment decisions were Red’s approach to everything. He didn’t relax in Red. His heart pounded and his breathing was rapid as he burned through the stars, igniting flaming explosions; blooming heat and fire and sound.

He felt Red’s paladin with him when he was connected to her. Even when Shiro was back in the black lion and Keith was light-years away, he felt the ghost of Keith’s eyes, watching him jerk the accelerator and shoot past the others in a blaze of glory. Those fiery eyes burned into him - eyes like lit firecrackers watching Lance pilot Keith’s lion.

Replacement.

Oh. Right.

Red, in all of her passion and fury, was not his. He was connected to her, sure. He was her pilot, sure. But Red wasn’t his. Piloting her felt like kissing someone else’s wife. Piloting her felt like prodding in someone else’s thoughts. Piloting her felt...wrong.

He missed Blue. He missed her patience, her friendliness, her acceptance, her gradual approach to everything - but even Blue was missing something that Red did give him: wild passion, and a shared thirst to prove themselves. Red’s smoldering zeal for battle and fighting and glory ignited in Lance what Blue’s calm couldn’t.

Ever since he was young, Lance had found solace in the water. He knew he did still- out here, soft rain, slow-moving rivers, chilly oceans, and diamond-bright morning dew were all things he thought of when he remembered Earth. Mirror-still water and Earthen rain calmed him while they floated in the vastness of space, but fire awoke something in him.

Fire was a destructive beauty. The heat called to him, rushing upwards in giant plumes of flame and debris. It set him ablaze inside. He smiled ferocious smiles when he fought, whooping and battling with fervent vigor.

Over the next few months, Lance became more comfortable with this mismatched dynamic in the team. He grew used to the sharpness and suddenness in Red’s pull on his mind. He grew used to seeing a red bayard in his grip and feeling an inferno in his head and under his hands. He grew used to the limp that team Voltron had, the imbalance that had developed in Keith’s place. He grew used to the feeling of someone missing when they stood together, and he had no one to turn to and antagonize. He grew used to the new, harsh nature Shiro had and the smoldering anger burning low in his chest every time Shiro cut him off with annoyance and dismissiveness.

One day, Lance’s fury, built up from months of this and catalyzed by Red’s impulsive nature, boiled over. Shiro’s plan to infiltrate a Galra battlecruiser, to put it simply, was freaking shitty. He refused any suggestions on improving it. This would be weird in any circumstance and Lance usually would have questioned it softly to Hunk or Pidge, depending on who was next to him at the time. But Lance was fed up with it. He was fed up with the annoyed glares and how Shiro treated the rest of the team when they weren’t perfect like how he wanted and how Shiro flew into battles against the Galra expecting them to be flawless in their execution and how he didn’t support their ideas like he did before and how he put up a assholish act like he was the same and that he was the patient, level-headed Shiro they had before and how off he looked in the black paladin armor with an impatience-creased brow and scowl and not a single glimmer of his old humor in his eyes and-

Lance snapped. He dug a finger into the center of Shiro’s breastplate, mouth pulled into a tight line and eyes narrowed into furious slits, growling in a deep voice that didn’t sound like his own to really force his words into Shiro’s head.

No. Every time he has a “plan”, they end up worse than when they started. He doesn’t take any sort of suggestion. A leader listens to their teammates, accepts their mistakes, and adapts. Shiro needed to listen to them, and if he didn’t, Lance would make him.

No one else saw it. No one else was six inches away from Shiro’s face. No one saw the whip-quick flash of pure contempt cross Shiro’s face, before an expression of guilt settled onto it.

Shiro apologized to them. Lance walked at the back of the group, arms crossed and brow stern, chewing the inside of his cheek. Pidge watched him with wide brown eyes. Hunk fidgeted with his hands. They continued on.


The rest of the team was outside the cruiser, locked into battle with the sentries and guards sent in automatic defense, yelling directions and shouting after every hard hit. Rebel ships chattered on the other channels, gunfire cutting through fighter jargon and the sound of hundreds of engines. Lance listened to the chaos through his comms, summoning his bayard while sprinting through identical violet hallways, practically riding Shiro’s heels.

They came upon a fork in the hallway. According to the map displayed on their visors, the left corridor led down to the lower levels, where the prisoners were housed, and the right to the information hub.

“I’ll go right and get the battle plans. You get the prisoners.” Shiro ordered, his bayard - a mace, buzzing with electric current- appearing in his left hand. “We don’t have much time.”

Lance paused. “There’s gonna to be lots of guards in the hub.”

“I know. I can handle it. Good luck.” And with that Shiro sprinted away.

Lance was left alone as he ran down dark hallways, the emergency lights glowing dimly and casting everything into identical, hazy shadow. Every so often, an explosion would rock the ground and send him careening into a wall, swearing softly. He felt Red nudging him at the back of his mind - run faster, run faster, faster. The explosions were coming quicker now.

Further, further into the bowels of the ship. Lance’s fingers twitched on the trigger of his bayard. His eyes snapped from hallway to hallway.

Empty. Empty. Empty. This prison’s sheer lack of guards was beginning to make his palms sweat in his undersuit. He constantly switched his grip on his bayard.

The cells were cordoned off by an energy field, which didn’t respond to shots from his bayard, opening-mechanism fiddling, or a good-old-fashioned punch. He groaned loudly, and in a last-ditch effort, pointed his rifle at the opening mechanism, and fired a shot.

The pad exploded into sparks, and the energy field deactivated. Lance was about to celebrate, but a sudden stench hit him. It was like nothing he had ever smelled. Rot and death and feces and blood decaying. Lance braced himself on a wall and gagged, trying not to puke. He summoned his full-facial guard and tried to breathe in the stale air his suit put out. Once the ground had stopped twisting under his feet, Lance wobbled into the cell block.

He saw the first bloodstain before he even got to the cells. It was big, and dark, and smeared, like someone had been dragged around the corner. Lance gulped. There was little light. The hum of life support systems was conspicuously faint. He didn’t want to see what was around the corner. He knew what was waiting around the corner.

He turned on his comm, and in a hoarse whisper, said, “Shiro?”

It had to have taken Shiro hours to reply- or it felt like it, at least.

“What?” Shiro panted loudly. Laser fire sounded, and Shiro yelled something indistinct. “What’s wrong?”

“They’re all dead,” Lance said, shaking from head to toe. “Every single one of them.”

He heard Shiro’s breathing stall. “No.”

“I haven’t seen any guards, either.”

Shiro growled. “Those sons of-” Laser fire rang in the background, and Shiro was shouting. “There’s a huge number of guards here- I mean, more than usual. I think I found your missing prison guards, Lance.”

Lance clenched his hands into trembling fists. He could feel his eyes start to burn-

A small cough came from the darkness. Lance started and gasped, veering around the corner to look for the source of the noise. He flicked on his speaker, and said, “Hello? Is anyone there?”

A high-pitched whimper. Lance turned on the flashlight in his helmet and aimed it at the first cell. He tried to ignore the lumpy masses around it, and could barely bring himself to look in, but in the very back, shaking and smudged with alien blood, was a small orange alien. It looked to be of the same species as that one general of Lotor’s, what with the long, orange ribbon-antennae hanging off its head and draping on the floor.

The sheer amount of relief that shot through Lance’s body was enough to make him fall to his knees. The little alien squinted and blinked in the bright light, curling in on itself as it stared at him with wide, glowing lilac eyes. He probably did look a little scary, he realized, with a weapon in his hand and his face obscured. Lance dimmed his flashlight and dematerialized his bayard. He crawled towards the bars, a pacifying hand outstretched. The little alien tried to crowd itself into the back of the cell even farther.

“I’m not gonna hurt you, I promise.” Lance said. The little alien replied with a series of rapid clicks and trills. Once his translation program kicked in, a little girl’s voice came from the right side of his helmet, a little delayed and stilted but passable.

[What do you want from me? Who are you, warrior?]

Alien ages were weird, but Lance could tell that this alien was still a child, 10 or 11 at the oldest in human years. Deeply carved into each of her legs were long, savage slashes. They looked like they had been done with something akin to a dull, barbed meat cleaver. The wounds were soaked with iridescent purple blood, and the faintest glimmer of white bone shone from one of the wounds.

“I’m here to help you. I wanna get you somewhere safe.”

She ran an appraising glance up and down Lance. [What is your name?]

“Lance. I’m a paladin of Voltron.”

Her body unfolded as much as it could. [A paladin?]

An explosion rocked the ship, and Lance collapsed forward onto his hands. The girl made a high noise of pain that stuttered off into pitiful whimpers.

“Yeah. I’m gonna get you outta there so you can get some help, okay? Can you tell me your name?”

She hesitated. [Yihlel. I am Yihlel. Please aid me, paladin.]

Lance nodded and forced a reassuring smile. “Watch out, this is gonna be loud.”

She slapped her hands onto her leaf-like ears right before Lance activated his bayard and aimed it at the electronic pad that locked the cell. With one shot, the bars fizzled out. He put away his bayard and ran up to her, taking an assessment of all her injuries.

“I hafta pick you up. Is that okay?”

Yihlel made a strange gesture, like an alien version of nodding, where she tilted her head from side to side and hummed a high note. [I cannot walk, anyway.]

Lance braced his arms under her knees and behind her back and lifted. She cried out and dug her sharp claws into his arm, scrabbling for something to hold onto. Lance winced and tightened his grip on her shoulders. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I know it hurts. You’ll be okay. You’ll be okay.”

She took in a ragged breath, face creased.

“Hold onto me.”

Yihlel looped her arms around his neck, and Lance took off running. His footsteps echoed down the hallways.

“Shiro!”

“Mm!” Shiro shouted.

“One of them was alive. It’s a little girl.”

Shiro sighed. “Okay. Good. Get her back to the-”

Static drowned out the rest of his sentence.

“Shiro? Hello? I didn’t hear you, can you-” The entire ship listed sideways, and Lance careened into a wall, sticking out an elbow to prevent Yihlel’s head from slamming into it. He wheezed a little and shifted his grip and kept running.

“Anyone!”

Pidge answered. “Fuck! What’s wrong, Lance?”

“My private comms are shorting. Are any of you having problems?”

“No- fuck you, you piece of absolute shit, bitchass motherfucking-”

Pidge roared into the comms, and Lance heard a loud boom outside the ship that was most definitely related.

Lance reached some sort of central foyer. He stopped to reorient himself, and hopefully find his way back to the ship bay, where Red and therefore first aid supplies were, but out of nowhere, the lights shut off. He and Yihlel were plunged into darkness. His comms went staticky, and he heard no more.

Lance froze. He stared, unseeing, into the dark. His harsh breath was deafening in the silence.

[Paladin Lance?] Yihlel whispered, hands tightening. [What is happening?]

“I don’t-”

A creak. A bang. Something in his gut told him, hide. He decided to obey hundreds of thousands of years of survival instincts, and ducked behind a steel storage container. He laid Yihlel on the floor, propping her up against the container, shushing her when she whimpered. He summoned his bayard. The glow lit the darkness, and for just a moment, Lance saw the glimmer of something white. Lance brightened his flashlight. He and Yihlel sat there in silence for a full twenty seconds, eyes staring off into the wedge of space lit by his helmet.

“Lance?”

Lance grunted and started nearly a foot in the air. His head and bayard jerked around to point directly at Shiro, who squinted at the light in his eyes. “Oh, holy shit, okay. Hi, Shiro. You scared the living daylights outta me.”

“Sorry, Lance. Is this the prisoner you rescued?”

“Yep. This is Yihlel.”

Yihlel curled away from him, and an emotion easily readable as apprehension crossing her alien face.

“Hello, Yihlel-”

[Hello, black paladin. You smell strangely.]

Shiro blinked at her. “Do I?”

[Yes.]

“Like what?”

Yihlel opened her mouth to reply, but another loud creak came from the darkness. Shiro jumped back into a fighting stance, slightly crouched, with his mace hanging low to the ground. Lance moved to slightly brighten his flashlight, but Shiro caught his hand and shook his head.

“Let’s try to get out of here without more confrontation, if there are more soldiers.”

Lance smirked. “Okie-dokie, stealth mode: activate.”

He quietly scooped up Yihlel, who just grunted at the pain this time, and followed Shiro down the hallway. He figured he should probably be leading the way, with his long-range weapon, but Yihlel kept flinching away from Shiro every time he strayed close to their odd little pairing. He probably smelled like Galra blood.

Yihlel was breathing raggedly in his ear. Her fingers were twitching around his neck in a vice-like grip. [Paladin Lance, there is something not right.]

“What?”

[I smell Galra!] Yihlel trilled.

“Well, Shiro just finished fighting off-”

[No, no, I smell Galra!] Lance could see the unbridled panic in her eyes as she stared off into the darkness.

“Shiro-”

“I heard her. We need to get to the ship bay. She probably smells my arm, too.”

“Shiro!” Lance hissed.

“What, Lance?” Shiro didn’t turn around.

[Paladin Lance-]

The world jerked sideways. Lance heard the deep rumble of an explosion and he was falling over, behind another storage container. He dropped Yihlel right onto her side, and she writhed in pain, letting out a strangled scream.

“Oh, hell, are there more of them-” Shiro swore.

Lance heaved, and tried to pull himself off the ground. His vision was spinning. It was dark, the Galra would have the advantage, one of them was practically defenseless, and Lance figured it was probably a fantastic time to recite the Lord’s Prayer.

Yihlel’s body was wracked with sobs. Lance crawled as quickly as he could to get to her. She latched onto his hand, squeezing hard enough that it hurt, and Lance whispered pained, wheezing apologies to her.

Shiro had his back to the container, staring straight ahead and listening closely for any soldiers approaching them from behind.

“How d’you know where they are?” Lance whispered.

“I think can hear them talking-” Shiro stopped. Shiro’s comms got louder, and garbled speech came through his helmet speakers, tinny and indistinct.

“Who’s talking to you?”

Shiro didn’t answer, just listened and stared straight ahead into the darkness. The speech was louder now. They kept repeating the same five words over and over again: {Kuron, mte, vres, laa, vret. Kuron, mte, vres, laa, vret.} What the hell?

“Shiro, that’s Galran-” Lance grabbed Shiro’s arm, trying to shake him out of it, and Shiro’s eyes snapped over to look right into his.

Four things happened in quick succession.

Shiro replied in Galran. His bayard lifted. Yihlel screamed. Lance realized.

This is not, and was never, Takashi Shirogane.

Shiro stood and shoved a foot into Lance’s cuirass with surprising strength, sending him flying. He lifted his mace far above his head, aimed at Yihlel, who was still screaming- he swung down-

Lance roared “NO!”and flung himself in front of her. The electric mace slammed down into Lance’s breastplate.

His ears rang as he fell. A sharp spear of pain shot through his torso- there was a snap- and Lance let out a strangled scream when he hit the ground. His vision was blurry. He couldn’t breathe. The dull, powerful ache that settled through his chest burned with his every choke.

He couldn’t move. He couldn’t see. The very air in his lungs was burning.

Shiro’s comms were still blaring. The words had gained a rhythmic quality by now as Shiro approached, with his bayard held high overhead.

{Kuron, mte, vres, laa, vret. Kuron, mte, vres, laa, vret. Kuron, mte, vres, laa, vret.]

Shiro heaved downward. Lance, with whatever strength he had left, rolled out of the way. He heard the bang of the mace hitting the floor not even half a foot from his head. He flung out a leg and caught Shiro in the knee. It didn’t fell him as he had been expecting, but he did hesitate enough to let Lance recover slightly. He used the same leg to kick Shiro’s ankle out from under him, dodging the mace that fell from his hands. He scrambled out of the way and over to Yihlel, who he grabbed like a sack of flour and flung away from the fight. She shouted once she hit the ground, and then immediately went silent, surely unconscious.

Before he knew it, Shiro was standing over him, mace swinging, and face expressionless. Lance jerked out of the way as the mace sliced through the air. The electric spike came mere centimetres from his nose, scratching his facial guard.

Lance ducked away, barely able to stand on his shaky legs. He could hardly hear over the thumping of his own heart. He could barely breathe in without feeling a reminder of his injury. Lance summoned his bayard and rounded behind Shiro. Before he could turn, Lance hefted his gun above his head with both hands and slammed the butt end of it into the back of Shiro’s helmet.

Shiro stumbled two steps and onto one knee.

Well, fuck Lance, he guessed. Cuirass armor can’t protect his ribcage but it’s oh-so-goddamn convenient that Shiro’s galra-(clone? mind controlled?) strength and his helmet can protect his pretty little-

Shiro whipped up and around, bayard coming at Lance’s side. Lance ducked immediately and went for the knees, doing some sort of rugby tackle below Shiro’s belt. He fell, and with that came a explosion of pain in his ribcage so intense that Lance cried out, tears flowing down his face.

Shiro started to get up. Lance tried to aim for the vulnerable spot between the collar and the bottom of his helmet, but his hands were shaking so much he could barely keep it pointed in one place. Oh, shit.

Lance went for the head again, cracking the end of his gun right back down onto Shiro’s helmet. Shiro fell again. He went for another crack at it, but was stopped by a flash of purple at the corner of his eye and his vision went white.

His side was burning. Burning wasn’t even the word for it. It was boiling, it was hissing, it was charring, all he could feel was agony-

The heat left, and Lance could hear again. Someone was shrieking a primal, wild shriek like he had never heard, and soon Lance realized it was himself. The scream petered off into sobs and groans. Lance still had his eyes clenched shut against the agony in his side. His breath came through gritted teeth.

He felt a rush of air and Lance instinctively threw a solid right hook at nothingness.

It connected with something. Lance heard a hard crack, and then a thump. He opened his eyes, and Shiro was prone on the ground next to him, his hand still cooling from being activated. Lance decided to do this the old fashioned way, and with one hand clutching his burn and his bayard a yard away, Lance straddled Shiro, ripped off his helmet, and socked him in the jaw. He hit him again. And again. And again. And again. He dropped the hand on his injury and kept punching- jaw, cheek, nose, cheekbones, ears- Shiro’s hands were ripping at his armor and his cuirass, trying to find some anchorage to throw Lance off of him- Lance was yelling, his vision was blotching with black spots- and Shiro’s hands went limp.

Lance stopped, fist hovering in midair. His heart froze in his chest. Shiro wasn’t...

He fumbled, searching Shiro’s neck for a pulse. He felt one- small, rapid, but there- and he felt relief melt all the tension in his muscles. Lance flopped to the ground next to Shiro, boneless, gasping for air and hearing the roar of blood in his ears start to quiet.

The adrenaline slowly bled away, and Lance was suddenly aware of every ache and pain and burn and possible broken bone on his body. Damn, it was like Shiro was on uppers or something with that strength.

He definitely had a serious burn on the same side as his definitely broken rib(s?). He might have hurt his knuckles or something, but he certainly bruised them. His body still stung from the electric current. His back hurt like a motherfucker. Despite all this, holy shit. He just fought a Galra-enhanced Shiro and won.

Lance grunted and coughed, even that simple gesture sending shooting pains up his chest. He had more time to speculate what the hell just happened later. Right now, he was on an increasingly unstable ship, with two unconscious people, one capable pilot and two lions, and his comms were still messed up.

He slowly made his way to his feet, gingerly testing out if each of his legs were still in commission (they were), and checking out how badly Shiro was hurt. Discounting his face, which was basically ground beef but Lance hoped that was just the broken nose and the blood all over it, Shiro was barely scratched.

Lance dematerialized his and Shiro’s bayards and carefully put his helmet back on him. He collected himself, closed his eyes, and shouted a string of swears so vulgar and creative he was certain that his mami, back on Earth, woke up from a dead sleep and out of some sort of motherly instinct, grabbed a bar of soap with no one to force it on.

He had two arms and the strength of an injured teenage boy at his disposal, and an unconscious little girl and a full grown man to lug around. Yihlel wouldn’t have been bad on her own, but with Shiro, who was at the shortest six-foot-two and definitely over 200 pounds, he would have to split his resources evenly.

Or, a more logical and distinctly snide part of his mind remarked, you could just, I dunno, call for help? Fuckass?

“Shut up.” Lance muttered. “Comms’re messed up anyway-”

With that, they fizzled to life, and a riot of sound assaulted Lance’s ears. Allura, Hunk, and Pidge were full-on panicking in his ears, a cacophony of sound that Lance could only identify as the rebel fighter communications nearly drowned out his team’s voices, Coran was singing for some reason, Matt Holt was shouting, and the Marmorites were nowhere to be heard. Lance switched off his public comms and sighed at the sudden cut in noise. His team comms were still going in his ears.

“What do you mean you haven’t heard from them-” Allura.

“I don’t know, it’s only been five minutes but Lance and Shiro haven’t responded-” Pidge.

“Do you think they died?!” Okay, that was Hunk.

Lance replied in a monotone. “We’re not dead, guys.”

There was a three-way shriek of surprise, then a three-way overlapping of yelling and demands for explanation.

“What happened?! Where were you?!” Was the general gist Lance got from all the shouting, but with a lot more f-bombs on Pidge’s side.

“Listen, I’ll explain later, but I really need someone to come and help me-”

“Why?!”

The ship tilted a little more, the floor shuddering. Lance had to regain his already unsure footing, and his comms, once again, worsened into static. He uttered a little, frustrated scream. Hey, universe, could he, perhaps, maybe have a break every once in awhile?

The universe responded by giving him one last, big ol’ FUCK YOU for the road. The hum of life support systems on the cruiser shut off completely. The damage to the hull would soon let the air leak out of the holes that those explosions had carved into the ship. He didn’t panic or even notice at first, as he was still breathing and Shiro had his helmet on, but at the corner of his eye, he saw movement.

He turned to let his flashlight lay upon Yihlel, who was apparently conscious now and writhing on the floor and clutching at her throat, choking silently.

Lance’s heart skipped a beat.

Within seconds, he was at Yihlel’s side and ripping his helmet off his head, and forcing it down onto hers. It took a few tries, but eventually he got her antennae shoved into the confines of the helmet, and she was breathing again. He sighed, and then realized that he was still able to breathe. The air was a little thin, he supposed, but it hadn’t all drained out yet. He would just have to tough out the dizziness. Yihlel’s home planet must have been a very oxygen-dense place, or she was a very sensitive species in that regard, or humans were just BAMFs in comparison.

He decided the last one was his favorite reason and maneuvered Yihlel so she was hanging over his shoulder like feed sack, making sure her wounds were kept far away from the hard edges on his armor. Shiro, however, was a different matter. He couldn’t just pick him up. He couldn’t just drag him along like some sort of human pull-wagon.

Wait, correction, yes he could. Lance gathered Shiro’s wrists into one hand, and using his pure, superhuman strength, and firing off his jetpack in a way that gave him more momentum as he ran, he got at least a hundred feet before having to stop.

That short trip along the hallway had worsened the sharp stabs in his rib cage. He stopped and dropped Shiro, his vision splotched with a riot of colour and head spinning like a top.

And he continued on in this weird, disjointed way of running he had set up for several thousand feet before he began to feel the effects of the loss of life support. It was getting harder to keep Yihlel secure on his shoulder, as limp as she was, and his grip on Shiro’s wrists was getting weaker by the minute.

A few hundred feet. The air was getting alarmingly thin. Lance’s breaths were coming shallower and sharper, and he felt the beginnings of a headache pounding at the base of his skull. He wobbled a little while he ran, the onset of dizziness making his sights swim.

He’s almost to the ship bay. He just has to make it around this bend- and this bend… and he’ll be fine.

Black spots started to blink around the edges of his vision, but he shook himself and kept going.

His hands slipped around Yihlel’s waist and Shiro’s arms. His headache pounded.

Just a few more. He’s… he’s almost there.

The darkness bleeding at the edges of his vision crept further inwards.

He stumbled. He fell to his knees. Yihlel slowly dropped from his arms to lay on the floor beside him. Shiro’s hands fell to the ground.

His arms shook. He gasped for what little air there was.

He needed to… needed to… needed to keep going. Where was the - ship bay? It was… this bend, right? No.. the next one.

He gasped for another short, shallow breath.

There was nothing.

Lance choked quietly, eyes bugging. His arms finally collapsed. Lance lay on the ground, trying to breathe in void.

Through his muffled hearing, Lance heard a garbled shout.

Darkness.


Brightness.

Lance’s eyes snapped open, and he gasped in sweet, sweet air. Then he was falling, right onto his hands and knees onto a cold, white floor. He took a moment to stare at nothing, heaving and hacking and revelling in just how much air there was, then looked up.

He was completely alone in the Castle’s infirmary. The healing pod that had held him was slowly receding back into the ground, the soft whoosh of its movement the only other sound echoing throughout the deserted chamber. He was still in his battle armor- his hands were splattered with red, human blood, his and Shiro’s intermixed, and his torso was smeared with great streaks of iridescent purple.

“Anybody here?” Lance rasped, his voice hoarse from disuse.

All that answered him was the ever-present hum of castle engines.

Lance slowly rose. His legs were still somewhat weak around the knees as he walked out the infirmary, glowlights lining the walls casting a soft, aqua glow onto the planes of his face and armor. He walked close to the wall, a hand tracing its length along the vaulted corridor, always there to catch him if and when his legs gave out. Those Altean healing pods really took it out of you, he’d have to admit.

The closer he got to the control room, the brighter the hallway became. Eventually he could see the main room, and the endless galaxy outside through the stories-high front windows. Someone was using the universal starmap display. A huge, unfamiliar solar system slowly orbited throughout the room, followed by smaller solar systems, stars, meteors, and asteroids, all represented by different-colored orbs. Most of the orbs were a neutral aqua, but as he leaned against the wall and watched, one flickered to a deep, Galra violet. An incomprehensible Altean label, following a small meteor, floated past his face and across his line of sight to a small figure sitting on the floor in the center of all of this, staring up at this small fraction of universe.

The small figure was dark in comparison to the bright glow of the planets against the dimmed room lights, so he couldn’t tell who it was until he got close enough that they could hear his unsteady footsteps on the walkway.

The figure whipped around, long ponytail- no, that was an antennae- flopping behind them. He saw her eyes widen, then her face crinkle up as her eyes started to shine, and suddenly Yihlel had crossed the bridge in three steps and was throwing herself into him. He was frozen for a moment, but her arms wrapped around his waist, crushing his still sore ribs even more, and he realized didn’t care about the pain at all. He scooped her up and hugged her just as tightly, feeling her quiet sobs shudder against him.

“Hi, there.” Lance chuckled. “It seems like your legs have gotten better.”

He felt her soft laughter shake her frame. She dropped from his grip onto her feet, but kept a tight hold on one of his hands. She wiped at the iridescent tears tracking down her face.

[You were asleep for three days, blue warrior!] She exclaimed. [I was very concerned.]

Her voice wasn’t delayed or robotic in any way. In fact, if her mouth hadn’t been completely out of sync with the English he heard, he wouldn’t have known that her voice was a product of the Castle’s far superior translation system.

“Three days?!” Lance questioned, eyebrows creeping to hairline territory. “Geez.” He ran a hand through his hair. He caught Yihlel looking curiously at the brown strands, head tilted to the side.

[You have fur on your head.]

“And you have an antennae.”

Yihlel lightly pinched his arm, eyes alight with mirth that was quickly extinguished. She clutched her hands behind her back and looked askance. [I would have perished in the Galra prison if it was not for you, Paladin Lance. Thank you.]

“No, you really don’t need-”

Yihlel snatched something white from her Altean tunic’s pocket and seized Lance’s left ear. Lance stumbled forward, head yanked to the side, her long fingers digging into the shell of it.

“What-”

There was a click, a hum, and a sharp sting in his ear cartilage that made him jump and yelp. Yihlel fiddled around with his ear for a second, then released it, looking at it with an appraising glance. Lance’s hand flew up to his ear, feeling around for an injury of some kind. He could only feel a thin ring, wrapping around the helix of his ear. Yihlel had just given him an ear piercing. Did this count as punk rock?

[On my homeworld, we give jewelry as gifts to those to whom we owe a great debt. White is the color we use to honor great warriors. I hope it is not too conspicuous. The Princess aided me in its creation.]

Lance felt the ring a little more, face slack. With a jolt, he realized his eyes were beginning to sting.

[I supposed this was the least I could do, for what you have done.] Yihlel looked anywhere but at Lance. He noticed that she, too, had rings in her ears- grey-black, and rather heavy-looking. She kicked at the ground, wringing her hands behind her back.

Lance wrapped his arms completely around her and squeezed.

“Thank you.”

Yihlel smiled and returned the hug.

They stood there for a few moments, Lance trying to quell the wetness in his eyes, Yihlel making strange humming noises against his shoulder. He rocked back onto his heels and held her at arm's length, smiling.

“So,” He said, looking up to marvel at the planets drifting above their heads. “What’s this?”

Yihlel turned to look up at the star systems. The soft aqua glow cast strange shadows on her face and strange reflections in her owlish purple eyes. A small orb came close to the top of her head, and she extended one long-fingered hand up to brush it, her hand going right through it.

[This is my home.] She brought down her hand to cradle it against her chest. [The Onul-Ke System.]

She made a swooping motion with her arm, and the biggest star, along with its planets, flew down to their eye level. [Our sun is red, and very old. She lights our sky scarlet in the evening. That is when the great waters calm and the great-] (trill-click-high click-trill) [-return to their nests. It is beautiful. I imagine on the other planets it is very different, but I know my dusk is the most beautiful.]

Lance was uncomfortably familiar with the tender, bittersweet expression on her face as she took in the single purple planet orbiting the Onul-Ke system’s red giant.

[That is my home. The violet planet. Her name is Onul-6 to foreigners, but we call her Mother, or Hexial.] Yihlel continued to stare wistfully at Onul-6, orbiting at a snail’s pace. [Our sister planets follow her closely.]

Another orb, following Onul-6 closely, flickered to purple. Yihlel’s hand recoiled, and she leaned away from Onul-Ke. [Onul-7, Heptin. It has fallen to them too.]

Yihlel turned away from Onul-Ke and fixed a wary, watery gaze on Lance’s face. [I miss my home very much, paladin.]

“So do I.”

Yihlel’s mouth parted. [...you do?]

“Yeah. My home’s called Earth. Blue skies, oceans, mountains- it’s really a sight to see. I really miss it.”

[Hmm.] She muttered, hands ghosting over Onul-6 once more. [Maybe someday we will both return home.]

There was a short silence, the soft rush of passing meteors and asteroids filling it.

“I know you will.” Lance clapped a hand on her shoulder. “You had the dumb luck to be rescued by the one group of people that could take back Onul-Ke.”

Her head jerked back around to stare at Lance with big saucer eyes. [You could?]

Lance channeled all the confidence he had into his answering grin. “Hell yeah, we could.”

Yihlel turned all the way around to face Onul-Ke. Lance didn’t see her move for a full ten seconds. She then flicked her hand, and Onul-Ke flew back up to the vaulted ceilings to join the other celestial bodies. Another flick of her hand, and everything disappeared. The soft lights lining the floor and walls turned back on.

[Promise me.] Yihlel said, her back to Lance still. [Promise me that someday you will reclaim Onul-Ke.]

Lance knew how being homesick felt. He knew how feeling afraid for the lives of your family felt. He knew how it felt to be so far from home that you can’t comprehend the distance. He knew how it felt to just want to go home.

“I promise.”

And he meant it.


Lance and Yihlel staggered through the castle’s hallways, Lance’s arm wrapped tight around her shoulders, his gait loping and uneven. His legs almost gave out several times and he fell against Yihlel, who struggled with his deadweight every time.

“Are you sure we’re going the right way?” Lance asked, peering down at Yihlel.

[I am certain. I can smell their fur.]

He blinked at her. “Their hair really reeks that bad?”

[Your fur truly does hold a commendable amount of scent.]

Lance felt vaguely insulted somehow, and he turned to her to tell her so, but suddenly a wide block of light was shining right into his eyes. He brought a hand up to shield them, blinking away the spots. They had come upon the lounge in their trek through the endless hallways of the castle.

Sitting on the couches were his teammates, all wearing their battle armor, scuffed and dirty from a recent battle, and slouched at different angles. Hunk’s head was limp against the back of the couch, Pidge was curled up into a fetal position with her head on her knees, Allura was nearly horizontal, and looking extremely out of place in his all-black armor, Keith was standing upright, arms crossed. Coran had been speaking just a few moments before, judging by the tense silence that had come over the room.

Coran was the first to notice Lance and Yihlel’s arrival. Lance saw Coran’s clasped hands loosen, eyes flickering up to meet Lance’s own. Immediately, Keith’s head jerked around to follow Coran’s line of sight. One by one, his friends turned to look. There was a moment of silence, held in the air like a delicate string pulled taught, and then it snapped.

“Hi.” Lance said, smile a little sheepish at the five blank faces staring at him.

There wasn’t an explosion of yelling or celebration. No one threw themselves into his arms like he was some knight in shining armor, returning valiantly from the battlefield. What did happen was Hunk and Allura came to guide Lance to sit on the sofa, Pidge smiled weakly and waved, and even Keith let a little bit of relief flash across his face. Yihlel skipped over to sit smack dab between Allura and Pidge.

Lance wasn’t ashamed to admit that he melted right into that couch seat. Any other day, that couch was of average comfortableness, a six on his unofficial comfort scale, at most, but right now, this couch was a fourteen out of ten. One out of one exhausted teenagers would sit on again.

“It’s good to see you out and about, my boy.” said Coran.

“It’s good to be out and about.” Lance replied, stretching as much as his sore rib cage would allow. He felt a few pops in his spine and sunk back into the couch. He let his eyes close.

Coran continued speaking in the background, addressing everyone. Lance caught indistinct snippets of conversation in between his own soft grunts of pain. He rubbed at the edge of his cuirass, digging rather unpleasantly into his sore ribcage, no matter what position he tried to sit in.

“Want me to help you with that?” Hunk asked.

Lance nodded, and let Hunk unlatch the cuirass from his torso. The moment the pressure was gone, Lance let out a dramatic sigh. He dropped back onto the sofa and slid until his head was a quarter of the way down the seat. He slid off his gauntlets, rerebraces, vambraces, and couters, letting them clatter to the floor in a white, red, purple, and blue heap.

“...Lance?” He heard Coran’s voice say, obviously finishing a question that Lance had not been listening to.

“Sorry, sorry, what?” Lance said, straightening up in his seat.

“We had all been wondering if you could explain to us what happened on the Galra ship three days ago.”

Lance’s eyes opened right the fuck back up. His arms froze at his sides, cold dread dripping down his throat, his chest thudding loudly. He gulped and stared at the floor, eyes unseeing as memory after memory flashed in his mind. He saw Yihlel’s eyes, wide with fear, a blank Shiro’s face, Shiro’s mace, glowing with electric current, his own fist coming down to strike a prone Shiro right in the nose, his chest burning and aching as he tried to breathe in air that simply wasn’t there, darkness encroaching upon the sides of his vision-

“Lance? Are you alright?” He heard Allura’s voice say softly, lilting accent pulling him out of that dark place.

Lance looked up to see her staring at him with widened eyes. She was leaning away from him slightly, hands clutched tight on the sofa’s seat.

“I’m,” Lance cleared his throat. “I’m fine. What d’you wanna know?”

Everything, they said.

So Lance told them everything.


Not-Shiro was being held in stasis in the containment lock on subfloor 3. He had been for weeks now. Everyone, with the sole exception of Lance, had visited. Instead of having to see that face again, he relied on the information relayed to him by his teammates in passing.

Camera-eyes. Forged scars. Microphones in his ears. Super-enhanced strength. A Galra-operated intel chip in his artificial brain. A now-dormant elimination program, nestled deep in the expanse of his encrypted code.

Not-Shiro was going to get each of them alone and pick them off one by one.

He felt sick just thinking about it.


Keith left again.

At first, he had ignored Allura’s urgings to please, just try and pilot her again, it won’t do much harm-

He had ventured into Black’s hangar with the entire team at his back. The moment he came within fifty feet of her, a purple particle barrier had erupted around her, closing her off from his touch. Keith had recoiled, stumbling back from the bright, violet light glowing off of her particle barrier.

He guessed that was it,then, he had said, not turning towards any of them.

Allura had asked him to beseech her, we need a paladin-

Keith refused.

And soon, he was gone.


The Castle touched down on a wet, solemn-looking planet going by the very impressive name of “Y’a”. The shores of a grey-ocean beach were covered storm-cloud silver sand. Foggy, flinty skies pressed down oppressively overhead. A moderate rain splashed down onto the disembarking ramp that laid in hard, packed beach sand.

Lance thought that the color scheme suited the mood quite well. On both sides, his teammates’ expressions were grim. They were down one paladin, someone who was a diplomatic force to be reckoned with, and they were on a cold, rainy, unfriendly planet filled with unfriendly aliens. The Y’a...ians were a wary, aloof people that controlled half of this entire galactic quadrant, and had a military population numbering into the billions. Needless to say, they needed this alliance.

They weren’t going to succeed with these sad-sack attitudes.

Lance made sure to hang back a few steps behind his teammates, then surged forward and jumped in one of the huge rainwater puddles on the beach. The water sprayed all around him, mostly getting in Pidge’s hair- she had yet to put her helmet on, so she was already a little damp, he reasoned. Pidge spun around, hand clenched in the wet strands on the back of her head.

Lance grinned and kicked up a spray of water onto her greaves.

Pidge kept looking at him. Allura and Hunk had stopped to see what the holdup was. They all stared at him awkwardly for a moment or two.

“C’mon, Pidge, don’t be a wet blanket.” Lance paused, mulling over his choice of words. “Pun probably not intended.”

Before he knew it, a blur of green, white, and brown was coming right at him. Lance threw his hands into the air in a gesture of surrender, and then suddenly sandy water was all over his front. He gaped at Pidge, who was grinning up at him across the giant puddle.

He let a smile brighten his face, and then he was kicking more water to hit her right in the face. Pidge was jumping and laughing, going from puddle to puddle; they were getting soaking wet and sand was clinging to their faces, cold rain was plastering their hair to their skin, but Pidge was smiling, and that’s what mattered.

Lance spared a glance in Allura and Hunk’s direction. They hadn’t joined in on the fun, but Allura was watching them, eyes bright, a subtle smile quirking her mouth. Hunk had his head turned up to the rain, helmet in his hands, letting the familiar feeling of rain drip down his face.

Then Hunk flicked his foot through the puddle in a light, princessy kick. A tiny fan of water wet Allura’s ankle. She turned to look him right in the eyes and kicked water six feet into the air to hit him right in the nose.

They turned up to their diplomatic meeting with the Y’a-ians without a minute to spare, faces flushed, grinning, and completely waterlogged.



Hunk was nearly hyperventilating next to him. Lance could hear his ragged, gasping breaths, amplified tenfold in the tiny alcove they were nestled in. Violet shots of energy blasted through the space outside the alcove, bringing with them the stench of ozone and something burning. The sheer heat from the amount of blasts was starting to singe his skin. Sweat dripped down the back of Lance’s smoke-dirtied neck and his breath punched out of him in short bursts. Their comms blared as their team shouted directions and calls for help elsewhere in the complex.

They were trapped, no two ways about it.

“Am I going to die here?” Hunk asked, more to himself than Lance.

“Hey!” Lance snapped. Hunk jumped at the force in Lance’s tone.

“What, ‘hey’?”

“We are not gonna die, so jot that down.” Lance declared, poking Hunk in the arm. “Secondly, calm down. Take a deep breath.”

Hunk did so, staring off into nothingness. His hands kept fidgeting around his hold in his energy cannon, its mass taking up most of what little space there was. Lance had known him for long enough that he could tell the exact meaning of each spasm of his finger, each glance of his eyes, and every shift of his weight. Hunk was doubting himself.

“We’re gonna be fine. We just hafta keep a cool head.” Lance said, listening with a sharp ear for any pause in the gunshots. He heard a hiss, smelled heat, and jerked his arm into the alcove, barely avoiding a shot that came centimetres from his elbow.

“That’s easy for you to say,” Hunk replied, eyes clenched tightly shut. His head leaned back and thunked against the wall.

Lance snorted. “Don’t sass me, Hunk.”

“Okay, Vesta Guerrero Reyes Acosta Fuentes.” Lance was relieved to hear a slight twinge of laughter in Hunk’s reply, this time.

“Low blow, man, low blow.”

“It’s what I do.”

“I’m serious, though. You’re Hunk. You’re gonna be fine. You can do anything you put your mind to, buddy. I’ve seen it.”

“I don’t feel like it very much right now, Lance.”

“That’s ‘cause you’re doubting yourself.” Lance said, raising an eyebrow. “And I know for a fact that you shouldn’t. You aren’t the yellow paladin ‘cause you were lucky.”

He let Hunk mull over his words for a moment or two. Just when Hunk was about to reply, Lance heard a two-second pause in the shots. It was enough.

Shooting Hunk a grin, he leapt across the corridor to find shelter behind a nondescript storage container, screaming shrilly the whole way. He summoned his rifle, slung it over the edge, and fired his first shot into the mob of sentries at the end of the corridor.

They dropped like flies.



In the weeks following Not-Shiro’s internment, Lance took to walking the halls late at night. The quiet unsettled him, and the castle felt more empty than it had ever had before, with five people residing in it rather than seven, not including Yihlel. It was weird to walk past the training deck and not see Keith working himself to the bone, squeezing every last minute out of the day before bed. It was even stranger to see Shiro not accompanying him, or another paladin, or relaxing in the lounge with eyes shut tight against the bright lights.

He often came upon Hunk still in the lab, elbows-deep in some machine and smudged with grit up to the shoulders. Hunk wouldn’t notice Lance was calling to him until the third or fourth time, then would abashedly retract his arms, wiping the grime off with a spare cloth, and march off to bed.

Pidge was often hunched over her computer in some tiny servant’s passageway or stairwell. Lance wouldn’t even try to get her to bed, as a Pidge enveloped in a project was a nocturnal Pidge. He would wave good-night and go along his merry way.

The training deck was empty.

Sometimes Lance ran into Coran on these walks. Otherwise, Lance kept a mental list of his likely locations: med bay, bedroom, control room/bridge, and oddly, the floor 5 astral cartography deck.

The black lion’s hangar was empty.

Allura was the only wildcard in this system. Lance guessed that having “princessy duties” meant she hopped around the castle like a pinball. One day she was in the control room, another she was spinning around in circles in the ballroom, yet another she was taking notes on a star system he did not recognize, another she was teaching Yihlel how to braid in the lounge, and another day she was in the Altean version of a music room, plucking out chords on an instrument similar to a lyre. It was out of pure chance that Lance stumbled onto Allura one evening.

She was huddled into a little, hidden windowsill in an exterior hallway. She had curled up right next to the window, watching the stars pass, their colors reflected in shining, blue eyes. Yihlel slept with her head nestled in Allura’s lap, leaning into the calming stroke of Allura’s delicate hand over her head. Their skirts splayed out in large fans of bright fabric. Allura’s drooped and pooled on the floor in great puddles of Altean silk.

“Hi,” Lance murmured, climbing into the alcove across from her. Allura’s hand stopped for a moment. Its owner assessed his intentions, then resumed its repetitive path.

“Good evening, Lance,” She replied, in just as low a tone as his. He noted her slightly knit brow, and the single, tugging corner of her mouth.

There was a short silence.

“What’s with the long face?” Lance asked, nudging her leg with his foot.

“I beg your pardon?”

Lance made an exaggerated frowning face, and then gestured at it. “What’s gotcha feeling down in the dumps?”

“Nothing much, really,” Allura sighed. “Just a little homesickness.”

Lance blinked, taken aback by this admission of vulnerability. He quickly collected himself and shrugged. “Well, you came to the right place.”

“You came to me,”

“Semantics, semantics.” Lance waved a hand dismissively. “The point is, I know exactly how you feel. We all do.”

Allura raised one, well-groomed eyebrow.

“Okay, okay. I know Earth isn’t gone, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know what it feels like to miss home so much it hurts,” Lance taps the middle of his chest. “It’s a hollow ache, right here. Like you’ve got a piece missing.”

She stared at him with wide, shiny eyes, constellations reflected in their bright blue. Living stardust gazed at him with realization.

“That is exactly how it feels.”

Lance nodded, shifting in his seat. “I miss Earth’s blue skies, and its oceans. I miss the beach, trees, rain- and arroz con pollo and cubanos and pastelitos de guayaba. And my mom.”

Allura nodded, looking out the window again. “I miss the mountains, and the sweet fragrance of the juniberries in the morning dew. I miss the music of the [click]’lia. I miss riding the royal lions in the afternoon through the blossom gorge.”

“You rode lions?”

Allura laughed softly, an almost musical sound. “Yes! Where do you think the inspiration for the Lions came from? Of course, they were much smaller. And their pelts- oh, how soft they were. You could stroke them and not know the difference between their fur and the queen’s skirts.”

Allura hummed again. She was smiling off into the distance, lost in millennia-old memories. Then, like a switch had been hit in her brain, the smile shut off. She looked out into the great void of space. “Altea is dead. My family is gone.”

Lance shook his head. “That’s where you’re wrong. You remember Altea, right?”

“Clearly.”

“Then, Altea isn’t dead. As long as you remember those mountains, the sky, the sickass lions you rode, then Altea is still here. In spirit, of course,” He smiled at her again. “And your biological family might be gone, but we’re your family now. We’re a team. Ride or die.”

Allura was quiet for a long while. She looked down at Yihlel’s sleeping face through her lashes. She looked up at him, a slight smile on her face. “Thank you, Lance.”

He grinned right back. “No problem. It’s what friends do.”



Lance could feel the cold metal of the hovership floor vibrating under his feet as it flew over uneven, rocky terrain. His shoulders were starting to cramp from his hands being clamped together behind his back by a pair of rudimentary cuffs. The dingy yellow lights on the walls and the glowing portions of Keith’s Marmora suit were the only sources of light in the dim, dirty cargo hold of some alien bounty hunter’s tiny hovership. Keith sat right across from him, legs pulled up tight against his chest, arms bound behind his back as Lance’s were. Lance had his legs splayed out in a wide “V”, and they very nearly reached the other wall. Needless to say, it was cramped.

Keith sighed and laid his head down onto his knees, his hood and hair falling forward to hide the entirety of his face. “I can’t believe this. We’ve fought armies, destroyed Galra fleets, reclaimed entire planets, and we get caught by a bounty hunter.”

Lance kicked him in the hip. “Who’s we? As I remember, you were the one who was all, ‘ooh, lemme just, run in, and start punching shit with no plan whatsoever’-”

Keith wrenched his head up, half-frowning, half-glaring.“We’re both in this cargo hold, so yes, ‘we’. Secondly, I didn’t hear you comin’ up with any brilliant plans-”

The ship jolted to the side over a very sharp turn. Keith pressed himself into the wall to avoid falling over. Lance wasn’t so lucky. He fell right onto his face and had to wriggle like a caterpillar to sit back up and meet Keith’s eyes.

“If you had given me a minute, I could’ve. Tell me, Keith, how are we supposed to interrogate this guy from his cargo hold!

Keith groaned and reared his head back to rest it against the wall. He took several long, measured breaths before looking back at Lance.“I’m not worryin’ about that right now. What we’ve got to do is get out of these cuffs.”

Lance opened his mouth with a lecturing air, but before he could snap back at Keith, there was a screech of metal, a clatter, and Keith’s hands were free, the cuffs separated but still encircling his wrists.

Lance’s mouth gaped. He looked between Keith’s hands and Keith’s face, a little impressed and a little frightened at the same time.

“How did you-”

“Gimme your hands.” Keith motioned for Lance to spin around, and he did so. He felt Keith’s gloves wrap around the ring of the cuffs, and yank. The metal screamed and squealed. Lance felt the other side of the cuffs grow tighter and tighter against his wrists as Keith pulled. Then they snapped along the chain. Lance immediately started to stretch, wincing at the still-present cramps in his shoulders.

“How did you do that?” Lance asked, raising an eyebrow at Keith.

“This alien metal’s soft. You just got to yank on it a little and it snaps like a carrot.”

“Good to know, resident half-alien, half-human.” Lance scoffed. “Any more ideas to share with the class?”

“Find a weapon.”

“Innovative. Inspirational. Unprecedented. I could have never thought of something that genius, while facing someone who wants to sell us for parts, wow, this is amazing-”

“You’re rambling.”

“I’m thinking! I ramble when I haven’t got any ideas! We’ve got no weapons, no idea where we are, and no comms!”

Keith shoved his hand into the sole of his boot, felt around, and pulled out a tiny pill-shaped object. He pressed it with his thumb, and in a bloom of purple light materialized a short katar blade, decorated with Marmora symbols.

“Huh. Handy.” Lance said, watching Keith slash at the air with it. “Should get me one of those.”

Keith lifted the katar and smirked at Lance. “See, one out of three.”

“Okay, I get it. I’ve been proven wrong. That doesn’t make up for the fact that we’re alone on an alien planet with no way to contact everybody else.” Lance said. “I mean, we could yell really loud. Or make really big smoke signals. ‘HEY EVERYBODY. HELP US, WE’RE SCREWED.’ or to save time, ‘WE. FUCKED. UP.’

Keith snorted.

Lance blinked.

“Fuck.” Keith stated.

“You snorted-”

“This stays between us.”

“Keith, black paladin, cold, serious soldier of the Marmora, snorts when he laughs-”

“Lance, I will physically fight you.”

“Sorry, sorry, this is just, an earth-shattering discovery.”

Trying to smother a grin, Keith kicked him in the shin. Lance yelped and retracted his leg to his side, rubbing it and scowling at him.

Keith was quiet for a bit while Lance nursed his wound. He opened his mouth, then shut it hard enough that his teeth clicked, shifted a little, looked askance, scratched the back of his neck... and began to speak.

“I miss this.” Keith said, staring at the ground. “I miss you guys.”

Lance’s eyes went wide. He searched Keith’s face for any for sign of deception or teasing or, but he only found a remarkably deflated posture, and those eyes like lit firecrackers, extinguished, gleaming dully in the dim light of the lamps. Once Keith noticed Lance staring at him, he glared at Lance with a proudly set jaw and challenging glint in his eye.

“What?” He snapped. “Why are you lookin’ at me like that?”

“You do?” Lance asked.

“I what?”

“You really do miss us?”

“I…” Keith began, then shrugged. “I mean, yeah. You guys are my team. The universe is big. You are the some of the few people out here who know what rain feels like, what...what the woods smell like, um,...listen, I’m not a fuckin’ poet. You know what I mean.”

Lance chuckled. He glanced at the floor. “Yeah. Yeah I do.”

“I’m glad that at least you guys are doin’ fine without me. Small mercies, I guess.” Keith said, running a finger down the edge of the katar’s blade.

“Doing fine?” Lance scoffed. “We don’t even have a black paladin.”

“And that’s my fault?” Keith asked, that familiar knife’s edge back in his voice.

“No, no,” Desperately trying to backtrack, Lance shook his head violently. “I meant, we were kind of a mess before. Even more of a mess now. It feels so weird without you there, man. I don’t have anyone to spar with or pick on, or have petty competitions with. Somebody’s missing.”

Keith just looked at him. “You miss me too?”
“Uh,” Lance started, ready to deny it all. He saw the fragile glass in Keith’s face, the cracks that would shatter it to pieces if he rejected him. So, Lance made a decision. “Yeah. I’m totally just baring my soul to you ‘cause I’d rather you’d be out putting yourself in mortal danger than with the rest of us.”

“You don’t have to be a dick about it.” He jabbed his heel into Lance’s knee.

“I disagree. It’s kinda in my job description.”

Keith rolled his eyes, ready to say something very Keith-....y, when the ship jolted to a sudden stop. Lance and Keith sat up arrow-straight, staring at each other as they strained to hear what was going on outside.

Lance swore under his breath, clambering to his feet to search the cargo hold for something to hit with. He found a thick, metal rod, shoved in a corner behind a crate of contraband fruit, probably for moving particularly stubborn packages into the hold. He was testing its weight in his hands when he heard multiple aliens speaking outside the hold. He scrambled to the front of the hold, where Keith was already at the bay doors, katar held at the ready.

“I like the earring, by the way.” Keith said out of nowhere.

“What?”

Keith nodded at Lance’s head. Lance’s hand went up to feel the thin white ring in the helix of his left ear.

“Thanks. I think it suits me.” Lance smirked.

Shrugging, Keith shifted his grip on the katar’s handle. “Sure, Lance.”

There was the hiss of the seal on the hold’s doors opening. They grinned at each other, makeshift weapons held at the ready.

“I knew we made a good team.” Lance said.

The cargo hold’s doors swung open, and they flew out, screaming.



Lance clumped up the narrow, spiralling servant’s staircase, hand running against the wall’s glowlights, the brightness dimmed for the beginning of “night”.

His upper body armor had been shed hours ago in a heap on the training room floor, along with his helmet, which he had realized too late that he needed to bring back to his room before “night” fell. It was difficult to get around certain parts of the castle that already had little light during the day. With the darkness that set in with the artificial night, it was downright impossible.

This servant’s staircase was very nearly one of those places. It was teetering on the edge of pitch dark and somewhat dark, apparently depending on how creepy it wanted to be that day.

It was because of this darkness that Lance almost tripped over a solid mass in the hallway. He felt his foot catch on something big, threw himself back, and barely prevented himself from tumbling the whole way down to subfloor 7. Eyes adjusting to the dimness, he realized that the mass he had stumbled into was Pidge, curled up in a fetal position and dead to the world. Her laptop and equipment were all dark from hours of inactivity.

He smiled and sighed. He couldn’t remember the last time Pidge had slept a full night in an actual bed.

When he reached down to gather up her equipment into the duffle bag at her side, the laptop turned back on. The bright light blinded him at first, but once he realized what was on the screen, he felt his heart sink to his toes.

On the screen were two separate maps of the universe, each lined by boxes of code, half-finished. Little color-coded dots splotched each map in seemingly random patterns. She had been tracking two things, and Lance knew exactly what they were.

He picked Pidge up and hunched so she could lay on his back, shrugging the duffle bag onto his shoulder. His footsteps were much heavier when he resumed his trek up the stairwell.

Now, where was Pidge’s room again? he asked himself once he emerged from the top of the stairwell.

“Hello Lance, hello number five.” An accented voice called out from the end of the corridor.

Lance jerked around to hush them and was met with Coran, looking as proper and put-together as ever. Lance hummed pointedly and nodded at the sleeping Pidge on his back.

“Oh, dear. I apologize.” Coran said at a much lower volume, his approaching feet making short, authoritative taps against the floor. “Let me take this from you.”

Coran lifted the duffle bag off of Lance’s shoulder and transferred it to his. He and Lance continued their journey to Pidge’s room immersed in low conversation. Coran chattered softly to him about anything and everything- the gcheki creatures that inhabited the dead void of space in the Aslk system, what he had recovered deep in the castle’s unused dungeons that day, how Hunk had repaired the music system in the main ballroom and they could hold true balls in there now, (Lance had to hold back a snort, because, well… “holding balls” was an objectively funny sentence), and other such things. Lance really was amazed at how far away Pidge’s room was from wherever she had fallen asleep. Next time, they would find her in the engine room, or up in the rafters of the ballroom, or in some broom closet.

“Here we are,” Coran stated, pressing his hand to the pad just outside her door. The door opened to a pitch-dark room, filled with a maze of clutter. Lance had to pick his way through the boxes, miscellaneous alien materials, computer equipment, some weird sculpture that had a striking resemblance to yours truly, and actual, living alien creatures that floated around like cute little fluffy balloons. He had to clear a space in the wires and rumpled blankets on her bed to actually lay Pidge down. In fact, he recognized his own blanket, that had been missing for the past few weeks, but was now pinned under Pidge’s sleeping body. Shit.

Damn, bitch, you live like this? Lance thought to himself, suppressing a snort. It was like a pack-rat’s nest.

“Come along,” Coran murmured. His slender form was silhouetted in the doorway.

Lance picked his way out of the mess again and accompanied Coran to the end of the corridor, where it split off into two sections. Coran clapped a hand on Lance’s shoulder, and while walking away, called over his shoulder: “Goodnight, Corir.”

Lance bade him goodnight as well, and continued on his merry way. Man, he was hungry for some reason. Maybe the food goo had already replenished for the next day, it was getting late-

Lance stopped. His foot hovered in the air, then pivoted. He stared down the dark branch that Coran had disappeared into. Even Coran’s footsteps had disappeared with him.

“Corir?” Lance said to an empty hallway.


Allura’s hands swiped a wide arc over the holographic blueprints of a Galra colony’s main base, spinning it around so a small side entrance faced her. Little openings denoted the entrances, some highlighted red for high Galra activity, others yellow, and others green. She tapped a long finger against her chin, eyebrows furrowed in concentration as she took in each entrance and each corridor highlighted red, each weak spot in the building, and every guard outpost.

“I’ve not seen this sort of layout before, but I believe I’ve figured out what we should do,” She began, glancing back and forth between a side entrance and the main guard hub, the one that housed Major General Matax, a cornerstone in the Galran control over galactic subquadrant K-68. “Here, Pidge will get Lance, Hunk, and I into this side entrance. Lance and I will run ahead as a distraction to lure guards away from the main hub, so Hunk can have a much clearer path to Matax. He will set off an explosion at the bay doors. His energy canon will hopefully hold enough force to stun whatever guards are left in the hub. He will capture Major General Matax and we escape, leaving a power vacuum. Then, this quadrant’s leadership starts to crumble.”

Lance stood near the back of the group, arms tightly crossed. He ran a cursory glance over the layout of the base, every hallway, every guard hub, every entrance. Something didn’t feel right.

“Uh,” Lance began. Four pairs of eyes, all reflecting the bright aqua glow of the hologram in front of them, flicked up to look at him.

“Was there something you wanted to say, Lance?” Allura asked, tilting her head.

“Um. Yeah.” Lance said. He cleared his throat and walked up the hologram, bracing his arms on the holographic table to stare straight down at it. “They’ve gotta have a chain of command, right?”

“Yes,” Allura said. “We simply do not have the resources nor the manpower to destroy it. We are buying ourselves time to liberate other planets in this sub-quadrant.”

“Right. Okay.” Lance said. “Sidenote, we should definitely not use that door.” He pointed at the one Allura had marked pink for their entry.

Allura blinked at him and stared down at the map again. “Can you explain why?”

“Well,” Lance started, rotating it to face him. “There’s a big guard station close to where one of us would be playing a game of tag with armed guards. It’d be really easy for one of us to be overwhelmed, and then the whole plan goes down the crapper. There aren’t any clear, open exits in the direction we’d be going, except for the one we came from, and going that way would lead them right to Pidge and whatever podship we used to get planetside. I think we should go with...that one.” With those last words, Lance looked up to meet Allura’s eyes. She stared at the movement of Lance’s hands over the map, nodding, looking a little too astonished for Lance to not feel just a little bit insulted. “So, yeah.” He finished anticlimactically.

Allura eyes rose to Lance’s face. “You’re right.” She said.

“Hunk doesn’t call me the ‘plan guy’ for nothing, Princess.” Lance said, jerking a thumb over his shoulder at his friend. He saw Hunk shrug and nod, conceding that point.

“Hmm.” Allura hummed, staring at the map. She started muttering to herself. “He’s right...hm. Amendment. Point of entry will be at automated side entrance on the west side, not the south…”

The attention was off Lance now, but as he stepped back and recrossed his arms, his focus on Allura’s hunched form, he could feel the internal version of a smile draw his shoulders back and fill his chest like a balloon. A small smile crossed his face.


It wasn’t unknown to anyone that Lance hated Lotor with every fiber of his being. Something about that guy set him off. Maybe it that ever-present, vaguely malevolent smirk that twisted his handsome face into something sharp and jagged. Maybe it was the weird vibe Lance got off of him, like he wouldn’t hesitate to rip someone’s throat out with his bare hands if needed. Maybe their personalities just clashed. But don’t be mistaken - Lance never had a clear head when Lotor was within fifteen feet of his personal bubble, so all of this reasoning went right out the proverbial window the moment Lance saw a flash of white hair and purple skin.

Lotor verbally poked and prodded at him like some sort of interesting scientific specimen, just to see him clench his fists and grit his teeth. Now, Lance thought he was a pretty cool-headed guy, (save for when Keith was concerned, but even that had changed) but it took all of his willpower not to fudge Voltron’s only non-Marmorite Galra alliance by challenging an alien prince to a fistfight in a Denny’s parking lot.

Look, he got it. The guy had a wicked ship. It could travel through realities, whoop-dee-doo. He was a fugitive from his own empire. The day Lance trusted a murderer who allied himself with them because they were the next best thing was the day hell would freeze over.

Everything that guy said was calculated. He watched for your every weak point and struck every chink in your armor to get you to do what he wanted. He was cold as ice and just as sharp.

The one advantage that came with Lotor’s intermittent presence was his ability to sway Galra-allied planets to their side. Lance couldn’t deny that. They had taken six strongly Galra-favoring planets exclusively through diplomacy in the three months Lotor had stood on their side. That didn’t change the fact that Lance, a boy of smiles and innate friendliness, immediately distrusted Lotor. He wasn’t going to let the Nyma Incident happen again.

He stalked down the halls with his hands shoved deep into his jacket pockets, fuming. Each footstep clanked heavily against the mirror-like floors as he stomped away from the commons area, which was positively swarming with aliens. Their lithe, eight-foot bodies took up much more space than you’d think.

He heard the creak of footsteps behind him. His already terrible mood took a swan dive.

“What do you want, Lotor?” He forced out through gritted teeth.

“Why, presuming I want something is quite rude, wouldn’t you agree?” Came a smooth, male voice, silky in its condescension.

Lance turned and blue met snake’s eyes, gold pupils glowing from a smirking face. Lance wished he had on his armor - as he believed he bore a much more imposing figure when wearing it - rather than a ratty, hand-me-down jacket and blue jeans. Lotor towered over Lance, who was already pretty damn tall, and it was like he lived in his armor- or the mess of Galra purple, orange, and black he called armor. The guy was a fashion disaster.

When Lance didn’t reply, and instead continued to stare at him and wait for a reply, Lotor sighed. “I simply wanted to bond with a paladin of Voltron. We are on the same team. You aren’t being quite as hospitable as I had hoped. ”

“And why should I be?” Lance spat. “You’re on thin ice, buddy.” He shredded that word through razor-sharp fury, spitting it out so ferociously as to leave the impression that Lotor was anything but. “An enemy prince, killer of millions, decides we’re convenient for him and just so happens to join our ranks while we’re at our weakest. That’d leave anyone suspicious.”

Lance spun on his heel and stomped away, muttering to himself and hunched so sharply that his ears were parallel with his shoulders.

“The weakest link of Voltron shouldn’t be so rash in refusing friendships.”

Lance stopped.

“You were the blue paladin before the red, and became so only after the exeunt of the former red paladin. Surely you understand that you are a replacement.”

He had to suppress a violent wince. That hit far too close to home for it to be as unintentional as Lotor tried to play it off as. The look in Lotor’s eyes did not match the neutral set of his mouth and brow.

Lance closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He could feel the sting of that sly comment start to eat away at the fragile walls he had erected around that part of his personality.

And Lance is the goofball.

You are the worst- pilot- EVER!

You’re only here because the best pilot in your class had a discipline issue, and dropped out.

Your ears. They’re hideous.

Yeah, he’s naturally dumb.

Look, I’m glad we’re all making fun of Lance-

Somehow, over all of these words, voices clear as day and much stronger spoke over them.

You value a strong team over a need for glory. Just like my father.

That’s why we bring our sharpshooter.

Way to go, man! That was so cool! Do that again!

Thank you, Lance.

Goodnight, Corir.

Lance, what should we do?

I miss you.

Remember, nené , you are loved. You are so, so loved. I will keep you in my heart while you are away.

Fuck it. He has worth on his own. He’d learn that in his own time.

“Have I struck a nerve?”

“No.” Lance said, stepping towards Lotor and craning his neck back to look him straight in the eyes. “No, you haven’t. Listen, buddy. Like I said, you’re on thin ice. I trust you as far as I can throw you and you are no damn ally of mine. No amount of manipulation will get me to change my mind on that.”

Lance ‘harrumph’ed, and ran a look up and down Lotor’s overgrown-eggplant-looking-ass, and finished: “And I’m no replacement for anyone.”

He left Lotor standing in that hallway, back much straighter than it had been before.



A heavy blast jerked Green’s head to the side. All of the refugees in Green’s belly cried out, listing to the side and falling over each other. Pidge swore loudly and rammed the accelerator forward, dodging the next shot of energy by mere feet. Lance fell into the side of her pilot seat, a white-knuckled grip on the back of the chair. Alarms blared all around them. Comms were down. Stabilizers were down. Shields were at 50%. They couldn’t take much more of this.

The narrow tunnel was claustrophobic and choked with Galra ships. Blasts assaulted them from every from every side.

“Fuck! Of course it had to be my lion that was small enough,” Pidge muttered, wincing at the twinge in her ankle. Lance knew it was at the very least sprained. “Send me in there with only one other person, I’ll be fine, we won’t get ambushed or anything-”

“Pidge, breathe.” Lance said, regaining his footing. Debris rained down from the tunnel ceiling in a constant cloud of rock and dirt and metal. “We’re almost out. You can do this.”

Pidge let out a little derisive laugh. “It’s not looking too fucking hot right now, bud.”

She was right. It wasn’t. They had a cargo hold full of dozens of Uiar refugees from this planet’s mines, work-weary, exhausted, and quite useless in battle terms. He could hear the screams and cries of frightened children, the moans of the injured and dying, and nearer to the entrance ramp to the cockpit of the green lion, he could hear a mother shakily humming a lullaby to the whimpering child in her arms.

Pidge was injured, and starting to panic. Lance could see the shaking line of her shoulders. Her eyes were bulging with every rasping breath, with pain or terror for her life, Lance didn’t know. His own thoughts were getting bleary as blood dripped heavily from some head wound he had gotten while ushering the refugees into the cargo hold. The pain was starting to numb, and that was definitely not good.

Shields were at 30%.

They were almost out. They had so little to go until they broke into the planet’s atmosphere.

Wild, primal brown eyes focused their gaze on Lance’s face. He could feel sweat dripping down his skin. His vision was starting to splotch dark.

“Lance, what should I do?” She whispered.

He clenched his jaw tight and clenched his eyes shut. He tried to tune out every background sound of terrified people, every beep of whatever alarm was going off, and the traitorous pounding of a heart that knew it was at death’s doorstep. The stench of heavy blood-iron and ozone filled the air. The floor shook and trembled under his feet with every rumble of an explosion outside.

Think.

Shields at 25%.

Think.

Blasters at 40%.

Think.

Life support at 10%.

Think.

His eyes opened again. “Divert all power to thrusters. We can’t take out this many on our own. We hafta run.”

“All power! We’ll be defenseless!”

“I know.” Lance sighed. “I know.”

“But- the winds.”

The winds in the atmosphere of the Uiar home planet exceeded speeds of hundreds of miles per hour, sometimes thousands.

Without shielding, they would be caught like a leaf in a windstorm. Completely at mother nature’s mercy.

“Check out those rustbuckets out there.” Lance said, gesturing to the side panel in the green lion’s head. Uiada was a backwater Galra outpost. The ships the sentries were supplied with were falling apart at the seams and coated with more rust than paint. They even had to have a plow attached to the bottom to navigate the tunnels, because their ancient thrusters couldn’t hold up the weight of the ships on their own. They were not built for surface-level missions, much less surface-level assaults. “Once we get out of these tunnels, we’re home free. We’ll just hafta switch on the power at just the right moment.”

Pidge shook her head. “This is crazy. I...I can’t believe I’m agreeing with you.” She took in a deep, long breath. “Let’s do this.”

 

Lance grinned the weak, shaky grin of a teenage boy that was watching the ghost of the Reaper wrap its skeletal hands around his throat.“My navigator.”

The internal lights shut off. In their place, the red emergency lights smoldered dimly. They cast a devilish shade on Pidge’s gaunt, blanched face. The planes of her armor, stained with smoke and dirt and blood, appeared black in the diminished light. “All power diverted to thrusters. Activation in three-”

The first shot without shielding hit the hull of the green lion. Pidge nearly flew out of her seat, her helmet ramming into the back of it. Lance fell to his knees, clutching onto the armrest of her chair for dear life. He heard a collective scream of alarm from the refugees below.

“Two-”

Another. Lance’s head slammed into the armrest. His vision went black for a moment.

“One. Go.”

The thrusters roared. The lion shot forward. His eyes rolled back in his head. His dizziness worsened his brain pressed into the back of his skull. His grip on the armrest tightened into a deathgrip. Knuckles creaked against the G-force of the jump of acceleration.

A spot of light appeared at the end of the tunnel. It exploded in size, swallowing the dark tunnel walls around them.

“PIDGE!” Lance grunted. “NOW!”

Her hand slammed into a button on the dash. The sudden slow in acceleration was tantamount to a collision with a brick wall. Lance pitched forward onto his front, and Pidge really did fly out of her seat this time. She struck the dash with her full body and ricocheted to the floor, groaning.

The lights were back on. Lance could hear the howl of the gale-force wind outside, buffeting the green lion’s hull as it rocketed towards the heavens, and into the Castle’s welcoming arms.

Lance and Pidge sat in silence on the floor for a moment in stunned silence.

Then, Pidge giggled quietly. Her giggles escalated into snickers, then laughs, and soon she was howling, Lance right along with her. They laughed on the floor of the cockpit, relieved that blood still pumped through their veins, relieved that they could still feel the ache of injuries everywhere, relieved that they would fight to see another day.

Pidge reached up beneath her helmet to wipe at her streaming eyes. She reached around the seat separating them and offered up a clenched fist for a celebratory fistbump. Lance obliged.

“Way to go, team,” She wheezed.

Lance couldn’t agree more.


They had dropped Yihlel off at Olkarion several weeks ago. And no, Lance did not cry when they said goodbye. Pidge was a liar.

Okay, okay. Fine. Maybe he wasn’t the stone-faced, gallant hero he fantasized about being. If he did have one hero quality, it was that he never broke a promise.

Lance leant against the wall with his hand up to his ear. He had gained the habit of twisting the little white ring while he thought. It was almost an anxious fidget by now.

He had promised her they would reclaim Onul-6. He wasn’t going to break that promise, no matter how long it took.


Red knew how to be lethal in a full-on assault. Lance learned which key enemies to take down and where to be and how to do it. The analytical mind that Blue had nurtured was being sharpened down to a razors edge in Red’s pilot seat. Sniper shots became unerring. Strategy and formation tactics blossomed where the foundation had been laid.

Confidence - the real shit, not an act to preserve his ego - took over his grins and laughs, his every move and calculated gunshot. He had this. He could do it. He’s the sharpshooter, after all.

As much as Red had taught him, Lance still felt wrong in her seat. The way she ‘spoke’ to him- it was so much like Keith’s brash, blunt commands that he had come to wonder if she was speaking to him the way she spoke to Keith.

Some things she wanted to do while in the heat of battle- they were the impulsive, dangerous maneuvers Keith would try to pull off and so unlike Lance’s cautious nature that when Red suggested them it threw him for a loop. Even so, he did love her match-strike reactions. He loved that she was as wild and showy as he was. She was the guardian of fire, after all.

Red’s fire tempered him like deadly steel. She was sharpening his blue eyes into something flinty and cunning. She was guiding him to some unseen goal, watching him grow and pushing him further. He didn’t know what she wanted him to become.

Keith might be Red’s paladin, but Lance was her protégé.


Lance stood in the middle of the starmap display. The universe, lit aqua, green, and purple floated around him, dappling the floor in bright, complex patterns. He watched the Milky Way drift slowly past his face. If he leaned in close, he thought he could see the tiny aqua dot that was Earth.

He swiped his hand, and everything expanded. The Onul-Ke system flew to stop right in front of him. Each of the six viable planets were Galra violet now. Onul-4, a neighbor to Onul-6, was the light lilac color of a planet that had willingly allied themselves with the Galra. Lance scowled at this, taking in the deep violet surrounding Onul-4. Had they sold out their own system?

“Lance?” Someone said behind him.

Lance started and turned. Hunk stood at the entrance to the bridge, still dressed in his formal Altean robes from a few hours earlier. His face was thrown into deep shadow .

“Why are you still up?” Hunk said, walking towards Lance. He stopped once he reached his side, a wide hand resting on Lance’s tense shoulder.

“Oh, you know,” Lance said, forcing a smile, tugging on the delicate gossamer sleeves of his blue formal robes. “Too busy thinking about those aliens that couldn’t keep their eyes off me.”

Hunk shook his head. “C’mon, you know what I mean. I thought you’d be all partied out.”

Lance took in Hunk’s worry-lined forehead, and creased brow. He traced the thick, deep scar that lined Hunk’s jaw from a particularly nasty battle a few weeks ago. Sighing deeply, he looked back at the Onul-Ke system revolving inches from his face. “I couldn’t stop thinking. My brain can’t shut up.”

“About what?”

“Shiro.” Lance muttered. “He’s out there, somewhere. He’s alone. And we can’t do shit.”

Hunk didn’t reply, so Lance kept talking.

“Hell, he might be dead. I don’t know if we’ll ever see him again. We’ve got nowhere to start. That thing in stasis lock on subfloor 3 has told us jack and shit.” Lance swung his arm out to gesture at the entire observable universe. “We’ve only got the entire universe to search.”

“Lance,” Hunk said, in that pacifying, even-toned way that Lance was so familiar with. “Pidge found a lead last week. I don’t think she’s slept a full eight hours since. Allura has been trying to track his quintessence. And I know you know we haven’t seen Keith with the Marmora because he’s been out looking for him. Don’t act like it’s hopeless.”

Lance mulled that over with arms tightly crossed over his chest. “I know you’re right.” He sighed, looking Hunk in the eye. “We just gotta do our best.”

Hunk nodded, clapping a heavy hand on his shoulder.

Lance moved to dismiss the starmap, but something caught his eye once Onul-Ke flew up to its correct position. He squinted at it and moved to stand right under the massive system.

Another system outside the Onul-Ke system flickered purple, with no distress call.

“What is it?” Hunk asked.

Lance tilted his head to the side. “Do you see that?”

“See what?”

Lance pointed at the center of Onul-Ke, eyes still narrowed in thought. “Look at Onul-Ke.”

Lance heard Hunk come to stand at his side, head craned back to stare straight up. “I don’t-” He began, then stopped, held the silence for a good ten seconds, and took in a sharp breath.

“Yup.” Lance said. He didn’t smile.


Onul-Ke was in such a position that it could sway the allegiance of the galaxies near it and provide a massive buffer zone between hubs of Galra activity. It was in the farthest reaches of the Galra empire, but nowhere near as alone as Uiada had been. It was strongly allied with the Alsk system, the Chtel-te system, the Ggnor+gax belt, the heavily populated moons of Fyaryan, the Xco systems, and the black-trade powerhouse of Kpitiq’qa. Each of these planets depended so heavily on the protection and trade deals of the Onul-Ke system that they would do anything to keep them on their side. Onul-Ke, specifically Onul-4 and Onul-6, possessed huge militaries. Onul-5 and Onul-3 were well-known trade planets even to the Galra empire. The systems’ one weakness, though: they were isolated.

Being so far away from the busiest parts of the empire meant that communications were spotty at best and nonexistent at worst. Up until the conquest of Onul-Ke two months earlier, there were a very limited amount of interactions between them and the Galra empire. Only after military superpower Onul-4 allied themselves with the Galra empire did the rest of them truly fall. Lance’s guess was correct. They had sold out the rest of their system- and everybody else’s, too.

If they could reclaim Onul-Ke, they would have a huge swath of universe on their side.

It wasn’t even as impossible as it first seemed- Onul-4 was the cornerstone of this Galra control. If Team Voltron controlled that planet, they change the allegiance of six major populations of aliens. The challenge laid in the size of their military. Onul-4’s military was humongous. Even with the help of the Y’a warriors, the Blade of Marmora, and the rebel fleets, they would be sorely outnumbered. They couldn’t even form Voltron, much less defeat a military tens of billions strong.

The solution laid in the military of Onul-6.

They had to contact a refugee in Olkarion to get the information they needed. She just so happened to have previously been an apprentice to an intergalactic diplomat on her home planet of Onul-4. Yihlel had sprung at the challenge of finding just the right person to help among thousands of refugees, and succeeded greatly. She had introduced this woman as Atnamhaas, apprentice of Haraas, peacekeeper of worlds.

Really. That was her full title.

The first thing Lance noticed when Atnamhaas came into view of the comm screen projected on the castle bridge was that the species in the Onul-Ke system bore a striking resemblance to one another. The only large differences between Yihlel and Atnamhaas was that Atnamhaas’ antennae was thin, her white skin was patterned with complex, swirling designs, and her owlish, monochrome eyes were a deep, navy blue, not lilac. She was also a foot taller than Yihlel, but Yihlel was like... a fetus. So that didn’t count.

Atnamhaas regarded them all with a cool, wary eye. Lance could tell that she had once been a woman of very high standing with the way she tipped her chin high and held her shoulders back, postures that were very incongruous with the ragged clothing she was wearing.

[Greetings, Paladins.] Atnamhaas stated, nodding her head in what was obviously a bow. She was speaking whatever language Yihlel spoke, but had obviously learned it in her diplomat training, as she had an accent. The computer interpreted this accent into English by giving her a very thick Dominican accent. Why Dominican, Lance didn’t know. By the look on Pidge and Hunk’s faces, they were confused by this decision as well. [I hear that you require my assistance.]

“Greetings, apprentice Atnamhaas of Haraas. Yes,” Allura answered, bowing her head in respect. “We wish for you to impart your knowledge of your home planet upon us.”

Allura’s words were carefully measured and calculated. As Allura remembered - with 10,000 year-old information - Onul-Ke planets had a strict power structure, that hinged on age, titles, wealth, and species.

[You need not speak so formally to me, Princess. You are royalty, after all.] Atnamhaas said. Lance thought he saw the side of Atnamhaas’ mouth quirk, if for half a second. [Of what do you wish to learn about my home?]

“You were the diplomat’s apprentice on Onul-4, correct?” Allura asked.

[Yes.] Atnamhaas replied. Lance saw Yihlel peeking at what was going on in the viewscreen a few paces behind Atnamhaas, sheltered behind a crate of some kind. Once she caught Lance’s eye, Yihlel raised her hand in a wave. Lance had to cover his mouth to stifle a laugh. Atnamhaas heard this, and immediately turned. [Hexian child Yihlel, I believe I have requested your exit.]

Yihlel’s joyous expression folded. [Yes, apprentice Atnamhaas. I apologize, apprentice Atnamhaas.]

Atnamhaas watched in silence as Yihlel stalked out of whatever tent the viewscreen was housed in. She sighed deeply and turned back to the viewscreen. [I assume you wish to learn of the government? Perhaps the military? You are attempting to reclaim it, are you not?]

“Anything would help,” Allura answered.

[Well...our world has many nations, but they are all ruled over by one planetary queen. She is greedy, and power-hungry, and proud, and the one who allied herself with the Galra. She is not favored by the people, but they cannot do anything, as the fifty-billion strong military is loyal to the ruler and the ruler only.] She paused. [The queen’s daughter, Iram, has no strong allegiance. If you need help from the inside, I would attempt to gain her trust. She is a kind heart in a snake’s nest.]

“Fif...fifty billion?” Lance squeaked. Atnamhaas’ gaze snapped from Allura to Lance. Her eyes bore deep into his. Her gaze was so intense that Lance began to wonder if her species could mind-read.

[You, with the Hexian ring, did you speak?]

Hunk nudged him forwards. Lance stumbled into the foreground to take his place at Allura’s side.

“Um...yes.” He said, half an octave above his normal speaking voice.

[Hmm.] Atnamhaas squinted at him. [Yes, as I said, blue warrior, there are fifty billion soldiers in the Quatri army. That is why I also recommend you liberate Hexial before conquering Quatri, to gain the allegiance of their army. It numbers at twenty-five billion. Without their numbers, you cannot stand a chance, even with Voltron.]

“We can’t even form Voltron,” Hunk muttered under his breath.

Whatever Atnamhaas had instead of eyebrows shot up in the first raw expression of emotion Lance had seen on this woman’s face. She had somehow heard Hunk’s admission of their weakness.

[Then, truly,] She said, mouth set in a grim line, [the paladins of Voltron stand no chance in the face of Queen Nairam.]


It was getting late, but Lance didn’t feel the slightest bit tired. The soft hum of the ship droned in the background, soft as a whisper but still comforting to hear.

Keith was still talking. His face was staticky and fuzzy on the tiny screen of the video comm, and Lance could hear his voice getting huskier as the hours went by.

He was alone on the lounge sofa now, but earlier he had been surrounded by everyone. They called Keith after dinner, at least once a month, when Keith was done with training for the day. Allura had already been in her dressing-gown and silk slippers by that time. Hunk had exchanged his vest and crop pants for bright yellow, satin pajamas. The only evidence that Pidge had intended on sleeping tonight was the presence of her green lion slippers.

“What?” She had scowled. “I’m cold and they’re cute.”

Keith finished whatever he had been talking about and raised a curious eyebrow at Lance.

“Are you okay?” Keith asked.

“What? Yeah. I’m fine. I just spaced out.”

Even through the fuzziness of the comm screen, Lance could tell that Keith’s skin had gone sallow and pale through months of no sun exposure and severe stress. He had deep hollows under his eyes and new scars on his hands and face and he looked way too old in the eyes for it be healthy. He didn’t need to worry about Lance too.

“Lance.”

“You know we miss you, right?” Lance said, staring off into the darkness beyond the light of the comm screen.

Keith blinked. “Yeah. You guys tell me that every time you call me.”

“Red misses you too.”

Keith sighed and shook his head. “Lance, Black rejected me, and you’re Red’s paladin now. I’m puttin’ myself to use here with the Marmora.”

“You’re not listening to me.” Lance said. He pinned Keith with a determined glare, mouth pulled thin. “You are her paladin. The way she talks to me- Keith, she sounds just like you. You’re her true paladin, whether you like it or not, mullet.”

Keith groaned and looked up at the ceiling, shaking his head. “I’m not takin’-”

“That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that if you ever wanted to come home, you’d be welcomed with open arms.”

“What about you?” Keith said, that edge of challenge back in his voice. “If I did decide to jump ship and come back, you’d have nothin’.”

That stung a little. He’d admit that. At least now he had the knowledge that if Red was to finally reject him, he had a thing.

“I’m the plan guy and the sharpshooter. I’d still kick major ass.”

Keith was quiet for a while. A hand rose up to his newest scar- a short, thick one that carved from his left temple to his eyebrow. The scar was clean and deep, clearly deliberate.

“I’ll think about it.”

“Okay. You can come home any time you like.”

Keith sighed and met Lance’s eyes for the first time in the past two minutes. “I know.”


Ever since he was young, Lance had found solace in the ocean. It was his home away from home. Sometimes, he would let himself drift to bottom of the sandbar and stay there, eyes closed, letting the tide wash over him until his older sister got worried and jumped in to check on him.

Every summer morning in Varadero, Lance awoke to the sounds of seabirds and waves lapping at the shore, bright tropical sunlight spilling through windows and pooling on creaky wood floors - floors that would betray him on his various attempted midnight outings every summer. He’d lamented the lack of a rusty old fire escape like the outside of their apartment building in Queens- he’d used it to sneak out almost every Friday night since ninth grade.

He remembered riding on the streets of Varadero on his abuela’s rusty old hover scooter. He was certain the old engine still hiccoughed along only because of the tropical Cuban humidity during the summers. Whatever boyfriend or girlfriend he had at the time would perch precariously on the back, clutching his waist and laughing in his ear, as Lance chattered to them in Spanish. The hover scooter still wheezed along with this extra weight. Snippets of blue, blue ocean shone bright through gaps in buildings as the hover scooter crawled by. Lance loved to smell the sea air.

The ocean had been his home, but fire was just as beautiful.

Ever since he was young, Lance had been entranced by the destructive beauty of fire. It called to him like the sheer drop off a cliff makes you feel dizzy and just a little excited and a little like jumping off, just to feel freefall. He could feel its heat, but its brightness, how flames licked at the night sky and sent sparks flying up to join the other stars, left him staring.

Fire destroyed towns and reduced great forests to ash. Fire threw smoke into the sky, thick enough to block out the sun and curl, oppressive, over the ravaged black land below. Its passion and wild fury left dark scars on land and orange-bright embers glowing in the skeleton of blackened trees.

The ocean and volcanic earth grounded him to his humanness. He was so, so small in the face of these things. They were infinite in comparison to him- they were here before him, and they would be here long after him.

But There was a reason why Lance joined the Garrison.

He wanted to fly.


With the help of Atnamhaas and Pidge’s freaky computer skills, they were able to contact Princess Iram through a private channel. It turned out that the “private channel” was her personal commscreen in her bedroom, and she was understandably put out at the appearance of an alien princess, one teenage human girl, one middle-aged alien man, and two awkward teenage boys on her comm screen. In fact, she screamed. Quite loudly.

{How did you gain access to this channel!} She trilled, completely in the language of Onul-4. To Lance, the computer interpreted this sudden language change as Dominican Spanish. He wasn’t sure if Pidge and Hunk were hearing Dominican Spanish, too (though he doubted it, as they didn’t appear confused so much as in pain), but his ears were curling up and dying at her sheer volume, magnified by the castle’s speakers, so he couldn’t care less.

Iram was very similar to Atnamhaas, except her skin was stone-grey, and the patterns on her skin were painted gold. She had obviously been midway through washing this gold paint out of her markings before they interrupted her.

Her leaf-like ears and long, thin antennae were weighed down by copious amounts of jewels and precious metals. A delicate golden chain, decorated with small, glittering teardrop gems, decorated her head. Her robes were almost floating around her, their delicate black gossamer layers nearly translucent. A opalescent dagger, the hilt gold and ornately embellished with carvings, shone dully from her belt.

“We pose no threat!” Allura said, throwing her hands in the air. “We simply require your assistance! Please calm down!”

Iram immediately went quiet. She affixed a wary eye on Allura. {Are you Queen Allura of Altea?}

Allura looked a little taken aback at Iram referring to her as ‘queen’. She stuttered for a moment. “Erm, yes. I suppose I am.” She murmured to herself. She shook herself and looked back up at Iram. “We need your help in reclaiming the Onul-Ke system.”

Iram stared, wide-eyed, at the implications of this. She looked between Lance, Coran, and Allura, all in the foreground, and the shadowy figures of Pidge and Hunk not far behind. {Anything for my people’s freedom. What do you require?}


Queen Nairam travelled with a royal guard 1,000 strong. Her other fifty-billion soldiers were staggered across the other seven planets in Onul-Ke, ready to mobilize at moment’s notice for their queen. Even with the help of the Hexian military, if they didn’t put Queen Nairam out of commission and act quickly, they would be overrun by Quatri forces and Iram would not be able to seize the throne from under her mother and gain the loyalty of the Quatri military.

They would need to debilitate the Quatri and Galra presence on the seven other planets in the Onul-Ke system before attempting anything on the queen’s life.

 



Every comm screen in the bridge was occupied. It had split into so many sections that it was beginning to resemble a checkerboard. There were Marmorite leaders (Keith brooded in the background of several of them at once), rebel commanders (including Matt Holt, of course), at least two Y’a generals but Lance lost count amongst the chaos of the commscreen, Lotor (ergh), and of course, Iram and Atnamhaas.

Allura had on her paladin armor and her hair tied up into knot at the back of her head. Severe shadows played on her face from the harsh light of the hologram table, a model of Onul-4’s capital city and the badlands surrounding it. Rocky mesas and buttes surrounded the city, practically walling it in, save for the steep canyons, which were the only entrance points to the city.

Everyone was talking over each other. The Marmorites were arguing about… something, but over the jabber of literally everybody else, Lance couldn’t make out a single word.

“Hello, everyone.” Allura said. Her voice, clear as a bell and commanding, instantly quieted all talking on the comm screens. “I am Princess Allura of Altea, and these are my paladins.” She gestured towards Hunk, Pidge, and Lance.

Lance waved at the panel of no-nonsense military leaders and soldiers.

A few of them bowed at Allura. The Y’a generals did a strange salute where they covered their mouths with both hands, closed their eyes, and nodded.

“Let’s get right down to business,” She said, flaring out her fingers to expand the dimensions of the hologram. The eight planets of Onul-Ke revolved in front of her (Onul-1 and Onul-2 lit grey, as they were dead planets), completely violet. “The Onul-Ke system is strategically advantageous to our cause. Its position and influence on half a dozen is so great that, under our influence, we would have a vast swath of universe on our side. Its conquest would be beneficial to all of those who are present. Iram, you could free your people from a tyrannical ruler. The Marmorites and the rebel leaders would have scores more people on their side. Y’a and its subsidiaries would have many more trading partners than before.”

“Its isolation puts it at a defensive disadvantage, as well as the low Galra presence. The military of the planet Onul-4 are serving as their attack dogs.” She continued. “We need a plan that utilizes all resources we have at our disposal. The quicker we gain control of the viable six planets, the less likely Galra reinforcements will be able to take it back. Onul-4 is the cornerstone of this, and the most sensitive part of the operation.”

Iram spoke up from her screen, her voice low, as though she was trying to avoid being heard. {You must liberate the Hexian army before entering Quatri. If any alarm is set off on Quatri’s surface near my mother, the soldiers across the system will spring into action to defend her. We do not have enough soldiers to fight a winning battle against Quatri without Hexial.}

Allura tapped on Onul-6 and expanded it so they were all looking at a holographic rendering of the planet’s surface. It was fuzzy, but Lance could see hundreds of low-lying, perfectly circular islands in the middle of salt flats, the shallow water on top mirror-like in an unseen sunset.

Atnamhaas spoke this time. {The Galra have crippled Hexial’s chain of command. The army lies docile with their leaders under threat of death. Once you free the leaders, the army will spring into action.}

“What defenses lie on Hexial’s surface?” A female Marmorite asked, from the top left corner. If Lance squinted, he could see part of Keith’s elbow in that frame.

Allura ran a scan. Altean text appeared at her side, scrolling over the salt flats and highlighting certain parts of the Galra base.

Lance spaced out for a good portion of Allura’s speech, staring listlessly as the salt flats of Onul-6 disappeared in exchange for rocky landscape of Onul-7 and the wintry mountains of Onul-8. The Marmorites were assigned to these sparsely populated planets, mainly because of their relatively small numbers in comparison to the other allied groups.

“I do apologize,” Allura said, to the Marmorites. “I understand that with so little soldiers, reclaiming Onul-7 and Onul-8 will be quite a difficult task. We can split some of the Y’a forces, if you require more help.”

“No,” A male Marmorite said. “Our soldiers are disciplined. They can handle this. They understand the dangers, and are willing to die at a moment’s notice for the cause.”

With that, Keith stood up and left every single one of the Marmora screens.

Lance spaced out for the Y’a assignments and strategies on Onul-6’s salt flats and islands, and Onul-5’s rainforest cities, places that had a higher Galra presence than Onul-3 and Onul-4.

Onul-4 was next. The rebel commanders jumped at this one. Their love for chaotic fights and their small numbers meant they would be perfect for going against the 1,000 strong royal guard and royal handmaidens.

Princess Iram commanded the attention of everyone in the room once Onul-4’s landscape appeared. {The only opportunity we would have on my mother’s life would be on her journey to the royal hangar. She is a busy woman, and her transport ships lie in the hangar. She traverses the distance from her palace in the city to the hangar almost daily, for diplomatic meetings elsewhere on Onul-4. The caves in the walls of the canyons as well as the canyon walls would provide excellent cover for troops in hiding as well as snipers. A sniper would allow for an advantage on the royal forces. Take down my mother, then overwhelm the royal guard.}

A vaguely amphibious rebel commander spoke up when Allura began to position grey blocks symbolizing the rebel troops. /We have no formally trained snipers on hand. Our sniper division was crippled on Klali several weeks ago, and the ones that are left are occupied in a firefight on Hojj./

Well, isn’t that convenient.

Lance stepped up to the holotable and made direct eye contact with the froggy rebel commander. “I’m the guy you need.”

/You?/ The commander asked, scratching their head.

To answer, Lance summoned his rifle and laid it on the holotable. “You betcha.”

“Problem solved,” Matt Holt grinned, nudging someone offscreen. A human elbow entered the froggy commander’s screen four screens away and nudged them in the arm. The froggy commander scowled and swatted him away. Allura pushed Lance’s rifle off the table and into his waiting arms.

Allura continued to position rebel forces in caves along the route to the royal hangar, under Iram’s instruction.

“Lance?” She said, a red peg that was obviously Lance floating in front of her finger.

Lance blinked. “What?”

“Where do you think would provide a good vantage point for you? I’m not exactly a sniper myself.”

He looked at her open, honest face for a few more ticks, before turning to the holotable. He could feel so many eyes on him as he stared at each sheer cliff, bluff, and canyon around the hangar.

“There,” Lance said, poking a finger at a butte quite close to the royal hangar, right behind a rock formation that would hide him from watchful eyes, as long as they didn’t look too far up, tilt their head to the side a little, and squint- and if he kept quiet.

Iram hummed and nodded in agreement at this position.

Everyone on the screen began to talk amongst themselves. Allura took this moment to let her shoulders sag and formal veneer slip a little, taking in a deep breath.

Lance knew that expression. She was stressed beyond belief.

“Hey,” Lance whispered, laying his hand on her shoulder. “You’re doing great.”

Allura sighed and gave him a small smile. “Thank you, Lance.”

The strategizing continued on for several more minutes. In the reflection of the shiny holotable, Lance could see Pidge was almost asleep against Hunk’s frame, slouched against his arm and barely standing.

“I will accompany the Y’a into the on assault Onul-5, and the yellow and green paladins will aid the assault on Onul-6. Iram, once you get the rebels’ message, you must act quickly. The allegiance of Onul-4 depends on you.” Allura said, clenching her fist. Onul-4 zoomed out to reveal the other eight planets in Onul-Ke. Lance heard Hunk squawk quietly behind him at his sudden inclusion in these plans, and Lance had to physically stop himself from turning around and grinning at him. “We wish you all luck in your battles. Sun and moons guide you.”

A few bowed. The Y’a did their odd salute. The rebels did salute. Iram and Atnamhaas laid a hand on their chest and bowed out of frame.

All of the screens cut out. The bright glow of the comm screens was replaced by the soft ambience of starlight.

“Sun and moons guide us,” Allura whispered to herself, still hunched over the table. Coran took her by the arm and that was that.


They arrived in the Onul-Ke system.

The massive red giant of this system filled the bridge with a hellish red glow, casting long, deep shadows across the polished floor. They stared out the front window at the massive sun, allied ships silhouettes against the red as they arrived from warp drives and wormholes. The eight planets were dark, black splotches, stark through red light.

Lance couldn’t move for a few moments. The sight of that massive red sun rooted him to the spot. Its eye stared him down, red upon the red paladin.

He turned and saw his team staring, just as he had been, in frightened awe of this monstrous alien star. Pidge and Hunk had their faces slack with shock and disbelief, skin washed out where scarlet strokes didn’t touch. Allura’s brow was creased, her teeth grit tightly and fists clenched at her sides. Coran stood at her side, a stabilizing hand on her shoulder.

He looked between each of their faces and realized just what he had to do.

“Guys,” Lance said. His voice echoed in the emptiness of the bridge. “We can do this. We’ve got this.”

“We’re Voltron. We can do anything we put our minds to.” He walked past Allura, clapping her shoulder, past Pidge and Hunk, nudging them sharply with bony elbows and a sly grin.

Lance shouted, out of nowhere. “I SAY VOL, YOU SAY TRON! VOL!”

“VOLTRON!” Hunk answered, barely able to hold in his nervous giggles.

“I don’t think I heard everybody! VOL!”

“VOLTRON!” Pidge and Hunk replied, throwing their arms in the air, Coran yelling just as loud. Allura added in a very regal, but nonetheless enthusiastic, reply.

Lance’s grin grew even wider. He shoved his helmet on his head, and declared, “Let’s go kick some Galra ass.”


Kolivan was mostly silent for the entirety of the Marmorites’ battles on Onul-7 and Onul-8, but that was to be expected, as the only Galra presence on those planets were little outposts, with small stores of weapons. The main populace on those planets were pacifistic people, and generally just went with the flow. The planets were also very small and sparsely populated. The only updates Kolivan gave were tersely worded memos about their victories, and nothing else.

The Y’a generals were keeping to themselves, but their trackers showed their steady approach to the completely unprepared Galra bases on Onul-3 and Onul-5. The 100,000 Galra on each planet were not prepared for the hordes of Y’a they were about encounter.

Hunk’s harried, grinning face came onto screen, his visor cracked and his skin shining with sweat. Explosions rumbled in the background. The huge shadow of the green lion passed overhead, and accompanying it, Pidge whooped over the comms.

“It worked.” He exclaimed. Another huge shadow, this one the shape of which was extremely irregular, darkened the explosions behind him for a moment. Then, a creature of which both English and Spanish could only describe as ‘dragon’ burst out of the flames, a Hexian battle cruiser soaring underneath it. “They’re all out- this isn’t gonna last long. This is a curbstomp if I ever saw one-”

Hunk’s eyes focused on something offscreen, and the smile on his face faltered. “Ah, hell, I gotta go-”

The comm screen cut out. The miniature star map, held in Lance’s hand, showed that half of this system was now either aqua or green. Onul-6 was flickering between purple and green, more green as time went on.

Lance turned to Matt Holt, mouth set into a grim line, and nodded.

Matt Holt grabbed the flight sticks and plunged their podship into orbit, other rebel ships following close behind.



The tiny rebel podships touched down miles outside of the capital on top of a plateau, to avoid detection from any scanners. Cool wind howled through the canyons below. The sheer cliffs inches from Lance’s feet braced against the wind, ancient and unyielding.

Matt studied the map projected from the holowatch on his wrist. His face was lined and stern, normally light-hearted nature thrown out the window. He muttered to another commander next to him, an alien who looked vaguely amphibious.

“Lance, we’re going to get into position. Are you gonna be okay on your own?” He said, half-turned to him.

Lance hiked his bayard onto his shoulder. “Yeah, I got this. Go.”

Matt tapped his hand to his temple and saluted Lance goodbye. Lance replied in kind.

With Matt’s order, the rebels started hopping off the sheer cliffs into the steep, cold canyons below. One by one, they disappeared behind tall, grey canyon walls, whooping and jeering, their voices’ echo deadened by the rock around them. Howling wind drowned out every holler and footstep on the hard rock floor.

Lance studied his map once more and took his spot just behind a rock formation on the plateau. He would be inches from the sheer cliff at the edge of the plateau.

The area outside the city was reminiscent of the desert of the American southwest . The Quatri badlands were split with grey mesas and buttes, all tightly packed together and leaving steep canyons between each landform. The land was dead. Even the sounds of the city miles away had been deadened by whatever type of rock the landforms were made of.

The rebels went quiet.

Several minutes passed in dead silence, the only noise coming from the helmet Lance had taken off and set into the dirt at his side.

Rhythmic footsteps, slightly dulled by the canyon walls, began to echo down the passageway. It was the handmaidens and the royal guard.

Lance gasped in one long, deep breath, and activated his bayard.

Cool, dry wind buffeted Lance’s sweaty hair, blowing it across his dirt-smudged face. He crouched behind the rock outcropping, sniper rifle held tightly between shaking knees. He leaned his forehead against the barrel, hearing the hum of energy beneath its surface.

He heard the muffled voices of the troop commanders coming from his helmet, sitting in the grey dirt at his side. He reached over and quickly flicked off the comms.

Everything was silent. The wind whistling through ancient rock provided a haunting background to his harsh, ragged breaths, stifled by one hand. He took in one long, deep breath, raised his rifle to his shoulder, and peered around the rock outcropping, rifle at the ready.

There was a huge cluster of handmaidens down in the canyon. They all wore matching white dresses, in much coarser fabric than the gossamer of Iram and Nairam’s gowns, and walked with their heads tipped down, eyes alert. As docile and unthreatening as they looked, as Lance peered through his scope, he could see the glitter of blades shoved into belt loops and long trench spikes disguised as simple metal earrings. Behind these handmaidens were squadrons of heavily armored soldiers, marching in straight formation, their heavy steps echoing through the canyon.

Queen Nairam walked far in front of them, flanked on every side by a single handmaiden. Her scarlet robes flowed behind her in the cool desert wind, golden tassels and chains clinking softly together. She had on an elaborate crown-scarf hybrid, finely knit fabric blowing behind her like hair. Her face was heavily painted in gold and carmine, in the same way Iram’s markings had been.

Lance readied his finger on the trigger. It tightened for a moment, then stopped.

Lance was not a genius in any traditional sense of the word. He couldn’t compute difficult math problems in his head like Pidge or Hunk could. He wasn’t a naturally gifted pilot like Keith. He wasn’t a genius engineer. In fact, his math and science scores on the Garrison entrance exam were nothing to write home about.

Lance, however, was perceptive, and people-smart. While his math scores sat comfortably in the mid-range, his logic and reasoning scores had surprised even himself. They had been the highest numbers on his post-assessment sheet.

It was because of this perceptiveness that Lance hesitated. There was something in the way Queen Nairam held herself that rubbed him wrong. Her head was tipped forward slightly, her hands clasped in front of her legs as she walked.

Lance squinted at this. His window to take the shot was closing rapidly. Every foot that the Queen closed between herself and the hangar was another second lost.

He scanned the cluster of handmaidens several paces behind her. Each one had their heads tipped down, hands clasped in front of their chests, except...that one.

One handmaiden had her head just a little bit higher than the others. Instead of scanning their surroundings, her eyes were focused straight ahead on Queen Nairam. In her ears glittered ornate gem earrings, which no other handmaiden possessed.

Lance remembered what Atnamhaas had said to them- that Nairam was proud, and greedy.

He watched the handmaiden for a second longer before it hit him.

It’s a decoy.

Lance lined his scope up with the proud handmaiden, let out a long breath, and shot. There was a long moment of silence, a string pulled taught between skeletal hands, an impossibly long second- and then it broke.

Nairam fell, a thick stream of iridescent blue staining her stone-grey skin.

The handmaidens around her stared in shock as she fell. Then, one screamed - not in fear, but a terrifying, high-pitched death wail that Lance had to clap his hands over his ears to endure. The neat lines they had been walking in fell into chaos. “Queen Nairam” was crouched at the fallen handmaiden’s side, hands scrabbling on her cheeks. He fumbled for his helmet and turned on the comms. This was a mistake.

Everyone watching did not know about the decoy. Lance had just shot and killed an innocent handmaiden, given away his position by doing so, and flubbed the whole mission. In short- they were freaking out. This was not a quiet freaking out.

His hand froze on his helmet. “Oh, shit.”

One of the handmaidens, nearest to the canyon wall, looked up, up, up, and met Lance’s eyes. Her face went blank for a moment, then contorted into something ugly and grotesque. She ripped the trench spike from her ear membrane and flung it at the outcropping Lance was peeking out from.

A flash of silver blurred past him. At first, a thin strip bisecting his right eyebrow went numb, then a pain seared through it down to his cheekbone.

Lance shouted and slapped his hand to his eye. He jerked around to take cover behind the rock outcropping his rifle was laid against. His breath punched out of him as he separated his hand from his eye. His palm was shining and wet with blood. Thick, ruby droplets dripped from his face and into the grey dust at his side.

“That’s not good,” He muttered. Shouting, female voices echoed from the steep canyon below. He grabbed his helmet and shoved it on his head.

Matt Holt was shouting at him, his voice trembling. Chaos filled the background of the comm call to such a degree that Lance could barely understand him. “Lance! What was that?! Where are you?! What happened?!”

Blood was dripping heavily into his eye. He could hear the voices down below in the canyon getting less frantic and more angry. “It was a decoy. I need extraction right now. I’m injured, compromised, and the plan is go.”

Matt went quiet for a moment. Then, he was shouting at someone behind him, a fearsome roar went up from the rebel’s hiding places in the canyon, and the screams of anger and mourning became battle cries. He could hear clanging metal and gunshots, screaming and the death wails of the most dutiful handmaidens still mourning at Nairam’s side.

He heard ion engines growing closer, and in a plume of grey dirt, a rebel hoverbike appeared before him. Some humanoid alien was astride it, their face hidden by their helmet, and a ragged black cloak pulled over dark rebel armor. They motioned for him to get on, and he did so. He deactivated his bayard and they were off, the grey ground of the mesa blurring under his feet.

Half of his vision was blurred red and stinging. He could feel his heartbeat pounding a scarlet tattoo in whatever injury had happened to his eye.

“First aid?”

The alien tapped the bag strapped to their thigh. Lance dug around in it, and found only small, almond-shaped devices, the seams of which were glowing purple.

Lance pulled his helmet off and clenched it between his thighs. He held the little device up to his wound, and with a click and a hiss, it clamped his skin shut. He could feel his skin get pulled back together. He had to suppress a gag at this feeling and wiped at the blood congealing on his eye, pulling his helmet back on as the hoverbike grew farther and farther from the ground. The deep crevasses in the planet’s surface grew smaller and smaller, soon becoming little cracks in smooth stone.

“You’re welcome.” The alien said. In English. In a very familiar baritone.

“Keith?!” Lance squeaked. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“I’m takin’ you back to the Castle.”

“Y...you know what I mean.” Lance said, slapping him on the shoulder. “Why aren’t you with the Marmora, man?”

Keith was quiet. He shrugged a little, revved the engine, sending them surging forward, and said, “You said I could come home anytime I like.” His hand went up to the temple his short, thick scar marred, his fingertips blocked by the dark glass of his helmet.

“Well, yeah,” Lance said. “I’m just...why did you leave? How did you get here?”

Keith didn’t have the time to answer. A shot of energy, powerful enough Lance felt the heat through his flight suit, rammed into the bottom of the hoverbike. The hoverbike pitched to the side so violently that Lance had to throw his arms around Keith’s waist to avoid falling to his certain death. Jesus Christ, whose bright idea was it to forgo seatbelts on these things?

“What the fuck was that!” Keith shouted, accelerating even faster.

“A really, really big bird,” Lance yelled in response, craning his neck around to see behind them.

A single royal fighter ship flew behind them. Its hull was scarred and scratched, deep gouges carved into its silver. And they were staring down the business end of its ion cannon.

A cannon that was currently charging up for another shot.

“KEITH, BANK HARD LEFT!” Lance shouted in his ear.

Keith roared and yanked the hoverbike to the side, so they were soaring through the air at a ninety degree angle, and Lance was staring straight down at the planet’s surface, miles of freefall between them and death.

The ion cannon fired. Its energy came close enough that Lance was sure it would’ve singed his eyebrows off without his helmet.

“Go, go, go!” Lance chanted, slapping Keith on the back. Keith slapped his arm away.

“What the hell do you think I’m tryin’ to do!” Keith shouted, jerking the hoverbike down into a straight decline. ‘This thing doesn’t have guns!”

Lance paused.

“I do.” He muttered to himself. He summoned his bayard, narrowing his eyes at the red highlights.

“I’ve got an idea!” He yelled. “Don’t let me fall!”

“What?!” Keith levelled out the bike and dodged another very close ion blast.

“I said, don’t let me fall!”

“You know, I’m real tempted-”

“Keith!”

“Lance!”

“I’m about to do something really badass, so Don’t. Let. Me. Fall!”

Keith, or Keith’s rebel helmet, turned to look at him. “Wait, what-”

 

Lance relinquished his death grip around Keith’s waist and swung his leg over the seat so he was sitting side-saddle. Now was not a good time to be reminded they were going a huge fucking number of miles per hour at a huge fucking number of miles above the ground, but his brain decided to do so anyway.

The rushing grey ground under his feet seemed to shrink away.

Breathe, he told himself.

He swung his other leg around the seat so he was sitting back-to-back with Keith. He summoned his gun, bringing it up to his eye.

He focused on the glass face on the front of the ship.

You can do this.

With the hoverbike jerking and shaking under him, Lance took in a deep breath, and took the shot.

It went straight through. The glass shattered and the cockpit blew up in a massive bloom of red fire. Lance could feel the heat even as the hoverbike drew away. The ship fell back as though it had just stopped in midar, spiralling down to the ground in a plume of black smoke .

“I just saved our lives. Thank you, Lance!-” (he did a comedic imitation of Keith’s rough baritone here, which he believed was pretty damn good) “-Oh, you’re so welcome, Keith.” Lance said, deactivating his bayard, whipping around so he could sit normally and actually start to breathe at a regular rhythm.

Keith shook his head, laughing a little.

They kept drawing up higher and higher into the sky. The air grew so thin that Lance’s full-face visor appeared, and his lungs filled with stale suit air.

“You didn’t answer my question earlier,” Lance said, fingers twitching on its grip on the sides of the seat.

Keith’s shoulders sagged. He hummed in reply, shrugging.

They were quiet for a little while longer. The hoverbike passed the highest level of clouds, and suddenly they were flying above deep grey storm clouds, heavy with rain and static.

“Well, I got here because I stole a Marmora hoverbike and skipped town,” Keith stated, patting the hull of the hoverbike. Only then did Lance realize that the color scheme of this bike was not rebel in origin, but the black-and-purple of the Marmorites.

“But why?”

Keith didn’t answer.

“I’m not gonna laugh you off the bike or anything, man.”

The dew droplets on the bike from their ride in the clouds began to freeze around them. Ice crackled and spread down the black metal.

“I, um,” Keith cleared his throat, hand going up to his temple again. “I don’t like to leave teammates behind if I can help it. They didn’t like that very much.”

Lance hummed, studying the ornate ice designs crawling up the planes of his breastplate and cuisses.

“I missed seeing your ugly mug.” Lance said, jabbing Keith in the back (he grunted at the bony finger digging into his side).

“Whatever, Lance.” Keith scoffed, but Lance could hear the smile in his voice.

They exited the atmosphere. The blue sky went jet-black and distant stars splotched overhead.
Far in the distance, Onul-6 and Onul-7 were silhouetted with explosions. The blurry shapes of Hexial battleships and the blue, green, and yellow lions were tiny dots in plumes of orange. The sound didn’t carry across vacuum, but Lance felt like he could hear the deep rumble across the system.

“We need to hurry,” Lance said. He was unable to tear his eyes away from the carnage hundreds of millions of miles away.

“I know,” Keith replied, pressing buttons in front of him. “Inertia shielding on, max speed set.”

Lance took those mutterings to mean he had better grab onto something, and he did so. Keith pressed another button, and they shot off, the stars blurring as they approached the distant Castle at hundreds of thousands of miles per hour. With inertia shielding, this speed just felt like they were on a really fast roller coaster, as opposed to instant death.

“Coran!” Lance exclaimed into his comms.

“What is it, my boy?” Coran called right back. Explosions rumbled in the background. Oh, right, Coran was running support in the castle.

“Open the hangar! Keith and I are coming in!”

“Will do!”

Keith pressed a few more buttons, and their approach slowed to a much more manageable pace. They passed through the particle barrier and rocketed into the open ship bay, skidding to a stop on polished white floor. A long, black streak followed the tail end of the hoverbike, covering the smooth white in an ugly scrape of black. The hangar door slammed shut.

Keith jumped off the bike and ripped off his rebel helmet. His dark hair sprung from its confines, sweaty and partially plastered to a ruddy forehead. He panted for a few seconds, taking in the clear, cool Castle air.

Lance reached up and flicked on his team comms, disentangling himself from the bike.

“Lance, we need you, buddy-” Hunk was saying. He was cut off by his own grunt and a screech of metal.

“Shit, okay,” Lance exclaimed, finally stumbling away from the bike. “We gotta go, Keith.”

“I gathered,” Keith deadpanned.

They ran off into the Castle sublevel hallways, footsteps echoing off high metal walls. Lance passed Yellow and Green’s hangars, silent in stark comparison to the yelling in his comms.

“Geez, dude, you smell like shit,” Lance said, squinting at Keith.

“Fight your way out of a canyon on a hoverbike and come back to me, see if you smell like fuckin’ roses,” Keith growled. They skidded around the corner.“Everything that comes out of your mouth is shit.”

“Hmmph,” Lance grunted, moving his elbow to subtly ram Keith in the shoulder.

They stopped right in front of Red’s hangar.

She towered above them, red particle barrier sending a rosy glow over their sweaty faces. Lance felt her deep growl rumble through the floor. He began to approach her, Keith following close behind, his rebel helmet held in a loose grip.

Forty feet. The particle barrier remained.

Thirty feet. The particle barrier remained.

Twenty feet. The particle barrier remained.

Ten feet. The particle barrier remained. Lance’s heart dropped.

Five feet. The particle barrier remained.

One foot. The particle barrier remained. Lance extended a single, shaking hand and rested it against the curvature of the particle barrier. It felt cold under his fingers.

Lance took off his helmet and dropped it at his side. It rolled a few inches and rested against Keith’s dirty greaves. Tinny voices continued to come from its internal speakers.

Lance rested his head forehead against the particle barrier, shutting his eyes tight. He took several long, deep breaths.

“Lance?” Keith asked, reaching out to lay a hand on Lance’s shoulder.

Lance sighed and patted the barrier, craning his head back to look up at Red, her eyes dark and impassive. “I knew this was coming. See ya, Red.” Lance muttered to empty eyes.

He pulled back and turned to Keith, smiling sadly. Firecracker eyes peered into his, expression blank and arms slack at his sides. He summoned his bayard, gave it one long look, and held it out between them.

“C’mon,” Lance urged, jiggling the bayard.

Keith hesitated.

“I know you can hear her,” Lance sighed, pushing Keith’s bayard further into Keith’s personal space bubble.

Keith’s hand lifted, hesitated, then wrapped loosely around the opposite end.

“Godspeed, red paladin,” Lance said.

Keith smiled a little, his grip tightening on the handle. Lance let go. His fingers were left hovering in midair.

The particle barrier behind him melted away.

A distant roar shook the castle.

Keith and Lance froze, staring straight into each other’s eyes, fiery black and ocean-deep blue widened and accompanying faces blank with shock.

There was only one other lion in the castle.

Lance’s knees went a little weak with the flush of adrenaline that soared through his breathless chest. His hair stood on end. A swooping, soaring, flying feeling seized his belly.

“But...you…” Lance sputtered, gaze not leaving Keith’s sallow face.

Keith recovered from his shock much quicker than Lance did. A sly grin brightened his dull complexion, firecracker eyes sparking anew. He slapped Lance’s arm.

“Godspeed, Lance.” He stepped aside and walked up to Red, who growled low in her throat, joints creaking as she leaned down to take Keith in her mouth.

Lance stood there for a few more moments, frozen.

“Get a move on, cargo pilot!” Keith shouted from Red’s mouth.

That made Lance scoop up his helmet and start sprinting out of the hangar. He cast a glance over his shoulder, where he could see Red’s eyes start to glow like embers. She opened her mouth wide. A triumphant roar, deep and wild and joyous, shook the ground beneath his feet.

Ever since he was young, Lance was entranced by the destructive beauty of fire.

He passed Blue’s empty hangar.

Ever since he was young, Lance had found solace in the ocean.

But he joined the Garrison because he wanted to fly.

Ever since he was young, the sky was what filled him with awe and wonder. It was vast and beautiful, sky blue or storm grey or night black and sprayed thick with silver stars. Storms sent rain and beautiful, terrible arcs of blinding lightning, carving down ancient trees and flashing black clouds white. Thunder rumbled with it, a god’s angry voice sending down their wrath in the form of bolts.

Beyond the sky was space, endless, uninhibited, and all at once wonderful and frightening. He hadn’t known what had laid beyond the moon and familiar constellations, constellations he had gazed up at from the ground for seventeen years, a tiny ant to the universe.

The sky was a promise. It was a promise for adventure. It was a promise for exploration, to soar like a bird in a huge expanse of blue.

The sky swallowed him up in its arms and Lance embraced the universe as a warrior.

He could feel power under his hands and a soaring in his heart. He was the ocean’s boy, hewn from storm and fire and fighting a war with the sky in his eyes.

He jerked to a stop in front of Black’s hangar. Her eyes were aglow, staring straight through him, shaking and trembling and panting. He was weak in her powerful gaze.

He stared up at her with his mouth agape.

“Me?” Lance said.

She growled.

“But...I’m just a boy from Cuba.”

He knew that was wrong the moment it came out of his mouth.

He was Hunk’s best friend. He was Keith’s right hand man. He was Pidge’s big brother. He was Allura’s confidant and strategy partner. He was Shiro’s sharpshooter. He was Coran’s son.

He was Lance. He was enough.

“...Why me?” Lance whispered.

Black sent memories flashing across his mind.

Issuing commands to his team. Strategizing battle plans. Digging his finger into not-Shiro’s chest and questioning his leadership. Staring out the window for hours, watching space pass by. Throwing himself in front of Yihlel and taking the mace hit himself. Piloting Red and piloting Blue with smile on his face. Getting the team to smile in the face of hardships. Staring down from a cliff, picking off sentries one by one, sniper shots unerring. Leading the team into battle.

Keith, smiling at him. Godspeed, Lance.

Allura, voice echoing. You value a strong team over your own need for glory.

Pidge. What should I do?

Hunk, laughing in the middle of near-hopeless battle, because of Lance. Thanks, man.

Shiro. Good job. That’s why we bring our sharpshooter.

He could almost hear Black’s voice.

You have grown so much, little paladin. You have become the leader you were meant to be. You have earned the trust of my sisters. You have earned the trust and respect of your team.

Lance took a step back. His heartbeat thundered in his ears.

I trust you.

He held his helmet in shaky hands. The voices of his comms had gone nearly quiet.

“Black paladin,” Lance breathed.

Black gave an encouraging growl.

“Black paladin,” Lance said, stronger now.

A wide grin split his face. He could feel soaring, flying in his chest. The storm was under his fingers. The sky was in his heart.

“Thank you,” Lance smiled. He shoved the helmet on his head and grinned up at Black. “Lance Suarez-Famosa, black paladin.”

He stepped forward. Black dropped her head and opened her maw.

“Let’s do this.”

Lance sprinted into her mouth, whooping. Once he was safely inside, Black reared her head back in a ground-shaking roar.


Weeks later, Lance caught his reflection in a polished section of castle wall.

The stark black-and-white contrast of the black paladin’s armor was a shock against brown skin. Instead of Shiro standing there, confidence and sure leadership glowing like embers in his eyes, was Lance. Lance Suarez-Famosa, a lanky, awkward boy from Cuba, stood with joy in his eyes and confidence in his stance, wearing the armor of a leader.

His shoulders were squared and his chin was lifted, a posture so completely unfamiliar to Lance that he almost took a step back from the reflection. Higher, his lifted chin and sure set of his jaw accompanied fierce blue eyes under an intense brow. A confident smirk, now faltering slightly, graced his mouth. His right eyebrow was bisected by a thin, white scar, and short sharp scar marred the smooth skin on the corner of his jaw. The Hexian ring still glinted dully from his left ear, scratched and tarnished from months of exposure to alien atmospheres and the hardships of battle.

He turned. His team stood behind him. Keith, with the renewed life in his face and firecracker eyes back to full brightness, black hair long enough to be pulled back into a short ponytail now, shared a sort of secret grin with him. Allura, looking regal and powerful, her hair sheared to her chin, her silver curls bouncing around her elegant face, tucked a ringlet behind a sharp ear. Pidge, hair down past her shoulders now, glasses opaque in the bright light, cheeks glowing with excitement and pride, nudged Hunk with her elbow, giggling about something. Hunk, hair pulled back by his headband, the strings trailing down his back and one half-obscuring the long scar on his jaw and neck, threw his head back in an infectious laugh, eyes screwed shut with mirth. Coran stood behind them all, looking directly at Lance with a strange look in his eye. Coran nodded, smiling.

Lance took this in, and let a crooked grin grow across his face.

He felt like soaring. He felt like flying. He felt the wonder and scale of the sky, stars winking down upon them, feeling so small yet so limitless at the same time.

He found solace in the galaxy.

He found home in them.