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Devil in the Eye (We’re the Gladiators)

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Keith

Three Weeks On the Castle of Lions

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Keith slid into the hanger, using his momentum to steer him directly towards the nearest ship — the fastest transport outside of the Lions. He had just punched the door open when Lance crashed in beside him, breathing heavily, still in his pyjamas. Keith didn’t acknowledge him. He flung himself inside the ship, tripping over feet that were encased in hastily thrown on boots. He leapt into the pilot seat, giving Lance only half a second to strap himself in before Keith fired up the thrusters.

 

They hit the planet surface two minutes later. Keith launched himself out of the chair and out the door.

 

Cool, fresh air, carrying the scent of wet grass, filled his nose and then his lungs. He could feel each breath, painfully aware of his ribcage expanding and contracting.

 

Dropping to his knees, he braced his hands against the damp soil, digging his nails in, grounding himself. His panic made each inhale sharp, every exhale too short, his head throbbing in time. Closing his eyes didn’t help. He collapsed onto his side, rolling to stare upwards. The breeze, the sky, the ground seeping cold into his thin shirt and pants …

 

Gradually, the spinning ceased. The throb in his head eased. Keith stared at the stars — he knew two skies, had their constellations emblazoned in his mind. This sky was strange, but he could reach out with his hand, his fingers could almost touch …

 

Lance wasn’t at his side. He stood somewhere nearby — Keith could feel his particular stillness.

 

Keith’s arm fell back to the ground, and both his hands dug into it, clinging as though he would fall from the land otherwise.

 

He didn’t think about going back to the Castle; Keith put the room he shared with Lance out of his mind. Instead, he imagined climbing onto the back of whatever beasts lived on this world and riding to an abandoned house, carving out another life — the kind that put dirt under nails and new scars on skin, but not quite so lethal as their life as The Two McClains … had been.

 

A breath that wasn’t his own, and the fantasy vanished, carried away on the wind. Lance reached across the distance with measured steps. He folded himself down next to Keith, the heat of his body only just reaching the distance between them. Keith took in a lungful of air before turning onto his side and pushing himself up with two hands. He deliberately kept the small ship out of his peripheral vision. He looked at Lance under the light of this moon — a peculiar greyish-blue.

 

Lance’s eyes were alien here, more so than Keith’s, and faintly glowing. He didn’t say a word, waiting with a patience that Keith had earned after two years of working alongside him as a Paladin, and then a year (an eternity) as a mercenary. He didn’t know if Lance the Paladin or Lance the Mercenary stared at him now. Keith didn’t know who was staring back at Lance either. The reflection of himself in those strange blue eyes offered no answers.

 

“We can stay for a while,” Lance said at last.

 

Keith took in several deep breaths before nodding. “Right here.”

 

“Okay.” Lance stood up slowly and walked back to the ship.

 

Keith stared off across the field towards a huge tree nearby, which was heavy with oval-shaped leaves of bright green and turquoise. He struggled to his feet, taking uneven steps to it. The bark was smooth like birch. Keith slid down to sit against that silky trunk.

 

His muscles ached. He and Lance had been training hard for the last couple of weeks, trying to remember what it felt like to fight with armour on, with more advanced weaponry, and against robots that didn’t shed blood. The gladiator ’bots didn’t feel … real enough, so more often than not, he and Lance fought against each other.

 

It was probably the only time of day where Keith could completely clear his mind of everything except staying alive. They’d done serious damage to their gear during these spars; thankfully, the Castle had a repairing unit within the armoury. Moreover, everyone respected their private training sessions. No one ever saw how brutally they treated the equipment — or each other — while sparring. Fighting. Real. Uncompromising. Violent.

 

No one had witnessed them bruised, with helmets knocked off and with weapons poised a hair’s breadth from a lethal blow. No one had seen the wreckage of the training arena or caught sight of the odd blood splatter when they landed a hit.

 

Until today.

 

Earlier in the afternoon, Lance and Keith had tried to fight with the upgraded robots again — and they’d destroyed two gladiators beyond repair. Pidge’s face when they’d told her, when they’d shown her the damage … She hadn’t believed them at first — she’d thought they were joking. Then her eyes … Her gaze brought forth a nauseating swirl of guilt and angry resentment in his stomach. Keith had ended the conversation awkwardly by ignoring Pidge and asking Lance that they eat dinner in their room. Again. For the third time this week.

 

Back in the present and down on this peaceful planet, Lance returned with an emergency kit, several blankets and a couple of pillows. Without speaking, they set up a makeshift bed they could both fit in, and Lance flicked on the kit's radio, providing a low hum that blended with the breeze and a way to communicate with the Castle crew.

 

“They’ll know if they’re up before us.” Lance fiddled with the radio for a few more moments. “This is becoming a habit.”

 

“We … we should stop doing it,” Keith admitted to himself and to Lance.

 

It was Keith, mostly, who couldn’t handle the Castle for these endless days in space, but Lance had woken up a few times on his own, desperate for air, for space that wasn’t infinite blackness or the inside of metal walls. On Lance's few bad nights, Keith would trail after him to the pool, and they would float together in the water with their eyes shut. Last week they’d been stationed near an allied planet that had beautiful sapphire oceans. Lance had taken a ship down to those waters, alone. Keith had followed him an hour later, landing on a beach and sitting with Lance on the silver sand, toes dipped in the frothy waves.

 

“We will, some day,” Lance said absently. “For now, let’s catch some shut-eye. Tomorrow’s gonna be … something.”

 

Tomorrow was their first training exercise with all of Team Voltron. 

 

As Keith reclined against the pillows, Lance handed him his Blade of Marmora dagger, which he tucked against the small of his back. Lance had a dagger on him somewhere, Keith knew, and he caught a glimpse of a pistol near the emergency kit.

 

Their bayards were with Matt and Shiro — Lance and Keith had given them up less than a week after arriving back on the Castle.

 

“Are you sure?” Shiro had said, not even reaching for the weapon.

 

They stood in the dining hall, Hunk buzzing about as he served something that smelled delicious — a casserole, maybe, and Keith recognized a hint of the spices that Yathir had given the Yellow Paladin.

 

It hadn’t even been three days, and Keith already ached for the sight of weathered green hands laying plates out on a carved up bar …

 

He clenched his jaw as Shiro tried again, “Keith, you’re the true Red Paladin —”

 

“Not for a long while,” Keith had said firmly. “Red needs you.”

 

“Red needs her paladin,” Shiro retorted, but he winced afterwards, rubbing the back of his neck. “Sorry, it’s just … I was hoping you and Lance would’ve … But I understand. A few days, that’s not enough time, not after a year …”

 

They were interrupted as Lance strolled in with Matt. He was clapping him on the back jovially. “Dude, you and Blue are clearly a rocking good team, and until me and Keith get re-trained and stuff, you need this bayard.”

 

Matt already had the blue bayard in hand, but he was looking as hesitant as Shiro. Keith had only known Pidge’s brother for a short while back on Earth, and briefly now in space, but he respected him quite a bit, based on his time with the rebels and his ability to survive the prison that had nearly destroyed Shiro.

 

Matt spoke quickly, “Blue has been clamouring for you this entire time, Lance. She’s cool with me because I wanted to find you for her. And now you’re here. So …”

 

“Here and nowhere near up to Voltron Paladin standards,” Lance insisted, his bright, showman smile in place. “Matt, it only makes sense. You guys have been doing fine without the bayards, but you'll be unstoppable with them. This is a war, and our soldiers need every advantage they can get.

 

Matt sighed. “Fine. Okay.“ He said nothing else, just gripped Lance’s shoulder in thanks, and then moved to take a seat at the table.

 

Shiro flicked his gaze back to Keith. “I’ve got this for now.” He took the red bayard at last. “But it’s yours the moment you want it back.”

 

Keith had a split second where he wanted to say, Then it’s yours for good. But he kept his mouth shut, offering a quick half-smile as took his own seat right next Lance, with Pidge on his other side. He felt vaguely panicked by his gut reaction to Shiro's words, and he didn't know if he truly meant it or not. He settled uneasily in his chair, reaching his hand over to rest on Lance's knee.

 

They all chatted easily, laughing at a wild story Coran told, paired with Allura’s dry commentary grounding it in reality. Lance egged Coran on, to everyone’s amusement.

 

But when they were back in their room, silence permeated everything, and all Keith wanted was a soft wind, a creaky floor, anything that felt real because this place didn’t have anything rough or cracked … Except maybe him. And Lance.

 

“Shiro might be mad,” Lance whispered as he settled on his right side. “I think he’s past handling us with kid gloves.”

 

“Good,” Keith said shortly. “I’m done being treated like a fucking fragile tea set.”

 

Lance snorted. “Own many tea sets in your day?”

 

“Fuck you, I actually like tea,” Keith told him, sliding further down in order to better face Lance. Their noses nearly touched. Lance’s hair, already a mess, was tousled further in the light wind. Keith slid his fingers through those brown locks before tucking that hand beneath his pillow, his fingers automatically seeking his dagger. “Shiro’s grandparents had this beautiful antique tea set, hundreds of years old. I was really nervous whenever his grandma brought it out for us to use — which was every day after dinner. It took months for my hands to stop shaking every time I drank.”

 

“I broke my tía’s favourite teapot when I was five,” Lance explained around a yawn. “It was kinda accidentally on purpose. I figured that meant I would never have to drink that freaking gross ginger stomach tea crap ever again.”

 

“Heathen,” Keith breathed out, his eyes fluttering shut.

 

His hand sought Lance’s waist, and he tugged him in closer. It wasn’t always this easy between them anymore; he wanted to stay awake and bask in the simple affection, but they were both so tired, and this planet provided the perfect lullaby to sleep by …

 

The radio jerked them awake at dawn.

 

“… in, Lance, Keith, come in. Where are you?”

 

Keith loosened his grip on his dagger; he saw Lance put his pistol aside to push down on the receiver button. “We’re just down here on Yurinstil. We’ll be back in a few.”

 

… Right,” came Shiro’s voice, relatively calm. “Breakfast is in half a varga.”

 

“Gotcha,” Lance replied easily, though his face had taken on a pinched expression.

 

He flicked off the radio, his hand dropping down next to his gun. Keith took in the curve of his spine and the twists in his shirt. He raised a hand to stroke down Lance’s back. His muscles bunched up beneath Keith’s fingers, but Keith stubbornly persisted in massaging the worst spots. While the muscles eventually gave way, Lance did not.

 

He waited until Keith’s hand lifted to say, “We should go back.”

 

Keith bit his tongue on the dozen questions he wanted (needed) to ask.

 

He hadn’t found the time, the place, the strength to talk with Lance about … anything important, really, but especially that one week when Keith had been unconscious and the week following. Those days when he’d been largely bed-ridden, and unable to do anything other than see Lance between battles — watching his eyes grow darker and darker, his smiles brittle.

 

On the Castle of Lions, Lance and Keith’s days were occupied with training, with familiarizing themselves with the Castle and all the adjustments Pidge, Hunk, Sam, and Coran had made. They tried new jetpacks and tools for espionage. They practised with Pidge’s updated hacking software. They even concentrated on mastering the kitchen with all its appliances, so they could cook decent food for themselves when the team was out on mission. Or (more commonly) when they didn’t take their meals with everyone.

 

And then, late at night, when they weren’t sparring together on the training deck or practicing combat maneuvers with ships outside the Castle walls … Lance would become quiet, pensive, and Keith did not want to push. It felt like pushing could break something between them — that bond he’d thought shatterproof back on the nameless planet. On 2657-AbbDn.

 

What Keith feared most (he’d become a coward lately), was Lance turning the conversation around on him — well, why don’t you want to talk to Red? What’s stopping you from bonding with your Lion?

 

What the hell could he say to that? Nothing that made sense, and that's all he had in his head.

 

“Hey, dude, wake up,” Lance said gently. He’d already packed up the emergency kit and straightened out his clothes. He stood with the kit in one hand and the pillows tucked under his other arm. Keith followed his example, folding up the blankets and thin mattress, and then making the short trek back to the ship.

 

Lance flew them back, while Keith kicked back with his booted (sockless) feet up on the dash. He tried to exude calm, and sleeping under the sky had helped with that, but the Castle looming on their screen caused a renewed tension beneath his skin.

 

No one was waiting for them when they landed in the hanger, which had Keith instantly suspicious.

 

Lance seemed unhappy as well. “Breakfast is gonna be a whole thing, then,” he said under his breath as they walked towards the dining hall.

 

Sure enough, everyone was sitting there discussing something (Lance and Keith, no doubt) quietly. When they walked in, the conversation ended abruptly. Keith bit back a sarcastic barb, giving a nod and a weak smile instead.

 

Hunk waved, smiling, twitching a bit when Lance’s eyes narrowed his way. “H-hey, guys! Uh, breakfast will be ready in a few, but, um, maybe we could chat a bit? Hadn’t had a chance to do that, what with all the training and learning stuff, and that’s super important, totally get it —”

 

“But we haven’t been able to just … be together. Except for occasional meals,” Allura said peaceably, her smile completely genuine and unwavering.

 

So Shiro and Allura chose this as their ambush point, since meals are where we tend to sit for longer than ten minutes without discussing training or missions, Keith considered, knowing Lance had the same thought based on the way his spine straightened and his gaze gleamed. He’d get a similar glint in his eyes when they were cornered by an idiot who wanted to take out The Two McClains. Or when he had successfully conned a mark into giving up goods or information.

 

But these were their friends. Their family. Not threats, not marks.

 

“Sure thing, Hunk,” Lance said cheerfully, and as Lance fell into his pseudo-peacemaker role, Keith fell back to his usual position — the quiet, observant partner. He felt a surge of helplessness because he had no idea how else to operate when faced with several curious, concerned, and evaluating stares. These weren’t enemies, damn it, he told himself fiercely.

 

But that didn’t mean he wanted to answer their questions, or to face scolding for not being able to sleep a solid night in this elaborate metal cage.

 

Hunk relaxed minutely (mistake, Keith considered distantly), as Keith and Lance sat down together in the two seats at the head of the table, clearly set out for them. Coran was on Lance’s left, Pidge next to Coran, and Hunk next to the Green Paladin. Hunk didn’t want to be close to Lance for this conversation, Keith noted, and he grit his teeth because “My best friend isn’t that kind of monster” rung in Keith’s ears again — he couldn’t forget.

 

On Keith’s right were Shiro, then Allura, Matt, and lastly, Sam Holt. The older man was the only one Keith hadn’t gotten a solid read on yet; Sam didn’t seem to want much out of Lance or Keith, which had Keith marginally relaxed in his presence when they bumped into each other in the hallways or kitchen. This didn’t mean Keith dismissed him — he just didn’t focus as hard on Sam as he did on Shiro, who leaned forward, carefully avoiding getting into Keith’s space as he gestured with one arm out towards the hangers.

 

“You’ve been taking a lot trips out,” Shiro began bluntly. “Which is fine. We’d just appreciate it if you could let us know ahead of time, instead of waking up to find your room empty and no sign of you anywhere.”

 

Keith held back a wince — he’d had some guilty thoughts about that … Not enough to stop. Not enough to remember that there were other people to consider, not just Lance, whenever he decided to go out for a ride. Or whenever he couldn’t breathe and had to get out.

 

“Gonna be honest here, Shiro,” Lance said with a wry little grin, “we’re not always in prime thinking mode. We’re just … doing. And I know you get that.” It was as close as Lance had come to admitting that there were issues surrounding their return.

 

Shiro blinked, his own smile becoming a tad crooked, and his gaze went somewhat distant even as his eyes flicked back and forth between Lance and Keith’s faces. “I … I do. So maybe once things in that moment are … better, wherever you end up, just shoot us a message, any one of us.”

 

“Sure,” Lance agreed easily. “No worries, guys, we’ve just gotten used to taking midnight rides when we gotta get some fresh, planet-side air.”

 

Truthful. Keith appreciated that, so he nodded along with Lance. Of course, this was going too well; it was bound to take a turn, which is why he didn’t even flinch when Allura clapped her hands and said, “Excellent! In that case, we’d like you to consider another proposition. Later tonight Hunk, Matt, and Pidge are doing some recalibrating of the Lions —”

 

Pidge nodded excitedly. “I’ve got this new targeting system upgrade, it’s going to be devastating —”

 

“My sister has a penchant for being unable to hold back, so pretty much everything she upgrades is going to be some level of total devastation,” Matt added with a proud grin.

 

“And maybe you’d like to be the ones to try it out first!” Allura folded her hands on the table in front of her. “It would be an excuse to get out of the Castle, and run a few courses, get in target practise—”

 

Keith couldn’t hold back a wince this time. His thoughts drifted to Red, and inevitably, the pain kicked in. Lance’s hand drifted over to Keith's thigh beneath the table, resting there, his thumb stroking back and forth. His grin wasn’t even vaguely genuine anymore — all show, no substance behind it. Keith had no idea if the others could see the difference — he’d bet probably not, not anymore.

 

“I think it makes more sense for the Paladins who actually are fighting out there to try this new stuff out.” Lance leaned over to tug on Pidge’s braided ponytail. “Right, Pigeon?”

 

She batted his hand away. “Maybe, but how about you guys give it a shot anyway? Even though it’s been a year, you technically have more experience than Matt and Shiro with Blue and Red, so logically …”

 

“But it’s been a year, and I can’t promise we’d spot any bugs or glitches,” Lance went on, smooth as ever. “You’re going to want the guys who’ve been doing a bang-up job while we were on vacation.” Lance took in the various winces, the cringe from Hunk, the frown on Coran’s face, and he just shot them all a wink. “It’s all good, guys! No one thought it was going to be the same right from the start. Don’t put your war on hold for us — keep going, bring home the bacon! And speaking of bacon … Breakfast? I’m pretty starved.”

 

It was expertly done, Keith admitted, as much as it hurt to see Lance play his part, work the room like he had done so many times as Lance McClain … In this case, it was working in Keith’s favour. He didn’t want to talk about the Lions. He didn’t want to deal with the pain on Shiro’s face, the wariness emanating from Hunk, the empathy from Matt, the disappointment from Pidge and Allura … None of it.

 

And if they pushed now, Lance would snap. Keith could feel it in the slightly trembling fingers still resting on his leg.

 

“Right,” Keith said, and he tried to push a modicum of cheer into his words. “Let’s eat, and then get to the training deck. First step to being battle ready is kicking all your asses.”

 

“Them’s fightin’ words, cowboy!” Matt crowed, giving them the out Keith sought. Probably on purpose. “Just you wait.”

 

“Seriously, wait,” Shiro said. “We can’t fight right after eating. Give it at least half an hour.”

 

“Wow, that is probably one of the most dad-like things you’ve ever said, Shiro,” Sam said from his seat, eyebrows raised. “You’ve got to stop giving them material for the Space Dad tally. I think you’re beating me and Coran by this point.”

 

“Actually, last I checked, it was pretty even between you and Shiro, dad, so you gotta up your game,” Pidge said teasingly. She wasn’t won over by Lance’s performance — unfortunately, Pidge had grown even more observant in their absence. Her sharp eyes scanned them over several times as she spoke, even as she flashed her father a quick grin.

 

Hunk stood up, walking to the kitchen. “All right, time for my latest work of art. Lance, get ready for some space bacon, my dude.”

 

Dude, I was kidding,” Lance breathed out, eyes widening. “Holy shit, really?”

 

Once again, it was like nothing was wrong — Hunk laughed as he brought out the trays of food.

 

Even meals that went well set Keith on edge. He hated the undercurrent that this was temporary. The camaraderie would end after the last bites were consumed. Hunk would retreat, too intimidated to get either of them alone. Pidge would try to sequester them, and fail as Lance and Keith darted away with convenient excuses. Keith hadn’t let himself seek out Shiro, and Shiro was respecting his space, but only just — and possibly not for much longer (Keith was frustrated by Shiro's at times overly gentle handling, but bizarrely grateful for it at the same time). Allura seemed at a loss.

 

Coran hadn’t tried with them either, but he caught their eyes now and again; he said much without words, and it was plainly obvious he wanted Lance and Keith to approach him of their own volition.

 

But Keith had to speak with Lance first, and he wouldn’t allow himself any other conversation until he’d had the most important one beforehand.

 

Before he could do that, they had to get through this training exercise. Keith remembered how thoroughly he and Lance had destroyed those gladiator ’bots … There are no enemies here, he told himself. There are no threats to our lives here.

 

Half an hour later, Keith stood in that training room next to Lance, facing their team and bracing himself for the worst-case scenario.

 

******

Pidge

Three Movements and One Quintant Since The Return

******

 

Pidge hadn’t thought it would be easy.

 

She hadn’t once entertained the notion that Lance and Keith would slot perfectly into place back on the team. But, apparently, she hadn’t developed enough cynicism throughout the course of this war, since she also hadn’t considered that Lance and Keith would struggle as if this Castle, their home, were some foreign land in which they knew neither the language nor the customs. While they could both joke, smile, and laugh, acting nearly normal, this behaviour provided a stark contrast to the shifts in their moods. They would grow quiet unexpectedly, refuse to take meals with everyone … Train on their own without the team …

 

That last habit was being broken today, under Shiro and Allura’s command.

 

Pidge didn’t think Lance and Keith were ready. Not after what she’d seen of her upgraded gladiator robots — the pieces of her upgraded ’bots. And even before that rude awakening, she had caught glimpses of the bruises, poorly hidden by long-sleeved shirts, the partially healed cuts, the swollen knuckles …

 

“Let’s ease in with a friendly team match, yes?” Shiro suggested, his smile bright, though his eyes never moved from Keith and Lance, who were standing together, just slightly apart from the rest of them.

 

“Sure, how many teams?” Matt asked. He seemed to be evaluating everyone — when his gaze rested on Pidge, he gave her a slight quirk of the eyebrow and a rather serious stare.

 

Matt was worried, too. An icy shiver sliced down Pidge’s spine.

 

“I think Keith and Lance could teach us a thing or two,” Shiro said, his smile hardly changing except for the briefest flicker. “So let’s have two teams, and we’ll go a couple of rounds — I’ll observe the first one. Keith, Pidge, and Allura on one team. Lance, Hunk, and Matt, you’re on the offensive.”

 

“Damage is set at twenty-five percent,” Allura added. She turned to Lance and Keith, explaining, “We’ve modified our training programs quite a bit. Your armour will channel any hits you receive into an electrical charge, and ‘lethal’ blows are particularly shocking. Hits to the head or upper torso are considered kill shots. Keith, all blades will have a thin, protective shield around the edge, so no accidents may happen.”

 

As Allura spoke, Pidge used her wrist computer to select a specific program and adjusted the damage levels — their armour was already part of the mainframe, and therefore the Castle computer would register any blows to said armour.

 

Seeing this Lance in blue and white Paladin garb was somewhat incongruous, especially alongside Matt in his own blue gear, just one shade off from the original. Pidge hadn’t realized that Matt’s protective kit was slightly different. Lance appeared to notice as well, something that made him smile, for whatever reason. Maybe because Matt wasn’t an exact replacement for him? Or was that just her wishful thinking?

 

She noted that neither Matt nor Shiro were equipped with their bayards; she was oddly grateful for that — having to watch Lance and Keith clash against their own weapons would have felt … not good.

 

“Any rules of engagement?” Keith asked. He hefted one of two swords up to his shoulder to stare down the length of the blunted blade.

 

Coran had allowed Keith and Lance to raid the armoury after they gave up their bayards, but they’d only come away with a few weapons that they favoured, as far as Pidge could tell — weapons that were more advanced versions of the guns and blades they’d used back on 2657-AbbDn. Most of the guns and knives in the armoury were part of the Castle mainframe as well. Pidge could see the light blue shield around the sharp sides of Keith’s swords.

 

“Your team is set up in a small base here. The opposing team has to take you out,” Shiro told Keith. “You’ve got five minutes to talk strategy.” He pushed a few buttons, and the training room began changing, structures rising up in a formation that Pidge was very familiar with, considering she had helped Coran with this program.

 

“Take up positions!” Shiro called as he left the room to head up to the observation deck.

 

Pidge led Keith and Allura behind the structures, into a small alcove at the very back. As the turned to leave, Lance and Keith exchanged glances. A wealth of information passed between those gazes, yet all Pidge could glean was that they seemed … weary. Which was odd, considering that they trained together often, and this new training hadn’t even started …

 

“Okay, what’s the play?” Pidge asked Keith once they were established at their base.

 

He startled, raising his eyebrows. “You’re asking me … why?”

 

“Because Lance is clearly the biggest threat right now,” Pidge stated bluntly. “We need to know how to beat him.”

 

Keith frowned. “Your brother is pretty capable, and Hunk seems way more battle-ready than … before. Lance, he …” Keith’s eyes stared at nothing over Pidge’s head, towards the opposite end of the room.

 

Allura remained quietly observing. When Keith finally gathered his thoughts, he didn’t seem to be speaking to them at all.

 

“Lance is going to approach this one of two ways — he’s either going to treat it like a joke, in which case he’ll probably set himself up as a wild card, leave Matt and Hunk to take the lead.” Keith’s lips twitched here, a degree of fondness in his tone, though Pidge noted that his expression remained impassive. She also noticed the catch in Keith’s voice when he said joke … Did they both think this was a game? “If he does take this seriously … He’ll smoke us out, pick us off when we can’t see. Or he’ll take up sniper position …”

 

“We can’t let him maintain the high ground,” Allura spoke up, her own smile taking on a slight edge. “I know he’ll destroy us all if he does. I’ll take point on the upper reaches. There’s a bit of cover I can use.”

 

“Right, makes sense,” Keith approved. “Pidge, anything about Matt I should know?”

 

“He’s sneaky, he’s fast, and he’ll always go for a cheap shot.”

 

“Bad to have him and Lance on the same team, then,” Keith said without judgment, though with a bit of anxiety, maybe — he kept loosening and then tightening his grip on his knives. “Allura, you’re up high. Pidge, you’re covering Matt, but until you spot him, patrol along here.” He pointed with his blade from one side of their base to the other. “No deviation unless you see or hear something. Allura, only call out if you can’t take down a threat. If you can, just do it, no need to tell us.”

 

It was strange, watching Keith slip into a leader mode that didn’t involve snapping commands — Lance had seemed largely in charge back on that dismal world, but even so, Keith clearly was used to simply stating his plan and expecting others to follow. Allura didn’t question anything, her eyes staring at Keith without blinking for the last few minutes. Pidge would have to compare notes with the princess later, after whatever was about to happen … happened.

 

“You’ve got thirty ticks before we start!” Shiro announced over the speakers.

 

“There’s no dropping through the floor if you’re shot,” Pidge told Keith as they moved together. “Your armour will give you a mild shock, which means you’re out.”

 

“Right,” Keith said, and his tone became distant.

 

Pidge had accounted for a number of possibilities, having done as much research as she could, using the Castle databanks, in regard to PTSD (which the Alteans referred to as Battle Withdrawal Psychosis, roughly translated). She had braced herself for flashbacks, hallucinations, and panic attacks.

 

She did not expect Keith to become so calm, collected, even with that undercurrent of unease.

 

Nor did she expect Keith to strip off his helmet and chest plate.

 

“Keith!” Pidge hissed. “If you get hit with a bolt or shielded sword, even at reduced damage, with nothing but that flightsuit on …”

 

“Pidge, focus.” Keith gave a faint half-smile. “You can’t always follow rules when you’re up against a McClain.”

 

Shiro wasn’t calling a halt, even though he could obviously see what was happening from his position above, and Allura said nothing either. They were going to let this play out, however dangerous it may be. And Pidge … Her curiosity overrode her worry. Let’s see how Paladin McClains work … Let’s see if Paladin McClains can work.

 

“Go!” Shiro’s voice shouted.

 

Silence.

 

Allura held her position, while Pidge began her sweep of the base, holding down the fort with her bayard raised. Her brother would likely either come at them from the sides or act as a distraction. In either case, Pidge knew she could handle Matt — frequent sparring meant she could anticipate him. Matt always tried to surprise her, and then she would counter with unexpected moves of her own … They were evenly matched, and it was a little too much fun to battle it out with him. But she couldn’t really enjoy herself at the moment — not with one eye on Keith, patrolling on the opposite side of their base, while the rest of her was caught up in tense anticipation as they waited for whatever Lance would unleash.

 

The first explosion caused her to jump, though she instantly recognized the sound of Hunk’s specially cooked smoke grenades. She instinctively slid in front of Keith, whose lack of armour made her protective.

 

Keith gave a brief grunt of acknowledgement before murmuring, “Gonna head up part way and climb along the middle barricades towards them — you keep low and away from any smoke. Lance’s eyes are damn sharp.”

 

He climbed halfway up a tower, and then perched on a very thin ledge, his blades grasped loosely, his face devoid of expression. He began leaping after a minute of listening, his landings near silent.

 

The gunfire kicked off right then, a barrage from Hunk’s bayard. Pidge grinned, hearing Hunk call out, “I can keep this up all night, dudes!”

 

Matt would be heading straight for them, and so Pidge made a calculated guess as to which angle he may approach from.

 

“Pidge!” Allura called, “On your left!”

 

She whirled around to her right, knowing that Matt would switch in the instant Allura yelled, clashing her bayard with Matt’s staff. Pidge was already laughing. “You are so bad at sneaking past me!”

 

“Only you!” Matt complained. “Sibling advantage! Unfair!”

 

“You have it, too, jackass!” Pidge grunted when his staff landed a solid hit on her abdomen.

 

Keith! Not you, t—” Hunk had clearly been distracted by the missing helmet and chestplate; his cut off words meant that Keith had been right — Lance was armourless as well.

 

Allura tagged Hunk while he was yelling at Keith, and then the princess focused on taking Matt down — with two enemies concentrated on him, Matt was tagged in both the helmet and the chest inside of ten seconds. He groaned, wincing as the shock sent trembles along his limbs, pushing him off-balance. “Damn it, I demand a rematch.”

 

Lance dropped down between them, firing with a set of laser pistols — he hit Pidge in the arm. Pidge jerked up her bayard, hesitating in order to avoid hitting Lance somewhere she could do real damage. He winked, using her as cover; Allura couldn’t get a good shot in, and was likely also unwilling to risk accidentally hitting Lance in his exposed head or chest.

 

Which would be when Keith sprung up over Matt’s back, landing on Lance and sitting on him, blades resting at his throat and his side. Pidge swallowed as she watched that sharp edge push against Lance’s skin, the shield clearly prickling a little.

 

Keith glared down at his captive. “You freaking cheater — you weren’t on the sniper’s perches.”

 

“Of course not, that’s where you’d try and find me,” Lance scoffed. He winked when Keith rolled his eyes, and Pidge had to hold back an eye roll herself as Lance took the opportunity to slide a hand up Keith’s armoured thigh.

 

“All right, guys, let’s switch it up,” Shiro called. “I’m coming down. Allura, you want to take a turn up here?”

 

Pidge helped her brother stand up as Keith finally released Lance. Allura clapped Pidge and Keith on the back, congratulating them with a sincere smile. She caught Pidge’s gaze for a moment before stepping away, walking past Shiro as he entered the room.

 

He seemed fairly pleased with the results, though he raised his eyebrows at Lance and Keith’s lack of upper armour. “Bending the rules, I see.”

 

“You expected nothing less,” Lance said with a cheesy grin. “Didn’t want to disappoint.”

 

“You didn’t stop us,” Keith pointed out, sheathing his blades, his hands resting on the pommels.

 

“No, I didn’t. And I won’t stop whatever you do next, either. We need to be evaluating our strengths and weaknesses here, so don’t hold back.” Shiro stretched his arms, rolling his shoulders. “Team switch up. Me, Lance, and Pidge. Keith, Hunk, and Matt.”

 

Shiro headed over to the defensive side, and Lance followed … Until they reached the base, hidden behind the unevenly tall pillars and walls. Lance ducked over to one of the equipment bays set into the wall, and called up a few more guns from the armoury. He added them to his arsenal with a shoulder holster.

 

“You have a plan there, Lance?” Shiro asked patiently.

 

“Nope, just wanted change things up for funsies.” Lance leaned back on his heels, one hand still clutching a laser pistol. “What’s your strategy?”

 

“We all go for stealth. I want Pidge on the fringes, you and me along the middle range. No one goes up high. Lance, you managed to evade Keith, though he did get you in the end — can you get him this time?”

 

Lance shrugged. “Maybe. He’ll be switching tactics now, and in our sparring matches, he still tends to win most often.”

 

Shiro switched his attention over to Pidge, and they slipped into the easy rhythm of dissecting Matt’s potential moves paired with Hunk’s. Shiro deliberately left Keith out of his strategy, his eyes gliding over Lance’s way twice — Lance was taking a sideline approach to this, and Pidge had begun to relax. Nothing had gone dramatically wrong. Keith and Lance were bending the rules, but working well within their teams otherwise.

 

She should have known better.

 

One minute later, it was all chaos.

 

Lance! Stop —” Shiro shouted, choking on his words as he deflected a blow from Matt’s staff.

 

But it was too late — Lance slid in front of Hunk’s bayard, startling him into firing up towards the ceiling. A couple of shots still hit Lance — he’d raised his arm, the armour absorbing the laser bolts. A shock passed through Lance. He grimaced, but it was an oddly triumphant expression. Hunk lunged towards Lance, who ducked and then surged up in almost one motion, firing twice at close range, hitting Hunk in the chest and helmet.

 

The moment Lance’s name had been yelled, Keith growled, tagging Pidge lightning fast in her helmet with the flat of his blade before taking off at a run right at Lance.

 

Lance shot Keith once in the thigh, the electrical shock sending Keith stumbling to the ground, but he still managed to cut Lance’s legs out from underneath him with the hard fling of a sword. Once Lance was on the ground, Keith used his still-functioning leg to raise himself on one knee and then tackle Lance. Again.

 

“I fucking hate how good you are at this,” Lance said, half-annoyed, half-amused. “I swear the odds were at least forty percent in my favour.”

 

“You’re holding back,” Keith replied matter-of-factly. “You might’ve stood a chance otherwise.”

 

Enough,” Allura’s voice echoed around them.

 

“Lance.” Shiro had succeeded in defeating Matt, and they both walked over, each looking grim.

 

Matt had one hand on Shiro’s shoulder, squeezing lightly before releasing, and that appeared to be Shiro’s indicator to begin speaking.

 

“I said I needed to see how your style of fighting would work with ours. If we could learn from one another … I think … even in this short while …” He stopped talking, taking off his helmet to run a hand through his hair. A nervous tic. “I understand why you took off the armour. I know why you gravitate towards fighting each other instead of fighting us.”

 

Keith stood up, his leg back to full functionality, and he offered Lance a hand. Once they were both on their feet, Keith asked quietly, “What have you learned?”

 

“That you’re afraid of hurting us. That if you did treat this too seriously, you might just end up showing off more than you’d like us to see.” Shiro let loose a slow breath, his eyes staring hard into Keith’s. “So if we’re ever going to really understand one another … let’s just get it over with, shall we?”

 

“Shiro, I know what you’re asking, and you don’t want it,” Lance said, not a hint of merriment in his voice or his eyes. That grin was back — the sharp, humourless one that caused Pidge to clutch her bayard tightly and press herself closer to Matt.

 

Hunk hadn’t commented on this at all, but he chose that moment to finally speak, “Lance, I just want things to get back to normal, and I get that it won’t happen overnight. But I also get that you’re … You’re different now. And so are we. We gotta figure out how to fight together, with each other. Play to our strengths. So, please …”

 

“You saw how we fight already,” Keith reminded them. “You were there for over a week. You helped us with Dras.”

 

“Not the same as fighting against you.” Shiro pointed his long sword at Keith. “So, let’s do this — The Two McClains versus Team Voltron. Show us what you’ve got, no holds barred.”

 

Pidge had refrained from making any real observations on this entire situation — even while her brain had catalogued behaviours and expressions for her to analyze. The PTSD was a real concern, and now Pidge feared they were all in very real danger. While Lance and Keith would never intentionally hurt anyone, pushing them to fight against their own team, without any reservation — that was sure to end badly.

 

She stared up at her brother, and he didn’t look at her, not until Lance said, with a scarily calm voice, “Sure, Shiro, let’s go. We’ll even be magnanimous about the whole thing. You guys get to be on the defensive. Rest easy until we make our move.”

 

Matt warned Pidge without saying any words — be aware, be cautious. She nodded, doing her best to stand firm against a rush of fear.

 

“I’m coming down there,” Allura said over the comms. “Coran and Sam are up here. They’ll observe.”

 

“Good, let’s get the whole family in here,” Lance said, his cheery tone back. “Keith and me, we’ll go prep. Let us know when you’re ready.”

 

They disappeared into the maze of obstacles as Allura walked into the room, making a beeline for Shiro.

 

She led them all into the bowels of the defensive team’s base before whipping around, hissing, “I thought we were going to let them adjust at their own pace!”

 

“Well, clearly, that’s not working!” Shiro bit back. “They’re playing at a strange mixture of their tactics and ours, halfway serious, but not putting in their all. It’s confusing and awkward for both of us. We let them unleash on us, and it’s a whole lot clearer what we’re dealing with.”

 

Matt had one comforting hand on Pidge’s back and the other on Hunk’s shoulder. “Listen, I wasn’t on board with this plan from the start, but if you’re both dead-set on reincorporating Lance and Keith onto the team, then you have to know whether or not their tactics will mesh well with ours. And this is … one of the most straightforward ways to do it, I suppose.”

 

“So far it seems that there is work to be done.” Allura crossed her arms. “Taking off their armour so that we wouldn’t fire on them isn’t a tactic they can use out in real battle.”

 

“No, but it clearly shows that they are quick to take advantage of any opportunity they get. Anything that puts their enemies at a disadvantage,” Matt countered. “And that is a valuable instinct to have out there.”

 

“Except for when it gets them killed.” Hunk couldn’t hide any of his frustration or fear. “I nearly shot Lance full on with my bayard, and I don’t care that it wouldn’t have killed him. I can’t imagine him taking those kinds of risks in a real fight against Galra and surviving.”

 

“Except that they’re alive, aren’t they?” Pidge couldn’t believe that they’d all forgotten this fact, but maybe they were irrationally overlooking its significance. “That planet isn’t the same as a Galra incursion, but surviving there, for a year, is definitely substantial evidence towards their continued survival, regardless of circumstance.”

 

Silence followed this statement.

 

Paladins and McClains, we shall commence in thirty seconds.

 

Coran sounded rather formal — he didn’t use his typically exaggerated announcer voice.

 

Shiro squared his shoulders, laying out their strategy, one of their most successful battle plans that used each of their strengths — Allura’s exceptional speed and flexibility, Hunk’s force and sheer firepower, Pidge’s quick thinking and hacking talents, and Matt and Shiro’s brutally effective close-quarters-combat styles.

 

Ready, steady, and … go!” Coran shouted.

 

Pidge hadn’t given herself any false hope that today would be simple. But she had rather presumptuously assumed that, after the first two semi-successful matches, this day would not be as disastrous as the remains of her gladiator robots suggested.

 

When the first bullet, a real, actual bullet, hit her shield, she reassessed in an instant.

 

Holy crap,” Hunk breathed out next to her. “What the actual — they’re using —”

 

“Focus on covering me, and don’t you dare let Lance get a decent shot,” Pidge ordered. She wasn’t going to move from her defensive position, but she also wasn’t going to just let Lance scare them all into attacking.

 

“You got it,” Hunk answered, and no more fear was present in his voice — only a hint of anger that had been festering since he and Lance had their fight back on that world.

 

The shots changed angle — Lance must be changing perches. One bullet struck Matt in the shoulder; it didn’t penetrate his armour, but it did get him leaping out of cover. The next few shots would’ve hit his chest plate, if he hadn’t brought his shield up at just the right moment.

 

The next shot brought Allura down — she was hit in the calf, and lost her footing. But she swung up easily onto a new perch, and then slid down when Lance tried to take another crack at her. Allura, Shiro, and Matt all tried to gather together, clearly discussing a new tactic, when Lance’s shots were suddenly hitting their feet. He was getting closer …

 

Pidge watched out of the corner of her eye as Matt and Shiro darted out between shots, trying to take Lance down together — clearly, they didn’t want to wait for Lance to pick them off. Allura countered Lance’s shots with a few of her own, splitting Lance's focus. It worked for now, but Pidge knew Keith was somewhere, waiting …

 

She concentrated on using her hacking program to pin down Lance and Keith’s exact locations in that maze.

 

“Shiro, Matt!” She cried out. “Sending their coordinates to your visors!”

 

It was cheating, but Lance and Keith wouldn’t expect any less, right? She fretted over her choice, but soon realized that she had underestimated them.

 

“It’s their armour, Pidge,” Matt reported back over the comms. “They’re not here. They’ve taken off all of it.”

 

Her hacking program was entirely focused on the armour — on what the system used to give them shocks and the tracking chip on their belts.

 

She launched herself out from behind Hunk. “We gotta move!” Pidge didn’t need to turn around to know that Hunk was following her, using his shield to deflect shots.

 

“I’m down!” Allura shouted. “Keith!”

 

“How did Keith get behind us?” Hunk wondered breathlessly. “I never saw him!”

 

Which would be when a blade hit Hunk in the ankles, both tripping and shocking him. He nearly took out Pidge, but he rolled away at the last moment, raising his shield to keep Lance’s shots from taking her out.

 

Keith appeared, dressed only in the black flightsuit, barefoot and sliding in beneath a whip of Pidge’s bayard, picking up his second sword simultaneously. He thrust upwards, hitting her shield arm, deactivating it with a swift blow, and the second blow hit her in the chest, knocking her out of the match.

 

He didn’t even stop to look at her as he whipped around, meeting Hunk’s raised bayard, swirling around it gracefully, and then stabbing cleanly at his chest with a light tap. Hunk was down and out.

 

Which just left Matt and Shiro.

 

“C’mon.” Pidge picked herself up, wincing at the unpleasant numbness in her arm and chest. “We need to see this.”

 

“I guess we do,” Hunk said softly, the renewed resentment bringing his voice down an octave or two.

 

They managed to drag themselves into the opposing teams base — the raised platforms seemed so much more intimidating. Pidge had never felt so small as she did now. She finally saw Matt and Shiro facing off against Keith, who never once gave them an opening. However, even Keith couldn’t hold his own forever against two seasoned soldiers.

 

Pidge knew Lance had to turn up, but she did not see him coming when he did.

 

Lance dropped down, landing firmly on Matt’s back, and as Shiro swung around to grab him, Lance pulled back — Matt firmly in his grip, and a dagger, a real serrated dagger, pressed against Matt’s throat.

 

Shiro froze, mouth open in shock.

 

That moment was all Keith needed to stab at Shiro’s chest with his blade, but he made a point to keep the sword there — as if to simulate a real stabbing. Which, Pidge realized in shock, he could have done — he was using an old-fashioned blade now, one that had no protective shielding along the edge.

 

Heavy breathing, creaking armour, and Lance, speaking into their stunned silence.

 

“We don’t play at this. Not even against each other.”

 

The dagger clattered onto the floor. Lance let Matt go, and Matt stepped away quickly, his expression carefully neutral.

 

Keith picked up his discarded shielded blades, and then moved over to the armour. Lance helped him stow it in the alcove where all equipment would be returned to armoury. Allura had been standing some ways behind Matt and Shiro, only watching. Calculated, worried, sad — somehow the princess embodied all of these.

 

While Pidge had no idea what she herself was feeling, what she was thinking.

 

As she watched Lance and Keith leave, with no one attempting to stop them, she realized it wasn’t so much that she was at a loss, but that Pidge knew exactly what conclusion her observations were leading her to, and she desperately didn’t want to go there — to realize that maybe Lance and Keith hadn’t really been saved.

 

That, perhaps, the original Red and Blue Paladins were no more.

 

******

Keith

Three Weeks and One Day On the Castle of Lions

******

 

Keith knew training would end up being exhausting, and he hated that he was right about the ways in which it left him sore. Wearied. Guilt-ridden.

 

“We messed up,” Keith said as they trudged to their room. “But at least they know now, that we can’t … That training like that isn’t a good fit for us.”

 

“Yeah, too bad I nearly had to slice Matt’s throat to prove that point.” Lance jabbed at the button for their door rather violently. He had barely broken a sweat while training, yet he looked just as done as Keith felt.

 

“They know we wouldn’t hurt them,” Keith argued, stripping his flightsuit off as soon as the door slid shut behind them.

 

“Good on you for being sure that you wouldn’t have,” Lance responded, running a hand through his already dishevelled hair. “We probably should ease up on our own training for a while. Gotta break the habit of trying to break whoever we’re fighting.”

 

Keith paused, standing by the bathroom door in his shorts, picking at an old scab from one of those training exercises. “No, Lance. Even if I could turn off that part of my brain … I don’t want to. Not when the Galra Empire is out there, gunning for us. For the entire universe.”

 

“Well, fuck us, then, right?” Lance sat down on the window bench, his back pressed against the glass; the stars and blackness of space outlined his slouched form. “You know, Pidge was working her own little cheating fingers away, trying to track us? Hunk pulled off a few epic moves there. His grenades are awesome, and he nearly gunned me down before he hesitated … They’re not the same Paladins we knew. But it’s still not enough.”

 

“Not enough?” Keith leaned back against the doorframe, crossing his arms. “To beat us? To defeat the Galra? Not enough to …” To make us feel at home, like we aren’t so different. They’ve changed, but not enough. Not as much as we have, Keith thought to himself, his stomach twisting, growling for food, but he didn’t want to leave this room right now.

 

Lance’s hard expression faded into a quietly pensive look, his eyes a million light-years away. “All of the above. But they’ve lasted this long without us, right? So clearly, they’ve got more tricks up their sleeves than we’ve seen. And fighting Galra isn’t like fighting Caspor’s goons or Keegin Dras. We should defer to their expertise.”

 

“Can you?” Keith asked, startling himself — he hadn’t thought to talk with Lance tonight, but … maybe it was time. Finally. “Can you defer to anyone after running a revolution by yourself for a couple of weeks?”

 

“Are you saying I got myself a taste for command rank now?” Lance’s lips quirked up on one side. “That was not a fun two weeks, Keith. I’m glad to take orders from someone else for a while.”

 

“I … I don’t think you are glad. I don’t think you’re happy at all — not since … the explosion.” Keith let that hang in the air for a minute, watching carefully as Lance blinked rapidly, and then simply stared vacantly towards Keith. “Lance …” Keith sucked in a deep breath, holding eye-contact determinedly. “We need to talk about those two weeks. Those days when I was unconscious —”

 

“No.”

 

Flat denial.

 

“No?” Keith uncrossed his arms, lifting his hands in supplication. “Lance, I know what happened to Grisner fucked you up. I know how you fought to save me —”

 

“Stop making it sound like some epic wartime movie,” Lance said, his hands forming fists on his knees, his eyes flicking down to Keith’s scar — the broad, impossible burn that he’d survived thanks to Lance sacrificing too much of himself in return. “I didn’t do anything other than what had to be done. To keep you and me alive. I didn’t care who the fuck had to die, on our side or the other. It worked. It’s in the past, and we are done talking about it.”

 

“No.” Keith took on Lance’s abrupt tone, walking towards him, his own hands clenching and unclenching. “We did what we had to down there, and that fucking included talking to each other. And now that there’s no guns constantly pointed at our heads, no bastards trying to kill us or sell us, now when there’s some damn peace and quiet, you can’t talk to me?” Keith stopped abruptly, within arm’s reach of Lance, of that cold, blank stare. No pain to see, no tiredness. “You … won’t talk to me.”

 

“You got it,” Lance agreed, void of expression. His eyes flicked up once and then away. “Go take your shower. I’ll get us food.”

 

He brushed by Keith without sparing him glance. Lance didn’t even bother putting on shoes or slippers; he walked out barefoot in his underarmour flightsuit, and Keith could have sworn he found a way to slide that automatic door shut just a little bit harder.

 

Keith stood alone, hands dangling uselessly at his sides — he hadn’t tried to stop Lance, hadn’t reached out to him, either in anger or comfort. He’d failed utterly, sending that rolling nausea through him, the bitter edge of frustrated anger directed inwards. His head throbbed, a ring of pressure, and he shoved both hands into his hair, squeezing his skull to diminish the pain, to banish that instinctual call for a connection no longer there.

 

His hands dropped once the pain eased back, and he stayed still until his fingers were numb from cold, with his toes curling, seeking warmth. He gave in, stepping into a painfully hot shower, the only kind he felt comfortable in, only feeling clean when his skin reddened and his breathing became choppy due to the steam. When the dizziness proved too much, he shut off the water and towelled himself dry.

 

By the time Keith had slid into a pair of loose pants and an old tank top, Lance had returned with a tray full of steaming food. But he said nothing as set the meal down on the bed and headed straight to the bathroom.

 

Enough food for one person. Lance had likely eaten in the kitchen before bringing Keith these portions.

 

Keith was too damn fucking tired to fight now. He didn't have any willpower left to force the suffering out of Lance, to tear the brutal truth from him. No, not tonight after all.

 

He ate while Lance showered, and then set the tray aside on his night table. Once Lance finally emerged, Keith was burrowed under the covers, staring at the wall with his back to the window, to Lance.

 

Lance climbed into the bed, and Keith felt him twist to face away from Keith — in his case, Lance would be staring out towards the window. Since they hadn’t bothered to lower the blinds, the stars cast a faint silver light, painting dark, hazy outlines on the walls. Keith watched his and Lance’s shadows, how they both breathed evenly, though neither of them were sleeping.

 

From this angle, their shadows formed one shape, and even their breaths matched, adding to the illusion.

 

But Keith had never felt further apart from Lance, lying in this bed together, sharing the same air, breathing at the same rhythm, and sapping each other’s warmth.

 

When sleep came for him, it was oddly deep and peaceful … Until he woke up disoriented, sweating profusely, clutching his side, desperate for Lance, because they had almost just died, the explosion, Lance, dragging him out the door, stupid, selfless, should have left Keith behind to …

 

“Hey,” Lance whispered, and the heat from his scar wasn’t fire; a soft hand rested on his shirt, directly over the old wound. “You’re here, with me. You’re on the Castle, and we’re both alive.” Those even inhales and exhales — a consolation, a rhythm to follow.

 

Silence for a long stretch. Keith came back to this room, on the Castle, and they were both alive. His hand rested on top of Lance’s. His breathing matched his, and it didn’t feel like they were two separate beings just then, just for that quiet moment.

 

Then the hand withdrew. “Do you need to go somewhere?”

 

Keith shook his head, his sweaty hair sticking to his forehead and neck. He blinked at the time displayed on the tablet by his bed. “No. Except maybe for some breakfast.”

 

Lance let out a long exhale. “Okay. How about you take the first shower—”

 

“How about you join me?” Keith’s throat was dry, his voice cracking. “And then we eat in one of the observation decks.” A peace offering. A willful denial of the previous night. A band-aid over a deep, relentlessly bleeding cut.

 

A kiss brushed against Keith’s temple. “Sounds great, querido.”

 

******

 

Chapter Text

 

******

Pidge

Three Movements and Two Quintants Since The Return

******

 

When Shiro summoned her to the training deck observation room that morning, Pidge knew why, and she came prepared.

 

Pidge had drawn up meticulous notes based on all her most recent observations of Lance and Keith; it had all been incredibly difficult to take down. While her intellect allowed her to retain facts with a brutal clarity, her emotions interfered with her ability to draw conclusions from said facts. Forcing herself to put words on a computer screen lent them an undeniable reality.

 

Like the theory that Lance and Keith couldn’t be Paladins, at least not in the way the rest of them functioned as Paladins. (She still had that message from Lance, the one that burned with resentment, so clearly written when all hope was lost. Pidge had no idea when or if she would discuss it with anyone — ever.)

 

Shiro had obviously been sitting there for a while, the windows to the training deck now converted to screens, on which Lance and Keith’s many different drills and sparring matches were on display (though with no sound). They had been practicing nearly every single day since they’d returned, sometimes twice a day, or late at night when everyone else was asleep.

 

Matt sat next to Shiro, cross-legged on the chair, his hands resting lightly on his knees. He waved at Pidge. “Hey sis, you’re rockin’ the ‘sleep is for the weak’ look again.”

 

“That joke stopped being funny six months ago, Matt. Actually, scratch that, was it ever funny?” Pidge dropped into a chair near a back corner, taking in as many screens as she could, her eyes roving over Lance and Keith executing brutal combat maneuvers. They ended fights … efficiently, which would be a very euphemistic way of putting it.

 

Allura entered a moment later, Hunk right on her heels — he brought a tray of breakfast sandwiches with him, one of which Pidge happily snagged before he put the tray down next to Matt.

 

“Oh, so this is what we’re doing this morning.” Hunk inhaled deeply, picking the chair in the other corner, as far from the screens as he could get. “Sure, okay. We gotta figure out what to do about them, right?”

 

Allura sat on Shiro’s other side, her fingers tapping in an uneven rhythm on the arms of her chair. “Maybe we should have done this before the disaster of yesterday?”

 

“I wouldn’t call it a disaster,” Matt said thoughtfully. “We definitely learned things, and nobody died! All in all, a fairly good day.”

 

“Well, we need to be better than that.” Shiro spun his seat around to look at everyone; the screens paused behind him. “I didn’t want to invade their privacy. They were fairly clear about needing their own space while re-training, and sometimes for meals or trips outside of the Castle … But I think, when it comes to the training, privacy isn’t an option any longer.”

 

“Meaning … We’re going to spy on them from now on?” Pidge frowned, raising a hand. “Shiro—”

 

“No, Pidge, I wouldn’t spy on them,” Shiro said quickly, sounding a touch offended. “What we’re going to do is make sure that we get in at least three group training exercises a week. Next time we’ll be better prepared.” His hands gripped his armrests tightly. “We have to find a way to make this work. Watching this footage is a one-time deal, and I’m not listening in on their private conversations here — that’s why the audio is muted. But I need to see how they operate in detail.”

 

He spun back around before anyone could say anything, selecting one particular video and expanding so it dominated the main screen. “Based on what I’ve seen, both here and … back there … They’re a devastating pair. We shouldn’t mess with that.”

 

“Clearly.” Matt watched avidly as Lance used his pistols at a range while Keith destroyed several ’bots in a risky headlong rush. When the final couple of gladiators were left, Lance ran in to put himself right at Keith’s back, taking out one as Keith finished off the last. The entire sequence took less than fifty seconds. “So we’ll have a two-man sub unit within Voltron. That’s certainly a good option.”

 

“Except that we need to be sure we won’t be clashing out on the battlefield,” Allura said seriously.

 

“We’ll practise with the comms. They need to get back in the habit of calling out their next moves,” Shiro suggested, pointing at the next video. “They are a little too adept at reading each other — they rarely verbally communicate.”

 

“We gotta stop them from throwing themselves in front of guns.” Hunk gestured at Keith sliding directly in front of several rifle-bearing gladiators. “That is not a viable tactic when we’re shooting too. I foresee many accidents. Or, you know, just one fatal accident. Not to mention it’s a bad, bad idea, overall.”

 

“They’ve succeeded with it so far,” Matt said before Pidge could. “But yes, more coordination would help curtail that routine, maybe.”

 

Allura sighed as she brought up a few more videos with a wearied, pained expression. “Actually, communication would solve many of our problems. They are obviously struggling with life here.”

 

Shiro hadn’t selected any videos of Lance and Keith sparring together — maybe he assumed that the sparring degenerated into … other activities … But Pidge thought that would be valuable information as well — Lance had said they “didn’t play.” That meant, even when he was up against Keith, which was at least sixty percent of the time … She re-evaluated her thought process as the bruises and cuts appeared in her mind’s eye. Perhaps she didn’t want to see that.

 

The princess leaned back in her chair, her hands clasped together on her lap, the grip visibly far too firm. “We cannot assume this will simply go away with time. Nor should we assume that …” She stopped herself, her lips pressed into a thin line.

 

“We shouldn’t assume that they’ll be Paladins again,” Pidge finished for her, trying to keep her voice as neutral as possible.

 

Hunk immediately opened his mouth to protest, and Shiro was shaking his head, but Pidge cut them both off, pointing at the screen.

 

“Bring up the footage from the day before yesterday,” Pidge said softly. “You need to understand what I’m saying. And play from before the fighting starts. You’re missing something from the beginning of each of these matches.”

 

Shiro did as she asked; he found the moment Lance and Keith chose which program to run — one of the most difficult.

 

And then she watched, they all watched, as the two former mercenaries took all the safeties off.

 

In other words, the gladiator robots now shot to kill, and their weapons did real damage. This was what Shiro had failed to see. They never had the safeties on, Pidge was sure of it; she had gathered too many observations, all pointing to this conclusion.

 

Shiro sat up ramrod straight, and his hand — his metal hand — caused the console to creak with his unrelenting grip. The gladiator ’bots stood, intact and ready.

 

Keith and Lance wore full armour, something Pidge was grateful for, but that gratitude only extended so far. She knew what the end results of this particular match would be.

 

It began with a shot straight at Lance — right to his head. It caught him off-guard, but Keith had already knocked his legs out from under him, and Lance crashed to the floor, shocked, and then laughing as he realized that he’d almost died. Keith scowled at Lance, yanking him behind cover, and they were both … arguing? No, bantering, because even though Keith scowled, his eyes were bright, and he snorted when Lance gestured and said …

 

She wished Shiro would unmute their audio. He had been right that respecting their privacy hadn’t gotten them far. One might even say it had been a detriment.

 

There were several more close calls, but the speed at which they threw themselves in front of the robot combatants, and then either danced around blows or deflected them with their shields — it was stunning to watch. They had definitely become reacquainted with the advanced weaponry of the Castle, but the fact that there were close calls meant they weren’t fully Paladin-ready.

 

But what made them distinctly unPaladin wasn’t their at times clumsy use of the shields and weapons.

 

It was the way they utterly destroyed their enemies.

 

At one point, Lance fired straight down, several times, into the head of one ’bot he had pinned beneath his boots, while Keith, back-to-back with him, sliced clean through the “throats” of two robots at once with his double blades, and then shifted to stab into the gut of another. Naturally, this didn’t completely take out the gladiator, so Lance spun and fired into the robot’s face with extreme prejudice.

 

The whole battle against twenty ’bots had been explosively violent and over in one minute and twenty eight seconds.

 

Pidge breathed in and out three times, and then consulted her notes. The silence after the end of that video gave her time to organize her words.

 

“Back on 2657-AbbDn, they were in charge. Yathir gave them directions, but immediate, in-field decisions were theirs. They were the faces of this revolution, and they had to play the part — but in effect, they became generals.” Pidge looked up at Shiro, trying to make sure he, especially, paid close attention. “Lance and Keith had one primary concern, starting from when they first crash-landed, to when they suddenly became revolutionaries — survive. At all costs.”

 

Shiro looked away. Pidge pushed — she had to push.

 

“Shiro, I know you understand that. You and Matt … You get it in a way the rest of us don’t. So if anyone is going to have a shot at getting through to them …”

 

“Katie, I think you’re right, but …” Matt rolled his chair over, closer to both her and Shiro. “Listen, there’s a difference. I can’t speak for Shiro, but I … I was surrounded by friends. Allies. Even the people who disliked me were trustworthy. Battles were …” He paused and shook his head once with a dim smile. “Well, you know. But otherwise, I was fine. Really.”

 

Pidge didn’t express her skepticism, but she was sure Matt could read it on her face regardless. He raised his eyebrows, nodding his head subtly in her direction: you’re right, was what he said without saying anything. But she knew him — he wasn’t the focus right now.

 

Matt closed his eyes for a moment. “Lance and Keith were vulnerable at every moment. Yathir provided them with safety, but even that was tenuous — any time they engaged in business, or went out for errands, or, hell, took one step outside of Yathir’s domain … They were likely to be attacked. To be kidnapped. To be enslaved.” Matt’s fingers drummed the Fibonacci sequence on his knees. He did that, sometimes, when he needed to centre himself. He was so good (too good) at keeping his demons at bay, Pidge thought with a sharp pang in her chest. “That isn’t even addressing the various things they had to do in order to escape. To make themselves less likely to be victims.”

 

“But they don’t have to worry about that anymore,” Hunk said haltingly. He had paled as Matt talked, discomfort radiating off him. His eyes were drawn to the screen, to Lance standing posed with his guns, a satisfied smirk on his face, blooding trailing from his split lip. “We can teach them to … fight our way again, I know we can. They’re adaptable. They proved it. I’m grateful that they did what they did, so they were alive for us to rescue …”

 

“We did bring them home, but I’m not so sure we should call it a rescue,” Matt interrupted, holding one hand up as his other fingers kept tapping. “We arrived at a good time, we helped … But that whole plan they had? It worked. It probably would have worked without us. They would’ve maybe even been able to get their ship and leave. Shiro …”

 

Shiro sucked in a harsh breath, facing Matt with tired, sad eyes. Matt smiled apologetically but continued on ruthlessly. “Shiro, you can’t just assume leadership over them again. You can’t be their mentor or idol. You have to approach them as equals. Both you and Allura.”

 

“And you can’t teach them to stop listening to their instincts. Not overnight,” Pidge added. “Hunk, we’ll try to help them fight in less dangerous ways, but be aware — they move that fast because of muscle memory. Because of repeated situations in which those kinds of moves saved their lives. They have a good sense of when someone is a threat, and they instinctually know the fastest way to take them down.”

 

“Killing the person eliminates the threat.” Hunk tilted his head back, staring at the ceiling. “Right. I hear you.”

 

“I hear you, too.” Allura stood up, her jaw set, her eyes staring out towards the training deck. “They will re-learn, and we will be patient. We will listen, and try our best to speak to them as the decorated soldiers they are. Because such acts would have earned them medals in the Altean military. Even promotions of several ranks.”

 

“Oh, don’t start calling Lance ‘Commander’ — he’ll become insufferable,” Pidge teased, trying to lighten the mood.

 

And trying to distract herself from that message sitting there in her notes. Lance didn’t want to learn anything new then; Lance had wanted to forget about it all, and maybe he still did.

 

“We keep training,” Shiro said, but he seemed younger, less certain, even though his tone sounded as resolute as he normally did. “But we try to adjust for them, and hopefully, they’ll adjust to us.”

 

“We talk more, and we don’t condescend,” Matt emphasized.

 

“You and me, we need to re-work our battle formations. Care to stick around?” Shiro tilted his head towards the training console.

 

“Sure, but first, we eat these delicious sandwiches.” Matt reached backwards, grabbed one without looking. “And I swear on my favourite spy ’bot, Takashi, if you don’t finish at least two of these, I will hook you up to an IV of good ol’ fashioned food goop.”

 

Shiro finally, finally cracked a real smile, even chuckled a bit. “You’d have to beat me once in hand-to-hand first.”

 

Food. Now.

 

Pidge left them to it, knowing her brother, the self-declared Expert on the Care and Feeding of Shiroganes, would get Shiro on board with this. Allura snorted, smothering laughter with her hand as Shiro used a chair to deflect Matt’s attempt to dive-bomb him with a sandwich in each fist. The princess pressed her hand onto Pidge’s shoulder, brushed by Hunk with a smile, and then headed off to the Command Centre.

 

Pidge had to talk to Hunk.

 

She followed the Yellow Paladin out towards the hanger where Hunk had his various projects set up. They walked together, silent, but once he reached the hanger, he sighed heavily. As he palmed open the door, Hunk muttered, “Is this where you tell me that I’m being stupid?”

 

Pidge sucked in a deep breath of her own. “No. You need time, just like they do. But I … I don’t want you to think that …” She lost the thread of her thoughts, not sure where her brain was leading her, so she let it unravel and instead said, “Lance is still our best friend, okay?”

 

Hunk collapsed onto his work chair, his hair hanging down into his eyes — his yellow bandana wasn’t enough to hold it back anymore. He was due for a haircut.

 

“Pidge, I’m not sure I can … adjust to this. But yeah, maybe given more time … but for now, can you let me deal by building stuff and pretending it’s all good? Just for a little while longer. Reality is going to force itself in no matter what I do.”

 

Pidge felt that truth all too sharply, so she decided to change the subject. “Have you used the chip I designed for your EMP grenades yet?”

 

“Oh, yeah, totally — but I need to test it against your coding, see if we’re all immune. That would be … awkward, y’know, if we weren’t?” Hunk smiled at Pidge gratefully, and she grinned back.

 

She tossed her computer aside, dismissed her indecisive analysis for the rest of the day — Hunk was right. Whatever was going to happen … It would happen whether or not she agonized about it first.

 

(That message could live on her computer forever, until something or someone forced her hand.)

 

 

******

Keith

One Month and a Day on The Castle of Lions

******

 

Keith gritted his teeth, pushing against the force of the continuous laser bolt — a cannon from the gladiator bots that shot an endless stream of bright pain. He grimaced while blinking the sweat from his eyes.

 

Lance leapt up over his shoulders, firing down into that huge gladiator with his two pistols, landing on top of it and allowing Keith a brief respite. A half second later, Keith spun around, smacking a ’bot down with his shield as he brought up his sword to decapitate another. Lance hollered as a laser bolt sliced across his shoulder — Keith whipped back, throwing his sword. Lance raised an arm, the blade sailing neatly (barely) past Lance’s side and striking the offending ’bot in the chest.

 

The gladiator staggered. Lance fired twice into its head.

 

Keith stabbed the last two ’bots, while Lance fired through their necks for good measure.

 

“You’re not the only one who can make heads roll,” Lance said slyly.

 

The heads hit the ground. “Not as much as you make eyes roll,” Keith rasped, coughing from the exertion.

 

Lance blew him a kiss with the barrel of his pistol.

 

“Lance, Keith,” Allura’s voice came over the comms. “Are you ready for our group session?”

 

The answer was yes. It always had to be yes.

 

The negotiation relating to combat training and strategies had been fraught, even though Lance and Keith hadn’t opposed anything Shiro or Allura had suggested. They had no real objection so long as they could keep training on their own to keep their survival skills sharp. Shiro and Allura had easily accepted that, and so now they had two heavy training slots a day — one just Lance and Keith, the second involving everyone.

 

Lance, for all that he’d been frustrated by that somewhat disastrous first group training, was now willing to concede to Shiro and Allura’s suggestions — maybe because they’d approached Lance as if he was some kind of de facto leader in his own unit? Keith wanted things to just be smooth, for once, so he’d agreed to everything, and quenched his need for real training in his sparring matches with Lance.

 

Fighting with the Paladins had become an exercise in endurance, the likes of which Keith had never before faced. Patience yields focus had kept him alive back on their mercenary planet — it had taught him the benefit of studying his foes, of learning when situations demanded an instant reaction and when holding back was key. But here … Here, patience was a fresh torture.

 

Curbing his natural reflexes ripped gouges in him. He preferred fighting with Lance beforehand, affirming his ability to destroy his enemies and stand tall afterwards. (And maybe he relished the opportunity to stand beside Lance; their words easy, their affection obvious, and their instincts perfectly synchronized.)

 

“It’ll be a short exercise,” Shiro said, coming in with a smile. He’d been smiling more lately. “We wanted to bring you down to Xelos today, if you think you’re ready?”

 

“Ready for what? This sector has been pretty quiet,” Keith said, taking off his helmet to get some fresh air and run a gloved hand through his hair.

 

“It won’t be for combat or parades.” Shiro clapped Lance on the shoulder. “Sorry about that. They’re rebuilding and struggling with basic needs. We wanted to lend a hand.”

 

“Sounds good.” Lance chewed on the inside of his cheek for a moment, pensive. “I’m thinking, if anyone asks, better not introduce us as Paladins. I don’t think we should go spreading around that we’ve got more Paladins than Lions — it’s a distinct edge, an element of surprise that we can use to our advantage later.”

 

That would matter if either Lance or Keith had even set foot in the Lion hangers. Which they hadn’t. But Lance spoke as if it were a forgone conclusion, and not as though he had no intention of reaching out to Blue anytime soon.

 

Keith watched Shiro take that in, exchange glances with Allura, and then nod, his smile back — an expression of hope and affection. Keith was sure that someday, very soon, he and Lance would dash any kind of tentative optimism Shiro had been cultivating …

 

But Keith would try to push that further away into the future.

 

Their training wrapped up quickly, as Allura was eager to get down to the surface and help with the latest reconstruction efforts. Pidge seemed excited about some new robots they were utilizing for crop-growth, and Hunk had made a few friends amongst the engineers who were in charge of reworking the transportation routes.

 

Xelos had been largely agrarian, but with a few, massive cities that sprawled over mountains and down into the valleys. Keith had seen pictures and videos of its splendour … before the Galra conquered. Before the war, and the final attack that levelled practically every structure.

 

The people were humanoid, all shades of green, blue, and yellow — their eyes were massive, vaguely luminescent in the dark, and they had no fur or hair. What they did have were bone protrusions on their scalps, which they painted in myriad colours to represent clans or professions.

 

The magistrate’s head was painted with a mix of bright reds and rich browns, with a few white spots. This magistrate, Dellios, was very young — all the heads of government had been executed by the Galra, and Dellios had survived only because he’d been visiting an ill relative in a remote farming village when the worst of the war had broke out.

 

Keith and Lance had done their research before landing, and yet Keith was still shocked by the devastation. By the thousands of people milling about, displaced but with purpose. Hardly anyone sat or stood still, all rushing with tools or scanners in hand.

 

There had only been the briefest of pauses when the Castle ship landed, a huge ringing cheer from the Xelosians nearby. Dellios rushed forward with several other dust-covered workers behind him, happily greeting Allura, who shook his dirty hands without flinching.

 

Keith appreciated the fact that the leader was right there in the thick of things, scarred up and filthy as he helped his people rebuild.

 

Shiro and Coran were next to be greeted, followed by Pidge, Hunk, and Matt, all of them chattering eagerly and familiarly. It had only been a month since Xelos had been liberated, but Keith could see so much progress had been made — the capital city had been utterly destroyed, but already there were several buildings at least three storeys high, nearly finished, and dozens more started. As far as Keith could see, all the debris had been cleared away — the worst was over.

 

Lance and Keith were relegated to the sidelines, and they would have been content to stay there, but Shiro made a point of dragging them towards the magistrate, stating proudly, “These are two of our friends, Lance and Keith, here to help — they’ve been fighting battles elsewhere.”

 

Dressed in loose, casual clothes, with weapons concealed (weapons that no one on their team knew about), Lance smiled at Dellios, and Keith nodded his head.

 

“We’re honoured to be here,” Lance said charmingly. “And even more honoured to be of any help. We’re not brilliant geniuses like our friends, though — just point out some heavy lifting, and we’re glad to stick to that.”

 

Now that they were closer, Keith could see that Dellios was missing an ear and had a nasty scar across his jaw; the young magistrate grinned brightly at them, and he bowed deeply. “Any one who fights alongside the Paladins is more than welcome. If you would like to aid in the physical aspects of our reconstruction, there are several crews on the west side of our capital — not much was left standing there after … After the last Galra bombardment.”

 

Silence reigned as everyone took a moment for grief, for regret, and for respect.

 

Allura looked mildly concerned, glancing towards Lance before speaking softly, “That was where most of the refugees from this city and the neighbouring villages were hiding until … Many were lost.”

 

“Almost all,” the magistrate corrected her, quiet but still with a faint smile. “But so many have gathered here, from all over the continent, now that we are free. We’re on the cusp of creating the first major milestones since the Voltron Liberation. But the hardest labour remains on the borders of the city … much tragedy left to uncover.”

 

Allura looked uncomfortable, but this sounded ideal to Keith — away from the eager eyes of politicians and scientists. A break from their family. He liked the idea of simple work with their hands.

 

Lance nodded, an answering small smile of his own for Dellios. “Well, let’s get to it, then.”

 

The magistrate waved a few workers over, and they brought a landspeeder with them. “Greos and Shulikan will take you there. Lance, Keith — it was good to meet you. Paladin Shiro, if we could get you and the Princess to aid us with moving the latest arrivals from the mountains — the tram system has broken down again …”

 

Keith waved at Shiro as they were all split up; Matt, Sam, and Coran were already working on another portion of the capital city (something to do with a hospital). Hunk was hovering somewhere above them, fixing the sky-transit trains. The farmers had grabbed Pidge up, and now with Shiro and Allura gone, Lance and Keith were herded onto a speeder heading west.

 

By the time they arrived, the three yellow suns were high in the sky, leaving no shadows and painting all the ruin in bright, unforgiving light.

 

The Magistrate had not been exaggerating — there was nothing left of the outer west side. The tallest structures were the large tents, housing various workers and the surviving refugees who were too injured or ill to work. Children scrambled about, their hands filthy as they hauled small bits of broken buildings out to various piles. The adults used wheelbarrows, hover-scooters — anything and everything they could — to clear the destruction.

 

Lance clapped his hands, rubbing them together. “Man, never thought I’d say this, but I’m actually looking forward to several hours of back-breaking, repetitive labour. The air is fresh, and there are people who need our help … That’s … a good feeling.” He offered Keith a tentative smile — an acknowledgement of the strain, and a small attempt to bridge it.

 

“I’m with you,” Keith said, agreeing in more ways than one.

 

A few kids stopped by with curious expressions, their wide, luminescent eyes taking them in head to foot. Lance, normally so good with children, only gave them a quick smile and a short wave before heading straight into the worst of the disaster area.

 

Someone tried to stop them — a member of the militia who Dellios had sent along with them, the one named Shulikan. “Please, sir, the … They haven’t finished recovering … recovering all our lost ones.”

 

Lance paused, then turned back to meet Keith’s eyes. Keith nodded once.

 

It wasn’t anything they couldn’t handle. Better them than anyone else.

 

A small woman, rich blue skin with a head painted in swirls of green and yellow, stood at the top of a large slab of rock. She saw them approach and barked out, “Names and orders?”

 

“Lance.” Lance gestured at himself, and made a motion — Keith realized he’d been about to tip a hat that he no longer wore. He smiled ruefully instead, bowing slightly. “And this is Keith. At your service, on behalf of the Voltron Alliance.”

 

One of the workers, a foreman perhaps, who had been communicating her orders to the rest, stepped forward. “Calliath, we can’t let them …”

 

“They’re here, aren’t they?” the woman shouted back, her large purple eyes narrowed. “That means they’re here to work. Dellios wouldn’t have sent them otherwise. And I’m sure he told ’em what it means. Or one of the stripes said as much.”

 

Stripes clearly referred to the soldiers, who wore uniforms with single black stripes down the arms and legs. The militia member (who had, in fact, forewarned Keith), stood up straight and saluted this Calliath. She was a civilian to whom military personnel saluted, so Keith noted that she was clearly either very well respected or very feared. Possibly both.

 

Calliath nodded at the soldier while pointing out towards a specific collapsed building. “We got some room over there — need more hands to dig out the rubble. You’ll receive instructions on how best to do that without killing yourselves in a cave in. And what to do if you find any of ours.”

 

Keith nodded, bowing like Lance had, and said, “We’ll do whatever you need us to do.”

 

Something in the way he spoke must’ve meant something because she smiled — much like the magistrate’s own smile, it was faint, vaguely sad, but also genuine. “You look a lot fresher than some of ours, so I’m going to take shameless advantage of that.”

 

Lance tilted his head. “We best be on our way, ma’am.”

 

Calliath waved them off, already onto solving her next problem. “You two stripes, we need some extra help over by the mountain — there’s a fierce pack of kerrans we’ve stirred up, and they’re attacking the workers nearby … Oh, Trev, go with our new Voltron friends. Make sure they know all the need.”

 

The foreman, Trev, gave her a salute and moved quickly, directing them to a landspeeder. “It’s quicker this way — the terrain makes it difficult to walk.”

 

They arrived at the destroyed structure in a few minutes, and Trev jumped out before the speeder had fully come to a halt. He walked around to the trunk, pulling out two heavy-duty bags. “We’ve got picks, shovels, and scanners in here. Some water, rations, and a few disinfectant bandages. Gloves. There’s a medic on site if you find yourself in real trouble.”

 

Other than further directions on where and how to dig, Keith and Lance were left on their own as Trev worked somewhere close by. They picked one of the far corners of the building — of what had been a hotel, housing refugees — and then got to work.

 

It didn’t take long to find their first body. Lance uncovered an arm, and then moved slowly, shifting small stones around until he saw a face. Half crushed, yet still recognizable as a person. Silence permeated their little corner for a few seconds, but soon after they moved to find Trev. He didn’t look remotely surprised when they told him — he just brought them a floating gurney.

 

“We’ll bring him over to the morgue tent to be identified.” Trev helped them remove the man — he looked maybe middle-aged, perhaps older. The decay made it … hard to tell. “If you find anymore, just … lay them out, over here.” He indicated a patch of clear ground nearby, leaving the gurney behind for them. “Someone will come by to claim them. I need to go report back to Calliath.”

 

As they watched Trev take his leave, Keith felt himself settle into a pattern — a comfortable, familiar pattern. He wiped the sweat from his brow with his gloved hand, and turned to face Lance, who looked even more like himself than he had in a long while (a month or so, in fact). His blue eyes were sad, but dry, and his mouth twisted in pain, but he managed a smile for Keith.

 

“For them to find these people, people that they may know … I think it’s … good of us to do this.”

 

Keith wondered if Lance still had nightmares about Earth. Since they were already not talking about so many other things, he decided to ask, “Do you ever picture this … worst-case scenario for our planet?”

 

Lance inhaled deeply. “I used to. But the Galra haven’t made it near that sector of the universe. It’s … not likely they’re in any danger. Not yet. No sense worrying about it.”

 

Keith sat down as he dug through the area they had just cleared. “Can you really stop yourself, though? From imagining …”

 

“We’ve been dealing with more immediate problems, Keith.” Lance took off one glove to scratch at his cheek. “Mostly I’ve been grateful that none of my family is around, that I don’t have to deal with any— they’re safe, they’re away from all of this. I choose to be thankful.”

 

“So you don’t have to deal with any … questions?” Keith filled in shortly. “Like you won’t deal with mine?” He wasn’t sure why he was picking now, of all times, to start this fight anew.

 

“Yeah, exactly.” Lance didn’t sound angry, just matter-of-fact. “Not answering them. Can’t really answer them, if you want me to be honest?”

 

“Yes, always.”

 

“Well, I can’t, Keith.” Lance put the glove back on and dropped to his knees, using his smaller shovel to dislodge more cracked stones and debris in the same area they’d found the man. “I honestly can’t. If you … If you care at all, you’ll leave it.”

 

“It’s because I care that I can’t,” Keith replied, frustrated at himself and Lance both, though again, he had to struggle to find the words to express it; he had to fight hard to make this, whatever this was, better. He missed Lance, and he was standing right there.

 

“Yeah, I get it,” Lance said quietly. “But … oh fuck.”

 

Keith jerked forward, and soon saw what Lance had — two small hands, right next to each other.

 

“I guess … that guy we found was here with his family.” Lance sucked in a deep breath, eyes closed.

 

When he opened them and looked towards Keith, Keith stood up without a word. He walked over to Lance, and then began to dig swiftly alongside him. Within minutes, they had the two bodies uncovered, and they each picked up one to place on the gurney for transport outside of the crumbled structure. They then laid them out on the ground, close together, and Lance picked up one small hand, placing it over the other. Siblings, maybe, two sisters — killed, mangled, and left to be found by two aliens to their world.

 

“Oh …”

 

Keith glanced up, seeing a man and woman, both of them with their large eyes dimmed, a sheen of tears glinting in the suns' light. They were both covered head to toe in dust, and they looked weary beyond measure.

 

“We can … We can take over. This area has been mostly clear for days, but that building …” The man looked up towards the sky, away from the little corpses. “We’ve gone through several, just like it, and …”

 

“No one felt up to tackling this last one,” the woman continued, her expression now both embarrassed and tired. “But you shouldn’t have to—”

 

“We should,” Lance said sharply, flinching just as they did. “Sorry, I mean … It makes sense. You’ve all had to uncover enough. Is there … a large vehicle nearby? We can put them to rest there, and we’ll drive them out to the morgue tent when we’ve finished with our area.”

 

“We can’t ask that of you.” The man tried to argue, but Keith wasn’t having it either.

 

“Voltron isn’t only about winning the battles — it’s about getting you all back on your feet, in whatever ways we can. You don’t have to do this alone.” He took one step, just in front of Lance, doing his best not to glance back. “Please, don’t do this alone.”

 

The man and woman stared at each other, then towards Lance and Keith.

 

“… If you’re certain,” the woman said softly. “We thank you, Paladins.”

 

“We’re not Paladins,” Lance corrected. “Just two guys who want to help.”

 

An hour later, Lance and Keith had found twelve more bodies. Families, it seemed, and one soldier. Lance had grown quieter and quieter, and Keith didn’t have anything worthwhile to say while they worked.

 

Earlier, the woman, Frelli, had dropped the truck off, and she had explained, “During the first few days, we were pulling people from the wreckage, alive, and it was heartening. But with each passing hour, it seemed like the dead grew in number. We dug as fast and safely as we could, and each life we saved became increasingly precious … Now, there’s no one left.”

 

Lance had helped her down from truck, squeezing her hand tightly before letting go. “We’ll take care of what we can here. Don’t worry about this for today.”

 

Frelli smiled again, and threw her arms around him. She was nearly as tall as Lance, but he folded her into his embrace regardless. Her shoulders trembled with near silent sobs. After a minute, she pulled back, giving Keith a nod and taking a speeder with the other man back to whatever site they were working on.

 

Now, Lance cradled a tiny form in his arms, placing her gently down on the truck bed. “I think we’re full up here.”

 

They could, technically, pile more bodies on top, but Keith didn’t feel right about doing that — about treating them like … like cargo.

 

For whatever reason, he suddenly remembered Dreyulin — Lance held captive, bleeding from a vicious stab wound, and the crime boss amused, telling Keith, “Trying to be a hero, a self-sacrificing moralistic champion from ages gone by? There has never been the like on this planet. And if there has been, they died alone, forgotten, buried in unmarked graves.”

 

At the time, the words hadn’t meant much to Keith, who had been too panicked about Lance, bleeding out in an enemy’s arms, and then too frantic about explosions and gunfire … But now, for all that he wouldn’t consider either himself or Lance heroes, he thought about the unmarked graves back on that planet. About the mass grave out in the desert, where the carrion lizards feasted.

 

About the dead bodies Lance and Keith had left to rot each time they found a fight, or a fight found them.

 

“They need us to give them names and a place to rest,” Keith said unexpectedly, as he drove the truck towards the designated morgue tent. “No one deserves to be left … unknown.”

 

“If someone couldn’t be there to mark the moment they died, then I guess the best we can do is mark them after,” Lance said in soft agreement.

 

That was a slightly different take. Lance and Keith had been there to mark those deaths — the ones they caused directly. Maybe they didn’t have time to care about proper burial (and maybe they still wouldn’t have even if they did have the time, especially for those who came at them first), but at least they’d been there. Lance and Keith carried those faces with them. Those dead ones had someone who knew them in their last moments, and who lived with them now permanently etched into memories …

 

Could Keith remember every single person he’d killed? Possibly. Unmarked graves or not, they had a place in his mind, forever, because he’d been the one to slice their throats or stab their hearts. That never completely faded from memory, even if names and faces blurred over time.

 

“Whole families … Might be no one left who even knows them.” Keith pulled up to the morgue tent, a few medical personnel walking out to greet them.

 

“But we do, now. And they’ll be buried or cremated, or whatever they do here.” Lance didn’t put a hand on Keith’s shoulder or even look his way as he spoke. “It’ll have to be enough.”

 

“You’re Lance and Keith, yes?” said a doctor, his hand waving them in. “Just here, please.”

 

Keith climbed out first, and he walked over to introduce himself. “I’m Keith. We have … people for you to identity.”

 

“We know. Frelli and Codall told us.” The doctor had a scanner in hand as he followed Keith around to the back of the truck.

 

He sucked in a harsh breath as Keith opened the back. This doctor must have seen too many corpses this last month (and throughout the entire course of this war), but he didn’t seem jaded or indifferent. His eyes were dim and blurred by tears as he scanned each one carefully.

 

“We … we had a census not long before the Galra attacked,” he informed them with a thick voice. “It helped … with this. We had everyone’s genetic material on file.”

 

Lance appeared on the doctor’s other side, his arms crossed. “Yeah, that’s … handy.”

 

The doctor swiped beneath his eyes. Keith noted that his scalp was bare — no paint over his bone protrusions. The Xelosian coughed, trying for a smile, failing. “Sorry. We hadn’t found anyone in that area in a few days. I thought we were past the worst of it. But I forgot we hadn’t excavated that last hotel …”

 

“Rell,” a woman called. She approached, her eyes widening when she saw the back of the truck. “Oh … I didn’t realize. Most of the diggers are out on the … I can call them back.”

 

“No, it’s fine, we can take care of this ourselves. We should let them keep working on clearing out the city limits.” The doctor, Rell, shoved the scanner back in a pocket, pushing up the blue sleeves of his long jacket. “We thank you, Lance, Keith—”

 

“Stop.” Lance help up a hand, and with the other, he closed the truck back up. “Tell us where you bury them.”

 

Much like Frelli and Codall, the doctor and his assistant fought them, but Lance prevailed with a gentle application of his persuasive nature, and Keith with his forthright logic. The doctor conceded.

 

“Any living family they have will be contacted, but we don’t have the space or resources to preserve so many … So we return them to Xelos.” Rell brought out his scanner and switched the screen over to a map. “Over here. If we find any living family, they have a place they can … see them. Dellios made sure it was largely untouched, so it’s quite … beautiful.”

 

Keith memorized the map. “Okay, that’s where we’ll go then. Thank you, doctor.”

 

“Rellian,” the man corrected them. “My name is Rellian, Rell to those who know me well … Or those who I think are worth knowing.” He gave them both a serious stare, his eyes clearing, though that bone-deep exhaustion remained present. Everyone here, for all the diversity in eye colour and skin, in age and experience, had that same profound well of sadness behind their gazes.

 

Keith took the man’s hand, giving him an old-fashioned Earth handshake. “Can you show us what to do, Rell?”

 

“Yes,” he replied.

 

Lance gestured to the front of the truck, and the three of them crammed in. Rell pointed the way, though Keith had the map fresh in his mind. They rounded the nearest mountain, and came upon a massive meadow — huge trees were sparsely spread about, but their branches reached out far and high, bright greens and dark blues. Their trunks were either off-white or earthy brown. The grass was a light green with pink and white flowers peeking through. Near one of the large trees, there seemed to be endless stacks of oval coffins, open and empty.

 

The graves were marked with silver cylinders about a foot high, and small, flickering images and dates projected above them. Most of the dates were the same. 

 

“There isn’t much ceremony, though certain religions have … Well, we don’t have the time to do all that. We use those capsules. They sink into the soft earth here — just need to dig a large enough hole to settle them beneath the surface, and they descend to a pre-set range. We scanned the ground here. There are no rock formations near the surface to disrupt the descent. A perfect place for all these —” Rell stopped talking abruptly. “Sorry. I’ll show you how to …”

 

The doctor tagged each body with his scanner — an actual physical tag that was adhered to the skin. While he did that, Lance and Keith brought over the capsules — each had a cylindrical headstone accompanying it, and they were shockingly light. There was a gurney nearby they used to stack them high.

 

They laid the first body into a capsule, then dug only a foot or so down, and placed the capsule into the shallow grave, covering it up quickly. They could faintly hear it descend, and they watched the dirt churn as it did so. When the cylinder was placed as the headstone, the image responded to the tag attached, displaying the name and date. The doctor helped them with the rest, and in an hour, they were climbing back into the now empty truck.

 

As Lance and Keith drove Rell to his work tent, Lance said, “We’ll bring anyone we find to you for tagging, and then we’ll take them back out there alone. You don’t need to worry about the rest.”

 

Rell nodded, and his eyes were closing again, his voice a whisper. “Thank you.”

 

Their system worked.

 

All day, and well into the night, Lance and Keith dug out the hotel. For every dozen or so bodies they found, they would drive back over to Rell for identification and tagging. Halfway through the day, it was Rell’s assistant, Hoalli, who took his place, her hands shaking as she scanned and tagged. If it weren’t for the fact that the scanner required high-level clearance to use, Keith would’ve taken that aspect of the job over as well.

 

After their second trip, Keith noticed people stopping their work whenever Lance and Keith drove the truck out towards the morgue tent. They would hold up their hands and then press them to their foreheads and hearts.

 

The hotel had been crowded, overcrowded with refugees.

 

Lance and Keith made the trip seven times in the twelve or so hours they worked. They stopped only once for about twenty minutes to consume water and a few ration bars that had been stuffed into the bags of tools Trev had given them.

 

On that last journey, the seventh time they watched the bodies be identified, tagged with a small press of the scanner to whatever body part was least damaged, and then brought over to the beautiful, peaceful graveyard, Lance and Keith were accompanied by several landspeeders. Thirty or more other workers had joined them, all of them bringing portable lamps and flashlights since there was nothing to see by other than the soft glow of a small moon. Now that he and Lance equally covered in dust and grime, Keith felt better about standing side by side with all the rest of the Xelosians.

 

The last graves were dug even faster with all the extra hands — and since the capsules only needed to be lowered about a foot or so into the ground before the machinery did the rest of the work of pushing the dirt underneath out and above, all they had to fill in was the original foot-deep hole they’d dug.

 

The cylinders were placed, and the last of the holo-gravestones lit up, flickering to life in a near-synchronized wave.

 

Frelli had been amongst those who’d followed them. She reached out for Lance’s hand, and then Keith’s. She pressed them to her head and then her heart. She didn’t say a word as she walked back to the speeder.

 

Codall followed her example. Keith didn’t how to express that neither he nor Lance needed this kind of … thanks? Reverence? Lance didn’t appear all that comfortable either, but he accepted each gesture rather helplessly.

 

When only Rell was left, his speeder waiting beside one of the trees, Lance stopped him before any more silent praising could happen. “We don’t … It’s not even the most we could do for you. We were … away when the fighting was happening. We weren’t here to liberate you …”

 

“Did you think I missed the mark on your face, Lance?” The doctor raised a hand, not touching but hovering just over Lance’s starburst scar. Keith wished people would stop drawing attention to it — the memories attached to it (memories Keith still didn’t fully know …) were not something Lance needed to be reminded of constantly. “I know that you and Keith were fighting. Maybe not for us, but somewhere, for someone. And then you come here, and you continue to fight. To fight and heal … It demands respect.”

 

Keith had nothing to say to that. He couldn’t think of anything that wouldn’t be a harsh counterargument — I’ve killed about as many bodies as I’ve put in the ground today, more even. Some of them might not even have been justified.

 

Lance had cracked jokes over some their enemies’ corpses.

 

And Keith had laughed.

 

“Rellian.” Keith’s throat dried up. “You should … You should go rest. We’re probably going to be leaving soon.” He pictured crashing onto his bed, a home-cooked meal waiting on a bar, Lance singing in the shower …

 

The doctor pursed his lips, watching them both intently. Then he took their hands … and shook them the Earth way. He smiled, waved, and left without anything more said.

 

Lance stood by the graves, a bag of tools slung over one shoulder, a shovel clutched loosely in his other gloved hand. His sleeves were rolled up, his hair messy with clumps of sweat and dirt — it was an incomplete picture. Keith opened his mouth to ask where were his shoulder holsters and his beloved hat? Did they forget them back at the site? They could make a quick trip to pick them up before going back to Dagos, and he opened his mouth to say as much.

 

A split second before he formed the words, he remembered where they were. They weren’t wrapping up a job and heading back to the inn … He hadn’t even realized his mind had drifted away, light-years away. There had been no flashback or hallucination. Just a certainty of where and who he was — and quite abruptly, that certainty was gone.

 

Keith forced himself to stare at the graves. He read a few names … Keran, Lyrall, Opralli … He looked at their ages … Three solar years, sixty-five solar years, ten solar years … When he finally had a firm grasp on the world on which he stood, he turned to walk back to the truck. He climbed into the passenger side, letting Lance drive them to where Calliath still stood in exactly the same posture, even twelve hours later, though now the area was well lit with various bright white and yellow lanterns.

 

She saw them approach and climbed down from her perch. They got out of the truck, Lance telling the diminutive woman, “We borrowed it from Frelli …”

 

“I know,” Calliath said abruptly. “Word made it back to me, about the two men toiling away, digging graves. You did something few of us could — made Rell take a seat for a few hours. Hoalli was in tears telling me about it.”

 

“We came here to work, and that’s what we did,” Lance said, short and to the point. “Now we need to head back.”

 

“Then get out of here.” Calliath snorted. “Just needed to make sure …” She didn’t finish her sentence, oddly enough — she didn’t seem the sort to leave anything unsaid.

 

But Keith saw her stare at Lance’s scar; she turned her gaze towards Keith, and it was as though she could see straight through his shirt to the burn on his side. It tingled as she held them in place with nothing more than a pair of grey eyes. Grey, silver almost — old, wise, and weathered by pain. Strangely, he felt no resentment towards her for picking at their most sensitive areas.

 

She nodded. Lance and Keith both saluted her simultaneously.

 

The soldiers who had escorted them appeared, along with Trev. The foreman apologized. “Hope you haven’t been waiting long. We were helping down in the south-western area, Calliath ordered us … We heard …”

 

“Time to get back.” Keith didn’t want to hear any more thanks.

 

“No more useless chattering,” Calliath scolded from behind them, back on her rock. “Trev, do you know what time it is? Get these two back to their ship — they’re an eyesore.”

 

Trev winced. “Yes, ma’am.”

 

The fear and respect of Calliath kept everyone quiet on their way back to the Castle. No one from the Voltron team was waiting for them there, though the ramp was down. Many Xelosians were still rushing about; Keith heard, in passing, “ … Calliath sent word …not disturb them …” And no one did — no one said a word directly to them, or even stared too long as they walked up the ramp.

 

His hearing was better than Lance’s, and he didn’t think Lance needed to hear this. Calliath had seen enough to make Keith uncomfortable, yet for her to ensure that they had some peace and quiet at the end of this day … It was a worthy price to pay.

 

Everyone on the Castle was asleep — though Keith would bet his favourite sword that either Pidge or Shiro, or both, were monitoring the cameras, waiting to be sure that Lance and Keith had made it back. The ramp rose up behind them, and Keith half-expected Shiro to come rushing from a corridor to check on them, but no one came. The quiet continued.

 

A little too much quiet, even for Keith. As Lance walked to their room, once again, the silence truly settled in. They couldn’t talk in here — not since Keith had tried to make Lance tell him about those days back on the nameless planet.

 

Every night, after they spent the day together, training, eating, bantering or even arguing, Keith held a small flicker of hope that they would reach their room, and Lance would suddenly open up to say something with weight and meaning behind it.

 

And every night, that flicker was extinguished by the coldness emanating from him.

 

Keith couldn’t handle it. Not on this night.

 

He spun on his heel and left. Lance didn’t call out to him.

 

******

 

Of all the people Keith expected to find in the training room, Sam Holt would’ve been the last one on his list.

 

Yet, as Keith stumbled in, Sam Holt paused the battle program he’d been running, waving cheerfully. “Hello there, Keith. I’d comment on the hour, but it’s rather late for me to be playing around in here, too, I suppose.”

 

Keith hadn’t spoken much to Pidge and Matt’s father, but he did like the man, based on what little he knew. “I can leave, if you —”

 

“Oh, no, it’s fine. I was just wrapping up.” A few quick presses on his wrist computer, and the gladiator robots were retreating to their charging units, hidden in the walls. “I may not be a warrior like the rest of you, but I try to keep myself in fighting shape.”

 

Sam wore loose pants and a shirt that seemed to be stitched together by hand, revealing the scar along on his collarbone. Keith hadn’t meant to stare — hadn’t he been put off by all the scrutiny Lance’s scar received today? — but his eyes were drawn to the perfect circle about three centimetres in diameter.

 

“That’s where the tracker was,” Sam said easily. He traced it with one finger. “Beneath skin, and grafted to the bone. It wasn’t fun getting it off, but the machines on this ship are full of wonders. And they’ve got plenty of pretty decent anaesthetics, once they’ve been tailored to humans, that is.”

 

Keith blinked. “That sounds … really bad.”

 

“Oh, I passed out.” Sam walked over to the wall, calling up the armoury and putting his blaster back. “Now, what brings you to the arena?”

 

“Just needed to blow off steam before bed,” Keith said, somewhat truthfully.

 

“You and Lance worked up a sweat, I heard.” Sam’s smile faltered. “Lots of folks in the medical buildings heard from Rellian … It was a noble thing you did. And a hard one. Coran suggested everyone clear out before you came back. Leave you in peace.”

 

Coran, once again, acting as their saviour. Keith hadn’t sat down to have a talk with him since they’d first arrived on the Castle. Maybe he should.

 

“That was a good idea,” Keith admitted quietly. “It wasn’t an easy day.”

 

“Lance already crashed, then?” Sam asked, and for whatever reason, Keith’s pokerface utterly failed him — his jaw clenched as he swallowed hard and stared down at the floor.

 

“Ah.” Sam said nothing for a while, then, “You two make me worry for my wife.”

 

It was so out of the blue, Keith’s head jerked up, and his mouth opened to blurt out, “What? Why?”

 

“What you two went through? You went through it together. No one else understands, not down to the core, the kind of suffering and pain that shaped your lives for that year. But you have one other person who understands wholly and completely.” Sam tapped his chin. “Pidge and Matt and I … we’ve all been through different kinds pain. We have trouble talking about that, sometimes. But my wife? I don’t even think she’ll recognize us, not in the ways that matter. And maybe we won’t recognize her either.”

 

Sam’s eyes gleamed even as his smile reformed. “My Colleen is a strong woman, but she’s weak for her family. Always has been. Fiercely in love with all of us, and damn proud, but we’re her weak spot. We’re one another’s weak spots. It’s what happens when you’ve got no extended family left, and it’s just the four. Me, Matt, Pidge, and Colleen. We’re a unit. And now …”

 

“Now you’ve got to deal with a broken unit, one that you might not be able to fix.” Keith hadn’t admitted that out loud before, but Sam had been blunt with him, and he felt the need to return the favour. It was easier with him. Shiro would’ve been hurt. Allura, Coran … But Sam hadn’t known him before, and Sam didn’t care about Keith as much he did Matt, Pidge, and Shiro. And that was fine. That was good, even.

 

“Yes.” Sam blinked rapidly, eyes glazing over, staring off into the distance, and his mouth twisting into a frown.

 

Keith noticed the man never wore eyeglasses anymore, and neither did Matt. There was probably vision correction available on this Castle and amongst the advanced civilizations they encountered … Pidge hadn’t opted in, evidently, but Sam and Matt had, maybe even before they arrived. Maybe the Galra treated Sam’s eyesight to make him a better worker drone. Maybe the rebels did the same for Matt, albeit with slightly better intentions. Maybe Pidge wanted to keep something familiar that her father and brother no longer had.

 

“I don’t think I have what it takes to be a Paladin,” Keith said. It wasn’t a relief, and yet it was — to say it to someone other than Lance. “I don’t think Red and I can connect. I don’t think I deserve it. I don’t think Lance and I can fight how Shiro and Allura want us to fight.”

 

“I think those are a whole bunch of separate problems.” Sam scratched at his chin. “Some can be solved, others, perhaps not. I have one suggestion — from what I understand, the Lion connection is mostly dependent on the Lion. They choose whom they want to be their Paladin. So you should give Red the option of choosing. Or maybe she’s never changed her mind.”

 

“I don’t know … I can’t reach her, not anymore.” Keith fell back against the wall by the door, his hands in his hair. He was still so filthy, streaked in dust, sweat, and dirt. Sam hadn’t said a word about it. “There’s only pain when I try, and it’s not even trying. It’s just … instinct.”

 

“Which suggests that there is a connection. Otherwise, would there be pain? I would think there would be nothing if the bond had been severed, by either of you or both.”

 

Well, fuck. Keith hadn’t thought about it that way. A flare in his mind, and it hurt, but for the first time, Keith didn’t block it, didn’t press his hands to his head and will it away. It hurt and it was Red. Maybe.

 

Sam was grinning, and Keith … Keith was smiling back. He scratched at his hair, feeling the grime on his scalp. “I … should shower. Sorry for interrupting you. And for … unloading like that, out of nowhere.”

 

“Oh, I started it, so I feel as though I should be apologizing to you.” Sam walked to the door, and he put his hand down on Keith’s shoulder, dust and dirt and all. “And in case you’re curious, I work out here occasionally, at around this time. And if I’m not here, and I’m not sleeping? There’s a lab in the east wing, two doors away from the observation deck. I tend to lose track of time when I’m in the zone, as my kids say.”

 

Keith found himself releasing a short burst of laughter. “Yeah, I feel like that was genetically passed on.”

 

Sam’s grin took on a proud edge. “They are pretty brilliant, aren’t they?”

 

“Pidge could be our overlord if she wasn’t busy making robots and dragging in random bits of machinery to take apart.” Keith had caught a glimpse of a few little floating puffballs? Either she made them or she brought them home with her from somewhere, he hadn’t thought to ask.

 

“Let her tinker, and she’ll be loyal to you for life,” Sam said solemnly. “This has been true since she first held a screwdriver at the age of four. And Matt has shamelessly encouraged said behaviour.”

 

Sam squeezed Keith’s shoulders. “Thank you, for looking out for Pidge while Matt and I were gone. Remember where I’m usually at on this ship. I’ll be interested to hear if anything comes of those headaches …”

 

Keith nodded, smiling as Sam left. He decided to clean up in the communal showers just off the training area. He walked back to his room in only a towel, his dirty clothes dropped down a laundry chute.

 

When he slid open the door, he saw Lance was in bed, already asleep (or doing a good job of pretending). Keith took a few seconds to slip on a pair of too-big pyjama pants, and an even baggier T-shirt. He crawled into the bed as carefully as possible.

 

He’d relaxed into the mattress, settled on his pillow facing Lance, eyes shut and ready for the welcoming darkness … An arm wrapped around him, pulling him in.

 

Keith opened his eyes. Lance’s remained closed. His arm had dragged Keith across the space between them. The silence remained, but the warmth … Keith gave into it. He raised his own arm and trapped Lance against him. Keith pressed his face close to Lance’s collarbone, inhaling deeply, and tangled their legs together.

 

Nothing was fixed. Nothing had been said. But Keith had someone who understood him, wholly and completely, and even if Lance rejected him over and over again, Keith would find other ways to fix this.

 

Pain meant that the bond was still there.

 

******

  

Chapter Text

******

Pidge

One Phoeb and Two Movements Since the Return

******

 

The soldiers of Ghantos II had won their planet back, but they had no time to rest. The Galra Empire had left no infrastructure intact. Leaders and their families all gone. Their halls of governance and justice reduced to dust.

 

The surviving generals had divided the planet up into sections, trying to provide for the living, bury the dead, and stabilize the remaining structures.

 

After Xelos began to thrive once more, Allura and Shiro had decided that Ghantos II was the next priority; thus, the Castle had been stationed here for twelve days and counting. Ryner had sent several Olkari ships, packed full of scientists, engineers, and supplies. The Yujin were providing additional ships to help transport refugees to the cities, where all the food and medical services had been consolidated.

 

Pidge stuck close to Lance and Keith. Shiro had been worried about them, something he’d expressed earlier that morning before they all headed out to their separate posts. She had watched Lance dismiss the concern with an easy smile and humourous reassurances. Keith had been kindly blunt about needing to go wherever they felt they could best use their skills; he’d been willing to invite Shiro along, which Shiro declined in an attempt to respect their space. Pidge volunteered to go with them instead, and Keith shrugged, not objecting to her presence.

 

Training had been going well. Lance and Keith respectfully took directions from Shiro and Allura. They calmed down their reckless moves; they hadn’t broken the rules once, and while they put their brutal style to use, they didn’t ever threaten real damage.

 

The entire twelve days they’d been on Ghantos II, Lance and Keith had taken off on their own at dawn, coming back to the Castle late at night. Allura, Shiro, and Pidge had heard vague reports about their two wayward team members out with the soldiers who were rebuilding the pipelines, but the lack of detail was … unnerving.

 

This particular morning, after the chat with Lance and Keith, Shiro had taken Pidge aside and said, “Since you’re heading out with them, stay close, if they’ll let you. I want to believe things are getting better, and maybe they are … But I’m not sure.”

 

“You want me to spy on them?” Pidge had asked, both sounding and feeling uncertain.

 

“No, just help them with whatever it is they’re doing this time. Or …” Shiro hesitated. “If they’re … dealing with something like Xelos, don’t feel obligated to stick around. Let me or Allura know. One of us will talk to them about it.”

 

Pidge didn’t think this was the right approach.

 

Lance didn’t let people pry into his life, nor did he offer up any meaningful details. Not anymore. During the first few months of their Paladin life, Lance used to complain all the time — failing to hide tears when he was homesick, and railing against any “unfair” treatment … He grew, he matured, but his heart was always on his sleeve … Pidge had no idea where he hid it now.

 

When Pidge initially got to know Keith, years ago, there had been moments when he’d been easy to read, others when he’d been closed off. He’d always been extremely private about his past and reluctant to form attachments — now, he had grown beyond inscrutable. Even his temper was concealed at present. She felt guilty for assuming that Keith had been more or less fine with what had happened, that he’d been unchanged … He was affected, just like Lance, and while he was possibly processing the pain in better ways, that didn’t change the fact that he bore just as many scars. But how could she know for sure when all his old cues were gone?

 

Funny enough, for all the shocking events she’d witnessed on 2657-AbbDn, Lance and Keith had been more open there. They’d been themselves (their new selves), unapologetic and unrelenting. It had made her uncomfortable at the time, but now, she might actually prefer those two rough cowboys to … whoever they were now. Whoever they were pretending to be.

 

The Lance and Keith who could dig graves and lay dead children to rest? Those two were real.

 

Maybe they didn’t want to be real around their Voltron family anymore. Somewhere in the last couple of weeks, Pidge and the others … they’d messed up. Or had missed something. She wanted things to get better, but not like this.

 

“Pidge.” Lance put a hand on her shoulder, staring at her with an arched eyebrow. “You okay?” He glanced over his shoulder. “There’s nothing shiny and high-tech enough to distract you. What gives?”

 

She tilted her head, her ponytail falling over her shoulder, and replied quickly, “Just thinking that I really need a haircut.”

 

Lance released a pained, high-pitched noise. “No, nope. Okay, is this your way of hinting we need another braiding session? ’Cause if so, tomorrow first thing in the morning, report to Allura’s quarters — she has all the best hair stuff.”

 

Keith cleared his throat, his eyes on the dirt road before them as he steered the landspeeder towards the work site. “Pidge, you sure you want to come with us?”

 

“Yes.” She spoke a half-truth, and then kept going with more honesty, “I haven’t really seen much of you guys lately. Before, when you were taking joyrides, it was obviously personal time you needed, and that was fine. But now you’re working apart from us, and … I don’t like missing you when you’re right here.”

 

“That's … really sweet,” Lance said lightly, his eyes dark while his mouth teased a smile. “You’re getting very sentimental in your old age, kiddo.”

 

Pidge rolled her eyes. “Someone needs to gain wisdom with age. Clearly not you, the guy who put socks on his hands and feet so he could get double the speed every time they waxed the Garrison hallway floors. I could tell Keith all about that time you slid right to the stairs and—”

 

Lance dove for her mouth with both hands, though Keith was already snorting with laughter. Pidge started laughing, too, when Lance decided to forgo smothering her and instead switch to the far more effective tactic of tickling. She kicked him in the stomach before he could really get her crying. While he wheezed, she crawled up to the front seat, sitting right in-between Lance and Keith.

 

“My point being,” Pidge continued, unfazed, “is that you might be three years older than me, but you didn’t really age-up until last year.”

 

“Keith, do you hear this slander!” Lance held a hand to his chest, still coughing periodically.

 

“I didn’t know you back then, but so far, this sounds legit,” Keith answered, grinning when Lance tried to tickle him next, but Pidge thwarted him with a threatening look and a raised leg. She trusted Keith’s piloting abilities beyond most, but she wasn’t in the mood to find out whether or not Keith could drive while cracking up.

 

Their destination sat quite far from the Castle landing point — one of the central water treatment facilities that had been completely annihilated in the war. The facility itself stood freshly rebuilt, but all the pipes leading into populated areas still needed replacing. Running water had become a pressing concern for this city, so this was one of the more active sites; soldiers scrambled with heavy machines, working alongside civilians who were knowledgeable enough to direct them.

 

Pidge didn’t quite understand what Lance and Keith were working on here until Lance pointed down into one of the massive trenches. “The maglocks don’t have enough power right now — most of the grids are still down or not functioning full throttle? So you gotta manually lock the pipes into place.”

 

“Hey, Lance, Keith!” A soldier with a shaved head, four green eyes, and a wide, happy smile, waved at them. “Got you some gloves and a hard hat. And today’s a wet one, so get ready to be muddy.”

 

Lance sighed. “Awesome. Ellu, got any extra stuff for our friend here? She’s pretty small, so, you know, kid sizes would work.”

 

Pidge elbowed him, and Lance coughed again. Ellu walked over, passing Lance and Keith their gloves and hats, and evaluating Pidge with one quick up-and-down look. “Yeah, I think so. She uk’shar?”

 

Keith nodded. “Yeah, she is.”

 

She didn’t ask what that word meant. Whatever it was had to be highly colloquial for the translators to miss it, but it seemed like maybe she shouldn’t be asking right now. Lance and Keith didn’t elaborate, not even when they were all down in the deep trenches carved out for the pipes. Debris from the old ones had been removed already, the new locks in place. Two or three people stood on one side of the lock, and another two or three on the other side, all of them ready to push. Each pipe required four locks, but the pipes were also very long and tall — Pidge would guess roughly twenty-five metres in length and three metres in height? — and so there was plenty of space to spread out.

 

Room to breathe, privacy to speak.

 

But Lance and Keith just worked hard, only talking when they needed to push or hold. A few teasing remarks were made, but they were mostly sent her way — not to each other.

 

It wasn’t until they took a break hours later, (sweaty, out of breath, aching all over, and muddy), that Pidge saw what might have been Lance and Keith’s primary reason for being here. And why Shiro had so little intel on their activities.

 

Pidge found herself a silent bystander as the lunchtime discussion evolved (or devolved?) into retelling of memorable war stories. She had to hold back winces when the tales tended towards the gruesome. As a way of keeping her nausea at bay, she concentrated on cataloguing the details of the soldiers around her, as well as Lance and Keith’s reactions (at this point, her mental annotations were reflexive).

 

“I had the Galra scum in my sights, right?” Jokiun said, his arms up as if holding a sniper rifle. “But then his general just strolls right into my line of fire. I fired out of shock, total fluke. Nailed them both.

 

An older woman, Drani, snorted. “Two with one shot isn’t nearly so impressive — I used my spear and managed to get three with one thrust.”

 

Lance stood up and everyone turned to him, looking amused and eager to varying degrees. “Folks, let me tell you about the fuckers who tried to nail Keith and me after one of our jobs.”

 

“Which time?” Keith asked, leaning back on his elbows, his muddied boots just touching Lance’s. “Caspor tried twice. Then there was that time with Huaxa’s goons … ” Keith heaved a loud breath through his nose. “That was a particular kind of fun.”

 

Lance grinned viciously. “Fuck yes, I’m talking about taking down Huaxa’s assholes.” He gestured to the rest. “We’re talking about a guy with maybe thirty brawlers in his gang — and we pissed ’em off by working for their competition. They came at us just as we finished a job, and we’re backed into an alley. Could’ve killed us then and there, but Huaxa decides he wants to take Keith one-on-one for show—”

 

“What a moron,” Ellu scoffed. “And he ran this gang?”

 

“Not after that night,” Keith said with an eye roll. “He wanted a fight for pride. I was fucking tired. He took one swing at me, and I stabbed him in the throat.”

 

“And I took out three of his biggest thugs before he hit the ground,” Lance said proudly. “Seriously, all right smack dab in the middle of the forehead.” He flicked his own head while grinning. “Most of the gang took off after that. We only had to deal with another five or six idiots.”

 

Low whistling met that tale, along with a few slow claps. Drani jabbed a long blue finger at Lance. “If I hadn’t seen you two spar with Joa and Sywyn, I would’ve said you were liars. But I can believe some of that story.”

 

“Which part don’t you believe?” Lance demanded, affronted.

 

“The part where you let most of them go.” Drani watched him from beneath two half-lidded eyes. “You don’t strike me as the overly merciful type.”

 

Lance laughed, and to these strangers, it might have seemed easy-going. To Pidge, (and to Keith, she could clearly see), it was a grating, humourless sound. “Those were the early days, Drani. I learned better later.”

 

A young woman, who was missing one of her four eyes, raised her thermos. “One more story before we get back to work. I demand a body count of at least six.”

 

Lance leaned back against the pipe, and Keith knocked their boots together. Despite that brief flare of pain from Lance, neither of them seemed too … disturbed. In fact, Lance was already smiling, a real smile, as a young soldier chattered eagerly.

 

“Oh, Terulla, you gotta talk about the time, with the defective grenade —”

 

Pidge didn’t know what to think about the fact that suddenly, she could block out the nausea that came with vivid descriptions of blood and gore. Already desensitized, (she blinked away a sudden vivid recollection — a Galra soldier, missing an arm due to a wicked slice of her bayard), she both accepted and ignored the amusement of those who told these macabre stories, the longing in some of their voices … She was more interested in (and hurt by) the way Lance and Keith relaxed. They weren’t completely without their thick armoured layers, but definitely less so than when they were back on the Castle.

 

Quite abruptly, she resented the hardened soldiers around her. Lance and Keith could be themselves around these battle-hungry people; evidentally, these soldiers had been very vague whenever Shiro or Allura inquired about Lance and Keith because they were protecting The Two McClains. Pidge’s eyes scrutinized each person intently. Lance and Keith had formed a rapport with these people, that was plain to see, but what would engender that much loyalty in so short a time?

 

Terulla’s bragging was interrupted by the arrival of several others. Pidge tensed, her hand falling to her bayard.

 

“Havere,” Keith said in greeting, calm as ever. “I’m guessing you have news.”

 

This new person was a little taller than Lance, bulky with muscle and heavily scarred, and he gave them all a bright smile. Much like everyone else on Ghantos II, his teeth were similar to humans, except that they were blunter, almost rounded. The people were largely vegetarian, built to consume plants and herbs. Since the Galra had burned most of their fields and forests, food was another pressing concern. Pidge knew that Coran and Matt were working on that, using some of the farming robot schematics Pidge had designed on Xelos. She definitely wanted to check out the production lines on another day.

 

But back to the task at hand, which was watching this Ghantosian, Havere, point towards the burned-out forest behind them.

 

“It’s now or never,” Havere said, his mouth briefly forming a grim line. “Is she going to help?”

 

He shifted his bright blue gaze to Pidge. She didn’t flinch, though she did slide her own gaze over to Lance and Keith, waiting to hear what they would say. Both of them were staring at her in return. When they turned to each other, they communicated silently for several moments. Pidge was gearing up to argue in favour of her presence, but that turned out to be unnecessary.

 

Keith stood, wiping his hands on his coat, and then putting one hand on Pidge’s shoulder. “She’s uk’shar. And she knows how to keep quiet.”

 

This was truer than Keith realized. But for them to trust her so completely felt strange … which was painful. Pidge let the others inspect her for a few seconds before they all seemed to accept Keith at his word.

 

“We’ve got a few speeders waiting around the back,” Ellu informed them as they all started moving, Ellu at the head of their pack. “And General Costiva is covering for us. We’ve got until closing time to do this.”

 

“We’ll head over in our speeder,” Lance said, tugging Pidge by her sleeve. “See you there.”

 

Ten minutes later, with Keith behind the wheel, and Pidge seated right between him and Lance, she asked, “Where are we going and what are we doing?”

 

“We’re heading to a military complex at the base of that mountain to break someone out of prison.” Lance shed his heavy work coat, revealing a lighter, less muddy jacket. Pidge caught the flash of his pistols — both the laser and the bullet ones.

 

She digested this answer. “Okay. Who and why?”

 

“His name is Jovos Quillin.” Keith darted his eyes over to her, waiting to see if she recognized the name.

 

Which, yes, she did because she’d been there, they’d all been there, when several Generals had mentioned the infamous Captain Quillin who had been charged with war crimes and sentenced to life imprisonment.

 

“What are you … Lance, what the quiznak is this?” Pidge wasn’t going to secretly comm Shiro, not until she heard them out, but her finger rested on the button, and she would not hesitate to push if his explanation did not make sense.

 

“This is us … helping people.” Lance breathed out slowly. “These guys, they’re part of Quillin’s squad. He did execute those prisoners of war, okay? He did it, he’s guilty. But until that point, he’d been a fucking amazing captain, and that final push out of the capital? Did you read the report Coran gave us from the Blade of Marmora? Quillin was the lead on that. He got the Blades in, he ended this fight with as few casualties as possible.”

 

“Until he murdered a bunch of Galra in cold blood.” Pidge’s finger squeezed her computer, ready to summon Shiro. “I’m not hearing a reason for this.”

 

“There isn’t a good one.” Keith’s grip on the wheel tightened, then loosened as he said, “There isn’t a single good reason for what he did. But Ellu got drunk one night, mentioned this breakout plan to Lance, swore us to secrecy, and we said we wouldn’t tell anyone … if they let us help. Because these soldiers? They are good people. They stood up to Quillin. They refused to fire on their unarmed prisoners.”

 

“Did they try to stop him?” Pidge asked. This was the question that mattered most to her.

 

“Havere called it in. Ellu ran off to get a general. The rest fought Quillin, but he overpowered them and locked them out of the detention area with his command codes.” Lance stared out towards the looming mountains. “They watched him fire down on the prisoners with a cannon. Once it was over, he let them in … And they guarded him until the authorities arrived.”

 

“They know that he did a horrible thing … They know that justice must be served. Just not like this,” Keith finished. “We’re almost there — get ready.”

 

Those final, silent couple of minutes before arrival, Pidge studied Keith and Lance in turn, and then asked herself: can I keep this secret?

 

The answer was surprisingly simple: what’s one more?

 

She could see the lines of logic from Lance and Keith’s changed personalities to this exact point, though she was still uncertain as to their motives. If this mission turned out to be far more afield than Pidge was comfortable with, then she could walk away, call Shiro in after all, and let things unfold as they would.

 

They reached the military complex quickly, their speeders concealed behind several massive rocks. The forest would have served as decent cover, had it not been burned to ashes by the Galra Empire. A few of the oldest trees stood, blackened and leafless. Lance grinned at Keith, pointing upwards.

 

Keith grinned back.

 

Pidge … did not appreciate where this was going.

 

Sure enough, they were scaling the mountain face, the ledges painful thin and rough on her fingertips. A ragged outcropping, hovering just over one side of the facility, seemed to be the goal. Pidge’s boots were able to cling to the rock, though she slipped once or twice. Lance was close to her, looking like he wanted to reach out, but he held back when she shook her head, smiling as Pidge lifted herself up higher with no further accidents.

 

He murmured, “Good job, chiquilla, you’ve got some guns on you.”

 

The entire Voltron team trained brutally hard while Lance and Keith had been missing. Pidge had gained some muscle weight. Moreover, her climbing ability had been part of the skills she had focused on improving … She just wasn’t a huge fan of heights when she couldn't soar in a giant lion or rely on her tech …

 

Once they all reached the outcropping, it was a simple matter for Lance to pull out his pocket computer and hack the cameras. Pidge leaned in, watching him use her software with expert fingers. She made a mental note to beef up the Ghantos II security systems once they were done — not that she thought Lance and Keith would do anything here again … Or did she? Once more, her thoughts were incoherent, so she banished her higher reasoning in favour of focusing on the next move and nothing else.

 

“Avoid lethal blows,” Havere said immediately once they all gathered together. “Knock out someone if you have to, but otherwise, it should be easy to get Jovos without much bloodshed. Just stick to the shadows. Lance ensured that the cameras are off, and with the power grids so weak, this is a regular occurrence, so no should be the wiser. His cell is at the end of the fifth block. Can you unlock that, Lance?”

 

Lance glanced towards Pidge. “If I can’t, I know she can.”

 

Pidge nodded. This was a mission. She would carry it out. For Lance. For Keith.

 

“Y’all should’ve held out,” Keith said, and it sounded like something he’d oft repeated (Pidge nudged Lance at the y’all, and he winked back before his serious mercenary business face slipped on again). “We could’ve had better equipment, disguises —”

 

“He’s being transferred to the Underway tomorrow at dawn,” Havere interrupted, brooking no argument. “That place is beyond anyone’s reach. This is the only time, Keith.”

 

“We had to wait for the order to go out.” Ellu checked his guns, the gestures appearing to be instinctive. “Once it was certain that the transfer was going through, they diverted prison resources to the Underway and the path leading to it. This is as much an opening as we’re going to get.”

 

“We need to move in three,” Drani interrupted. Her weapon of choice was a large rifle that seemed to have several spiked attachments.

 

Everyone around her, including Lance and Keith, tensed, ready for action, professional to the utmost. Pidge felt like a child in comparison, even though she had been fighting in a universal war for over three years.

 

“Follow my lead,” Havere ordered them. “Now.”

 

He leapt off the cliff towards a landing pad directly below them. Lance pointed his pistols, indicating that Pidge go ahead, and Keith took up a position directly next to her, ready to jump. Somehow, they all landed within seconds of each other. Havere was already taking up point by a gate. He raised a hand, and Drani ran at the fence, her powerful legs sending her halfway up. Her rifle jammed into a portion to the metal — she used it to scale the rest of the distance, and once she perched on top, she extended her arm.

 

Every person took running starts, scaling up to her hand. She yanked them up, and they dropped down on the other side, landing within the prison yard. It took less than two minutes to get everyone in.

 

Pidge sucked in a breath, bracing herself for more fast-paced acrobatics, but everything slowed to a crawl as they moved through the yard, pausing behind equipment sheds and empty guardhouses.

 

The entrance into the prison had three guards. Pidge grew concerned when Lance raised his rifle. Drani did the same. The two of them paused … and then fired.

 

The guards went down, hard, and Pidge opened her mouth to yell, moving to grab her bayard, to do something because they said no killing, but Keith had grabbed her wrist, yanking her back against him.

 

“Concussive shots, Pidge — high impact, non-lethal.” He whispered it into her ear, letting go of her afterwards.

 

She whipped back to glare at him, but he didn’t appear angry or frustrated in return. He just glanced past her to Havere, who gave a nod. He and Keith both took the lead together. The rest hung back. A few guards poked their head out of the doors just as Havere and Keith arrived. They were knocked unconscious inside of twenty seconds.

 

Havere signalled them with a raised hand.

 

Pidge positioned herself to the right of Lance, just behind him, keeping an eye on the ramparts, seeing no one. Several cameras were pointed straight at them, but they didn’t appear to be functioning.

 

“Nice stroke of luck,” Havere murmured when they were within earshot. “These two opened one door for us. Can you get us into the cell block?”

 

“Pidge?” Lance asked, his eyes imploring. “We’ve taken out more guards than expected — they’ll be sending someone soon. We gotta finish this. Now.”

 

She didn’t vocalize her agreement; she simply walked over to Havere, and he pointed down a long hallway to their left. Pidge became the head of the group; as they walked, she felt Lance and Keith flanking her on either side. They said nothing, moved with purpose, and took up guard positions when they finally reached the doors to the fifth block.

 

Pidge’s computer software had latched onto the prison’s system already — her tech’s default setting created a backdoor in any system it sensed. All she had to do was open that backdoor, so to speak, and then she was able to find the access to physically unlock the door in front of them.

 

All told, it was perhaps a five second delay. Havere’s prominent brows climbed his forehead as Pidge waved them onwards. “That was impressive. Also, somewhat terrifying.”

 

Lance gave a short, quiet laugh. “A very accurate description of Pidge.”

 

No one else was in the cellblock but the person they sought — Pidge rounded the corners slowly, holding up a fist just as they hit the last hallway. Then she held up four fingers.

 

Keith, Havere, Drani, and Terulla all silently shifted behind her, putting on masks or hoods to hide their faces, though the disguises also seemed to obscure their vision. She pulled herself against the wall, letting them past. Pidge heard them charge, a clash of weapons, and whipped around the corner herself, bayard in hand. However, the guards were all unconscious by the time she and the other Ghantosians reached the last cell. The four attackers removed their disguises.

 

“You were under orders to leave me here,” came a deep creaking voice.

 

Ellu sheathed his sword. “You’re here because we wouldn’t obey orders. Did you really think we would stay away?”

 

Jovos Quillin approached the door of his tiny cell — the only view into the room was through the thick, tempered glass door. The keypad wasn’t hooked into the system, Pidge noted, her hands already pulling it apart; this would require manual overrides. Hunk was better at this, but Pidge had picked up a lot from him over the years.

 

The glass slid open, but Quillin didn’t move.

 

Lance and Keith hung back, saying nothing. The others moved before their captain to salute him and then stand at attention — an honour guard to escort him from prison.

 

When Quillin hesitated, Ellu said, “We’re not here to set you free in the way you’re thinking. We have allies who have another solution.”

 

Quillin glanced at Lance, Keith, and Pidge. His eyes moved up and down their forms. “The guards talked often of Voltron. Are you the Paladins?”

 

“One of us is,” Lance said, clapping a hand onto Pidge’s shoulder. “We’re … part of Voltron in another way.”

 

“A highly suspect, secretive way, I would wager. This is not how I would expect the grand defenders of the universe to behave.” There was no judgement in his tone, merely a statement of fact, but Pidge bristled in defence of Lance and Keith all the same.

 

“There are many different kinds of injustice out there,” Lance responded in as neutral a voice as the general’s. “You deserve to be punished for yours, but I don’t think this particular punishment suits the crime. Or the man.”

 

Quillin’s four eyes narrowed at Lance, but after this intense scrutiny, he finally moved out of the cell, past his former subordinates.

 

The way out of the prison wasn’t the same path by which they had entered — Pidge was pointed in the direction of another hallway and instructed to lock all the doors behind them.

 

“You can do that, right?” Lance said, his pistols up and his eyes darting to one corridor and then to a doorway, keeping slightly frantic watch. “Override so they can’t unlock it for a while?”

 

“Yeah, I got it.” Pidge wasted no further time, proceeding to do just as was requested of her.

 

They exited the prison east of where they’d initially come in, and they stole several hover vehicles that clearly belonged to the guards.

 

“We’ll bring them back,” Havere said with a smile at Pidge’s hesitance. “Or leave them somewhere easily found.” He addressed the group as a whole. “Set your courses due east, and we should arrive in no time.”

 

Pidge, Lance, and Keith climbed into the same hoverspeeder, with Keith at the wheel. Just as they gunned the engines, a deafening alarm went off in the prison. Lights were turning on, many shouts heard, and Pidge could even pick out the sound of weapons charging up.

 

“Yet another close call,” Keith muttered. “We really need to improve our timing.”

 

“Hey, whenever we don’t get caught is impeccable timing,” Lance countered, grinning.

 

Keith took off, sparing a roll of the eyes for Lance as he followed Havere and the others out towards the mountains. Pidge sat in the back, her heart pounding, her mind ticking off possibilities, improvising scenarios, and second-guessing her decision to hide this from Shiro.

 

Their destination was around another mountain chain; they took a winding, roundabout way of getting there — through hills and forests that had survived the destruction of war — and when they arrived, it was difficult to see in the darkness of night what, precisely, they had reached.

 

Havere brought out a light, pointing the beam to … a ship, hidden amongst the trees.

 

“You managed to plan and arrange all of this in a few days?” Quillin seemed to be both baffled and amused. “I seem to remember two of you needing to be physically dragged from the barracks every dawn.”

 

“We were the best in your unit, morning drills were wasted on us.” Drani sniffed. “And we had help.”

 

The captain turned to face Lance and Keith, who stood side by side, a little apart from the rest, and with their hands still clutching their weapons, though they were pointed towards the ground.

 

Keith nodded in acknowledgement. “We didn’t think it made sense to bury a skilled general in an underground prison when you could pay your dues in a more useful way.”

 

Quillin widened his top two eyes, while his lower two gazed back and forth between Lance and Keith. “What way is that?”

 

Ellu directed them all to the ship, opening it with a single palm against the keypad. “Enough supplies for a three week journey. You’ll need to avoid tripping the sensors around our system, so no hyperspace jumps until you’re beyond their range.”

 

“We’ve programmed in coordinates,” Lance said, nodding at the pilot’s seat. “There’s a planet Keith and I lived on that makes sense for you. We’ve also included contact information for someone we know there — his name is Yathir, and he’ll get you on your feet.”

 

Pidge’s mouth parted, but no words were forthcoming.

 

“You have enough trust to send me to a friend of yours?” The captain closed one set of eyes, and his bottom pair focused on Lance’s face. “You trust me not to change the coordinates on this ship? To not stab your friend in the back upon arrival?”

 

“First off, Yathir would shove a grenade down your throat before you even lifted your arm,” Lance said plainly. “Secondly, we’ve been chatting with your squad. We know who they are, and who you are.”

 

“You gave yourself up.” Keith looked very tired all of a sudden, though his voice gave nothing away. “You didn’t fight anyone, didn’t say a word of defense for yourself at your court martial hearing. You know exactly what you did. The fact is, captain, that we’re not doing this for your own good. That’s a side benefit.”

 

“Our friend is up against some tough odds back on his planet.” Lance’s grip on his pistols tightened, yet his tone remained light. “We took care of some major opposition, but an even larger threat remains. And the Galra might make it there sometime soon. A war on two fronts.”

 

“You’re good at killing Galra. You’re good at facing impossible odds and getting your people out on top.” Keith sucked in a deep breath. “We’re thinking you’ll serve out a different sort of sentence. Hard labour instead of confinement.”

 

“As for trusting you to get there …” Havere grinned and indicated the large pack he had strapped over his shoulder. “Well, you’ll have company.”

 

Pidge couldn’t keep quiet any longer; she finally found some words to say. “I don’t think you all understand what this planet is like. It’s … it’s a prison, and the people there are—”

 

“Oh, girl, we know exactly,” Drani said, tossing a giant pack of her own onto the ship. “Some of us having nothing and no one left here. Some of us see Ghantos as the prison. And the place your two friends described? That’s paradise.” Her stare contained an odd sort of yearning. Her gun hand gave a little tremor as she spoke.

 

Pidge had come to learn that for some people, war wasn’t an outside occurrence that was begun, ended, neatly resolved. War, for people like Drani, like Havere … It was a permanent frame of mind. Matt had taught her that it was like a curtain has been slowly pulled back and you see the world in a completely new way … Pandora’s box is opened. There was no return from that.

 

Unless you could find an outside war to match the one inside your head.

 

She closed her mouth, held her tongue, and let this happen. Lance and Keith also hung back, letting the rest of Quillin’s troop say their good-byes. The three of them were intruders at this point, and they averted their eyes from tears and embraces. They joined the remaining members of the troop standing far back as the ship door closed, and the self-exiled Ghantosians took off, a quiet hum of engine that was shockingly stealthy. Pidge made a note to seek out the schematics before they left this planet.

 

Ellu waited until the ship was no longer in sight before he turned to them, nodding at Lance and Keith. “Thank you.”

 

Lance shook his head. “No, thank you for trusting us.”

 

“We know our kind, Lance. Uk’shar have each other’s backs. Always.” He gave Lance the Ghantosian salute — a quick diagonal swipe across his torso that ended in a clenched fist at his side. The others followed suit.

 

Lance and Keith bowed in return.

 

Pidge didn’t say anything on the trip back. She spoke not a word to Lance or Keith, who were silent as well. They made it to the Castle landing pad well after night had fallen.

 

They split off from her in the entrance hall, Keith with a single glance back and a half-smile. Lance waved at her over his shoulder, shooting her a thumbs-up.

 

Pidge retreated to her room, knowing that Shiro would have questions in the morning. And knowing full well that she wouldn’t be answering them, or rather, she’d be telling him the truth without any details. The truth being that Lance and Keith had found another need that they were capable of fulfilling for the people of Ghantos II.

 

Before she attempted to fall asleep, she searched the Castle databanks — they’d accrued much information about Ghantos II, as they did with all the planets they visited, creating an archive of knowledge probably larger than any in the known universe. Pidge specially searched for the term uk’shar.

 

She found it after twenty minutes of digging through several old folk tales that were popular amongst the military and other warrior groups. It meant, depending on the region, either stained/consumed by blood of the enemy, or it could also mean warrior who continues to fight after having bled until no blood remains within.

 

Her tears blurred the words on her tablet. Her hands shook as she abruptly recalled the first time she’d killed a Galra soldier by herself, up close with her bayard, and his blood splattered onto her helmet, his body falling on top of hers, his last breath rattling in her ears.

 

When the trembling stopped, she added uk’shar to her notes and observations on Lance and Keith. And then she walked out of her room, heading straight for Matt’s. He said not a word as she crawled into bed with him — he rolled over and made room for her instead. Pidge slept after an hour of staring at the ceiling, counting out Matt’s breaths and multiplying them by the numbers in the Fibonacci sequence.

 

******

Keith

One Month and Fifteen Days On the Castle of Lions

******

 

Hunk made an omelet for breakfast with eggs from Ghantos II. The spices he used smelled like Yathir’s kitchen — like coming down in the morning, aching from a late night job, to a hardy meal with flavours bursting across Keith’s tongue before he’d even taken a full bite.

 

And now that same smell was making his stomach roll.

 

Lance didn’t look any better — he had gone a little grey, swallowing and grimacing afterwards.

 

But they both played their part. They thanked Hunk profusely for the meal. When Lance left his plate half full, he managed to avoid injuring Hunk by claiming that, “As tasty as this is, the green eggs are giving me flashbacks to that time in kindergarten—”

 

Hunk laughed out loud. “Oh man, Green Eggs and Ham day, I totally remember this story—”

 

“Anika puking her green guts out all over my face is never gonna be okay, Hunk.” Lance spared a quick, sympathetic look towards Keith, who had no such convenient excuse, and if he also didn’t finish breakfast, it would set off alarms all around.

 

So he finished his plate, the nausea rising with each bite. He ate speedily, smiling at Pidge, who looked justifiably concerned. Or suspicious. Or both. She hadn’t said anything about the day before — hadn’t sent them a message or cornered them before the meal. She didn’t seem inclined to, even now, with her brows furrowed in thought. She gave Keith a smile, though, and claimed the other half of Lance’s breakfast. She was their ally, and Keith felt guilty about not talking with her more.

 

It seemed like Keith and Lance were on the same wavelength today; Lance stood up and pointed at Pidge.

 

“Chiquilla, you and I have an appointment with Allura’s hairbrushes. Princess, might we borrow your awesome room with its mirrors, so I can give this girl the braids she deserves?”

 

“Oh, yes, and if you could …” Allura stopped, her hand halfway to her own hair. She dropped it quickly. “That is, I wouldn’t want to impose, if—”

 

Lance’s eyes widened, his smile brighter than usual. “Oh, hey, you too! Oh man, this is my lucky day.”

 

His happiness wasn’t entirely feigned, which made Keith a little happier in return. He exchanged a fond smile with Shiro, who slipped into a calculating look for a split second —then he was smiling again. Shiro turned to Pidge. “Before you head out, Pidge, could you give me an update on your Olkari systems integration?”

 

Keith translated that instantly: Shiro wanted a debrief on whatever happened yesterday. Lance and Keith had both figured that was part of why Pidge had joined.

 

Last night, as they prepped for bed, Lance maintained that Pidge wouldn’t say anything. Keith agreed that she wouldn’t share (incriminating) details, but she would have to say something to satisfy Shiro’s curiosity and concern. Based on the quick, reassuring glance Pidge shot Lance, their assumptions had been correct.

 

She disappeared with Shiro, and Lance chatted with the princess while they waited for her, already playing with her hair.

 

Keith promised himself to schedule a bit of time with Pidge soon — he’d missed her dry wit, even if she sometimes pried a little too bluntly. He’d had an easier time relearning her quirks and coming to know her newer, sharper edges. For all that she seemed highly focused on Lance and Keith’s movements and words, she didn’t push like Shiro and Allura did, or turn a blind-eye, like Hunk tended to do.

 

After Pidge returned, Lance dragged her beneath his arm, happily narrating his plans for her unruly mop, and Keith hauled Shiro off for a quick spar. Shiro made a point not to ask about anything related to Ghantos II, and instead kept their conversation light and related to their combat maneuvers.

 

Every meal or snack Hunk made that day involved something from Yathir’s stock — and by dinner, both Keith and Lance were hungry for anything else (even the fluorescent food goo) and tired of lying.

 

Pidge and Allura entered the dinning hall wearing two different braided hairstyles (Keith had no clue what terminology to use — Allura’s white braids draped over one shoulder, and Pidge’s twisted at the nap of her neck — both beautiful). Lance grinned every time he caught sight of their heads, but even that didn’t seem to brighten his ever-darkening mood.

 

“Coran, I read your latest Blade report, and I have to ask if you feel that they are … withholding anything from us.” Allura sat at the head of the table as usual, her fingers forming a steeple over her empty plate.

 

“Naturally, princess. They are a highly secretive organization composed of spies and stealth troops,” Coran said with an arched eyebrow and a kind smile. “But I don’t believe they are hiding anything that would be relevant to our current efforts. And do keep in mind that I don’t necessarily disclose all the details of our missions unless I feel we are in danger of stumbling over each other’s operations. It’s a delicate balance, you see.”

 

The conversation distracted Keith from the smells causing bile to rise in his throat. Coran was being cautious with details in case a Blade was ever caught — they couldn’t reveal information that they didn’t know. Keith was sure the Blades were exercising the same sort of discretion. It made sense, and Keith also had the distinct impression that Coran didn’t give Allura full disclosure on the details he did know. Not unless they were, as he said, mission relevant. The Coran he’d seen back on the planet … He’d been trained in special ops or something. He’d seen a war far worse than the one they were currently fighting … because the Alteans had lost. Coran had lost everything.

 

“They can keep their secrets,” Shiro said, a distant look in his eyes — the one that Keith recognized as his trying to compartmentalize the memories stare. “They’ve survived for thousands of years without our interference. I refuse to be the reason why they fall now. Coran, I trust you to tell us whatever we need to know, and to inform us if there’s ever anything we need to press them on.”

 

Coran gave Shiro a quick salute. “Right! And for now, compliments to the chef on this fine meal! Goodness, your dishes today have been works of art, Hunk.”

 

There were murmurs of agreement around the table, and Lance stood up, his plate still mostly full. “Yeah, way too good for me to finish in a rush. And I … wouldn’t mind sending off a message to Yathir, thanking him for all of this. Keith, you wanna—”

 

Keith stood up, definitely far too hastily, holding his own plate of food. “Yeah, sure. Pidge, do you mind if—”

 

Pidge waved them off. “Yeah, go on. I’ll know it was you two if anything’s broken, though, so no funny business around my machines!”

 

Lance clutched at his shirt dramatically. “Me? Funny business?”

 

He winked at Pidge’s scoff, hurrying out the door and tugging Keith along with his free hand before anyone else could comment. They didn’t speak until they were in the room with Pidge’s giant new cross-universe comm device.

 

Lance found the nearest garbage shoot and chucked the food. He took Keith’s plate and did the same with his … He couldn’t even call them leftovers, since he’d only taken one bite.

 

“Fuck, we’re gonna need to raid the kitchen after they’ve all gone to bed,” Lance muttered, his jovial pretense vanished. “I’m starving and feeling sick at the same damn time. This sucks.”

 

Keith stared at the screen — at the device, connected to thousands of probes, which had brought them back to this Castle. Pidge had shown them this room during their first week back, and she had explained how to record and send a message out to those probes. That message would bounce around for days (or even weeks) until it reached Yathir … But neither Keith nor Lance had set foot in here since that one and only lesson with Pidge.

 

“I … miss him.” Keith didn’t look at Lance while he said it, nor did he say any names.

 

Lance didn’t need him to, though, as he said quietly, “Me too.”

 

Hope broke open in Keith’s chest.

 

“Do you … miss anything else?” He tried to keep this as casual as possible. He tried not to rush this conversation. There was an opening here, and he was going to snatch it, but he would be as cautious as he was capable of being.

 

“Brisha, Zan, Wesdru,” Lance said without hesitation. “I miss … Well, you know. Fresh air. Actual ground beneath my feet. It wasn’t Earth, but …”

 

“Yeah.” Keith scrambled to keep the words flowing. “There were days, back near the beginning, where I couldn’t keep track of what we were doing. But it kept boiling down to what did we have to do? We needed to leave. We had to work to do that. We had to be tough to keep people off of us so we could live and work decent jobs. I miss the … certainty, I guess.”

 

He felt uncomfortable saying as much, and a different sort of illness rolled up in his stomach. Everything had been rough back there — the scars they’d accumulated, the people they’d killed … But in hindsight, most of that came about from lack of choice. Now they had choices, and Keith had no fucking clue what to do with them. And what did it say about him that he missed the simplicity of being a murdering, thieving mercenary?

 

“Fuck,” he cursed out loud, scrubbing at his dry eyes. “I hate that. I hate knowing this about myself.”

 

It was as much as he could say without losing his own words, and he hoped desperately that this vulnerability — this honesty — would prompt a similar confession from Lance.

 

But all Keith got in return was a hand entangling with his, fingers squeezing, and damned silence.

 

More than the poisonous churning guilt in his gut, more than the bitter yearning for a war criminal who took them in and treated them like family, this silence had Keith choking back bile and hating everything around him — the white walls, the clean floors, the view out into infinite space.

 

“You’re not alone,” Lance said with a rasp. He cleared his throat. “I mean it, Keith. We’re in this together. I can’t … I’m not much use to you right now, but I’m here.

 

Keith didn’t believe him.

 

For the first time in years, Keith couldn’t accept that sincerity as anything other than a front — he’d seen Lance play people too many times, seen him deploy his wide blue eyes and considerable acting ability to soften his marks before using them. Lance would never manipulate Keith to hurt him or take advantage of him, no, but he also had never been so closed off before … Keith could believe that Lance would defend his festering wounds if he thought exposing them would hurt Keith in some way. Or maybe there were things Lance had done that he was too ashamed to admit, and he didn’t think Keith would see him the same way once he told him.

 

In either case, that meant Lance didn’t trust him. Didn’t trust Keith to handle it, didn’t trust Keith to stay.

 

Keith sagged, leaning against Lance, unable to speak because he might actually cry at this point. He was nauseatingly hungry, he was exhausted from a freaking prison break the day before, and he had no one else he could lean on except Lance — the person who was shutting him out.

 

“C’mon, let’s catch some sleep, and then we can maybe see about setting our alarm for a few hours from now,” Keith said in a surprisingly calm voice. “We’ll eat at three am. It’ll be just like that time we got back from Byothal and raided the kitchen.”

 

“Not knowing that we’d eaten the last of Yathir’s groceries for the week?” Lance recalled, a faint smile on his face. “Yeah, that was great. He made me clean out the stove and go pick up more food.”

 

“You had it easy,” Keith complained. “I was scrubbing the walk-in freezer. I had frostbite by the end of that.”

 

“Yeah, I know, I have nightmares about your cold hands down my pants, dude.” Lance slung an arm around his shoulder, ushering him out of the room. Pidge’s powerful communication device remained untouched by their hands.

 

Keith once again shoved down his pain and his doubts, and just let himself bask in the comfort of Lance’s arms. He snuck his own arm around Lance’s waist and hoped that Lance was receiving some kind of consolation in return. If Keith felt like he was standing with his toes over the edge of a cliff, he couldn’t fathom what was happening in Lance’s head.

 

That night, the Castle brought him a new nightmare — a fresh, stark rehashing of Lance’s first murder in cold-blood, except it was Grisner at the end of Lance’s gun. Then Fregola. Then Czanliu. Then Brisha … And then Yathir. He woke up shivering, deep in the throes of his terror, abruptly awake and all too aware of Lance’s peaceful form right next to him. Keith had to stumble to the bathroom and throw up what little he’d eaten that day.

 

Even the scent and taste of the vomit reminded him of Yathir’s inn; he curled up miserably on the ice-cold floor of the bathroom, trembling with one hand clutching the lip of the toilet bowl.

 

He had no idea how he made it back to bed, but the next time he woke up, it was to Lance’s back. The feeling of nausea was now ever-present; it paired with an old, tired bitterness that reached down and pulled on the darkest fragments within him.

 

******

Pidge

One Phoeb and Two and a Half Movements On the Castle of Lions

******

 

Shiro didn’t often come and hang out while Pidge was busy with her programs, but today he sat down in a chair, his tablet in one hand, his feet up on her desk.

 

Their conversation about Lance and Keith’s time on Ghantos II had been short and to the point. Shiro had seemed placated by her summation of events (she’d left out the prison break and instead emphasized the war stories and the way Lance and Keith seemed to comfortably relate to these gritty soldiers). Well, placated maybe wasn’t the right word — he’d been a touch sad, a little guilt-ridden, that he couldn’t be that kind of comfort for them. Pidge told him that he would always be Keith’s brother and Lance’s idol — but now she wondered …

 

She waited a few ticks before throwing a small gear at his head. Shiro let it hit him, raising an eyebrow at her as it bounced off his temple.

 

Pidge raised an eyebrow back. “Hey, you’re the one with your giant feet all over my desk of highly sensitive computer equipment.

 

“You and Hunk and Lance have played jet-pack tag in here,” Shiro protested immediately, though his feet did come down from the desk.

 

“It’s pretty awesome how scared Hunk and Lance are of me. You, not so much,” Pidge said, tossing another gear at him. This one Shiro caught without any effort.

 

“That isn’t true.” Shiro grinned. “I find you frightening, and I have said as much on many occasions. Ask Matt. Ask Keith.” He didn’t flinch saying Keith’s name, but his mouth did turn down slightly once he had.

 

Pidge sighed. “So … not just a fun visit?”

 

Shiro put the tablet down on the desk. “Pidge, Keith told me some things back on that world. Things that … hurt to hear, but he told me. Now? All our conversations are about the here and now. Nothing about the planet comes up except in vague terms.”

 

“Yeah, well,” Pidge started, then stopped. She decided that maybe … Except no, it didn’t feel right to speak about Lance’s message when Shiro was talking about Keith. (Did Keith even know about Lance’s desperate moment? She didn’t think she could ask him, risk him not knowing …) Pidge brought out her own tablet, scrolling through her notes (adding her newest realization). “I can’t help you, really. I’ve been observing them and I’ve been talking with them, but it’s … pretty much the same deal.”

 

“They didn’t mind you going with them to work on Ghantos II.” Shiro gave her a small smile. “They’re more relaxed around you.”

 

“I think maybe that’s because I … really don’t see them as the old Lance and Keith,” Pidge admitted. “Obviously there are similarities, and they haven’t forgotten their experiences at the Garrison or on the Castle before … But, Shiro, they’re not the two guys we remember, and we can’t just treat them the same as we did those two Paladins from over a year ago. We’ve changed, too, haven’t we?” Pidge was a touch harder, a touch more serious than she had been, and she wasn’t the only one.

 

“I don’t think I’ve been treating them the same … “ Shiro paused. “Pidge, the training has been going more smoothly because we talked it all out. I’m just worried there’s more pain festering beneath the surface with Keith, and I need to know if you’ve picked up on that.”

 

“Shiro, talking would help, sure, but even that … They’re not the same people, and all signs and evidence suggest that they may never be.” Pidge didn’t know where that determination had come from, but she didn’t regret her slightly harsh tone. “On another note, have you noticed, especially in the last few days, the weird tension between them?”

 

“Yes,” Shiro said instantly, his brows knotting further. “That was the other reason I came to you — I know you said that they were more at ease with the soldiers, but this strain between them … Were they like that back on Ghantos II?”

 

“Yes and no.” Pidge remembered the teasing on the way to the work site, the conversations with their comrades in arms, and the frighteningly easy way they moved together on their prison break. But she also recalled the lack of physical affection. The way most of the teasing and flirting had been connected to Pidge’s presence. “It’s more noticeable now. They barely talk. They haven’t been all about the PDA, like they were back when we first found them.”

 

“Keith looks pale, and he’s barely eating.” Shiro breathed out slowly. “I’m going to ask Hunk to ease up on the food Yathir gave us. I think that’s part of the problem. Smells can be extremely potent when it comes to bringing up memories …”

 

Pidge hadn’t thought of that, but once Shiro said it, it seemed all too obvious. “And what else are you going to do?”

 

Shiro seemed to be lost in thought for a time, and so Pidge went back to messing with her programs. Untold minutes went by, and then Shiro said, “We’ve got another mission coming up. We wait and see how that goes. I don’t want to force them into anything. Keith has never responded well to being pushed into talking. He needs to do things on his own time, make his own decisions.”

 

“What if you don’t agree with those decisions?”

 

“We’ll take that as it comes.” He sounded more certain now, his doubts falling away in the face of his usual stalwart faith in his team. “So far, they’ve both been doing good work, in their own way. Coming back from what they’ve been through …” Shiro clenched his metal hand. “Pidge, I know that the two men we consider family are in there. They’ll come back to us eventually, however long that takes. But I also want them battle ready, since we don’t have the luxury of that time. It’s … a tricky scenario.”

 

Lance and Keith were battle ready. Just not in the way Shiro wanted. Or the way Allura or Hunk wanted. Pidge was starting accept this, but the others were still a ways from realizing or accepting this fact. Shiro had been changed by his time in the arena, but he’d managed to maintain a sense of self — Pidge saw him as flawed, a touch broken and sad, but essentially the same person. And that meant that Shiro was stubborn, adhering to his principles and beliefs, which served them all well in battle, and bolstered him as the leader of Voltron … Yet less helpful in this hellishly complicated situation.

 

“I’ll try and get some good quality time with Keith after this next mission. As for Lance and Keith and whatever’s happening between them … That much, we have to leave up to them. We can’t interfere with their relationship, nor should we.” Shiro exhaled loudly. “Anything to add?”

 

Pidge couldn’t think of anything to say that would sway him — that would get him to alter his expectations. He would just have to see it and learn for himself. Or maybe she could mention her worries to Matt? In either case, she couldn't think of any logical approach that would break though to him in that moment. “I think you’ve talked it out pretty well yourself.”

 

Shiro picked up his tablet. “I wanted more of your input, but you’re pretty tight-lipped about them lately.” He didn’t sound accusing, and his smile was fond.

 

“I think Lance and Keith aren’t the only ones who need time,” Pidge said after a long pause.

 

“… You’re right, Pidge, as usual.” Shiro scrubbed at his shadowed jaw. He hadn’t shaved at all today, and Pidge threw yet another gear at him.

 

“Go get that thing off your face. Matt showed me pictures of your soul patch days, and I cannot have that around my sensitive equipment.”

 

“My feet, my beard, but jet-packs are okay?” Shiro complained as he stood up to leave. “I feel like there’s some kind of discrimination going on here.”

 

“You’d be right,” Pidge agreed. “But also … if you wanted to come in here and just hang around, I’m not opposed. Having your muscles nearby would be handy when engineering stuff happens. Also, beating you in Voltron Pride Racing is always satisfying.”

 

“You and Matt rigged that game, I swear. Nothing designed by Holts is going to be fair on Shiroganes.” Shiro whipped a gear back at Pidge, one he must have pocketed without her noticing, and she retaliated by sic’ing two of her latest Rover designs on him. They made buzzing noises, threatening to zap him (a mild shock, less than they got in the training arena), and Shiro finally bowed out, laughing as he went.

 

Pidge was smiling, too. Shiro couldn’t quite see it yet, but he’d get there, and she was sure he would accept Lance and Keith’s new roles sooner rather than later. Pidge was more worried about the two of them as they stood now — apart. That felt unnatural, even though Pidge had only known them as The Two McClains for less time than she’d known them as Lance and Keith, Rivals Without a Cause.

 

But relationship stuff wasn’t her forte, and she trusted that two people who were in it together that deep would figure it out just fine on their own.

 

******

 

 

Chapter Text

******

Keith

One Month and Three Weeks On the Castle of Lions

******

 

After nearly a week of silence, Keith’s misery had been harnessed into energy — the kind of simmering anger that had characterized his adolescence. He had better control of his temper, but he recognized the vibrating beneath his skin as an explosion waiting (eager) to happen.

 

He ate everything put in front of him (unlike his depression, his rage demanded sustenance). He made a point to engage Lance in pointless bickering near constantly. Lance seemed delighted. Keith enjoyed some of these arguments, but others definitely had a bite to them, and Lance responded in kind — Keith couldn’t tell if Lance was having fun or lashing out. The fact that he couldn’t tell increased his frustration exponentially.

 

The others appeared perturbed by this change, but since Lance and Keith continued working well during training, no one openly questioned it. Pidge and Shiro had been particularly attentive, exchanging looks with each other, but Keith made sure to give those two a wide berth so they could never corner him alone for a chat. That would end ugly for everyone involved.

 

Keith and Lance’s sparring matches didn't increase in intensity, but it wasn’t like they hadn’t ever fought during that year of exile. He’d had to work with Lance when they were giving each other the silent treatment, and they’d definitely had a job or two where they’d been all but screaming at each other for the duration.

 

The point was that they usually had a decent blow out, or a sparring match with forgiveness unspoken between blows, and then they resolved all remaining issues with actual words. More often than not, Lance had been the one to initiate all of these talks, and Keith … Keith had learned how useful it was to communicate. It made things so much easier.

 

Why the fuck couldn’t Lance see that now?

 

But it could be that Lance hadn’t forgotten. Maybe Lance hadn’t suddenly shifted personalities — it might be that Lance just couldn’t speak to Keith. And that worried him desperately, since Keith couldn’t speak to anyone else, not really, so Lance must be in the same boat …

 

He wanted to train on his own to work out this raw, grating energy, but the training room was occupied and locked. Keith frowned, wondering what Lance was up to — and it had to be Lance. No one else locked the training room on this Castle other than the two of them.

 

Keith ventured into the upper level observation room (which had been left open, perhaps by mistake), watching with wide eyes as Lance and Matt fought. A sharp drop, low in his belly, heightened his nausea as he took in the scene. It wasn’t the fighting (impressive, quick, brutal) that had him sinking his nails into the cushioned chair he stood behind.

 

No, his stomach twisted up further than ever as he heard the words coming through the sound system.

 

… There wasn’t much in the way of options,” Lance was saying, gasping a little. “Our plan was shot to hell the minute Dras sent Akros to maim us. Or kill us. Whatever. Point being, those bombs …” Lance stopped there. “I can’t tell you more, Matt.”

 

“Hey, no problem.” Matt smiled, running his hand through his sweaty bangs while leaning against his staff. “Just take the compliment on your leadership skills. I know you feel like you had no choice, but the fact is that you could have run away, hidden. You could have … not fought as hard as you did.”

 

“I had no fucking choice,” Lance stated harshly. He wasn’t wearing armour, and neither was Matt — they were both in loose pants and shirts, barefoot. Lance had one of the training swords in hand. Keith hadn’t seen Lance with a blunted weapon since they were first training as Paladins. “Keith needed me alive. There was no other option.”

 

Keith left the observation deck before he could hear more. Lance hadn’t said much to Matt beyond what he’d told Keith already, but even that little bit had him furious. (It was easier to reach for the anger, so close to the surface, than the pain that churned underneath.)

 

He beelined towards Sam Holt’s lab, making the conscious choice to speak to someone who didn’t know him well, who could give him an honest, flat opinion on where to set down this whirlwind he had spinning constantly in his mind.

 

Matt’s father was standing over a large engine, mostly deconstructed, with goggles on his head, and delicate tools pinched between his fingers. He glanced over at Keith and smiled, even though Keith must look murderous.

 

“Have a seat, if you want. Or pace. That’s what my kids do when they need to tell me something.”

 

Keith didn’t pace so much as carve a small circle into the floor with his jerky, uneven steps, hands constantly clenching and unclenching. “Does Matt …” Keith stopped speaking and moving. He had no idea what he was asking here. Would Sam know if Matt and Lance had been talking? Did the Holt kids tell their father everything? Keith had the impression that they were close …

 

“Have you noticed Matt taking an interest in Lance?” Keith finally asked while running a trembling hand through his hair.

 

“I’m going to assume you don’t mean romantic interest, since my son has a pretty obvious crush on someone else,” Sam said, tapping his chin with one of his tiny screwdrivers. “I think that he and Lance are becoming friends. It’s related to Matt’s time with the rebels. He was very impressed by you two, and I believe he saw some shared experiences.”

 

That did make sense. Matt had been … relaxed back on the planet, not unlike Coran; quickly adapting, quietly understanding, mostly keeping a respectful distance, and taking orders without question. Just like Sam, Matt hadn’t known Lance from before all of this. Keith had met Matt a few times back at the Garrison, but he hadn’t really been allowed near any of the Kerberos launch prep … The next time he’d met Matt, he’d become a hardened rebel soldier, recognizable as Pidge’s brother, but nothing like the enthusiastic nerd from Earth.

 

He relaxed against the wall, watching as Sam returned to his work. The older man looked over at him once after several minutes had gone by. “Any particular reason you stopped by? Or was it just to figure out if Matt was in any way intruding upon your relationship with Lance?”

 

“I’m not jealous,” Keith said instantly. “I know Lance is with me, always.”

 

“Perhaps you’re not jealous in that sense,” Sam agreed. “But are you maybe resenting Matt for cracking into Lance’s shell?”

 

Keith blinked quickly, his mouth parting, feeling (and likely looking) stunned at this (correct) intuitive leap by Sam.

 

The man smiled back him, tapping the corner of one eye. “I see a lot more now that these peepers are fixed. But also, it’s a dad thing. We have a fair bit of experience, you see. So maybe it’s an old person thing. Point being … It was just you and Lance for nigh on a year. It still is just you and Lance. There’s a disconnect between you and the others, which is only natural after so long apart, and such a dramatic difference in how you spent that time … But as I said, Matt has some empathetic understanding of that. And maybe as the Blue Paladin, he has a little more insight to Lance than the others do …”

 

Keith flinched, having completely forgotten that Matt was tied to Lance’s Lion. Matt had been sharing headspace with Blue, and while the information was out-dated, he did have a rough idea as to how Lance operated … There might even be a connection there, however faint …

 

“I can promise you that Matt only wants to help,” Sam said, his gaze dropping back down to his project. Keith breathed a little easier without those keen eyes on him. “He genuinely likes the two of you, and he sees that there’s a struggle. He sees the disconnect and wants to bridge the distance.”

 

Keith nodded, his muscles loosening, though he couldn’t help the stubborn streak in him that refused to accept this help. Lance had always reached for Keith, and they had always been able to talk — nearly two months of silence wasn’t right. Keith should be able to break down this stalemate, but he was fully, frustratingly aware that he couldn’t see past his own pain. This impotent anger kept driving all rational thought out of his mind.

 

“Maybe you should talk to Matt?” Sam suggested. “You could use an ally, Keith. One outside of Lance?”

 

His brain immediately rejected that — no, a hard no. It couldn’t — that wasn’t how this worked.

 

“Right. Thanks for the talk,” Keith said abruptly before leaving the room. He rushed out, just barely short of a run, and nearly knocked Coran off his feet.

 

The Altean let out a half-muted yell, but also steadied him easily. “Are you all right, Keith?”

 

Keith shrugged off both the concern and the hands on his shoulders. “Fine. Just need to talk to Lance.”

 

Coran must’ve read the anger on his face — he let him go, something that confused Keith, but also engendered a fresh wave of gratitude for this man who respected Keith's choices. Coran stepped back, swiping his arms to one side. “Then go and talk. Talking is always helpful, I find. Particularly if you’re willing to listen closely in return.”

 

Keith was already halfway down the hall by the time Coran uttered those last words.

 

When he reached the room he shared with Lance, he didn’t even pause to catch his breath before palming the door open and barging in. Lance was pulling on a fresh change of clothes, his hair damp from a shower. The moment he saw Keith, he seemed to shift from relaxed to guarded in the space of a second.

 

It had been a week since Keith bared a fraction of his damage to Lance. It had been almost two months since they’d last talked about anything vital (especially anything at all to do with those two weeks Keith had been bedridden). Keith was fucking done.

 

“What have you been saying to Matt Holt that you can’t say to me?” Keith spat out all at once. Perhaps he should have adjusted his tone into something less accusing, but he was forgoing all the patience and understanding at this point and just doing what Lance wouldn’t — expressing his damn feelings.

 

Lance’s eerily calm expression was back — the blank gaze that made Keith want to break things. “Nothing that you can’t spy and find out yourself, apparently.”

 

“I wasn’t spying. I was coming to train and happened to overhear two seconds of a conversation. And because I give a damn about you and your privacy, I walked out. So tell me that I was hearing stuff out of context. That you’re not telling Matt what I’ve been all but fucking begging you to talk to me about.” Keith waited, his arms outstretched for a beat before he brought them in close to his chest, crossing them tightly.

 

Lance huffed, irritated, and his veneer of serenity cracked. He jerked a hand up to his hair and then dropped it, shaking his head. “Keith, I didn’t tell him anything that you didn’t already know. Matt’s under the impression that I’m some fantastic rebel leader, like he was, or Shiro is, and I’m just … not. So I told him that, and we went back to kicking the shit out of each other.”

 

“Fuck, Lance.” Keith gave a choked, bitter laugh, one of his hands yanking at his shirt collar uselessly. Everything felt wrong, everything down to the recycled air he was breathing and the pristine clothes he wore. “This is the part where I might say you can be a damn good leader, but since you won’t fucking talk about what happened, what the hell do I know?” Keith hadn’t struck out at Lance’s sore spots since their stupid rivalry way back when — the sarcastic words tasted awful as they fell from his mouth.

 

Lance didn’t even give him the satisfaction of flinching or hurling an insult back. He only stared at Keith, far more in control despite his visible frustration.

 

That just spurred Keith on. “Those pathetic scraps you gave Matt — you don’t even give me that much, Lance,” Keith said, both plaintive and angry. “You don’t talk about the damn bombs. You don’t tell me anything about the days after. You don’t even mention the stuff I already know. I can see that you’re in pain. I know we can both be martyrs about this shit, so just talk to me for my sake, then, because it’s driving me insane not knowing how to help.”

 

“What if talking to someone who isn’t you does help?” Lance snapped back. “Or what if I just need time to sort this shit out myself?”

 

“That second one is bullshit, and we both know it.” Keith’s arms crossed so tightly they were stiffening up; his fingers were digging into his own biceps. “You were the one who kept me talking on the bad days. You were the one who came to me on your bad days. We both know that sometimes talking was all that kept us sane. A few minutes, a few hours, but we fucking talked about everything.

 

“Not true.” Lance’s smile had enough sadness to gut Keith, and his eyes …. There was a hint of cruelty Keith had never seen directed at him. Never. “Ever since I put a bullet in that guy’s skull … Ever since I pulled the trigger on that asshole who didn’t stand a chance, who didn’t even have a weapon pointed at me … You think you know me, Keith? You have no idea what I’ve kept to myself.”

 

A punch to the face would have had a less painful impact. Keith staggered back from the blow, his arms falling to hover at his sides, only just maintaining his balance.

 

The criminal spat at the Blue Paladin, grimacing as he growled. “Go on, leave, coward. I know your faces.” He looked towards Keith, pulling a crooked, bloodthirsty grin out between winces of pain, and then he turned back to Lance, barking out more laughter. “I know what you care about, boy. You make it too easy, and you don’t finish what you start —”

 

The shot wasn’t loud … but for Keith, that pistol blast split the night.

 

Lance holstered his gun — it took him two tries, his hand was shaking so badly. But he walked without stumbling towards the speeder, his face colourless, his eyes focused on nothing. He climbed into the passenger side in silence.

 

Over a year had passed since that moment.

 

And the day after that night, Keith had lied to Lance. He’d lied about where they’d have to draw the line. He lied about keeping themselves as nonviolent as possible. He’d kept his bitter musings to himself … until Lance had broken through, encouraging Keith to say what he was thinking, or to seek him out when the darkest of thoughts reigned supreme.

 

He’d always thought that Lance had been doing the same.

 

But now he knew. Lance had been teaching Keith how he handled the unthinkable, but when those same methods no longer worked for him … Lance, in return, found a way to survive using Keith’s unhealthiest attributes. Hunk had been right all along. This was Keith at his worst; this was the monster that lurked in his veins when he wasn’t careful — Lance had taken it and used it, and this was the result.

 

“You know most of what I didn’t talk about anyway,” Lance continued on scathingly. “We spent too much time in close quarters for you not to be able to read me, just like I can you. You know the kind of person I became — you were you, Keith. You already had what it took to cope.” The truthful bite to those words cut Keith down to the bone. And Lance didn’t seem to care. “I had to change. I had to do something, or I would go insane. So, yeah, I tried shutting down and just not talking about it. Don’t act like this is some kind of personal attack. This is just … the way it is.”

 

“No, it’s not. You’re wrong about me,” Keith pushed on, hating the crack at the end of that sentence. His whole life this past year, snatched out from under him; his memories tainted with glimpses of a Lance who had concealed most of his broken parts, while Keith had worked so hard at bearing his fractured soul to him. “Maybe parts of it came to me more naturally, but not everything … Talking to you was all I had some days.” Keith stopped for a minute — Lance wasn’t getting anymore on that, no, even if it earned Keith an apprehensive flicker from those blue eyes at last. No, this was about Lance’s fucking endless silence. “I’m not a mind reader. I trusted you every time you told me things, and if you were hiding something, like Denna’s, maybe I freaked out a little, but I learned to wait for you. I’m waiting still. I … I can’t fucking believe you lied to me.

 

Both of Lance’s hands went into his damp hair. “How is this new to you? If I’m not talking, it’s because I need time to find the words. And if I can’t find those words, then I might not ever say it. Why can’t you be okay with that? Why can’t you just …” Lance hands came down as two quivering fists. “Por qué no me puedes aceptar?”

 

“Porque no entiendo con quien estoy hablando,” Keith hurled back. “I don’t fucking understand a damn thing about you anymore. What are you even saying right now?”

 

“I don’t fucking know, Keith. You came in here accusing me of all but fucking Matt Holt—”

 

“That’s not even close to what I said—”

 

“And now you’re acting like repressing shit is some kind of affront to humanity, when it is your basic form of living—

 

“I was wrong!” Keith shouted. “You, you taught me better. You showed me how to be better.

 

“Well, then, I was wrong. And right now, I need you to get the fuck out before I say or do something incredibly stupid.”

 

Keith held his ground. “Say it.”

 

“Keith, don’t push me—”

 

Fucking say it.

 

No, fuck you.” Lance’s eyes went dark, his jaw set.

 

Keith couldn’t handle that threatening glare, not because he was intimidated, but because Lance had never been so violent towards him — brutal without even laying a single finger on his skin. And it seemed Lance finally registered at least that much. He took a step back, a gush of air escaping from between his lips. But his mouth formed that stubborn line afterwards, even as his hands loosened.

 

Their breaths heaved, oddly in sync, too loud in Keith’s ears. A brutal eternity enclosed in less than a minute of silence.

 

Keith found his words, and he struggled to keep from begging. “Do you think we can get past this?” His anger was receding, leaving a wasteland behind, burned-out, lacking the resources to support anything other than exhaustion.

 

“The only thing I wanted,” Lance said distantly, with deliberate slowness, “was for you to live. I would’ve given up anything, everything, for that. Including us. So if we can’t get past this … I did what I set out to do.”

 

It was like Keith wasn’t even there anymore. Lance’s gaze dropped to the floor. He stood deathly still.

 

And Keith … Keith did what he’d been doing since this entire mess started. He did what had now become normal for them … He walked away from Lance without looking back.

 

******

 

Keith slept in a guest bedroom a couple of doors down.

 

The next morning, he went back to their room after Lance had left; he gathered up all of his clothes and weapons (just enough to fill his arms, and that was mostly weapons). He brought it all back to his new living quarters. He’d have to tell Coran where he was now. Maybe mention it to Shiro as well.

 

But Keith didn’t want to deal with any of that. So he avoided breakfast, he avoided the training deck — he made himself a ghost. He didn’t want to spend all day in the lifeless bedroom he’d picked out for himself. Instead, he wandered, making sure to keep his distance from the labs, from the observation decks, from the kitchen.

 

He found himself in front of the entrance to the Lion hanger.

 

Fuck it, he thought.

 

What did he have to lose at this point? What did it matter? Sam had been right — pain meant that something was there between him and Red. (There would always be something between him and Lance. They were too entangled to break cleanly. A frayed connection would endure, maybe just as battle partners. But something, always.)

 

His steps became hesitant as he walked into Red’s area. The lancing hurt in his head had been nothing but a dull throb for days — but that throb increased as he drew closer. He stood a few metres from her paws and craned his head up towards her. Red remained dormant, but Keith could hear a faint grumble from … somewhere. A low sound, not unlike a purr, but as far from content as possible.

 

The pulsation became constant, intense enough to have Keith wincing, both hands coming up to push against the sides of his skull, as if that would bring relief.

 

“Okay,” he said past his clenched jaw. “You’re there. But are we …” He didn’t know how to finish that sentence.

 

But he did know how to let Red in.

 

He sucked in a breath and dropped every mental barrier he could think of — and then it was nothing but a white, blinding pain, and screaming, his screaming. He hit the floor on his knees, his head touching the cold metal, hands scrambling at his own scalp. The pain was yanked from his skull just as he lost his voice, and the purr became a growl, angry, maybe frustrated. But the connection …

 

Even back on that planet, too far to even sense Red, Keith had known that he’d broken something vital beyond repair.

 

He ignored Red’s angry sounds, the growling shifting into a roar. Keith stumbled to his feet, knees bruised, his hands and feet numb, the hanger spinning as his dizziness caused his vision to blur. He had to get out.

 

He could barely see where he was walking — bright lights stung his eyes — but at least the agony was settling down into a migraine. He’d take that over the feeling of a grenade gradually going off inside his brain. But since he had his eyes half closed, his ears ringing with Red’s displeasure, he didn’t have any awareness of his surroundings.

 

And so it shouldn’t have been a surprise when he ran headlong into someone.

 

Large hands grasped Keith’s upper arms, holding him steady. “Whoa, man, you … you are not looking okay. What happened?”

 

Keith didn’t want to speak to anyone, and while Lance was currently the number one person he least wanted to interact with, Hunk was probably second on that list.

 

The migraine waned marginally, allowing Keith enough energy to rasp out, “Nothing. Just … sudden headache.”

 

Hunk loosened his grip, and Keith didn’t jerk away immediately — mostly because he was sure that if he tried to, he would end up on his ass in this hallway. But he did shuffle the slightest bit, trying to indicate that he wasn’t totally useless.

 

“I can help you over to the medical wing, if you want … Or even if you don’t want, actually. You’re … pretty pale. Your eyes aren’t focusing, which is a bad sign.”

 

That last one was a choice Keith had been consciously making, and so he brought his gaze up to Hunk’s, focusing with all his might. Hunk looked openly concerned, not a hint of fear or resentment. Maybe the Yellow Paladin had gotten over the worst of their differences by now. Maybe he shouldn’t have.

 

“Keith?”

 

“Just a bad headache. If I lie down, it’ll go away. They always do after a nap.” Keith took another tiny step, and he was finally able to break Hunk’s hold. “Thanks. But I’m fine.”

 

Hunk hesitated. Keith’s hands no longer felt numb, which he tested by curling and uncurling his fingers, then forming fists until they hurt. He released his hands along with a long breath, right as Hunk said, “If you don’t want my help, I could go get Lance for you?”

 

Once upon a time, Keith hustled murderers and thieves for their hard earned money; he cheated while guns and knives were pointed at his most vulnerable points, and he did it all without flinching. Those experiences amounted to nothing; his frantic head-shake brought forth more dizziness, which had Hunk reaching for him again.

 

Nausea mounted as Hunk’s immediate, worried tone rang out. “Why not? Keith, what happened? Man, I am so sorry for all the crap I said, and I totally get why you won’t talk to me, but I can see that whatever this is, it’s bad. So if you don’t want to tell me anything, please, let me get someone, anyone, Shiro, or Coran, or maybe Matt—”

 

“Damn it, Hunk, stop, stop.” Keith was grateful that he didn’t sound panicky or angry — just tired. “It’s not fine, okay, you’re right. But I don’t need anyone right now. And yeah, not exactly keen to talk to the guy who called me a monster.” A little spite slipped in, to Keith’s consternation.

 

“I called Lance a monster,” Hunk corrected, and he sounded miserable. Keith should have felt vindicated by that. He didn’t. Hunk let go of Keith again, but only because Keith had slouched back against a wall, using it to hold himself up. Hunk took in a shaky breath before he said, “I did imply that he was that way because of you. Which was a disgusting thing to say after everything you’d both been through together. I wish I could take it back. I wish I hadn’t meant it at the time.”

 

This was Keith’s third heavy conversation in twenty-four hours. He had just found out he and Red had nothing between them but agony. He and Lance were much the same. It was a long hellish day, and if Hunk wanted his forgiveness, then Keith would fucking give it to him just to end it.

 

“Okay. Apology accepted.” Keith shoved off the wall, walking in a straight line towards his new room. “Just … give me space for a while, yeah?”

 

Hunk nodded, looking distinctly unhappy and concerned. Keith would bet anything that he was going to run off towards Shiro as soon as Keith was out of sight. Keith didn’t care. He would lock his door, and the fact that he was in a different room would keep people from bothering him for long enough to sleep away what was left of his migraine.

 

(Keith hadn’t gotten many headaches back on the planet, but there’d been perhaps three bad ones that demanded he crash for a few hours. When Lance wasn’t working, he’d been there with a cup of tea or some snacks as soon as Keith woke up. Yathir had checked on him once, and Keith could have sworn the elderly alien had pressed a cold compress against Keith’s too warm skin, that large, calloused hand lingering with welcome pressure.)

 

Keith collapsed on the bed that he hadn’t bothered to make in the morning; he didn’t strip off anything other than his shoes and socks. He fell asleep almost instantly, and then woke up what felt like seconds later.

 

Someone was knocking on the door.

 

Keith debated pretending that he was still asleep, but as he rolled over, he felt the sheets grossly sticking to him, and his skin burned where creases had formed due to his wrinkled clothes … How long had he been out? He tumbled off the bed, and it took far too long to gather his feet under him. His mouth tasted like roadkill. His eyes were partially glued shut with sticky residue from tears he didn’t remember. As he scrubbed at his face, he answered the persistent knocking by slamming the door panel.

 

He was bizarrely grateful to see Shiro as expected.

 

“Hey,” he croaked out.

 

Shiro swooped in, though he kept a respectful distance, his eyes sweeping up and down Keith’s form as the door closed behind him. “Hunk mentioned a migraine? I know how bad your headaches can get. How are you feeling?”

 

“Better. Gross.”

 

“I bet. You’ve been out for ten vargas.”

 

“Oh.” Keith blinked. “That’s … all day. Huh.”

 

“I wanted to ask you about it, about …” He tilted his head at the room, more specifically at the bed. “But maybe … Keith, you know I would never push you to talk.”

 

“So don’t.” Keith’s gratitude increased when Shiro just accepted that with a nod, though his hands twitched reflexively. A hug was not welcome. Nor was any heartfelt or devastating talk, no, Keith was tapped out for the day. Possibly the entire week.

 

“We have a mission. We need to infiltrate a Galra command ship, download its database, and possibly take it out, quietly. We haven’t decided yet if we want to make it look like a pirate attack or have Pidge and Hunk manufacture a malfunction.” He paused, looking up at Keith here, expression inquisitive. “We want to take advantage of the fact that it’s travelling through a dangerous and remote sector. The Olkari sensors picked it up passing by one of their furthest outposts. It’s presented us with an opportunity to gain more intel.”

 

Keith considered the problem, his brain waking up in stages as he parsed out Shiro’s statements in combination with a few of the reports he and Lance had skimmed through near the start of their stay … return. As the drowsy cloudiness lifted, Keith gave his face one last scrub. “Pirates would be your best bet. Get Coran to talk to Kolivan, make sure none of his people are on that ship, and we can sink it.”

 

“Or just do enough damage to get what we want, and then bolt, quick and easy.” Shiro leaned back against the closed door, his expression pensive. “We need to leave enough evidence so that the Galra don’t go searching for a vessel that’s suddenly gone off-grid. Better they find a broken ship and a few survivors who can testify that Voltron had no part in it. Pidge can get in and out of their database without a trace. They'll see all their firewalls intact, hopefully believe their intel remained secure. Their paranoia may win out, but it'll buy us enough time to use the information against them.”

 

Keith could see the logic in that. “I take it that means we’re going in disguise, and you want Lance and I along so that it isn’t obviously five Paladins playing dress-up?”

 

“Coran already reached out to Kolivan — he’s sending a couple of Blades along as well,” Shiro said. “And providing us with a ship that looks like a junker, but has some tricked out engines. Hunk, Pidge, and Matt are over the moon about it.” Shiro’s smile faded, his eyes growing sad. “Listen, we have the Blades, so you and Lance don’t have to come if you’re not ready.”

 

“I’m ready.” Keith didn’t even stop to think as he answered. “You’ll have to ask Lance yourself. I can’t speak for him.”

 

His dry, raspy voice served to hide any cracked words. Shiro nodded, and Keith waited — he would ask about the room. He would ask why Keith wasn’t with Lance right this minute, why he’d demanded that Hunk keep Lance in the dark, and Keith just couldn't handle that, not yet …

 

“Right. Mission starts in twelve vargas. You could get a bite to eat and then crash again, if you want. I’m going to talk with Lance — he’s in Matt and Pidge’s lab, I think.”

 

The relief swept over him in a welcomingly cold wave. Shiro was watching for his reaction. Keith gave him nothing, or he hoped that he did — he continued to be so physically done with everything. His muscles ached even though he’d done zero in the way of activity, and his skin itched where sleep sweat had dried.

 

Shiro gave Keith a little nod and a reassuring smile. He reached out with one hand, giving Keith plenty of time to withdraw.

 

Keith let his brother grip his shoulder. (This had been his family since Keith was twelve, and yet Keith had nothing meaningful to say to him — a part of his mind yearned for Shiro's words to separate the pain from the memories, from the recent disasters and the older ones. But Keith was too damn tired to give voice to any of it, and Shiro might not recognize him anymore if he did).

 

Shiro let go as Keith palmed open the door for him, silently yet bluntly indicating that he leave.

 

He ignored the worry plain in Shiro’s eyes, and immediately began stripping for his shower, paying no attention to Shiro as he retreated with clear reluctance. He had twelve hours to eat, to sleep, and to prep for the mission.

 

He needed to speak to Lance in that time. To be clear about the plan, and to ensure there would be no … spillover. It shouldn't be that difficult to have that conversation. He and Lance had become far too practiced at forming plans and executing them in all kinds of circumstances — most of those circumstances devastating in one capacity or several at once.

 

He got his opportunity a couple of hours later. Lance turned up at the kitchen door, watching Keith assemble his quick sandwich (of questionable meat and vegetables — he had no clue what most of these ingredients were. He was just smelling and slapping them on the “bread” as he pleased).

 

“Shiro told me about the mission.”

 

Keith nodded down at his giant in-progress sandwich. “Yeah. You good with the plan?”

 

“Need more details, but it seems solid.” Lance didn’t take a step closer. Keith risked looking over at him, and saw nothing but a pleasant, conciliatory gaze. Distant, polite. Good enough for this operation (it tore through him, this lack of warmth, but what made it worse was that Keith had no desire to fix it, not unless Lance finally gave him what he wanted).

 

He lifted a dark blue vegetable in Lance’s direction with an inquisitive look on his face. He’d never seen this one before, and Lance had been cooking most of their meals whenever they missed eating with the team.

 

Lance shook his head. “You won’t like it.”

 

Keith nodded without question and tossed the vegetable back in its container. “I think there’s going to be some divide and conquer going on. We should take point.”

 

Lance cocked his head in curiosity as he asked, “Why?”

 

“Because this needs to be nothing like Voltron,” Keith replied steadily. He pressed his sandwich together before saying, “And who is less like Voltron than The Two McClains?”

 

Lance barked out a laugh, biting his lower lip once he quieted, clearly mulling over the strategy. “Let’s pitch this to Allura and Shiro, then. I think you’re right. Full blown cowboy, and maybe some of our old coats and weapons over top of the slap-dash armour Coran has around here. And masks.”

 

“Shame you don’t have your hat,” Keith said quietly, aiming for casual, probably failing.

 

“It belonged back there. Zan rocks it.” Lance shrugged. “Besides, I might have spotted an awesome space pirate hat in Coran’s closet of goodies. Would work well with the outfit I have in mind.” Here he looked at Keith with a half-lidded gaze. “I maybe have an idea for your clothes, if you want to check it out.”

 

“You know me best,” Keith tossed out carelessly, in the midst of considering various infiltration tactics. The words crashed heavily into silence.

 

“I’ll meet you outside Coran’s quarters an hour before we have to leave,” Lance said after a time, his voice overly neutral.

 

He left Keith alone with his sandwich. His stomach grumbled, indifferent to the tension and awkwardness. Keith let out a huff of air as he picked up his sandwich, a flutter low in his belly. Things could be easy between him and Lance when they had work to focus on.

 

And while they’d been just fine not taking part in Voltron’s missions outside of clean-up and restoration, this … This felt right. This felt like something they could do, and do well. Keith actually was looking forward to heading out into the field, weapons in their sheaths and holsters, and a clear enemy to cut down.

 

******

Keith

One Month and Twenty-Two Days On the Castle of Lions

******

 

“Regris and Pidge, you ready?” Lance breathed out over the comms, his fierce pre-battle grin spreading across his face. “We’re going live in one minute.”

 

“Roger that,” Pidge said.

 

“Hunk, Matt, Allura, what about you?”

 

“Awaiting your orders, Captain,” came Allura’s amused tone.

 

Lance crowed delightedly. “Hell yes. Shiro?”

 

“Got it. Once Matt has that targeting system down, Serla, you be ready to target that main gun.”

 

“I understand, Paladin, we’ve only been over the plan thrice now.” Serla grunted as she took over piloting, Keith sliding out of the seat for her. “Humans are annoyingly repetitive.” Her wide purple-yellow eyes flicked back and forth between Lance and Keith. “Are you two ready? You cannot give yourselves away—”

 

Lance folded up one side of his wide brim hat, activating the mask that also allowed him to breathe in non-oxygenated environments. That black mask had silver and turquoise accents, and paired with opaque goggles of dark green that provided energy read-outs. Yet Keith could clearly envision the smirk as Lance smashed the button that brought them out of stealth — right on the nose of the command cruiser. He threw a viewscreen on with a flourish. Keith’s own mask was already in place, his also black, with a visor in purple. He had a hood instead of a hat, his hair gathered in a tight bun at the base of his neck — all unique identifiers disguised.

 

The Galra commander stood on his bridge, glowing yellow eyes huge as he sputtered, roaring, “What — who —?”

 

“You’re in our territory, mate,” Lance spat out, his voice rougher, his tone unforgiving. “We rule these parts, and you’ve got about three tics to get the fuck off our front door step.”

 

“How dare you? Do you know who we are?” Commander Grethor had a fearsome reputation, but Keith had been largely bored reading up on him. He paled in comparison to other foes they’d faced — both as the Two McClains and as Paladins.

 

“Don’t know, don’t care,” Lance sing-songed before the gruff tones returned. “And look, it’s been three tics.” He hit three buttons are once, and off went their two teams. The pods were slim, made from scrap in appearance, but possessing some of the best maneuvering and stealth systems Keith had ever seen.

 

He would have the pleasure of handling them in a moment. “Serla, you have control. Fire on the side-cannons, stay out of reach of the main gun,” Keith ordered. “When Matt’s confirmation comes through, you—”

 

“Keith, get lost,” Serla demanded, the porcupine-like spines on her head bristling. She was already executing some fairly impressive rolls as the Galra ship fired on them. “You’re all annoying, gah, this must be a human thing.

 

Lance already had dashed off towards the pod, and Keith joined him a second later, diving for the controls as Serla sent them off with a curse and a shouted, “Victory or death!”

 

“Yeah, sure,” Lance said with an eye roll that involved his whole head. “How about good luck or kick some ass, or anything with a touch more optimism?”

 

“I think you stand a fair chance of not dying,” Serla added over their comms. “But that remains to be seen. Best not make any predictions.”

 

“Oh, I like you.” Lance shook his head, resting an arm on the back of Keith’s chair. “We’re coming up on the command port — everyone else already on board?”

 

“On board and undetected,” Matt announced.

 

“Us too,” Pidge whispered.

 

“Oh, they know I’m here.” Shiro sounded both fierce and breathless. “Need you and Keith to take some heat off.”

 

“We’re here,” Lance announced as Keith attached the pod to an airlock, overriding the system with Pidge’s upgraded hacking program. “The heat’s gonna be on us now.”

 

Lance tugged on the lapels of his heavy black coat, his pistols gleaming in their holsters, a few dagger hilts poking up from his knee high boots. Keith adjusted his sword and dagger sheaths, his own coat slimmer, shorter, and decorated with some pointless straps up and down his arms. His boots were similar to Lance’s, though they were slightly longer in the toe — concealing a dagger Keith could summon with a quick flick. Lance had chosen well.

 

Before exiting the ship, Lance took a second to tighten the blood-red scarf at his neck. He reached out to fiddle with Keith’s dark grey bandana, but pulled back just short of Keith’s neck. He dropped that hand and instead grasped a pistol, cocking it and gesturing towards the door. “After you.”

 

Keith nodded. He waited until Serla had fired, the floor shaking beneath their feet, and slammed open the door at that precise moment, flipping into the room, taking out two guards who thought they could pin them down easily — but Keith correctly predicted where they’d be pointing their rifles; he was beneath their fire and up in their faces before they knew he was there. And then they knew nothing, because they each had a blade in their neck.

 

Lance fired at three more who rushed into the airlock, and he let out a whoop when several sentries followed. Keith had to hold back an eye roll of his own — Pidge’s training programs had long since tracked and emulated Galra sentry movements and tactics. The only way these machines posed a problem were if they overwhelmed them in numbers. But the Commander of this ship had been overconfident, only sending a dozen or so. Lance took most of them out, and Keith swiped at a couple just for fun.

 

They entered the ship on the Command level, already hearing more footsteps. Lance gave a jaunty wave to a camera, and then fired at it.

 

When the next squadron arrived, it was half Galra troops, half sentries. Keith snarled beneath his mask, already slicing the knees out from two of the troops who dared to ignore him in favour of Lance. The floor trembled again as Serla kept up her attack.

 

Lance had ducked behind a bulkhead, rising up to fire in a steady, precise wave. The first five sentries were down, and Keith had hamstringed two more soldiers before they got wise and retreated to gather reinforcements. He stabbed down into their backs, ending their howls of pain.

 

Keith felt fairly satisfied when he got through all but one soldier — he let the lone survivor go, let him rush to his Commander. Lance stepped out from behind the bulkhead, having eliminated all the sentries on his own. He shrugged at Keith. “Hm. I say two.”

 

“Two?” Keith gave a shrug of his own back. “Not the commander.”

 

“Oh, no, not the commander,” Lance said, and that was his no quarter given smile shining through his voice. “But two. One to tell the story, the other to back up said story.”

 

“Hm.” Keith flicked the blood off his blades, pointing with one sword towards the door. “We finish this, and then head down to Hunk and the others if they need us.” He tapped his comm, having flicked muted the connection to the other teams. “That targeting system down?”

 

“Almost!” Matt told them, firing heard over his feed. “We sort of tripped over a couple of guards. And they got friends now. And they’ve got a few more encryptions up than normal. I think Pidge has spooked the whole Empire.”

 

“They’re not scared enough,” Pidge said smugly. “Database is fifty-six percent downloaded. We need more time, too, but we’re still undetected.”

 

“I got their engine rooms half destroyed,” Shiro added. “They can’t make a wormhole. Not that it would do them much good, with us on here.”

 

“Main gun has nearly incinerated me once!” Serla sounded slightly more irritated than she had earlier. “You need to be faster. It’s charging again!”

 

“Keith and I are almost done up here — we’ll be down to you and Matt in a few. Hold your ground.” Lance holstered two of his pistols at his hips, pulling out the ones in his shoulder holsters now. “Allura, Shiro, any orders?”

 

“Your plan is working well,” Allura praised. “Let’s keep it going. Matt and I almost have the targeting system down.”

 

“All the troops seem to be splintering off — I’ve only got sentries down here. You’re about to get pretty busy, guys,” Shiro warned. “I’m guessing most are heading to Lance and Keith, but Allura, get ready for reinforcements your way as well.”

 

“Understood.”

 

“Got it.” Lance flicked off his comm again. He nodded at Keith, who kicked down the next door and then immediately spun out of the way of a barrage of fire. Lance had shifted to the side as well. They both went still, waiting.

 

The first curious troop to poke in was shot in the head at point blank range, and Keith used his body as a shield. The large, armoured corpse provided amble coverage for Lance to fire between hanging limbs, taking down several sentries. As soon as Lance had found cover behind a console, Keith tossed the body at three nearby soldiers, and then neatly stabbed the artery located at their hip and in their necks — he spun, blade high in the air, sending a sprayed arc of blood into the visor of a charging Galra, and tripping him once he couldn’t see.

 

He could hear Lance calling out the arrival of the troops who had been originally pursuing Shiro.

 

Things got dicey at that point — they were uncomfortably outnumbered. Lance desperately tried to reach Keith, but was kept at bay by several troops who had decided to focus solely on taking him down. One soldier had thought she wouldn’t be in danger at close range, and Lance had quickly disabused one and all of that notion, the soldier now dead at his feet, dagger in her eye. Serla’s attacks made their footing unstable, and Keith’s acrobatic instincts were nearly not enough to keep him both balanced and lethal.

 

But their luck changed when the Commander himself barged into the room, flanked by several guards and his lieutenant, his smug, superior expression clearly announcing his belief that the fight was over.

 

He was right.

 

Keith didn’t waste time — before the arrogant prick could say or do anything, Keith vaulted over the heads of the half dozen or so soldiers trying to pin him down. He landed right behind the commander. With a series of quick jabs that were all part of one sinuously swift sequence, he had a dagger in the back of Commander Grethor’s thigh, which brought him to his knees, and a second dagger was at his throat, already spilling blood.

 

“Everyone drop their weapons.” Keith twisted the blade. “Now.

 

“Do as he says!” the Commander gasped out, frozen, trying to keep Keith’s dagger from slicing any deeper.

 

Keith had to hold back a sneer — Gunthra would have ordered her crew to fire, and laughed if any bolts or bullets struck her. She would have lived long enough to cut Keith or Lance down, if not both. Hell, Dras would haveKeith shook that memory away, along with his derision.

 

Grethor wasn’t entirely hopeless — there was a small button on his wrist communicator that the Commander was trying to push. He lifted his hands in a false attempt to pull Keith off in order to disguise his finger’s crawl towards this button, which was maybe a self-destruct sequence or a call for even more reinforcements. But Keith flicked his eyes to Lance and then down at the wrist comm quick as a breath.

 

Lance fired. The communicator broke apart, and the Commander had a fresh hole in his arm. The howl of indignation had Keith clutching his hostage even tighter. He wasn’t surprised when the Commander cried out, “You’ll pay. The entire Galra Empire will seek vengeance.”

 

“Which means that he thinks you’re all goners,” Lance translated, his pistols pointed at the two soldiers nearest him. “But not all of you have to die. We’ll take whatever valuables we can carry, and be on our way. After all, we didn’t have any plans to be pirating today — you encroached on our territory.”

 

“I refuse,” Grethor began, his chest puffing up, “to give in to scum—”

 

Which was far more courage than Keith had initially given him credit for — or more arrogance. More likely the latter, and Keith had a quick remedy for people who thought themselves too good to die a pointless death.

 

By the time the Commander’s blood-soaked body hit the deck, Keith had grabbed his second-in-command, recognizable by the yellow markings on her armour. A few soldiers had tried to get to Keith, but Lance gunned them down before they could, and fired at one other who mistakenly thought Lance would be distracted — but his peripheral vision served just as well at picking out targets.

 

Four more dead bodies, and Keith had the officer held in the same position as her Commander had been. “Are you a little more cooperative, Lieutenant?” Keith asked silkily.

 

The second-in-command nodded, barely wincing as her blood trickled past the cut that appeared in her neck. “Yes. I’ll help you find something worth your time, and then … you’ll let us go? Give me your word.”

 

Lance laughed. “The word of pirates? Even I know that’s stupid.”

 

Without blinking, Keith shoved the lieutenant down, protecting her for the moment. Lance’s shots narrowly missed Keith’s head as he took out the frozen soldiers closest to him. Keith buried his knee in his hostage’s back as he sliced into the calves of the other troops within arm’s reach. Inside of two minutes, only the lieutenant and one other Galra trooper were left alive.

 

There might be a few stragglers left on the ship, but a few extra witnesses couldn't hurt. And if the surviving soldiers interfered with Lance and Keith's escape, well, they did already have two witnesses right here.

 

“You are vermin. You have no honour, no code—”

 

Keith stabbed into a shoulder. He noted the lieutenant biting her tongue to keep from screaming. “Yeah, you’re still alive. Maybe don’t risk that. Now, where’s the good stuff?”

 

As the lieutenant rattled off the location of a few caches, Keith paid close attention — they would have to steal these goods to maintain the cover. Once the lieutenant finished speaking, Keith knocked her out with the hilt of his dagger. Lance brought over the soldier, whose long Galra legs trembled as Lance kicked at the backs of his knees. He fell down next to his only other comrade without a struggle or a sound. Lance knocked him out with the grip of his gun. Together, he and Keith secured the two survivors to a broken console, bound with wires Lance had yanked out of the smashed screen. Satisfied that their captives were both tightly restrained and unconscious, Lance’s happily ruthless façade fell — his shoulders straightened out of his lazy “pirate” slouch, and his voice lost both its rasp and cheer.

 

He flicked on his comm. “Guys, what’s your status?”

 

“Download at ninety-three percent!” Pidge said immediately. “Where the hell have you two been?”

 

“Command deck,” Keith replied shortly. “But we’re done here. Surviving crew is contained. Updates?” He and Lance started towards the route that would take them to the storage units. The hallways were eerily empty.

 

“I’ve got a few sentries left,” Shiro answered, sounding only faintly out of breath now. “But they’re not going to be a problem.”

 

“Matt succeeded in his mission. We have a few guards holed up nearby,” Allura said. “But they’re no threat. I do believe my Keluttin form intimidates them.” She sounded downright gleeful. Allura’s disguise had been a tall, broad species, somewhat unevenly proportioned, with terrifying claws and glowing red eyes. Keith could understand the guards’ reluctance to engage her further. “The reinforcements never arrived …” Allura trailed off. “Perhaps you and Keith were too good a distraction.”

 

“I like being a pirate. And speaking of, we’ve got some pirating to do,” Lance told them. “Serla?”

 

“Oh, now you care?” She gave a brief laugh. “They stopped firing at me a little while back — seems you two were the priority. Matt got that gun down just before they could take me out. Thanks for that, rebel.”

 

“No worries, Blade,” Matt responded happily. “See, we can get along!”

 

“I suppose you’re not as hopelessly disorganized and soft as I thought,” Serla conceded. “I’ve damaged that main weapon beyond use, but like I said — I think they pulled their gunners off their posts to take you out.” She sounded vaguely impressed. “Be wary.”

 

In the end, there wasn’t much cause for wariness — Pidge had succeeded, and was now on the way to her pod with Regris, both of them completely unobserved by the Galra. Lance and Keith grabbed a few crates of supplies and weapons; they flicked the anti-grav locks off, and then made a point to nab a few other shiny goods (likely just spare armour or parts, but pirates wouldn’t be picky).

 

“Serla?” Lance had his gun out as they pushed the crates along. “We should take advantage of the quiet — can you dock with the ship? It’ll be faster.”

 

“Already on my way. I’ll activate your pod’s autopilot — it’ll be back on board in a tic. I’m your only way out now. ”

 

“Pidge? You sure it was all good?” Keith asked, keeping an eye out on the corridors as they passed through the bowels of the ship.

 

“There was no sign I was even there. No one ever came to bother us,” Pidge confirmed.

 

The reached the docking bay … Just as a handful of reinforcements finally arrived. The lieutenant wasn’t among them, so Keith assumed these were the ones who didn’t dare face Allura.

 

Lance didn’t even waste time asking them to surrender — he opened fire, using the stolen crates as cover. Keith noted he wasn’t being as lethal as he could, and so he followed suit, though there were one or two casualties.

 

“A couple more living testimonials couldn’t hurt,” Lance murmured as he stepped over an unconscious Galra soldier. “And these guys are now missing a few vital parts. They won’t be a threat later.”

 

Keith kept his eyes on the survivors until they were on the ship and the ramp had been raised. Serla immediately took off, knocking both Lance and Keith onto their butts.

 

“Hey!” Lance complained.

 

“Gotta get your Paladins and be out of here.” Serla executed a fancy flip that Keith admired from his position in the cargo hold, feeling the inertia as she pushed the artificial gravity to its limits with her unbelievably sharp turns and sudden plunges. “Shame to decommission this scrap heap — she’s got a damn near perfect steering response.”

 

Keith agreed, removing his mask just as Lance did. He didn’t realize they wore matching grins until he caught a reflection of himself in a passing window — he also saw the pods swiftly approaching the ship.

 

“We’re docked!” Hunk announced. “Allura and Matt are all good with me!”

 

“I’m here,” Shiro seconded.

 

“Locked in and climbing aboard,” Regris was the last to check in. “The Green Paladin is in perfect condition.”

 

“Regris and I win since no one got a shot on us,” Pidge crowed.

 

“Then off we go,” Serla said. “I am going to thoroughly enjoy giving this debrief to Kolivan. Can’t remember the last time one of my ops went this smooth.”

 

The high of a job well done lasted until they reached the Castle. Until the mission debriefing. Serla and Regris were back with the Blades, and so the rest of the Voltron team sat in the dining room, Sam and Coran included, reviewing the operation details.

 

Lance started it off, and Keith nodded along, interjecting here and there, but really, since nothing went hugely wrong, they wrapped up their portion fairly quickly, though Lance couldn’t help embellishing a little — and Keith couldn’t help poking fun at him. It felt so normal, it felt like home, like things weren’t so desperately out of place and like Keith hadn’t been destroyed by a few words from Lance only two nights ago …

 

However, in the space of a breath, they both realized that there was a distinct lack of response following their mission summary … Keith looked away from Lance to the rest of the team.

 

Coran had a hand on Allura’s shoulder as she stared at them in horror. Hunk looked sick. Pidge was visibly exhausted, leaning back against Matt. Shiro didn’t seem to know what to say, his lips parting silently. Sam, Matt, and Coran all appeared decidedly expressionless.

 

Allura stood up abruptly, her eyes blazing. “The idea was to have there be no suspicion of Voltron activity, and witnesses left behind to attest to that fact.”

 

“Which is what we did,” Lance said. His mouth was forming a stern line.

 

Keith knew what this was about — an icy sensation shivered down his spine. He’d forgotten. How could he have forgotten who they were working for now? This wasn’t like taking a job for Gunthra or Jorlack. Death wasn’t a must. It wasn’t always the desired or anticipated outcome. How could Keith have just completely blanked out on what these people expected?

 

“There were at least four or five,” Keith tried to justify himself. He sought his temper, found it and clung to it. “Did you think we’d pull punches when it was just the two of us against at least three dozen highly trained Galra soldiers?”

 

“You … you killed them all,” Allura said faintly. “Everyone you encountered.”

 

“All but four or five,” Lance corrected her. “What the hell else were we supposed to do? We went over this plan, we said we would act as the main distraction, that we would take out however many we needed to—”

 

Take out means remove from the fight, and that doesn’t automatically mean—” she began hotly.

 

“This is the Galra Empire,” Lance bit out, and Keith cut in with a harsh sweep of his hand, speaking nearly over top of Lance. “Allura, these are the enemy. Mercy is the quickest way to end up dead.”

 

“The plan never said—”

 

“We took them out,” Lance insisted, his eyes landing on the two oldest and quietest Paladins. “Shiro, Matt—” Keith held back a flinch successfully, though he knew that his eyes narrowed minutely in Matt’s direction “— guys, tell her what the deal is.”

 

“Lance, you were in charge of this operation, but you also had orders to keep this as … clean as you could,” Shiro said with a firmness that Keith thought was incredibly ridiculous. “Everyone who takes part in a mission needs to always be aware of any changes in plans, however … obvious they might seem to you. And Allura’s right — clean missions are always a priority of ours.”

 

Clean means fast and efficient,” Keith disputed. “And we did keep it clean. There weren’t any mistakes, hardly any surprises, and since we behaved like pirates, no one will suspect Voltron had anything to do with this — Shiro, this was textbook.

 

“If you wanted anything else, then maybe you should have been more specific,” Lance broke in, standing up with both his hands braced on the table. “We’ve blown up entire ships — how is this different? Tell me how you justify those deaths. Tell me you care about every single Galra you kill to save the universe. I guess it’s okay as long as you don’t have to wash their blood off your fancy clothes later, right?” He stared Allura down, nothing of his ease or mirth remaining.

 

Keith hated that he wanted Lance to stay his ground — this was the same Lance who had all but put his hand through Keith’s chest and ripped his heart out. But fuck, Lance and Keith were right.

 

“There’s a difference between a battle between ships that ends in destruction of one or the other, and a mission wherein execution is not immediately necessary,” Allura gritted out. “We know not every Galra is in favour of the Empire, we shouldn’t just assume they’re all — when we can spare a life—” She stopped, her face twisting as Keith raised an eyebrow pointedly, clearly not needing to repeat what he thought about mercy.

 

“Well, princess, next time we’ll take a chance and interview everyone before we kill them. And maybe, next time, tell us exactly what you want from us, or just leave us out of it,” Keith said viciously.

 

“I didn’t think I had to tell you not to behave like mindless butchers.”

 

Keith surged to his feet, his hands clapping down onto the table, though he had nothing to say — Shiro had jumped up, Pidge and Matt were standing suddenly. But it was Coran who reacted the fastest — he pulled on Allura’s shoulder, putting himself between her and Lance and Keith, as though they would dive across the table at one another other.

 

“Allura, enough. Lance, Keith, perhaps you should take your meal to your quarters …”

 

“No, Coran, we should—” Shiro tried to intervene, but Sam Holt had now also stood, putting a slow and gentle hand on Shiro’s forearm.

 

“Shiro, Coran is right. No one is going to say anything helpful just now,” Sam said softly.

 

“Lance …” Hunk tried, then stopped. He shook his head, staring down at the floor.

 

Keith didn’t have any words to spare. The weight of the last few days finally crushed the last of his patience. He slouched out of the room, but not before spitting out, “There’s nothing I can do about me and Red, or us and this … whatever this is. Keep the bayard, Shiro. I don’t need it back. I can’t take it back.”

 

He didn’t know if Lance was saying something similar or trying to restart the fight. For the first time in a long time, Keith didn’t think of Lance first — he concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, on keeping his lungs full and his heart from pounding straight out of his chest. He marched into the empty room he’d slept in the night before, ripping off his clothes and shoes immediately and sinking into the bed. Keith yearned for the near coma-like sleep he’d gotten when Red had ripped through to find their bond in tatters, not worth redeeming.

 

There wasn’t room for anything else in his head — the screaming noise, the flurry of rage, the oppressive white walls, all of it — it was too much clutter and he was so damn fucking tired. Yet, he spent most of the night shifting restlessly on his bed, then pacing his room, trying to tire himself into sleep, rolling uselessly around the mattress in failure, and pacing again. He ran through multiple sets of push-ups and sit-ups. He lashed out at imaginary foes with his daggers.

 

When he finally collapsed, adrenaline cutting out all at once, it wasn’t on the bed, but on the window seat. He crumpled against the cold glass, so thoroughly exhausted and beaten down that it felt like he’d fallen into that place between the twinkling stars, headlong into the pitch void.

 

*******

 

 

Chapter Text

 

******

Keith

One Month and Twenty-Three Days On the Castle of Lions

******

 

Keith stood in front of his door. Knocking echoed out from it, and the cadence told him exactly who was on the other side.

 

He’d woken up this morning (or as close to morning as they got in this metal shell) feeling well rested, but stretched thin. His skin itched for want of a shower, and his stomach grumpily protested the lack of breakfast, but otherwise, he was shockingly … okay. And not just physically speaking. His mind had stabilized into a neutral zone, but he had no illusions about that lasting beyond this encounter, if he decided to acknowledge the persistently quick beat.

 

He leaned against the door. The knocking stopped.

 

“Keith.” A muffled sound followed. Lance's voice was clearer as he asked, “Training room, in an hour?”

 

His heart went into triple time. Such a well-worn path to tread. He wanted that familiarity so badly. But it hadn’t been working here, and what was more, it seemed like old habits gave Lance an excuse to keep hurting (himself, Keith, or both). They weren’t … they couldn’t be what they were. (What were they now? How far down did this rupture go? Keith couldn’t ask yet — in this, he was going to be a coward.)

 

Just for today, Keith could meet him halfway.

 

“Okay. Gonna shower. See you there.” He hoped Lance would take the subtle hint to go get himself some breakfast, so that by the time Keith finished showering, he could eat without Lance’s strained company.

 

Turned out Lance did know him well enough to pick up on that — when Keith rounded the corner into the kitchen, there was no one there. In fact, he hadn’t run into anyone at all as he’d walked the halls. He’d heard the sounds of the Holts’ in their labs, walked past a locked observation room, saw a flash of Allura’s white hair in the archives … Everyone seemed to have retreated to their own separate corners.

 

Keith hoped this would last for another few days. Maybe by then he would be ready to look them in the eyes and state a few blunt truths, ones he’d been too uncomfortable to share until his shame had been burned out by the anger.

 

For now, he ate a small bowl of oatmeal, (more accurately, a pale green goop that strongly tasted of oats and honey), and then headed towards the training room at a much slower pace.

 

He had no idea what the outcome of this spar would be. This wasn’t a typical day under the desert sun, grinding each other down into the dust until they were dripping with sweat — until there was nothing left but to admit fault, apologize, and head back to the inn for drinks. This wasn’t anything like, well, anything he and Lance had been through. He had no basis for comparison, even if he reached back in time to the group home or to that year after Kerberos …

 

He walked into the training room before his feet could drag him in the opposite direction.

 

Lance had been in a far corner, sitting on the floor. It looked like he’d been there a while — like he’d come here straight from Keith’s room. It had usually been Keith who had the terrible eating habits, so he bit down a reproach about skipping meals when intense workouts were part of the day. Instead, he nodded and asked, “No weapons?”

 

Lance nodded back, standing up and stretching almost absently as he approached Keith.

 

Keith hesitated.

 

An awkward beat, then two, and neither of them attacked.

 

Lance stared at Keith intently, studying his hands, his feet … When Keith tried to catch his gaze and hold onto it, those blue eyes would blink and glance away.

 

Keith threw the first punch when Lance stubbornly kept his gaze off to the side.

 

The blow didn’t land, but he hadn’t intended it to. When Lance grabbed his wrist, Keith twisted and yanked so that Lance lost his footing. Lance let go, allowing himself to fall so he could swipe out with one long leg, catching Keith at the ankles. But Keith had taught Lance a dozen variations of that tactic — he immediately sprung up from his fall, landing a harsh fist against Lance’s side.

 

The air brutally punched from his lungs had Lance gritting his teeth, and there, there was that dangerous light in his eyes — the stare that caught and held.

 

The next time Lance almost pinned him, Keith spun them around; he reached for the dagger hidden in a holster behind his back. Except that holster was empty.

 

Lance grinned up at him. Keith felt the sharp point dig just beneath his ribs. It had torn a neat hole through his shirt, but it hadn’t pierced skin. Yet.

 

“Hm, now that was interesting.

 

The knife instantly pointed towards the voice, and Keith rolled to his feet simultaneously, his Blade of Marmora dagger fully displayed.

 

Coran just smiled at both of them, completely unmoved by their threatening stances. He waved. “Hello there. I noticed you didn’t take care to lock the doors this time. I thought I might join?”

 

Keith blinked. He hadn’t realized that he’d forgotten to key in the locking code. Lance looked over at Keith with a miniscule raise of his eyebrows. Keith’s mouth twitched downwards along with a slight shift of his shoulders. Why not? Lance had a hint of curiosity on his face, and Keith felt a similar tickle within his mind.

 

Until they’d seen Coran on their nameless planet, Keith hadn’t really considered the older Altean a threat in the physical sense.

 

But he’d transformed before Keith’s eyes — he’d held himself differently, a camouflage that had nothing to do with the shape-shifting the Alteans possessed. He’d been jovial but with an edge that could only have been sharpened by real war. Coran had seen the Galra’s extermination of various worlds from the beginning of their bloody campaign … Keith wondered if the cheerful Coran was more of a front than any of them realized.

 

“Excellent!” Coran clapped his hands. “But I propose we take this elsewhere. We’re right above an Olkari outpost, on a lovely little planet called Ikolrr. Follow me, McClains!”

 

Keith and Lance fell in step together as they walked behind Coran to the hanger. Neither of them spoke a word, and Lance was making a point to keep Keith at arm’s length. Keith shot Lance a hard, searching stare as they got onto the ship, and Lance took it a step further by sitting as far from Keith as possible.

 

Coran landed the ship out in a meadow with short grass and trees far, far in the distance. A blazing sun beat down between gaps in the blue-grey clouds.

 

With a wide spread of arms, Coran seemed to welcome them as he walked out, sniffing sharply. “Ah, a distinct lack of pollen this season. Fabulous. Now …”

 

Keith inhaled a lungful of warm air, enjoying the vastness around him — now that he and Lance participated in aid/reconstruction missions, he hadn’t been nearly so … frantic at being confined on the Castle. It was easier to cope when they’d been spending more time planet-side.

 

But he hadn’t been outside just for the sake of experiencing fresh air since his and Lance’s last impromptu shuttle hijacking. This was … nice. Lance clearly felt the same way, as he took in deep breaths and tilted his head back to greet the sun with eyes closed.

 

“If you two are ready, we could begin?” Coran asked, his smile gentle, a small touch of teasing to his tone.

 

This wasn’t the same Coran who’d pretended to fight Lance back when they’d all first met.

 

Keith didn’t hold back as he took off in a run towards him.

 

Coran had been standing there. Then he wasn’t.

 

Lance had flanked Coran, like Keith knew he would, like he and Lance had done a million times over as The Two McClains, yet they were left staring at each other stupidly.

 

Inside of a second, Coran had Keith’s wrist wrenched behind his back, followed by a nasty kick to the soft spot behind his knee. Keith hissed in pain as he hit the ground — Coran still had his wrist in a painfully tight grip. Lance tried to break this grip, by reaching past Keith to kick high towards Coran’s face — but Coran used his other hand to grab Lance’s ankle. Lance ended up flat on his back. Keith used the brief distraction to nail Coran in the calf with his foot.

 

Coran actually laughed when he fell, and that set Lance off, who leapt towards him. Coran rolled out of the way while Lance cursed in a cheerfully annoyed voice, and Keith was smiling a little, though he had no idea why.

 

They fought for another three rounds before Coran called a halt, breathless, his orange hair plastered to his forehead. “Truce! There’s only so long I can keep up with the both of you.”

 

“You’re more than keeping up,” Lance complained, sprawled on the bright green grass, sitting with his hands braced behind him. “When did you get so good?”

 

“At a certain point in the war, everyone received a form of training,” Coran said, taking a seat across from Lance on the ground. “The civilians all had basic defense, and anyone involved with the war effort in a non-combatant role was given a more detailed sort of instruction. Truthfully, I was never good. In fact, I was quite terrible.”

 

Lance gave him a dubious look, lifting one hand to wave at the air between them. “This is the Altean version of terrible?”

 

Keith fell to a seated position, crossing his legs and giving Coran a skeptical expression.

 

“Well, I did like to act as though I was quite the champion,” Coran said with a stroke of his mustache. “And I was the best in my squad of scientists and engineers.” He grinned roguishly. “I accidentally knocked out my instructor once. That made me the pride of the aeronautics sub-tech nano-weaponry unit.”

 

Keith smiled back, but his eyes narrowed. “Then, when did you get … better?”

 

“Ah, well, a recent development that would be largely Kolivan’s doing,” Coran admitted. “Once you two were absent, the need to work with the Blades more intensively arose. Allura is happy to work alongside them, but her wartime experiences number slightly less to mine. She didn’t feel that she had the right to speak with authority on the Blade’s tactics, and so I took it upon myself. Kolivan and I work well together, and he insisted on bettering my training whenever we had meetings together either at the Castle or a nearby Marmora base …” Coran took on a pensive look. “For whatever reason, I found his tutelage easier to grasp. And here we are.”

 

“You must’ve had some kind of talent before Kolivan taught you,” Lance pointed out rather shrewdly. “You’re too good. And the way you just … You were a total badass back on our prison planet.”

 

“Many thanks for that,” Coran said happily. “But, my dear boy, I’ve always been better at acting certain parts. I can play either buffoon or brutal enforcer when I need to. And a mean haggler, but that’s not acting, that is my natural talent.” Coran crossed his legs, resting his elbows on his knees. “I am also quite silly. Perhaps not entirely as silly as I often come across, but it isn’t altogether a mask. It’s a family trait.”

 

Keith found this all fascinating, but it seemed odd that Coran was just now telling them all of this after years of being their mentor and surrogate uncle. Odder still was that they’d actually come to know very little about Coran in all that time — the man’s boisterous personality had been too big to get around some days. Keith knew, based on a few quiet conversations after he’d discovered his Galra background, that Coran had a half-sister of mixed heritage back before Altea was destroyed. That he’d been the youngest in his family, and they’d all opposed his joining the Space Squad … But he’d never given too many details away; Keith (and he would assume everyone else) hadn’t wanted to push because Coran had lost everything.

 

But now it felt like maybe Keith could ask, and so he did. “What did you do during the war, exactly?”

 

Lance shot him a sharp glare, but Keith ignored him, focusing entirely on Coran.

 

Coran inhaled deeply, his expression falling. “I’ve told you all I was in the Space Squad, aeronautics sub-tech nano-weaponry unit, as one of their engineers. We developed weapons that could be attached or deployed by our sub-orbital or deep space ships.”

 

Keith tilted his head. “You’ve told us a lot of stories about the labs and the people, but … Is this where you finally tell us more?”

 

“Pidge is gonna be green with envy,” Lance joked, and Keith rewarded him with a brief eye roll. (It was terrifying how easily he could fall back into their rhythm, even as out of sync as they were now.)

 

“I’ve given her some of my specs, and a few coded blueprints.” Coran seemed to withdraw slightly, his smile not quite so broad. “I couldn’t give her everything — many records were expunged even as we created new weapons for the front lines. If the Galra got their hands on some of that technology …”

 

Both Keith and Lance waited patiently as Coran gathered his thoughts. When he spoke, Keith sat up straighter, making a concentrated effort of memorize everything.

 

“Nano-tech is quite marvellous,” Coran began. “Eventually, the aeronautics portion of our team was split off into their own unit, and the rest of us, we were tasked with adapting our healing nanites into a weaponized form. It was remarkably simple, as the medical properties only needed be nudged slightly in order to become lethal.” He lifted a single finger. “Transmission involved only the faintest touch on the smallest patch of skin. At which point, the nanites operated in opposite terms — they would unravel tissue. Just slow enough that the enemy combatant didn’t realize until his most vital internal systems had essentially been liquefied.”

 

Lance’s eyes had grown wider and wider. Keith’s stomach churned. Fuck, he hated that he could acknowledge the brilliance. The cold, hard fact of a solid tactic, for all that it was … repugnant to be taken down not in a fight, fair or not, but to be dissolved, from the inside out. By a single touch.

 

“And that was just the start,” Coran said with a faint hint of pride, though it was largely outweighed by the regret and disgust. Keith didn’t know anyone could carry all of those feelings at once … Or rather, he didn’t know anyone other than himself, and possibly Lance, could feel so many contradicting emotions simultaneously.

 

“Right.” Lance cleared his throat. “How did you keep them from … spreading beyond your control?”

 

“That failsafe was fairly simple. The nanites, once transmitted, immediately journeyed deep inside their carrier, and when they had dissolved everything within that shell, they would tear themselves apart.” Coran paused. “No transmission unless a medical professional proceeded without protection during that penultimate phase. No one made that mistake more than once.”

 

Keith had a moment to consider the ramifications of the Galra Empire getting a hold of this technology; he had a second of dawning horror that chewed on his own insides, but Coran ended that by saying, “This particular weapon has been deleted from the Castle archives. I left no traces of even the earliest research. The only thing that remains is the record of our having used it.” Coran's chest heaved with the force of his inhale, his eyes carrying the weight of centuries past. “We should never forget the things we have done in the name of war.”

 

There was a split second where Lance’s face gave something away — agony, a vicious flare in his opaque eyes — but then it was gone, Keith left alone in the dark again.

 

Coran nodded his head at them. “In the deca-phoeb you two were gone, I briefly considered … But, Allura, she rose to the occasion marvellously. She held us all together when many of us were coming apart at the seams. Shiro, especially. She is not blind to the realities of war, but rather, she always seeks to remind us of our better selves. To remind everyone that this is not all there is. If we win a war, but lose all that we are in the process … Then the war was not won at all.” Coran stopped again, twirling one end of his mustache in a slow, reflective gesture. “We need people like that, just as much as we need people like myself. And people like you.”

 

Keith could understand that sentiment. In fact, he could understand more than most … If the entire universe turned to the brutality of the Galra Empire, if sentient life could be treated so cheaply ... Cheap, like the lives on that planet, even though those people were worth so much more than Jacomir cruelly believed. People like Brisha, Zan, Yathir … Telliya and Grisner. People like the ones Keith and Lance had killed, and that was where Keith had to stop thinking, his skin having broken out in a cold sweat.

 

Coran clapped his hands, startling Lance and Keith both, and announcing, “Ah, I brought you here not to air out my own demons, but to give you a way to put yours to use.”

 

Keith blinked. “Wait, what?”

 

“The Blades of Marmora were quite impressed with your mission success. Serla passed on high praise,” Coran said with a wink. “She is a tough koraki shell to crack, that one, but you’ve done it. Kolivan and I believe you would be perfect candidates to serve as covert operatives. They are always in need, particularly for quick missions that require a degree of … unrestrained creativity.”

 

“That sounds … great,” Keith said, finding that he meant it. A tingling spread across his skin — this sounded better than great, this sounded perfect. Keith could just imagine working operations without the pressure of Voltron looming over him, the shadow of his Paladin self casting doubt over every decision he made. Working alongside Lance like they had always done …

 

But Lance wasn’t agreeing right away — he seemed deep in thought. When Keith caught his gaze, Lance offered up a faint half-smile. “You really want to go there again?”

 

“Are we good at anything else right now?” Keith countered immediately. “Don’t you want to actually contribute something to this war? Or, hell, just do something, anything worthwhile? Like we did on Ghantos II. And we can keep doing missions for Voltron, like Xelos, right, Coran?”

 

“Of course!” Coran smiled brightly. “I am offering no constraints, only other options. What you did on the Galra Empire ship …” He stopped for a deep breath. “My boys, I can’t say it sat well with me, but I can’t find fault with you for it either. You are every inch the Paladins, in my eyes, whether or not you reclaim the title.”

 

Keith hadn’t realized how badly he needed someone to say they weren’t evil or corrupted in their actions until Coran had right then. His chest felt lighter, his mind clearer. Keith offered the older man a smile and a nod. He wanted this, wanted to try, if only out of respect for the older Altean’s efforts.

 

Lance also nodded. “All right. How do we do this?”

 

“Well, first,” Coran said as he stood up, offering them his hands to pull them both to their feet, “we need to get you the right gear. And I may have already been working on that for you since, ah, you arrived …”

 

******

Keith

One Month and Twenty-Seven Days On the Castle of Lions

******

 

Lance let loose a long, low whistle as they entered the Marmora base. “Huh, well, this is something.”

 

“Didn’t think they went in for anything this … big.” Keith craned his head in all directions, trying to catch sight of it all.

 

This particular Blade of Marmora base was on the fringes of charted space, nestled amongst several dead planets — disguised by the emissions of nearby red giants, the base was inside the cracked, dormant core of a planet. The fissure in the planet surface was massive; the base only became visible once a ship had flown inside and entered another, smaller crevice.

 

After they’d docked in the outer space port, passed through the airlock, and surrendered their weapons to the guards stationed there, Keith and Lance had been shocked to see that the base essentially took up most of the inner core, with multiple levels jutting up towards the surface.

 

The entrance off the docking bay revealed several dozen floors — they stood in an enormous area that had ships of all sorts being built or torn apart, and directly behind the mechanical crews was a seemingly infinite wall of glass — the numerous stories were surrounded by clear walls, towering up beyond their sight. A few of these glass walls went opaque as they arrived; Keith would bet there were labs here, innovations in technological warfare and space flight. To centre most of their covert operations out of this particular location meant giving their operatives only the latest and greatest tech tools. While Keith had only ever needed a decent weapon to feel comfortable, he wouldn’t turn down anything that would up his odds of survival.

 

He turned to find Lance grinning, those blue eyes sparkling in a way Keith hadn’t seen in a too long. But with the lightness came that heavy sinking feeling in his stomach — fleeting happiness like this heightened the fear that he might lose it, for good.

 

Lance grabbed Keith’s arm, rushing over to greet Serla, who had just emerged from an elevator (also made of glass). “Serla! Man, Keith, do you think we’ll get our own Q? An exploding pen that doubles as communicator? A gun hiding in a watch?”

 

“What … the hell are you talking about?” Keith deliberately turned away from Lance’s cheesy grin to greet Serla with a nod as they reached her. “Coran is right behind us.”

 

“Yes, I know,” Serla said shortly. “You better not embarrass me today. I staked my reputation on you passing this trial.”

 

“Bond!” Lance was saying almost at the same time. “James Bond, Keith. Except we’re McClains. The Two McClains.” His voice had gone deep and suave.

 

Keith sighed, somehow still unable to resist poking at Lance’s ridiculousness. “Right, those old movies with the stupid villains and even stupider plots. And a spy who was better at seducing women than, you know, actually spying.

 

James Bond is rolling in his grave, how dare you?” Lance demanded, clutching his chest in feigned offense. “But also, hell yeah, he always got his girl. Or girls. And don’t forget the reboot where he totally got both his guys and his girls.”

 

As Keith rolled his eyes, Serla leaned over them to watch Coran finish registering their ship in the Blades’ arrival logs. Once he was done, she herded them into the elevator, her eyes taking them in from head to foot.

 

“At least you’re dressed appropriately,” Serla groused. Coran rushed in just before she shut the doors, the Altean beaming at them all. Serla gestured at Lance and Keith. “I imagine this was your doing.”

 

“Too right!” Coran preened. “A combination of Altean technology and Marmora style, with a touch of rebel outlaw flare. Both flattering and fatal, I say.”

 

Lance leaned back against the glass wall of the elevator, striking a familiar pose — the lazy sprawl he would use at the bar in Jorlack’s when he wanted to catch attention.

 

Coran had certainly outdone himself with these spy suits. Lance’s long, lean form was at its best in lightweight armour — deep obsidian that curled about his muscles and joints, patterns in a penetrating navy that faintly highlighted those dips and curves. Across his chest, just beneath his pecs and over his shoulders, were the faintly gleaming navy coloured straps of his shoulder holsters. A matching belt sat low on his hips, with holsters bracketing them as well.

 

Keith’s gaze slid down; Lance wore a pair of knee-high boots with Altean tech wrapped around his ankles — those sleek anklets absorbed the sounds of steps, making their movements near silent. They looked almost like spurs. To finish off the look, he had donned a long black leather-looking coat, tailored closely to his form and boasting many, many compartments. Lance flicked the lapels up, shoving his hands deep into two of the outer pockets. He glanced up at Keith from beneath his eyelashes, his smirk the best thing Keith had seen in days.

 

Ignoring the bitter edge to his longing, Keith fell back against the elevator wall, one eyebrow raised as he nonchalantly flicked the single button holding his own midnight coloured coat closed. Lance’s brows shot up, his eyes widening momentarily.

 

Keith wore the same outfit, but his coloured accents were a wine purple, dark enough to blend with black unless you were looking closely (which Lance obviously was). Keith’s armour didn’t have the same holsters Lance’s did. He had a pair of slim pistols concealed at the small of his back, but instead of guns at his hips, he had two shorts swords in sheaths. He had two daggers strapped to each thigh, and a few concealed beyond sight within the armoured gauntlets he wore. He also had an armour choker around his neck, and greaves over his boots — boots that had the sound-cancelling anklets, but in addition, concealed yet more daggers within.

 

Lance’s expression faded back into poised arrogance, but Keith caught the darkness in his eyes — a shade of blue that reminded him of tingling wine and soft sheets sticking to sweaty skin.

 

Keith hadn’t had a chance to miss Lance like that, not while weighed down with terror that Lance may be lost in ways and in places that Keith couldn’t follow (that Lance wouldn’t let him follow). But a flicker ignited within him all the same. He licked his lips, his teeth dragging along his lower one as he remembered nights with the window open, the breeze snaking through their hair, cooling them even as their hands left burning trails, as the heat intensified …

 

“Well, this is a surprise,” Serla said moodily. “Can’t believe I didn’t notice it before. Ugh, my nose. Could you two stop it with the pheromones. Humans are so pungent.”

 

Coran sniffed. “Hm, interesting, you can smell that?”

 

“Smell what?” Lance asked, vaguely disconcerted. Not enough to stop his eyes from flicking up and down Keith’s attire. Or to straighten from his provocative sprawl.

 

“We’re not discussing what I can scent off the two of you.” Serla jammed a button on the elevator. “We’re here. Get moving.”

 

Lance switched into battle-mode within an eye blink, shooting Serla a quick, teasing salute, and sending Keith a nod of almost professional camaraderie. Keith’s gratitude towards the grouchy Serla was nearly all-consuming — he didn’t need nor want to get lost in bittersweet memories.

 

They stood in a cavernous chamber, literally carved from stone, and about as dim as one would expect a cave to be. Keith sensed that they were closer to the surface of the planet, perhaps even right below it.

 

He glanced up, not quite able to make out the rough ceiling, but a flicker of light here and there told him there were soldiers resting in perches. Cameras, too. Not a single part of this complex was left without surveillance, even the supposedly top-secret areas.

 

Keith appreciated the paranoia.

 

Kolivan stood near the centre of the empty room, his arms clasped behind his back. He seemed to smile when Coran called his name, the Altean man waving at him jovially. Keith noticed other Blades standing a few metres behind their leader, and they didn’t flinch at all as Coran walked swiftly towards Kolivan, his hand outstretched.

 

The handshake was firm and perfunctory, but Kolivan took a moment to lean in and say something into Coran’s ear. Coran listened attentively, with a serious look cast over his shoulder at Lance, Keith, and Serla, who had all just reached the middle of the chamber. He pulled away from Kolivan, nodding at the tall Galra, then at Keith and the others.

 

“I’m afraid from this point on, I cannot say anything to you two,” Coran informed apologetically. “Kolivan, they’re all yours.”

 

“We shall see,” Kolivan said. “I have taken temporary command of this trial, since I can better understand and observe you, having previously worked with you two in our missions.”

 

Not really, Keith thought to himself. You’ve never worked with The Two McClains. Keith cast a sidelong look at Lance, who caught his eyes for a split second of silent agreement.

 

“Your weapons shall be returned to you, and you shall be released into the test area momentarily. There is no timer. There are no safeties in place. Your mission is twofold — survive and escape.”

 

Keith had to smother a laugh with a cough, and he could feel Lance’s body tremor, as he no doubt held back a chuckle of his own. The two Blades behind Kolivan delivered the weapons, and they courteously allowed Lance and Keith time to put everything in its proper holster or sheath before Kolivan announced, “Begin.”

 

The floor beneath them opened, and they fell.

 

In the space of a few seconds, Keith relaxed his body as much as he could, and then carefully stretched out his left arm — he snagged Lance’s coat in his grip, which had them both plummeting faster. But with his slightly better than human senses, Keith could just pick out a few structures around them in this almost lightless room. His hand grabbed something — round, like a pole, firmly entrenched. It halted his fall, wrenching his shoulder, but Keith held on, and used the momentum to swing Lance, hoping another such pole was nearby.

 

Lance grunted as he found the next pole with his body, but he curled around it instantly. Keith was able let go of him and focus on orienting himself.

 

Dead silence rung out around them. Their breathing echoed unnervingly loudly.

 

Lance couldn’t see in the dark as well as Keith, and so Keith made the effort to reach out a hand, grasping Lance’s and tugging him in until he could whisper in his ear. “Do you have the visor?”

 

Keith turned his head, allowing Lance to brush his lips against Keith’s ear as he replied. “Yeah. No flashlight.”

 

Keith lifted Lance’s hand to his cheek so the other man could feel Keith’s nod. They both dug into one of their many pockets, pulling out the slim visors that both served as night vision and heat detection. He pulled Lance in again now that he could see him clearly, murmuring, “They didn’t check our coats.”

 

Lance tensed beneath his hands. They both knew that whatever they were about to face, it must be damn difficult if Kolivan hadn’t even bothered to relieve them of the extra goodies in their pockets. Other Blades were surely in here, and they had to know that Lance and Keith were carrying tools beyond their weapons.

 

Well, fuck. Keith breathed in deeply, balancing on the pole carefully, standing so he could survey the room. Even with the visor that turned night into day, he couldn’t make out much. The poles they had managed to grab were protruding from the side of a black pyramid, and there were several more immense (roughly five stories high) pyramids between them and what might be the exit? A faint rectangle of light, what felt like miles away.

 

Lance perched with his legs swinging. Keith hopped over to his pole, crouching behind Lance so he could hear his whispers more clearly. He pointed towards the next pyramid.

 

“We’ve got some grips over there. But there are a couple of cameras. I’m guessing it’s trapped some how. And there are guards down there, by the foot of this thing. There’s no obvious entrances in or out of these pyramids.” Keith pursed his lips, annoyed. “We can’t see what’s coming.”

 

“Oh goodie.” Lance sounded both sarcastic and excited, somehow. “Well, I’m looking forward to kicking ass. Even if we can’t win, we can make them regret locking themselves in a giant deathtrap with us.”

 

Keith muffled a startled laugh against Lance’s shoulder. “Yeah, I’m good with that.”

 

With no warning, Lance grasped the pole and swung himself towards the floor, grinning up at Keith as slid down the side of the pyramid. Keith cursed under his breath, but followed after him, smiling when the trip down to the ground proved to be smooth and way too fast.

 

They hit the floor one after the other. Keith marvelled at the silence — those Altean anklets were miraculous.

 

It didn’t take them long to stumble across the first trap.

 

Keith worked his away around a corner, and his foot slid over a sensor — it lit up everything in their vicinity, blinding them through their night vision settings. They heard weapons firing — Lance whipped his coat up (the hidden armoured layers could withstand heavy fire, but not forever), and Keith did the same.

 

They ran into the first dark corner they could find, which was just around the side of the next pyramid — this one had a few ledges protruding along it irregularly, and they both ducked beneath one. They held their breaths, eyes shut against the dizzying spots in their vision. Keith took off the visor and lifted his lids, basking in the darkness for a moment. He strained his hearing — there were several footsteps, but they were slow and at a distance.

 

A patrol that had been alerted. And that would be on high alert from now on.

 

Once his eyesight recovered, he slid the visor back on and flicked the night vision setting. Lance had done the same. They stared at each other. Lance cocked his head and used hand signals. Up and around.

 

Keith nodded.

 

They climbed the ledges, careful to watch their footing and where they placed their hands. Keith spotted trap sensors on one ledge once they were halfway up — the barest circles, almost blending in with the pattern on the metal.

 

Lance tapped Keith’s shoulder, drawing his attention away from that particular problem to another.

 

Lance had perched on the ledge, his collapsible sniper rifle out. He went through the settings, adjusting it to concussive shots, and then pointed with the barrel. The patrol they’d alerted was making its way around the base of the pyramid they climbing — roughly five soldiers, all of them wearing goggles that no doubt allowed them to see quite clearly in this darkness.

 

The troops were looking both on the ground and up above them. Lance cast a grin at Keith. He flicked his hands quickly. Five in ten seconds. Keith rolled his eyes exaggeratedly so Lance could see it.

 

Lance snorted softly, and then took aim.

 

It took him seventeen seconds. Keith timed it, tapping his watch-less wrist pointedly when Lance whipped around with a scowl after the last soldier dropped.

 

There were shocked shouts from somewhere above of them. Clearly, no one had expected them to actually take out that first troop. Keith grabbed at the back of Lance’s coat, propelling him onward.

 

They had to leap over the next ledge to avoid the sensors. Keith went first, as he could jump farther. Even so, he just made it. Lance went afterwards, and Keith caught his hand, pulling him up. There were more soldiers directly above them. Keith wanted to get there, now, and bring them down before they were spotted again.

 

They had to move rapidly, but carefully, eyes on more sensors. More traps. Lance caught sight of a camera, shooting it with one of his pistols. They were near the top — the last ledge led into a room, from what little Keith could see. It might be a snipers’ nest, as this little chamber had a view out to the next few pyramids and the exit.

 

He gave Lance the signal to stop, wait. Keith clutched one sword, swinging up and over the windowsill single-handedly. He went in feet first, slamming into the Blade nearest his entry point. He used the flat of his sword to knock out another who had lunged in that same moment.

 

But as he landed in a crouch, a gun nudged against his temple — the Blades hadn’t been surprised enough, it seemed.

 

Lance swung in a split second later, and this Blade pointed another gun towards him. “Not bad, but your run is over. Drop your weapons,” she commanded.

 

Keith chuckled under his breath.

 

Lance stepped fully into the room and bent low in one sinuous movement. He winked at Keith. “Of course! Let me just …” One pistol was laid gingerly on the floor, and just as he was about to put the other down, Keith snarled and fell backwards, sweeping out one leg to knock the Blade’s feet out from under her — simultaneously, Lance also fell to his side, the angle allowing him to hit the soldier as they both dropped. She was unconscious before she hit the ground, her laser blast having gone harmlessly into the floor beside Keith.

 

“Hm.” Lance spun his pistols to holster them. “I like these guns. Thank you, Coran.”

 

“They’ll know we’re here, thanks to those shots,” Keith said. “Let’s get a look at—“

 

“Es posible que nos están escuchando,” Lance interrupted him, holding up a video device that had been on a Blade’s wrist — on the screen, Keith could see the viewpoints of multiple cameras, ones they must’ve missed on their climb up, and others as Lance swiped.

 

Audio was enabled, and Keith didn’t know the range on the camera microphones. Lance was right; they could possibly hear their conversations. And since, for whatever reason, the various translators didn’t work on Spanish (yet), Keith switched.

 

“Fíjate adonde esta la salida,” Keith suggested quietly. “Si podemos, es mejor viajar en las alturas de este lugar.”

 

Assuming traveling along the highest points of this place was possible, it would mean they would be less likely to be detected. Even better, having the higher ground would mean Lance could silently snipe any passing patrols. Lance nodded, and once he’d pocketed a video comm for himself, he passed one to Keith. Now they had access to the same camera system.

 

Lance unfolded his sniper rifle again, using the scope to zero in on the exit. “No es muy lejos. Veo algunos soldados al borde — tal vez mas escondidos en la oscuridad — y otros en frente, claros como el agua.”

 

Keith expected the guards to be hiding in the dark along the sides, currently too far for Lance and Keith to see with their visors, and for those guards in front of the door to act as a lure. So they had to get rid of the hidden patrols first.

 

“Vamos pa’tras,” Keith said decisively, changing tactics. “Al lado del borde. Y después arriba otra ves.”

 

They wouldn’t expect them to backtrack, not with the aggressive move they had just made. And that was perfect. They would sweep along the back of this cavern, and potentially pick off a few stragglers. Then as they made their way forward, they’d climb one of the pyramids closest to the exit, allowing Lance the opportunity to snipe a few guards.

 

Keith would stay down below, catching anyone attempting to climb their way up to Lance.

 

Their plan unfolded exactly as they’d hoped. With the Blade’s video device, they avoided every trap, they defeated every patrol or single soldier they came across. By the time they’d made their way to the pyramid of their choice — just to the left of the exit — they’d incapacitated roughly two dozen Blades.

 

Of course, this may have made Keith the slightest bit cocky.

 

Keith had a split second of peace after taking down a small patrol — Lance was already at the top of the pyramid, knocking out one guard per second. Success felt imminent, but Keith realized that things were going too well just as Lance’s sniper rifle abruptly stopped firing.

 

“Shit, reinforcements!” Lance yelled down at Keith, forgoing stealth.

 

Keith looked up just in time to see Lance jump out from the highest point. He fell down the side, too quickly, that was going to hurt when he — but Keith didn’t have time, and Lance could handle himself. A large troop of Blades had emerged from one of the pyramids to their right. They could make a run for the exit, but it would leave them exposed.

 

Lance hit the ground, biting out several curses in both English and Spanish. He seemed to be following Keith’s train of thought as he shoved his sniper rifle away and yanked out his two pistols. With nothing but a single glance exchanged, they charged towards the door that would lead to their freedom.

 

They ducked fire, but they only made it about halfway before a shot clipped Lance’s foot, bringing him down. Keith swore vehemently, turning back and using his coat as a shield for them both.

 

Keith overheard a few of the Blades shouting orders, and one speaking, “Yes, we’ve got them pinned — comm unit three-oh-five. Yes, report to our location!”

 

Lance stared up at him, looking exasperated. “We forgot about the in-ear comms.”

 

Keith stared back, and then groaned. “So stupid. Damn it, we’re so used to—”

 

“I know,” Lance said, gritting his teeth as he sat up, peeking around Keith’s coat to fire a few times. “A year spent without them, and we digress big time. Fuck, we’re idiots.” Two months back on the Castle, using comms on a semi-regular basis, and they’d still forgotten.

 

“And we have Pidge’s software, we could’ve hacked—” A high-powered concussive shot sent Keith blasting back into the wall, leaving them both exposed. When he blinked the haze from his eyes, it was to the sight of many, many guns pointed at them. Lance kicked back with his hands behind his head, his feet crossed at the ankles.

 

Keith sighed and crossed his arms over his chest. “Right. So we failed.”

 

“Yeah, but do we get points for almost making it?”

 

Their escape route, so close yet so far, opened to reveal Kolivan and several other Blades, including Serla. Coran appeared next to the Blade of Marmora leader, his grin stretched from ear to pointed ear. “Well, that was certainly a sight.”

 

“You won me several hundred gak,” Serla said with satisfied air. “Well done.”

 

“Huh?” Lance sat up, looking bemusedly towards Keith. “Didn’t we just … lose?”

 

“No one ever makes it out,” Kolivan informed them, and he sounded … impressed? “Considering your large blunder in failing to tap into the comms, you made it further than most.”

 

“Need some training up, but you could put some of our lieutenants to shame,” Serla added, already collecting her money from Lance and Keith’s disgruntled guards. “I personally volunteer to kick their sorry tails, commander.”

 

Kolivan actually smiled, which put Keith on edge. “The training is a must. But before they can be assigned any missions, I must speak with them. Alone.”

 

They were led to a small room, what might have been an office, but it had no screens or windows, nothing aside from a desk and two chairs metal chairs, bolted to the floor. Keith had a sneaking suspicious about what this room was typically used for; Lance hesitated for several seconds before sitting down. Keith took stock of his blades, including his Blade of Marmora dagger, and then took the seat next to Lance.

 

Kolivan stared at each of them in turn. “Coran has told me only small pieces of what your life has been for the past deca-phoeb. My understanding was the world you became stranded on was harsh.”

 

“That’s one way to say it,” Lance confirmed, smiling faintly. “But we got used to it.”

 

“Evidently,” Kolivan said, his smile gone, yet Keith could hear approval in his voice. “As Serla said, I think you could outlast a few of my lieutenants in a challenge. I know that Thace would’ve been impressed with you both.” Here Kolivan gave Keith a look, heavy with meaning.

 

Keith hadn’t thought of Thace in so long … Would the Blade have been impressed? Was his sacrifice worth it considering that Keith had been out of the fight for a year, and Voltron had survived without him? He swallowed down bile as his mind turned that last question over and over in his brain.

 

“What I need to ask of you is this — did you compromise yourselves in order to survive?”

 

Keith startled, his eyes blinking rapidly. Lance jerked a little in his seat. The question had been so bluntly stated, out of nowhere.

 

Lance stayed quiet for far longer than Keith would’ve expected … But then again, outside of battle, what did he know about Lance anymore?

 

Keith stared up at Kolivan, trying to keep himself from crossing his arms defensively. “What do you mean by compromise?

 

“The Paladins of Voltron uphold justice.” Kolivan’s eyebrows rose in question. “Entire world populations paint Voltron onto walls, hold parades for its Paladins, cheer their heroes, and teach their children of them. But I believe you and your fellow Paladins understand that war has many facets, and justice rests in but a few.”

 

He leaned in slightly, his braid falling over his shoulder. “Your comrades have grown much in your absence. But you, I hardly recognized. Tell me. Is there any Paladin left in you?”

 

Lance stood up abruptly. “Enough to know right from wrong. But if right means losing, then fuck it, we do what’s wrong. Good enough?”

 

Keith stayed seated, watching both of them warily. Lance didn’t seem angry enough to take a swing — but he definitely had an edge to him, on the verge of snapping. It tempted Keith, a little … Maybe if Lance snapped, he’d have more to say …

 

Kolivan pulled back. “Yes. Many of our Blades work on operations largely independent from the chain of command. Being a spy involves working alone, no contact with your superiors — there is much improvising, and many risks involved.”

 

“And that’s what you want us to do?” Keith asked, feeling something uncoil inside of him — like a cat stretching out its limbs. Relaxed. Poised. Ready. “Run some of your ops?”

 

“You two would be a bit more than that.” Kolivan’s lips pulled upwards momentarily. “Serla told me of the intel retrieval mission with Voltron — you played your roles impeccably, according to her. You two have a certain presence. You could build a reputation. You could gather information, while also casting suspicion away from the Blade of Marmora and away from Voltron as well. A shadowed threat — you leave just enough of a trace to allow your repute to grow, but not enough so that the Galra can find you.”

 

Keith could feel himself smiling. He couldn’t help it. He wanted to commit to this — he felt certain in a way he hadn’t felt about anything since coming back. But there was one thing he had to establish before Kolivan explained further. “This isn’t a total shift from Voltron to the Blades. We will still be living on the Castle,” Keith stated.

 

Lance’s head turned quickly, looking at Keith in surprise. But Keith was firm on this point. The Castle, for all that it suffocated him at times, was where his family lived. His brother. Coran. The Holts, and yes, Hunk and Allura.

 

The last few days … He’d gotten glimpses of them in the hallways, coming out of training and observation decks, heading towards meals he and Lance no longer participated in … They looked remorseful — not at all angry. They seemed ashamed. Embarrassed. Fearful. Keith recognized all of those sensations as reflections of his own thoughts and feelings in the cooled aftermath of that debriefing. He still felt himself in the right … But he could see their position clearly, even if he didn’t view the universe from that vantage point any longer.

 

He thought of their joy when they found Lance and Keith in Yathir’s inn. The tears, the embraces, and later on, Allura’s words: “But you must know that all I wanted, all any of us wanted was to find you alive.”

 

His family. He would not abandon them, not again, no matter what damage existed between them. Even on his angriest days, Keith couldn’t hurt them deliberately like that. And he still wanted to be there, with them, even if it meant they no longer ran missions together.

 

Lance exhaled sharply through his nose. “Right. Yes. What he said.”

 

The leader of the Blades seemed to need processing time for that request, but eventually he relented. “It would probably be best. Coran will give you access to a set of communication codes. When we need you, we will contact both you and him directly. You will be given coordinates to the nearest base, wherein you will be debriefed and then sent on mission. No support will be provided beyond a ship and what weapons you choose to bring.”

 

Lance and Keith exchanged glances and both of them nodded at the same time. “Sounds like business as usual to me,” Lance said with a shrug. “Sign us up.”

 

Kolivan cocked his head. “I will be very interested to read your first mission report. As it stands … What name did you use while marooned?”

 

“The Two McClains. Why?” Keith questioned, rising to his feet.

 

“Is there any reason that the Galra Empire would have heard that name?”

 

“No one knew where we had crashed.” Lance rested his hands on the grips of his guns. “The only reason the team found us was because they were looking and I sent out a message. The Galra who crashed with us were all killed, and their ship stripped for parts and destroyed. There was no Empire presence in that system at all.”

 

“Then, if you wanted, you could take on those personas once more. They seem to suit you.”

 

That … was both true and not. Keith had felt wrong in his skin since they came back to the Castle, but falling back to that planet, to Yathir’s inn … Now that didn’t feel precisely right either (all their work in that place had been meant to get them off world). Becoming The Two McClains again … But in these last couple of months, had they ever stopped being those mercenaries?

 

“We need call signs that aren’t confusing,” Lance said after a lengthy pause. “Because McClain and McClain would be.” He glanced at Keith, his jaw stiffening as he admitted, “And because The Two McClains only exist on one world.”

 

That only caused Keith a small slice of pain, quickly bundled and banished to that back corner of his mind. Lance hadn’t said it cruelly. And he was right. They weren’t The Two McClains out here amongst the stars. The Two McClains were born of desert sand and bloodshed. The Two McClains were partners on and off the job, ridiculous lovers alone and in front their friends, vicious assassins to their enemies. Even so …

 

“You’re still a cowboy.” Keith gave Lance a weak half-smile. “You can’t seem to stop swaggering everywhere, like you just got off the back of a horse.”

 

“I miss taking those ikuril out for a ride.” Lance seemed wistful for a moment, then pointed at Keith. “If I’m gonna be a cowboy, then you’re forever a samurai, dude. You stick to those knives like they’re your kids.”

 

“Cowboy and Samurai are decent call signs,” Keith said to Kolivan, who had been watching them with keen interest. “Use those when you contact Coran. Is there any mission on offer right now?”

 

“No, but there will be, soon.” Kolivan stood up straighter, pressing a button on his wrist. A screen projected in front of them — a medium-sized fighter class vessel, painted a boring grey with faint green and yellow markings. “We have a ship for you to take back to your Castle. It’s yours for missions with us. Indistinct, unmarked, stripped of ID codes, with multiple stealth capabilities. If your Green Paladin wishes to modify it further, we would consider it an honour.”

 

“Wait,” Lance said, holding up a hand. “I have a question or two. The first being — are we your assassins? The second being, how much control do we have over missions?”

 

Kolivan clicked off the screen before he answered. “Some missions require death of a target, though most are intelligence retrieval. Once you are out in the field, control is absolutely yours. Your only order is to complete the mission in whatever fashion leaves the Blade of Marmora uncompromised. Upon your return, you report either to myself or Coran, no one else. If anyone ever attempts to pry details from you, assume they are a threat. Either detain them or be careful not to rouse their suspicion and report them directly to, again, either myself or Coran.”

 

Easy to understand, and simple enough to execute. Simplicity appealed to Keith a whole hell of a lot.

 

“Right. Good.” Lance reclined in his chair. “So. Do we need to sign anything?”

 

“You need no further time to decide?” Kolivan asked seriously. “It’s not a weakness to weigh your options.”

 

“We know,” Keith said, staring up at the large Galra leader. “What do you need from us to make this official?”

 

They needed a lot. Keith and Lance had to give the Blades blood samples, full body scans (interior and exterior), and a solemn oath. Lance asked, once it was all said and done, if that made them official members of the Blade of Marmora.

 

“Not exactly,” Kolivan answered, standing behind a screen as they submitted to one last quick check-up by a Blade doctor to confirm they were in good enough health for missions. “Keith isn’t a member, despite his mother having been one. Most of our allies are not, though we work closely with several rebel cells. To earn a place amongst us, and a dagger, such as Keith’s, there are certain criteria that must be met.”

 

“There are non-Galra among you,” Lance said thoughtfully. “Is there … a test?”

 

“Yes, but not like the challenges we issue to gain knowledge or access to our resources.” Kolivan actually smiled again when they stepped out from behind the screens, the doctor dismissing them silently. “Should you pass the test, you will know. Should you fail it, you will likely be dead, and it will be of no importance to you then, I would imagine.”

 

“Nice,” Lance said with snort. “A test I don’t even know I’m taking? I’m cool with that. Less stress.”

 

Kolivan offered them an Earth handshake, which was strange, but pleasant. He walked them back to the elevator that would lead them down the fighter bay, bidding them farewell before they entered.

 

Coran and Serla were waiting down by the lowered ramp of Lance and Keith’s new ship.

 

“Oh, Pidge is going to have a good time with the stealth engines on here.” Coran patted the side of the ship. “You two should fly this back to the Castle, get familiar with her. She’ll treat you well. I can tell just by the smell of her.”

 

“And speaking of smells,” Serla interrupted, bending to pick up a crate. “Here. Use this on missions. If you two get that … intense right before a battle, any Galra is going to be able to scent you before you even breach their ships.”

 

She shoved the crate towards Keith, who stood nearest to her. He stared down at it as Lance lifted the lid — inside were a dozen dark green bottles, some kind of liquid sloshing about within.

 

“And what do we do with this?” Lance asked, one eyebrow arched.

 

“Drink a mouthful two vargas before a mission. Your hormonal secretions will be heavily decreased for roughly six or so vargas.” She snorted. “Though, I suppose you could add a layer of challenge to your missions and take your chances.”

 

Lance shrugged. “Depends on easy these ops are? If they’re boring, then, I mean … Yeah, why not up the difficulty?”

 

Serla stared at him, then one corner of her mouth pulled upwards into a smirk. “You know, against my better judgement, I’m starting to like you two. Try not to die.”

 

Lance saluted her. “We’ll continue to defy expectations. Keep yourself alive so you can we can keep surprising you.”

 

“Understood,” she replied with a snappy salute of her own. She pushed passed them, causing both Lance and Keith to stumble out of her way.

 

Coran steadied them with by gripping their upper arms, then squeezing lightly for a moment. “Ready to head back to the Castle? We could … take a detour or two. We’re near the Rings of Arlos IV. They’re full of weblums and other space beasties, and next to a blue dwarf star that makes them sparkle brightly enough to nearly blind you … Or actually blind you? Not sure how much light the human eye can absorb, really.”

 

Lance laughed. “You know what, that does sound like a good time …” And then it was like he suddenly remembered that Keith was along for the ride. His smile shrunk down, along with his shoulders, and he gave Keith a little half-shrug. “You up for it?”

 

Keith shoved the crate of hormone-scent repressors into Lance’s chest. “I’m driving, so yeah.” A slip of irritation, but he did want to see these rings, even if it meant more uncomfortable time alone with Lance — the battle ease had disappeared, and now all that remained was this broken, awkward mess.

 

He walked up the ramp after nodding briefly at Coran, who eyed him with concern. Both of them. Lance followed up after a couple of minutes.

 

The inside of the ship was pretty plain. A fairly large cargo bay to start. Simple bunks just off the main piloting area. A tiny kitchen nook opposite. Two other rooms — Keith would guess one was a bathroom, the other engine room access. The bridge controls were familiar. Not unlike the shuttles on the Castle. There were a few buttons he wasn’t sure about, but he’d learn by doing, as always.

 

Flying wasn’t as easy as breathing — flying was an extension of his self. It was part of his soul, his spirit. Give him a ship on land, on sea, in the air, and he could send it soaring.

 

This was one thing that made him happy, uncomplicatedly so. That planet had offered all kinds of vehicles to play with, but being in the sky, and moreover, amongst the stars … He’d ached for it.

 

Lance took the co-pilots chair. Whether in recognition of their tension, or out of respect for Keith’s inner peace, or both, he said nothing as Keith slid his hands over the buttons and joysticks. As he gripped the main flight controls. As he flicked on the engines and basked a new hum.

 

The Rings of Arlos IV were an astronomically huge marvel, appearing to be made of diamond as they sparkled. Weblums of all sizes darted amongst the crystalline formations that encircled this blue dwarf star.

 

Lance made a soft awe-filled noise before falling silent again. And then … he reached out a hand.

 

He wasn’t looking at Keith. He just slid his hand out into the space between them, his wide blue eyes staring out into one of the universe’s many wonders.

 

Keith didn’t want to hurt him. He tried to avoid inflicting pain to the best of his ability, though Lance had torn right past his ribcage and clawed at his heart. But Keith wouldn’t allow himself to hurt Lance on purpose (even if half the words he’d flung his way during that fight had been designed to sting — he’d hated every second, hated himself for finding them satisfying to say).

 

He took Lance’s hand, but he kept the grip loose, their fingers only just tangled together.

 

******

Shiro

One Phoeb and Twenty-Seven Quintants On the Castle of Lions

******

 

Four days of everyone keeping their distance from Lance and Keith hadn’t resolved anything, but it had allowed cooler heads to prevail. By the second day, most of them had been avoiding the two former Paladins out of respect for their boundaries and regret for how they’d handled that post-mission debrief. And perhaps also because they needed time to think about their apologies and to consider serious discussions about the future … Shiro personally wasn’t prepared to stare into Keith’s eyes and see the disappointment there. He’d let down his little brother.

 

However, right now Shiro was feeling better than he had since … Since that day Lance and Keith had been captured by the Galra. He’d been firm in his conviction that they would be found. He’d been resolved that not only would they find them, they would find them alive and ready to go home.

 

As it so often happened, reality crashed through all his expectations, charging in with a complexity that stunned him, eschewing all his hopes as it did so. But Shiro kept his balance, or at least, he fought to stay steady on unsteady ground. They were alive, and that had to be enough.

 

Life had been enough for Shiro, during those blurry days in an arena. Where there’s life, there’s … But hope could be cruel, and it hadn’t quite let go of Shiro just yet. He’d worked on avoiding the kinds of things that could disrupt his focus, and even so, that feathery sensation kept its perch.

 

It had taken Matt months to crack Shiro’s resolve on one particular thing that he hadn’t allowed himself to have.

 

But at last, here they were — Shiro’s muscles ached in the most satisfying of ways, his hair plastered to his forehead with sweat. He smiled tiredly at Matt, who winked back at him.

 

And then he gripped Matt’s ponytail, yanking brutally hard; somehow, Matt twirled in his grip, turning in towards Shiro’s abdomen, hammering several sharp blows into his side.

 

Bruises blossomed as Shiro was forced to let go of Matt’s hair. He grinned as he danced back, his Galra arm glowing in a threatening manner — he had enough control to keep the damage to a minimum; he had used it more than once to thwart the staff Matt wielded so swiftly and precisely.

 

Matt jumped away from him, scowling as he adjusted his perfect space rebel lost on the fringes of the universe hairstyle. “Well,” he wheezed out, “I guess I did ask you to play dirty. You jerk.”

 

“You did,” Shiro agreed, amused. “I don’t think you have any business getting mad at me after that absolutely disgusting move with your staff.”

 

Matt shrugged, his arms up, his amber eyes wide in faux innocence as he spun said staff lazily in one hand. “I’m pretty sure that you’ll still be able to have plenty of muscly, noble, flying savant children, Shirogane.”

 

“Try that again, and I will break you in half, Holt,” Shiro threatened, but he softened it with a teasing smile of his own.

 

“Man, there is so much innuendo involved with sparring … or is that just special between me and you, I wonder.” Matt smirked.

 

As his brain rewound his last few words, (“… break you in half …”), Shiro rolled his eyes at the shameless flirting, ready to counter with a sarcastic comment — but Matt stuck again, lightning fast with his spinning staff. Shiro only just managed to block it with his metal arm. He yanked Matt forward by his weapon, but Matt had loosened his grip, allowing the staff to slide through his hands. He tightened his fingers again just before it could completely escape his grip, spinning away and forcing Shiro’s arm into a painfully awkward position behind his back.

 

Matt crowed triumphantly, planting a foot between Shiro’s legs, stepping on his ankle from behind to trip him. Shiro held firm and grinned to himself, reaching back with his flesh hand to grip the top of the staff — he yanked on it, bending down as he flipped Matt over his head. The younger man crashed onto the floor. Shiro wasted no time kicking the staff from his grip and all but collapsing on top of him, keeping him pinned.

 

“This … isn’t a smart way to end this,” Matt said breathlessly. “I could stab or shoot you with whatever knife or gun I have on me. And I would, by the way. Have a knife or gun on me. Maybe two of each.”

 

“But you don’t now, do you?” Shiro pointed out, relaxing his full and considerable weight on Matt, who groaned and writhed fruitlessly. “Didn’t think so. So, that makes it five for me, and … hm, one for you?”

 

Matt coughed. “Yes, yes, you’re a literal champion, Shiro, good job, please, can’t breathe.

 

He rolled off his friend, the word champion landing wrong in his ears (as always) — it plucked a taunt string of memory in his mind, the reverberating flashes incomplete, painfully out of tune with his life at present. But he had learned to contain his flinches, clench his jaw to prevent a grimace or wince from escaping.

 

Even so, Matt knew. But Matt seemed determined to see Shiro past this, either by forcing him to face the reality of what he’d done, or impressing upon him that whatever it was, none of it mattered — at the end of the day, he’d survived. Shiro hadn’t wanted to spar with Matt, the memories of hurting him, even to spare him the arena, fresh as the day they were made. He didn’t want to expose one of his best friends to the champion.

 

But Matt had pushed, wheedled, whined, flirted — anything he could think of until Shiro conceded. And he was so glad that he had. Fighting against Matt was … cathartic in a way Paladin training never was. In the aftermath, he enjoyed their companionable silence, the slow easing of their breaths echoing in this giant room.

 

“I spoke with Lance a week or so ago. About what happened to him and Keith.”

 

Shiro sat up abruptly, staring down at Matt, whose eyes were trained on the ceiling, his arms splayed out haphazardly. “You did? How? How did that go? Did he mention why they’re in separate rooms now?”

 

“Slow your roll, Takashi,” Matt chided lightly. “Sorry to break it to you, but he didn’t reveal much beyond what we already knew.” Matt breathed out at length, almost a sigh. “He’s … not the guy you and Pidge described to me.”

 

“He is,” Shiro said bluntly. “It’s just that Lance is struggling right now. They both are. I wasn’t exactly … altogether. After the Galra had me.”

 

Matt turned his head, folding his hands over his chest as he spoke, “Right. Not to be all after-school special, but you have to understand that everyone is different.” He gave Shiro an evaluating stare. “You can’t expect them to react they same way you did. Particularly considering the vastly dissimilar experiences.”

 

While Matt wasn’t speaking in a patronizing tone, Shiro couldn’t help but feel vaguely insulted — there was a certain amount of scolding in Matt’s words that stung Shiro’s pride. But moreover, the implication that Lance and Keith were somehow lesser than him … “They’re solid, good people, Matt. You’ve seen it for yourself. However long it takes—”

 

“Shiro, can you see me?”

 

He froze mid-word, his defensive rant cut short by this non sequitur. He raised his shoulders, gesturing with two hands. “Trick question, but I’m not sure what the trick is.”

 

“C’mon, think,” Matt said softly, sitting up and emulating Shiro’s pose. “You know I’m not the same person I was. Can you see me, as I am now?”

 

Yes, he could. There was no denying Matt’s new reality — not with that long hair, those scars, the taller length of him, the slightly broader frame. But most especially, those invisible, sharper edges, and the cruel cut of his smile while he fought. But he still went off on rants stuffed full of scientific jargon, still cracked horrifically cheesy jokes, still flirted relentlessly either with intent or to brighten someone’s day.

 

And Shiro clearly saw the connecting line Matt was drawing for him; he wasn’t oblivious. “I’m not in denial about who Lance and Keith are, Matt. I’m not blind to the fact that they aren’t the same, or that they’re struggling to re-learn themselves.”

 

“Right, so, then, if I speak to you bluntly, you’ll listen?” Matt sniffed a bit, his voice taking on an apologetic edge. “Because I’ve been talking with Katie, and she’s worried. About them, sure, but also … about you.”

 

“Me?” Shiro opened his mouth, closed it, tilting his head in question. “Why?”

 

“Because you’re so set on helping them find their way back to being Paladins that you haven’t considered the fact that maybe they can’t.

 

“I’m not giving up on them,” Shiro lashed out immediately. He’d managed to control his volume, but only just.

 

He released a portion of his anger in harsh exhale, choosing to focus instead on why Pidge and Matt believed that Lance and Keith weren’t strong enough to recover. His concentration wavered when his mind recalled how Keith had been there for Shiro just as much as Shiro had been there for Keith — more so now than ever, even with the yearlong absence. How Lance had grown before Shiro’s eyes into a noble knight, a brilliant sharpshooter, and a solid tactical mind. Most importantly, they were both such good people, and beyond that, they were family. Shiro never, ever gave up on family.

 

“It’s not about giving up,” Matt said, visibly frustrated. He reached up to brush his sweaty hair away, tucking a few strands behind his ear. “Do you think I just … gave up on myself? Became a monster for fun?”

 

“What? No, you’re—”

 

“I am not the same person I was, don’t even start with me on that, you just said you can see me for who I am. And I know, I know you’re not the same, Takashi.” His voice gentled as he spoke Shiro’s given name, but he sat resolutely straight-backed, his gaze unwavering. “But I’ll give this — you and me? We’re pretty damn awesome at deflecting and pretending. Lance and Keith were, too, from what I saw, except, right now, they’re in a bad place, so not so great at hiding the pain. Because the pain comes from the fact that they miss it.

 

Shiro sat there, his mouth parted, but he needed to take time to piece apart Matt’s words. Matt didn’t permit him even that much.

 

“I don’t know how … self-aware they are, but they definitely miss aspects of that world. I’m guessing mostly the simplicity of it.” Here Matt finally dropped his eyes. “I know that when the rebels handed me a gun and told me where to point it, I freaked the fuck out. I couldn’t handle killing anyone, not even someone who was trying to kill me.”

 

The first time Shiro had fought in the arena — after he’d viciously knocked Matt aside — he’d forced every last piece of consciousness away, stripped himself down to basic instinct. And he’d thrown up in his cell afterwards, staring at the blood caked under his fingernails.

 

Matt waited until Shiro’s eyes re-focused on him, on the present. “Inside of a month, though? After watching the people who’d saved me risk their lives over and over — some of them not making it back? They told me I could either pick up the slack or they’d send me packing. So I made myself stand in front of the commander to ask for training. Everything had to be my choice, but they definitely made the choices easy to make. And you know what, Shiro? I was grateful. It was easy, once I didn’t really have other options. Easy to see the enemy, mark them as mine, and take them out.”

 

Shiro hadn’t had a choice in the arena. None. Death wasn’t an option, not while Matt was still somewhere, captive, and Sam Holt disappeared; he couldn’t help them if he was dead, so he was forced to cling onto life. Just the basic act of breathing. He couldn’t remember all the people he’d killed, but he knew they saw him as the barrier to their own existence. They were all the same.

 

And Shiro had hated every fucking second, but he got it done. Until the druids initiated their experiments. Until his resolve to live cracked under the weight of torture both within the arena and outside of it. By some miracle, Shiro broke just when Ulaz took his chance on escape.

 

That simplicity Matt talked about? Shiro wouldn’t wish for it. Not ever again. Straightforward, scheduled agony, day in, day out; from what he could remember, he had made himself feel every inch of it — couldn’t risk becoming numb, complacent, and thereby missing an opportunity to get away, even as the fear played havoc with his reflexes. That bone-deep terror still infected him, springing out in the darkness of night, or whenever he let his thought drift to parts unknown.

 

He couldn’t understand missing the place that had clawed his heart out.

 

But then again, he hadn’t had another person alongside to depend on. He hadn’t built a new family around himself like they had with Yathir, Brisha, and Czanliu. Pidge had told him about how Lance and Keith spoke with the Ghantosian soldiers — war stories and death tallies. They could think fondly about their time there, and that just … Shiro couldn’t comprehend it. But he couldn’t think of them as evil or wrong for it.

 

“You’re not a bad person, Matt,” Shiro said quietly, reaching out with one hand. Matt grasped it, squeezing tightly. “And I’m so sorry that even the good guys were cruel to you.”

 

“Thanks. But it’s not really about good or bad right now. There are certain kinds of people needed to fight a war. All different kinds, really. And the sad fact is, you can’t just … wait around for them to show up. Sometimes you need to carve into the ones you have, make them what you need.” Matt stared down at their joined hands — scars and callouses stark in the white lights of the Castle. “In Lance and Keith’s case, it was the all-encompassing reality of that planet, and not the rebel generals I answered to. But I think the point stands. They had to accept it and find some kind of peace. When we showed up, we took that peace and acceptance away from them. We made them feel like they were … less for compromising. Even if it saved their lives and preserved their sanity.”

 

“You say we, but I know you mean me. And Hunk. And Allura. You, Pidge, and Coran, even Sam … You don’t see them that way.” Shiro withdrew from Matt, falling back inside himself again, re-evaluating his interactions with Lance. And Keith. Together and separate.

 

He’d been so furious with Yathir. Enraged that the man hadn’t protected them. Because Shiro had to keep his team safe, but also happy and whole once safety was assured. None of that had been given to Lance and Keith for a year, even though Yathir was powerful enough to try. But … he knew Yathir’s reasoning was sound.

 

If Lance and Keith had remained the Paladins of two years ago, they would have been utterly destroyed on Abbdn — and death was just one avenue. He would never forget that conversation with Keith, sitting on the rails of the ikuril corral, imagining a world where Shiro arrived to find his little brother and his young friend enslaved, forced into a brothel run by the most depraved criminals on that planet … Or imagining what Shiro would have found if they hadn’t been willing to sacrifice even more of themselves, and Keegin Dras had won. Who knew what that heinous monster would’ve done to them — he suspected death would have been slow in coming.

 

There were times that Shiro tapped into a part of himself that he’d used in the arena, particularly against opponents who liked to play with their food.

 

If Keegin Dras or those pimps had managed to achieve what they’d tried over the course of a year to do … Shiro would’ve gladly sunk into those depths and destroyed them a hundred times over.

 

Upon that bitter, hate-filled revelation, Shiro … realized that was exactly what Lance and Keith had done. Except they couldn’t rise back from that. It was a part of them. It was them. Nor worse or better than any other aspect — potential for good or ill. Righteousness could and had been used to justify many evils, and certain evils had been committed to save innocents from horrible fates.

 

“I see them as two amazing individuals. They’re good people, you’re right. But they’re also the kind of people essential to this war effort. There’s always something that the noble of heart just can’t bear to do, no matter how necessary.” Matt smiled, lopsided and sad. “You’ve seen your fair share of it. They’ve … seen a little bit more.”

 

Matt had a scar on his cheek, very obvious, but less obvious was the tiny one near the corner of one eye — hidden when he smiled. He’d nearly lost the eye, whenever that particular fight had been. Shiro didn’t know what had happened.

 

The rebels were instructed to die rather than be caught. And if they couldn’t kill themselves, then they trusted their fellow soldiers to end it. The Galra had never captured any one of them alive. Matt had lost several members of his squad. But Shiro had never asked if Matt had been forced to spare them a slower death by inflicting a quick one.

 

And Shiro should know. He should know about everyone under his command, know who they were as a whole. The sum of their experiences. His care for Matt hadn’t lessened in the face of those scars. In fact, he cared for him even more than before — they had a connection that had only become stronger, and if Shiro let it …

 

“You’re too damn smart, Holt,” Shiro said, standing at last. “Has anyone ever told you that?”

 

“Oh, many, many times.” Matt offered both his hands, and Shiro yanked him up gracelessly. “But just as many times I’ve been told hey, dumbass, you can’t program the B1-334 engines to exceed their maximum thrust, and then I have to do it because they called me dumbass and that cannot stand.”

 

“That isn’t … Matt, you blew up the hanger.” Shiro was laughing, watching that scar at the corner of Matt’s left eye disappear as he grinned inanely.

 

“But before it did, that B1-334 had a thrust capacity 6.7% greater than its max, so I was fucking right, and therefore, not a dumbass. Then there was that time someone said, hey, stupid, you can’t microwave a dozen ramen bowls at the same time, so, then I—”

 

“Set fire to the staff lounge kitchen.” Shiro threw an arm around Matt’s shoulders, disregarding the cool sweat on both their skin (disregarding the feel of Matt’s skin beneath his own). “I was there for that disaster.”

 

“You and eleven other people, eating ramen and ogling the sexy firefighters putting out the fire,” Matt countered smugly. “So, my genius strikes again.”

 

Shiro snagged Matt’s neck, brought him in for a noogie, messing up his meticulously messy hair. Matt howled in protest, which Shiro duly ignored. “Right, genius. Let’s get a bite to eat. You talking about ramen makes me hungry.”

 

“Also, this workout. Which was, might I say, another one of my brilliant ideas,” Matt said, but this time with no playful arrogance in his tone, just … kindness. A bright shot of happiness. He looked up at Shiro from beneath his now dishevelled hair, a few inches taller than he’d been at the Garrison. Older, rougher … better.

 

“I will give you this one,” Shiro admitted, and he knew his smile was too soft, too affectionate. But he’d have to give in now and again, or he’d never survive this war. He had to pick and choose his moments of implacability. Flexibility was also key to survival in war.

 

That, and having someone or something to fight for. Like Keith and Lance had each other (or they did … He hoped they still did). Pidge had held on tight to her family, Hunk to his own family and home back on Earth, just like Lance had (though Shiro had no idea if that was still the case). Keith had clung fiercely to Shiro, and Shiro right back with him … Now, he had this entire Castle’s occupants, in addition to the universe at large.

 

And Matt, with his bright eyes and teasing grins. But that one he couldn’t allow himself, not just yet.

 

First, he had to speak to his brother. And then, he had to speak with Lance. And then, they had to win this war.

 

“I think you promised me your share of dessert though. And considering that I beat you five times—”

 

Matt elbowed Shiro, but he was careful to stay close to his side, to avoid dislodging Shiro’s arm from around him. “Yeah, you’re gonna have to slam me into the floor more times than that for me to give up Hunk’s cakes and muffins.” Matt shot him a sly look from the corner of his eyes. “Which, while painful, is sort of a reward in and of itself, so who’s the winner here, really?”

 

Matt flirted with everything and everyone, so Shiro let himself have this much. But that knowing look in his eyes … Well, of course, who could fool a Holt for any length of time? He chuckled and rolled his own eyes — at himself and at Matt. “Next time, bring your guns and knives.”

 

Matt blinked up at him, mouth parting wordlessly. “I … do not know what to say to that. You want us to try and kill each other, for real? Not my idea of safe, sane, and sexy foreplay.”

 

“Matt, I want to be as lethal as I can be out there, and right now, Lance and Keith might actually have me beat. I can’t ask them, so I’m asking you — get me up to their level. We’ll discuss the foreplay after.”

 

Matt tripped over nothing, stumbling and standing, frozen, a burning stare directed Shiro’s back as Shiro kept walking, grinning ridiculously.

 

His little brother wasn’t a Paladin any longer, or at least couldn’t be one for the foreseeable future, and instead of feeling heartbroken at this epiphany, Shiro felt relieved. The idea of jamming Lance and Keith into roles that they just weren’t meant for … Something had just locked into place in his mind, something that felt right and good.

 

He wanted to talk to Keith, right that instant. But since both he and Lance were away with Coran, visiting the Blades, he’d have to wait until tomorrow — probably late tomorrow, based on Coran’s cryptic message.

 

After a minute, Shiro glanced over his shoulder with a raised eyebrow. Matt picked his jaw up from the floor and chased after him. Matt didn’t say anything, just walked in silence alongside him. Every now and then, their scarred fingers would brush against each other.

 

Neither of them shied away.

 

******

  

Chapter Text

 

******

Keith

One Month and Twenty-Eight Days On the Castle of Lions

******

 

Keith had to admit that impressing Kolivan had been damn awesome — even better, that entire trial had worked off most of his frustrated energy. And that detour to the Rings of Arlos IV — he couldn’t remember the last time something in this universe had genuinely awed him. The restless anger in Keith had settled, albeit likely just for a temporary period.

 

“You hungry?”

 

He glanced over at Lance, who was checking his guns so as not to make eye contact. Keith toyed with ignoring him, but he lacked the willpower for anything confrontational today. “Yeah, actually.”

 

“Are you going to eat with everyone else?”

 

A fair question. “I think so. I think it’s time. Everyone’s had a few days to cool down, right?” He emphasized the last word, staring at Lance, waiting patiently for their gazes to meet. When those blues eyes finally locked onto his, they were calm. Keith tilted his head in acknowledgement. “We’ll see how it goes. I got your back.”

 

Because in this, they were united. In other aspects … those were on hold. (Or maybe ended? Damn it, no, no dwelling on maybes — he would talk with Lance about this eventually.)

 

Lance’s mouth twisted up, as if he couldn’t decide whether to smile or frown. In either case, his features smoothed out, relaxed with a faint smirk. “We’re gonna be such kick-ass spies.”

 

Keith couldn’t help the answering vicious grin. “Next time, we challenge a few lieutenants. Serla might like us better if we win her some more money.”

 

Lance actually laughed, and Keith gave himself permission to momentarily forget all the poisonous words and bleeding wounds between them. He simply basked in their familiarity, knowing that this sensation would be over all too soon.

 

Sure enough, his improved mood grew darker, dread creeping into his belly, after they’d flown in for landing within the Castle’s hanger. Glancing out of the bridge window, he saw their entire team approaching their ship. Coran had arrived ahead of them, and he stood speaking with Shiro and Allura, who wore nearly identical solemn expressions.

 

As Lance and Keith walked off the ramp, Pidge jumped into action, scanning their ship with her tablet and chattering with her brother excitedly. “Do you see the engines on this, Matt? Look at the integration with the stealth drive and the crystal processing core!”

 

Keith kept an eye on everyone else — he nodded at Sam, who offered up a smile. Matt waved at both of them, but seemed occupied in keeping up with his sister’s latest upgrading ideas. Hunk waved once, and then scratched at the back of his head, Allura smiled tentatively, and Shiro … Shiro’s eyes were darting back and forth between Keith and Lance.

 

“Welcome back,” Allura said. She seemed to have regained her boldness, though it was tempered by an edge of nerves. “I … I see you have acquired a new ship? Is there another mission with the Blades?”

 

“In a manner of speaking,” Coran answered for them, cheerful as ever. “But let’s discuss that over dinner. Hunk’s latest miracle is tickling my nose!”

 

Allura seemed grateful for this intercession, and she stuck close to Coran as the entire group began to head towards the dining hall. Shiro had taken a space at Keith’s side (a space normally occupied by Lance, who had lagged behind to laugh at Pidge and Matt’s over-the-top upgrade plans for their Blade stealth ship).

 

The older man brushed against Keith’s shoulder with his own. “Would you … be willing to hang out with me? After dinner?”

 

Keith looked up at him (they were nearly eye-to-eye now) and nodded. He was ready for this talk, he thought. He might even need it. For these last two months, Keith had disregarded the fact that Shiro could take anything Keith threw at him; he had already taken the worst of his rage as a teenager. Mostly, though, Keith was tired of keeping quiet, even if it meant scratching at barely healed scars.

 

The smile he received was worth any discomfort. Despite a few bleak moments, Shiro had been so relieved and happy since they'd left Yathir's inn for the last time. In contrast, Keith's own relief and happiness at being "back home" had ... never fully materialized. He'd been putting up a front since the very first night they arrived. But seeing Shiro genuinely glad to speak with this worn-down, fresh-from-battle version of him (the one lacking any pretences) had him suddenly choked with affection for his brother. For the guy who’d given a car-stealing little jerk a chance at a real future.

 

But that dread hadn’t eased up. It spread further as they all sat down to enjoy Hunk’s meal — a meatloaf that smelled nothing like anything Yathir had ever made. Keith’s mouth watered as he raised his spoon for that first bite. He downed half his plate before he realized it, and when he glanced up, somewhat embarrassed, Hunk was smiling brightly at him.

 

That would be when Coran launched into a simple but excited summation of their time with the Blades — and Lance and Keith’s new roles in the war against the Galra Empire.

 

“How long have you been planning for this, Coran?” Allura asked, sounding a touch betrayed.

 

Keith bristled, ready to defend Coran from that accusatory tone, but the Altean man just smiled, cutting into Hunk’s meatloaf while he explained, “I mentioned it to Kolivan the day we returned from Abbdn. I told him he had two ready-made agents. And I was right.”

 

“That’s … kinda cold,” Hunk said with a frown. “They’d just gotten back, and you were going to toss them over to the Blades?”

 

“Hunk, we’ll still live here,” Lance protested from his place at Keith’s side (they sat together out of habit — Keith distantly wondered when that habit would break). Lance was also clearly unwilling to let them pile on Coran. “And it’s not like we’re members of the Blades. I asked Kolivan. We’re not cool enough. Yet. Point being, we’re only part-time with Team Voltron as it is. This way, we can help people with the skills … you’re not comfortable taking advantage of.”

 

A throat cleared. Allura put down her utensils, staring hard at Lance and Keith in turn. “I … do wish to apologize. For what I said. My words belied my message, though I realize that hardly matters. It was a grotesque accusation. And it was ridiculous of me to act as though my hands are cleaner.”

 

Matt quietly intervened, “There is a difference, princess, between a battle of ships and a battle on the ground. I know that the enemy can feel … less real, in the former.”

 

“While true, that doesn’t diminish the loss of life,” Allura said firmly, though she offered Matt a soft smile for his attempt to mediate. “There is opportunity to disable ships rather than destroy, but we don’t often take that option with the Galra Empire.”

 

“For good reason,” Sam said, one arm wrapped around his daughter’s shoulders. “Disabling ships is far more delicate and time-consuming than just eliminating the problem outright. There’s no shame in it.”

 

“Necessary it may be, but people die as a result.” Allura let out a long, slow breath. “I’m not unaware of the blood I’ve shed. I’ve had my own face-to-face encounters with the enemy wherein I lived to tell the tale and they did not.” She glanced around the table. “There were several conflicts, before Matt became a Paladin, where the Galra nearly had us. We escaped, but only just. We didn’t have the option of mercy then.”

 

“But we didn’t have time to kill everyone either,” Hunk said, and then winced. “Yeah, that came out … really wrong. I’m not comparing what we went through to what you went through. It’s really not comparable? We had each other. We had our Lions.”

 

“You didn’t have Voltron,” Keith remarked, not sure why he felt the need to bolster Hunk. Only that … the Yellow Paladin was trying. “And the Galra knew it. They must’ve thrown everything they had at you.”

 

“To the power of ten,” Pidge muttered, her eyes falling to her lap.

 

Her father squeezed her shoulder, and her head came back up slowly. She offered a half smile to Keith, but she looked tired, even as her eyes took in all the details around her, as always. She was too young. Keith knew Pidge was smarter than most, and impressively practical … But she was a kid. She fell into this war at fifteen. She had just officially become an adult, but she had more battle experience than the entire Garrison at this point.

 

Between that pained weariness in Pidge’s eyes, and the darkness that forever shadowed Lance’s, Keith had enough motivation to make the Galra Empire pay. And that was without taking into consideration the billions of lives lost or enslaved since the miserable beginning of this ancient conflict.

 

Allura nodded in commiseration with Pidge, but she shook her head a moment later. “I should have made the mission details more clear — to emphasize a priority on preserving life, or even given a precise number of survivors. Our instincts are no longer in line, something I should’ve remembered. As the Black Paladin, I failed you two.” She stopped, her gaze focusing on her folded hands. “As your friend, I hurt you. I am sorry. I regret that more than my failures as a leader.”

 

She closed her eyes, inhaling before she stared up imploringly again. “I’m sorry, Lance. I’m sorry, Keith. I hope you can forgive me, though I understand if you can’t.”

 

Keith felt a thrill of vindication, but it faded nearly as quickly as it came. He didn’t want to feel superior to his friends, nor did he want them to feel sorry for being exactly who they were.

 

“Communication before missions is pretty key,” Lance said, his voice deceptively light. “But so is knowing who you’re working for. And we do know that, Keith and I. We know what it is to be a Paladin of Voltron, but we just … forgot, for a bit.” He ducked his head, his smile rueful, his eyes opaque. “Forgetting isn’t an excuse either, not when lives are on the line. I won’t say sorry for acting on instinct, but I will promise to do better from now on. So, if it’s all the same to you, I’m not going to run missions with you all anymore. For a while. For however long …” He waved a hand. “I think you get my meaning.”

 

That was a lot of honesty in one go from Lance. Keith couldn’t help but stare at him, for a beat longer than he should, before nodding and agreeing wordlessly. No hope sprung up in his heart this time, but he had the tiniest moment of relief. If Lance could admit fault, could recognize that he had to take time to cope … then maybe there was an opening for Keith. Not for reconciliation so much as understanding. They didn’t sync up outside of missions any longer, and maybe …. Maybe they shouldn’t. But they should at least understand each other once more.

 

“That isn’t what we wanted, and we would gladly have you at our sides,” Shiro said resolutely. “But if …” His eyes darted over to Matt, who was leaning back in his chair, seemingly taking in everyone. He held Shiro’s gaze for a split second, before Shiro switched back to staring at Lance and Keith. “If that’s what you need, then, of course. Do what you must.”

 

That must’ve hurt him to say. Keith disliked feeling beholden to Matt Holt; this subtle shift in Shiro may be a result of Matt’s influence. Even not knowing them all as well as Keith once did (and hardly knowing Matt at all), he could see the way Shiro seemed to calm when Matt gave him an answering look of support.

 

“I feel that I should apologize as well,” Coran said after Shiro relaxed into his seat. “I didn’t wish to force anyone’s hand, or insert my own expectations into everyone’s adjustment. But when I saw the various misconceptions plaguing some of you … I should’ve taken the time to address them. I think I forget how young most of you are, including you, princess.” Allura nodded her head once in acknowledgement. Coran smiled fondly at her, and then at everyone else. “You’ve all accomplished so much in these past few deca-phoebs. You have battle prowess and keen strategic minds, and scars to show for your courage and sacrifice … Even so, those of us with more experience shouldn’t hesitate to offer our opinions, particularly if we see you struggling.”

 

Coran held Keith’s eyes for a long beat, then he flicked to Lance, but only momentarily. Coran must have figured it out— he knew that they weren’t together (on break or broken up, Keith still didn’t know, but a kind of breaking had happened, that much was sure). It shouldn’t surprise Keith in the slightest (by now, everyone had to know that he was sleeping in a different room), yet he couldn’t quite contain a flinch when Coran gave him a subtle nod. Did that mean he sympathized? That he was going to corner Lance for a talk? Keith had no idea, but if Coran wanted to take a shot at speaking with Lance, then Keith would do his best to stay out of the way.

 

Moreover, he had to mentally prepare himself for his talk with Shiro. Lance’s issues were … his alone to deal with. Apparently, that was how he wanted it. Coran likely intended to have his own heart-to-heart with Lance. The Altean maybe stood a better chance at getting past Lance’s currently impenetrable shield; Keith could warn Lance about it, but right in that moment, he didn’t feel the need.

 

His heart skipped a beat in his chest, demanded he take better care of its other half, but the stupid, frivolous organ didn’t comprehend that said other half had ripped itself away. Keith hadn’t given it permission to bleed for that. Not yet. Denial was a warm river, and he threw himself in gladly, knowing eventually he’d have to surface for reality. But not yet. Not tonight. He would talk to Lance after Coran had taken his turn — speak to him as comrades-in-arms, as the functional battle pair they had to be.

 

Keith couldn’t bury himself in this loss like he did his father’s, like he did Shiro’s — he couldn’t lose his mind temporarily, spend his days staring blankly at the walls, his nights blurrily focusing on the ceiling of his dad’s shack, eating only ramen and Kraft dinner until his body revolted. There was a war to fight, one that would find him no matter where he hid.

 

Coran cleared his throat, a harsh sound that rang abruptly through Keith’s temporarily unhearing ears — he nearly drew his dagger at the table, so lost in his thoughts he’d been. He packed up the pain, shoved it into a well-used corner of his consciousness — hidden and numb. He coughed a little, letting go of the blade’s grip, and drawing attention to himself as he found the words he’d wanted to say before his mind had taken a painful detour.

 

“We want to fight, but it can’t always be on your terms,” Keith said honestly. “We’re going to disagree on strategy and goals fairly often.”

 

“The more varied the experiences of our regiment, the better for our strategy sessions,” Allura said, sounding absolutely certain. “I was silly not to take advantage of your knowledge. Please do not shy away from expressing your opinions. Even if you don’t take part in all our missions, your contributions are valuable.” She paused again. “These last few quintants, I’ve been reading quite a bit on Altean military tactics and the heroes of old. Or, well, some are old now — to me they still feel quite new. I told the others your survival would’ve garnered you many honours, and I did find a few instances of said honours being delivered to soldiers who surmounted odds only half as challenging as yours.”

 

“Please don’t bust out any medals,” Lance rushed to say, grimacing as he spoke. “That would make me … really uncomfortable. Like giving Han Solo a medal for shooting Greedo first.”

 

Without thinking, Keith tilted his head and asked, “Wait, what? When did that happen?”

 

He regretted the ease of his words, but also, relished the simplicity when Lance stared at him in playful horror. “Tell me you have the original cuts of the Star Wars movies. Oh my god, Keith, you’re killing me. Shiro, what kind of brother are you, letting him see the bastardized versions of Star Wars?”

 

“He only lived with me part-time, Lance,” Shiro said, though he seemed vaguely affronted as well, and what was wrong with all of them? “Trust me, I would have rectified this had I known.”

 

“It’s not that bad, Keith,” Hunk offered, smiling as he dished more food onto Keith’s plate. “I kinda like those versions, too.”

 

Heathens!” Lance complained.

 

“You like James Bond movies,” Keith launched back, once again caught up in the well-worn habit of jabbing at Lance’s ridiculous antics. “How the hell are you objecting to Hunk preferring cheesy sci-fi when you love the worst action movies of all time?”

 

Pidge pointed at Keith. “Valid point. Also, this is all moot because everybody knows that Star Trek is superior.”

 

They had viciously torn into one another not a week ago, spent several days avoiding each other, and now they descended into a massive bickering match, as if nothing had happened. Keith took great pleasure in banding together with Pidge and Hunk to argue Lance down about the re-edited Star Wars films. However, the tide turned when Shiro, Sam, and Matt defended Lance’s points; it was a good thing that they’d all devoured Hunk’s amazing meal, as Keith was fairly certain there would’ve been food launched across the table as the argument grew more heated.

 

Coran and Allura interjected with the odd question each time the fighting died down, prompting renewed fevered debate.

 

It was the best night they’d had since arriving on the Castle.

 

A few awkward pauses, a couple of missteps as they teased each other, but every smile held promise for better days. Keith was so tired of expecting the worse. He could not curtail that instinct when he fought out in the field (and he didn’t want to — it had saved both his and Lance’s lives more than once), but that tense fear had spread to every other aspect of his waking hours.

 

A whisper of pain from the hidden corner of his mind, drawn out by Lance’s lilting, happy voice … Keith viciously shoved every piece of fear and hurt down, grinning over at Sam Holt, who raised a glass when Keith made a completely valid point about improvements to the Skywalker arc in Star Wars XX.

 

Shiro lingered as dinner wound down and they all split up. The hesitance was there — Hunk tried to approach Lance, but seemed to change his mind at the last second, spinning on his heel to head back into the kitchen. Pidge looked back and forth between Lance and Keith before spotting Shiro waiting patiently by the door. She headed in Lance’s direction, but he waved both his hands, saying something about needing to crash early …

 

Keith couldn’t quite help the way his eyes trailed after Lance’s back, but there was no effort involved in keeping his distance. Lance wanted his space. Keith had already moved out. He hadn’t moved on, though that might be a matter of time.

 

“Did you want to go speak with him?” Shiro asked, still leaning against the wall.

 

“No, it’s fine.” Keith turned to face him. “Where did you want to talk?”

 

“Keith …”

 

“Shiro,” Keith said plainly.

 

“Let’s go to the observation deck in the north wing.” Shiro reached out, ever so slowly, and Keith let him without flinching.

 

The warm hand on his shoulder lingered as they started walking, and Keith reminded the coiled up, tense parts of his mind that Shiro was his brother. That no intentional harm would ever come from him. That if there were anyone on this Castle, aside from Coran, who could understand being ripped apart by a world uncaring of who you are or who you wanted to be, it was Shiro, the Galra Empire’s Champion.

 

******

Shiro

One Phoeb and Twenty-Eight Quintants On the Castle of Lions

******

 

Shiro could still pick up on Keith’s awkwardness around Lance — the vaguely wounded look in his eyes that piqued his concern. The pain seemed to have lessened tonight, and it disappeared altogether when Keith caught Shiro scrutinizing him.

 

It was one of many things he wanted Keith to explain, but also one of the few he would accept Keith maintaining his silence on. He couldn’t interfere with Lance and Keith’s relationship, nor would he want to — the most he could offer was a listening ear.

 

Keith stood at the window, staring out into space, his arms crossed, and his shoulders back. He had his hair pulled tightly in a low ponytail — the black strands fell just past his shoulder blades, and he didn’t seem to want a haircut. Longer hair suited him, Shiro thought, as he took a seat on a couch.

 

“Back on that planet, you said Lance and I weren’t the villains, that since we struggled with doing what we had to do, it was an indication of how good we still were.” Keith didn’t move as he spoke. “I know you meant it.”

 

“I did,” Shiro agreed instantly. “I still do.”

 

“No, you don’t,” Keith said sharply. “So what changed?”

 

Shiro stared at the straight line of Keith’s back. “I swear to you, Keith, it didn’t. What happened was that I … I thought that most of what you were, on Abbdn, hinged on you being there. I thought that once you came back … you’d be back.

 

Keith sucked in a breath, his head shaking slightly. “That’s unbelievably naive of you.”

 

“Yes.” Shiro had no delusions about that. He’d raged against the Galra for months, blamed Yathir upon arrival, and he’d hated himself for being too late, but all that was a disservice to Lance and Keith. They were adults who had made choices and found a way to live with them — were alive because of those choices. “Consider the fact that, after the arena … I didn’t and don’t feel all that different. I know part of that has to do with my broken memories. It’s all chopped up, out of order, blurry in parts. I remember enough to …” To have nightmares, flashbacks, to hate the druids with every fibre of my being … “To give you a summary with a few holes, maybe.”

 

“You did change.” Keith shifted slightly, not quite facing Shiro, but no longer staring out of the windows. “You’re faster, you’re more decisive. You’ve always been a leader, but now you take charge so naturally it’s a bit … rough. You don’t mean to do it half the time, and you defer when someone else has legitimate authority, but … You’re so sure you know what’s right that you don’t always listen if someone is defying you. You just shut them down.”

 

That was a blunt but fair assessment. Shiro blinked as he lined up his own behaviour to Keith’s words. “Yeah, well, you kind of have the same issue when you’re on the war path, kiddo.” Shiro watched Keith’s shoulders hunch up. “Which isn’t to say you’re wrong all the time, but you don’t respond well to criticism, whether it’s merited or not.”

 

“And was it? I know you’re sorry for those things you said during the post-mission debrief, but …” Keith finally turned around, facing Shiro with laser-focused dark eyes. “But what do you really think about what Lance and I did?”

 

Shiro spoke quickly, not giving himself too much time to second-guess his words. “Initially, I was not okay with it — we never operate on a ‘kill as many Galra as we can’ standard. It’s always been ‘win the fight, live to see another one.’ Which I know sounds similar, but you remember—”

 

“I do,” Keith said. “I do remember. But I think … some of our old battles might’ve gone more smoothly if we did eliminate as many threats as possible.”

 

“There’s a time and place for that kind of strategy,” Shiro admitted. “And that’s what I believe we have to work on. I think you and Lance were right this time. Our gut reaction to the violence was natural, but we were wrong. You were asked to behave as pirates, and that’s what you did. But, Keith, the level of violence you needed on that planet — you don’t need it everywhere.”

 

Keith absorbed that, leaning back against the window with his arms crossed, his eyes now concentrated on a distant point over Shiro’s head. “Yeah. But I can’t help but see threats everywhere. It’s hardwired into me. I was always like this. You said it yourself back at the ikuril corral. I’m not that different, just … more. I’ve heightened those qualities that, apparently, you don’t like.”

 

“Hey, I didn’t say that.” Shiro leaned in, trying to initiate eye contact again. “What I said was that your instincts aren’t always going to be the right response in every scenario. In the case of that last mission, they were.

 

“… Okay. But I can’t turn that off,” Keith said quietly, a touch imploringly. “And maybe I don’t want to. I feel safer, better about fighting in this war the way I am now. After going through that test with the Blades … I think we’ve already found the best solution to this … whatever this is.”

 

When Coran had first told them about taking Lance and Keith to meet with Kolivan, Shiro had assumed the Blades might be interested in their skills — he wasn’t that oblivious. But it stung all the same to hear that they had not only impressed Kolivan, but had also garnered a largely independent position amongst the spy organization.

 

Initial flare of pain aside, Shiro couldn’t quite parse out what he felt about Keith fully embracing that new role. Fear? Anxiety? But for which one of them? Keith had been a steady companion for so long, and when Shiro commanded Voltron, having Keith at his right hand felt only natural. Now, he had grown accustomed to fulfilling that right-hand role for Allura, still able to keep an eye on his team … Still able to control the battlefield in some way.

 

But Keith’s battles were no longer his to fight. That was the problem.

 

“I want you to stop.” Shiro held up a hand before Keith could protest. “It’s entirely selfish. You’ve been through a lot, too much, and the big brother in me wants it to stop. The leader in me wants to win this battle on our terms, not the Galra’s. I want to spare all the people under my command from having to experience any more horror. I want to end this war as fast as possible and still have the higher ground.” Shiro let out a rueful laugh. “And I know that it’s impossible to have all of those things at once.”

 

Keith’s mouth twitched. “Yeah, well, you were breaking impossible records before I even knew you. Don’t count yourself out.”

 

Shiro pointed at him. “You broke my diving record in your second month at the Garrison — don’t think I’ve forgotten that stunt.” He dropped his hand into his lap, bracing his arm against his thigh as he took a turn to stare at the floor and gather his thoughts. “We can’t be like the Galra Empire, Keith. There are some lines we can’t cross.”

 

“I know. Since we started working as mercenaries, we only went after people who were after us, or who … were part of a job. And job or not, we didn’t and will never harm civilians, Shiro.” Keith looked somewhat relieved as he said it. “I can’t say that things have never gotten messy, but I swear to you that we have never deliberately hurt someone who wasn’t gunning for us first. We’ve always been careful to keep jobs away from innocents … But, yeah, there really weren’t many innocent people on that planet, so we maybe need to … adjust some of our tactics.”

 

Shiro never thought Lance or Keith would attack a bystander, but it was reassuring to hear all the same. And even more relieving was Keith admitting that some changes were needed, as Abbdn was not the same as fighting in a war where civilian casualties were a very real risk.

 

Keith’s head dropped back against the glass, his eyes staring up at the ceiling. “You know, Coran said something recently that stuck with me.” Keith’s eyes shifted to stare at Shiro, holding his gaze unflinchingly. “He said that if we win this war, but lose everything good about us to do it … Then we didn’t win at all. And he’s right. We can’t start thinking of lives as cheap, expendable — on either side. If there’s anything living on Abbdn taught me, it’s that everyone just wants to live. There isn’t anything inherently evil in that. But that entire planet just … killed others without thinking half the time. As easy as breathing because they thought that’s just the way to keep yourself breathing. There was a fucking mass grave in that desert, and no one cared.”

 

Keith seemed a bit breathless by the end of that rant, and Shiro didn’t dare interrupt him with any consoling words. He just watched, somewhat helplessly, as Keith dropped his hand down to one of his daggers, gripping the hilt tightly.

 

“Lance and I, we had no choice but to add to that body count. And I know, I know, even if we didn’t kill people just because, we probably did kill a few who were no better or worse than us. Not evil, just … trying to survive. Fuck, probably with a family or …” Keith stopped abruptly. He blinked hard, swallowing audibly. “Shiro, I can’t actually … Point being, it’s not what I want to be, not really, but it is useful. Good for winning this war. It can even be fun, sometimes, because that’s how I keep going. It’s just that I need to … remember what Coran said. Hold back when it’s not needed.”

 

That sent a cool wave down Shiro’s spine, spreading out to his fingers and toes. Keith, this was Keith, scars and all. And like Matt, Shiro cared about him just as much now as he did a year ago, before all the brutality had wrought changes within.

 

“Until we — until I figure myself out, running missions with the Blades seems ideal. They strike right at the heart of the Empire, and usually that doesn’t mean there’s a chance of much innocent people around.” Keith arched an eyebrow and paired it with that faint smile. He very much reminded Shiro of Lance. “I might finish this war for you, so put your feet up, old man.”

 

Shiro broke out into delighted laughter, throwing a pillow at his younger sibling, which Keith caught without any problem, that smile widening ever so slightly.

 

“I think this means I need to apologize to you for something else,” Shiro said, watching as Keith moved to take a seat on the couch next to him, his limbs trembling faintly, but settling as Shiro smiled at him.

 

“Okay. What for?”

 

“For the way I handled training. Especially considering that … I’ve recently come to realize that it was hypocritical of me.”

 

Keith reeled back a bit, both his eyebrows up. Shiro rubbed at the back of his neck, inhaling deeply and exhaling loudly. “Paladin training, the way we run it … It can be hard on the body, yeah, and we definitely have upped the difficulty since you and Lance were gone … But in terms of the more … grittier aspects? We left that to the battlefield. Experience is the best teacher in some cases. But for me? I need to be better. I need to keep those skills sharp. Even the ones that have … bad associations.”

 

“Have you been tearing some bots to shreds in your downtime?” Keith lifted his legs onto the couch, sitting cross-legged, a dagger in his hands — he played with it absently as Shiro spoke, and now he gestured at Shiro with it. “Seriously. You? Your self-control is—”

 

“Keith, sometimes I just need to break shit.”

 

Keith let out a startled laugh, then his eyes grew sombre. “Do you need … I mean, did something bring up more memories from the arena?”

 

“Just being around battle and the Empire does that,” Shiro told him bluntly. “No, but Matt” — he did not miss the quick grimace that Keith failed to restrain — “has been pestering me about really letting loose in the training deck. I finally listened. And he was right. I didn’t know how much value there was in cultivating those instincts when I’m not in a life-or-death situation. Learning better control and precision, for one. And having a valuable stress reliever, for another.”

 

“That’s good. And you don’t need to apologize. It’s been a steep learning curve for me, too.”

 

Shiro didn’t want to pressure Keith to speak about that look on his face — Matt hadn’t mentioned any tension with Keith, so he instead switched tracks. “I want us to talk more about that. And about anything else, really. Anything you need. But I don’t think I can … reciprocate. I can talk all you want about Voltron and that year you missed, but the arena is still …”

 

“Yeah, Shiro, I get it, don’t feel like you have to,” Keith hurried to say, his barely-held-back grimace melting into an all too familiar expression of concern. “I’ve never asked you about it because I know it’s not … It’s not something you can really discuss without … hurting.”

 

“I hate that I can’t yet.” Shiro gave Keith at least that much. “I might be able to talk about some of the arena, but then, it’s all tangled up with the druids … It’s been years, and it’s the one thing that comes closest to what you’ve been through, and I can’t use it to …” He hates that Keith has a shared experience like that, he hates it so much. And what’s worse is that he can’t commiserate because of his own weakness. His own inability to heal. Keith was always stronger than him in that regard. (Matt would kick his ass for calling it a weakness. Maybe he could one day change his perspective on it … but not today.)

 

“Stop it.” Keith slammed a hand down on the couch between them. “You are the strongest person I know, and what you’ve been through? Even back on Earth … You’re my hero, okay? I’ve said it once, and I guess I need to say it again. You’re not perfect, but I still wish I were half the man that you are. And I never, ever want you to do something for me that you wouldn’t want me to go through in return. Got it?”

 

Shiro had forgotten how bracing Keith’s intensity could be when on the receiving end of all of it. He nodded instinctually, and then again with more purpose. “I got it.”

 

“What happened to me and to Lance, there were some good things that weren’t too tangled up in the worst. Like ikuril rides, and sunsets on the mountains, and …” Keith stopped. His voice had been thickening, seemingly catching himself off guard. He blinked his glistening eyes rapidly, speaking in a clearer tone, “I don’t think you have anything you can smile about from the arena. And it’s not your fault. That’s just … your brand of shitty luck.”

 

“Thanks,” Shiro said dryly. But he reached out, grabbing Keith’s shoulder in a firm grip. “Seriously, Keith. Thank you.”

 

Keith nodded, grasping Shiro’s forearm in return. And so that’s when Shiro took a chance to ask, “Did you want to talk about Lance? About why you’re in separate rooms now?”

 

Keith flinched hard, but he didn’t yank himself away from Shiro. On the contrary, he seemed to sag in his grip, and he didn’t say a word as Shiro slid in closer.

 

“I … think he just needs space. So do I. He’s not really coming to terms with stuff. At all. He won’t talk to me. Though, he did talk to Matt, a little. Not enough.”

 

Ah. Matt’s conversation with Lance really hadn’t been much of one — Lance hadn’t spoken beyond anything they already knew. Apparently, Lance hadn’t been speaking to Keith either, which was deeply concerning. Now, Coran’s intervention made a lot more sense. This breaking point had been reached recently, and the Altean man had always had a soft spot for Lance in particular.

 

“What is it you need him to say?” Shiro wondered, since Lance and Keith had been near perfectly in sync on Abbdn. They had known everything about one another, and it showed in their battle prowess as a unit. Even now, they were a devastating team. But off the clock … Something had shifted.

 

“It’s not that I need him to say anything! He needs to fucking talk about shit,” Keith erupted, and the tears were spilling out. Shiro didn’t even think Keith realized he was crying. “Something happened, something huge, and I wasn’t there, I couldn’t help him, and it broke him. He just … he won’t deal with it, whatever it is. Just talking about it could help, I know it could, and I don’t fucking care if it’s me, or Matt, or Coran, but he needs to hash it out somehow.

 

“Or maybe it’s still too raw, Keith,” Shiro said, speaking in a low, calm voice. He didn’t want to draw attention to the heaving breaths, the streaks on Keith’s face, the pronounced shaking of his frame. “I know what it is when your words force you to relive the worst.”

 

“But I know him, Shiro. No matter what he says, I do. I know him better than I … Better than I’ve known anyone, ever, and maybe some of that was a lie, but it’s not entirely. Lance can’t help but put a bit of himself in every con we’ve ever done together.” Keith flung himself off the couch, pacing, his hands pointing out over Shiro’s head. “That asshole needs to talk about what’s eating him up inside, it’s how he functions. If he doesn’t, then it’s going to completely devour him. There will be nothing left. He’ll be … he’ll be like Jorlack or Gunthra. He’ll be ruthless, and he’ll hate himself every day for it, but he won’t know how else to be.”

 

Keith’s voice faded and cracked. “And I can’t stand it. I can’t watch it happen. It’s like my whole existence hinges on him, and if this is gonna be his way of dealing, then I need to learn to … live without him.”

 

“How are you both still so balanced in the field?” That probably wasn’t the thing he should be asking after that, but Shiro couldn’t help the way his Paladin mind worked — he ached for Keith, but he marvelled at the resilience. At the flawless executions of their plans. They impressed Kolivan like this.

 

And if he thought about the impact on the war, then he could restrain the impulse to hug his brother close and never let him go. He had no idea how much leeway he had with Keith anymore. He didn’t want to push it again.

 

“Instincts. Instincts account for most of it. And it’s not like we never had … bad times. We had fights. Not like this, but …” He hiccupped, wiping at his eyes with the back of his fingerless gloves. “United front or die. We worked through fights. We argued until we were done.”

 

“But he won’t argue. He won’t talk to you about whatever is going on with him, so nothing can be fixed,” Shiro reiterated.

 

Lance was in danger. It wasn’t the same as being on the opposite end of a gun, but it felt nearly as imminent and lethal. Shiro had to talk with Coran and Allura.

 

Though right in this moment, he had to take care of his little brother.

 

“Hey,” Shiro said softly. He stood up and opened his arms, staying back just far enough for Keith to ignore the gesture.

 

But Keith didn’t reject him — he walked haltingly into Shiro’s embrace, burying his face against Shiro’s shoulder. Both his hands clung at the back of Shiro’s shirt, tugging a little as Shiro took his time raising his own arms up.

 

Keith didn’t sob; the tears slipped out here and there, but mostly he just trembled. Shiro didn’t say a word. He held him close, waiting patiently. However long it took, that’s how long Shiro would stand here. Maybe until Keith could gather himself and stand on his own two feet, which Keith himself had said he needed to relearn? He'd put too much of his own life into Lance’s hands. He could trust Lance to save his life in war, but not to brace him at home.

 

Or, at least, not at present. They might find their way back to each other, but if they did, Shiro hoped that both of them could find some kind of balance in their relationship, however that relationship took shape.

 

When the tears had run dry, and Keith only had the odd shiver, the young man finally raised his head and took a small step back. He looked awful. Pale, with blotches of red surrounding his eyes and nose, his hair coming loose from its ponytail in uneven clumps. He seemed exhausted as well. But even so, he breathed evenly. He gazed with a newfound clarity, and his cracked lips managed the smallest of smiles.

 

“I think the last time that happened …” Keith closed his eyes briefly in thought. “The day they announced the Kerberos mission ‘failure.’ Yeah.”

 

People kept leaving Keith. Not intentionally, but all the same — what Shiro wouldn’t give to make it so Keith never had to feel that sense of abandonment, of loneliness …

 

“I mean, you did tear up when we watched that play on Edrath Siir.” Shiro hoped humour was the right approach here … He won himself a wet snort and an amused sounding cough.

 

“Not as much as you did.” Keith punched Shiro’s chest lightly.

 

“Yeah, but I cry at every sad movie that’s ever been made, and I freely admit it,” Shiro said with a teasing grin.

 

He stepped in close to wrap his arm around Keith’s shoulders and to tug him out of the room. He carefully navigated them around the couches, heading for the door as he swiftly planned the rest of their night. He’d walk Keith to his room, maybe see about getting some snacks and joining him for some distracting cinema. “We should sit down and watch a couple of films Hunk and Pidge scrounged up. Our new allies, the Yujin? Fantastic comedies. I swear, they actually make sense after the first three or four you watch, and once they do — hilarious.”

 

Keith groaned, and he wiped a few stray tears away — a few breathy hiccups escaped him, but otherwise, he still seemed to be steadily calming down. “Is it anything like those old Three Stooges movies? Shiro, please, spare me the torture. Seriously, I swear, I’ll do anything—”

 

“Have a shower, I’ll bring snacks,” Shiro said cheerfully. “It’ll be great, I promise.”

 

Keith complained the entire walk to his room, but by the time Shiro had gone to the kitchens and returned, Keith had brought up the viewscreen in his wall and tossed every cushion he had onto the bed. He was freshly showered and in loose pyjamas. Shiro had a pair of his own hanging from his neck — Keith happily took the snacks from Shiro’s arms, so Shiro could change into his nightclothes.

 

Within two hours, Keith had devoured most of the food, issued several cutting remarks about Shiro’s taste in movies, chuckled at least once at the Yujin’s comedians, and then passed out, one hand shoved under his pillow, the other clutching the hem of Shiro’s shirt.

 

If Keith looked younger while sleeping, it was tempered by the scars, and the all too exhausted expression he wore, even while resting.

 

But Shiro chose to hold on to the way Keith’s eyes had cleared after he’d cried out his heartache. And the fact that Keith knew himself well enough to change the things he could, and accept those he couldn’t.

 

Shiro swore to keep himself honest in every exchange with Keith from now on (and to continue being honest with himself … and with Matt). Now, the healing could commence.

 

Except for Lance … But that was a trial for another day. Shiro leaned back against his cushion hill and crunched on a few salty dried vegetables (that didn’t taste like potato at all — more like yams? Dried, vaguely sweet yet salty yams?). He muffled his laughter against his palm, occasionally tugging up the covers that Keith would kick away in his sleep.

 

Just for tonight, he kept watch over Keith. He stayed awake, watching him pass from nightmare to peace and back to another nightmare. He braced a hand against Keith’s shoulder or chest, murmuring nonsense in English and Japanese until the younger man stilled his restlessness.

 

When the sunless dawn arrived, Keith would be profoundly irritated at Shiro’s all-nighter, and every curse and insult would be music to Shiro’s ears.

 

But for now, he kicked back to watch his newest favourite movies, with his little brother safe and asleep, and his entire family contained and secure within this floating castle.

 

******

Keith

 Two Months On the Castle of Lions

******

 

Talking with Shiro had given Keith a fresh wave of energy. The next morning, he’d woken up feeling rested (and pissed off at Shiro for his stupid overnight vigil, even if Keith hadn’t felt that safe while sleeping in … far too long). But, ultimately, he’d gained peace for a couple of days.

 

Even better, he’d found a way to think about Lance without blinding, painful frustration hampering his higher reasoning. He’d considered all the ways to present one last ultimatum without injecting all his anger and desperation into it. If Lance wouldn’t bridge the distance, then Keith would have to walk away; he couldn’t drag Lance along this time. At least then they would know where they stood — from there, they could discuss their mission parameters without the more … personal aspects getting in the way.

 

Once he’d puzzled out what he wanted, and how to say it, he’d let his determination grow to a critical point; just before it could reach into anger, he made his move.

 

Maybe cornering Lance under the guise of discussing their first mission for the Blades was low. Maybe locking the door to the training room and refusing to let Lance past him took it a step too far.

 

But while they had proved their professionalism on mission multiple times, Keith needed to air out as much grief as he could before they worked together again — distractions could equal death. This was the Galra Empire, not some backwater bank on a low-tech desert planet. And he said as much to Lance before his partner could even begin to voice an objection or try to move Keith with force.

 

The icy lethal stare was back, but tinged with exhaustion that Lance failed to hide, which softened it somewhat. “I already told you—”

 

“Did Coran talk to you?” Keith asked, unwilling to hear the same denials.

 

Lance closed his mouth, and then his eyes. He opened them to stare at Keith with even more fatigue lining his expression. “Yeah. He did. And I didn’t tell him …” Lance stopped. “No, that’s a lie. I didn’t tell him details, but I did explain why I can’t …” Lance seemed frustrated with himself. “Keith, it’s not something I can say out loud, I can barely think it, so if this is going to be another damn attack to get me to—”

 

“It’s not about that.” Keith hadn’t made his peace with Lance’s inability to discuss those two weeks, not really, but he had put it on hold for now. And he felt good about Lance’s sincerity — about him speaking with Coran, if only a little. If only enough to bring about a little self-awareness. “This is about you and me. I need to understand what it meant when you said that you were willing to lose us to keep me alive. Because I’m … not sure where we stand. Because until you said that, I thought you were my fiancé. Now …”

 

Lance said nothing, his gaze becoming disconcertingly opaque, not unlike that night when Lance had said the very things Keith was questioning him about now. Keith held his breath and kept his gaze calm.

 

“Keith, I …” Lance trailed off, wiping the sweat from his brow. This last training session with their old team had been invigorating (at last). Not quite so vicious as his own sparring matches with Lance, but it had left him feeling the good sort of tired, and the right kind of sore. Lance ran a hand through his damp hair before speaking. “It means that if you can’t deal with my not talking about this, if all I’m going to be doing is hurting you …  Then you should give up. On me. Outside of missions, we can just … not be anything.”

 

Keith had not expected that so early into this conversation. Lance spoke like it hadn’t been an exercise in frustration to get him talking these last few weeks. And it was the same old song again; Lance was willing to sacrifice everything they were, all to keep his own pain locked up inside for as long as his stubbornness would hold.

 

“So you’re putting it on me,” Keith said quietly. A low rumble of anger underscored his words. “If I can’t accept your self-destruction, then I should end this.”

 

Lance sat down on the floor, his elbows on his knees. Keith fell to his own knees in front of him. He wasn’t close enough to touch. He didn’t need that temptation.

 

“I’m pretty damn tired.” Lance used both hands to press against his chest and then to vaguely point at Keith, after which he dropped them down limply to his lap. “It goes against every single instinct I have, hurting you, but it … It feels like that’s all I know how to do anymore. And you don’t deserve that.”

 

“If you hate hurting me that much, then tell me one thing. Tell me a tiny bit about that promise you made. About giving up what we have to keep me alive.” Keith shouldn’t push thishe’d told Lance that this discussion wasn’t about that — but he couldn’t stop himself. “Because what I need from you is some honesty, Lance. Whether we’re … what we were, or not. We need to deal with this crap before we go out again into the field.”

 

The tension emanating from Lance could not only be felt, but also be seen in every rigid muscle, in the clenching of his jaw, and in the darkening of his eyes. He spoke after several minutes of fraught silence, and Keith focused hard on each word as it was formed.

 

“It wasn’t a promise, it was more like a prayer.” Lance’s right hand curled up, his thumb rubbing against his index and middle fingers over and over. “I sat beside your bed whenever I could, and sometimes … I prayed. I did that thing everyone does when they’re out of options. I begged and bargained. I offered up anything and everything, including the best thing in my life. Because what good was anything if you weren’t there.”

 

Despite all the pain, both new and old, in what Lance said, Keith still released a shaky, relieved sigh. Gone was the stonewalling. Lance might not talk to him about it in detail, but these miniscule hints eased the smallest bit of Keith’s pain. But Lance still hadn’t answered Keith’s question.

 

“Does that mean you’ve given up, then?” Keith gripped his own knees tightly. “We’re done? Not on break. Not temporarily regrouping. Just … done?”

 

Lance sucked in a breath. Keith hated that his heart lightened at the gleam of Lance’s eyes. Tears meant Lance might not be ready to let it all go.

 

“I can’t give you what you need. I can’t be totally honest with you. And I don’t know if I can ever be totally honest with you.” Lance stopped, inhaling hugely once again. “Is that a deal-breaker for you?”

 

It was. Fucking hell, it really, really was. He had expected it, he had planned what to say for it, but it didn’t change the way everything just fell away. His ears buzzed, his eyes went blurry, and his mouth spoke without his brain’s permission.

 

“Do you remember, when you told me you wanted to wait until a day when we had no blood on our hands?” Keith somehow kept his voice steady — he didn’t want to hold Lance hostage with his tears.

 

He fought hard against the burning in his vision, and stared resolutely into those achingly vibrant blue eyes. Stupidly enough, Keith was ready to say it, timing be damned. He’d wanted to say it two months into a marooning, fresh from a heist that won them their name, with Gunthra laughing at their kissing openly out on the street in Hutton.

 

“Keith … my hands … I see them stained red every day.” Lance had to stop again, his words fading and cracking too much. “And after what I said to you … I wish I could say I’d been lying, but I wasn’t. I didn’t tell you everything, even before all that bullshit with Dras. I shouldn’t have said it like that. Like … I don’t know. In a way that was obviously meant to tear you up.” Lance wiped at his eyes, and then his mouth, holding his fingers against his lips for a moment. “Please don’t. Those words would feel like a lie. You don’t know the man you’re speaking them to. Not as well as you thought you did.”

 

Originally, yes, Lance had hurled that revelation at Keith in their fight as a one-two punch, solid and devastating. Now he said them sadly and with regret. Still brutally honest, but only because Keith needed to hear nothing but the truth from Lance.

 

“I’m selfish enough to say nothing else about it if you stay with me despite all this fuckery,” Lance confessed in a near whisper. “I’m so damn self-centred, Keith. If you could accept that, then even though I know you deserve better, I’ll be the asshole and hold on.” Lance’s lips flicked upwards in the barest smile. “But … I promised you that we would never abandon each other. That’s true, whatever you decide.”

 

Honesty had never tasted so bitter. Keith owed Lance the same measure of truth — what he’d planned to say if, once again, they hit a stalemate on Lance’s ability to speak on the things that tore him up. Those two mysterious weeks that caused Lance to tear them up now.

 

“The first time I was awake enough to remember being awake … You were bleeding and pale, and Brisha looked like she wanted to knock you unconscious for your own good. And then she told me as much later, when you were out … doing whatever it was you had to do.” Keith shook his head, pressing his thumb and forefinger beneath his eyes, relieving the pressure building up there. “I couldn’t … I tried to keep you with me. But I know I didn’t say everything I should have. Because if the situation had been reversed …”

 

Keith’s stomach revolted violently, the picture of Lance like Keith had been, the blood pouring from him, losing consciousness, out for days, no sign of life, every chance that he would …

 

Yet they had to be better than that.

 

They couldn’t descend into that kind of raw darkness if one lost the other. Every beat of his heart belonged to Lance, but he had to learn to keep that heart beating without him. To keep slivers of his rationality and his empathy alive without Lance at his side.

 

“I don’t think I would’ve been as together as you were,” Keith said finally. “It would’ve been a slaughter, and I wouldn’t have given a flying fuck about anybody until Keegin Dras was dead, and you were either alive or … avenged. Might’ve still done the avenging even if you’d survived.” The miniature bomb, the splattering of blood and flesh on the floor, Lance lunging past Keith to finish a fight that had already been won …

 

“She nearly took you from me,” Lance cried out gutturally, and there were no tears, but the torment was there, the agony from a time Keith did not remember, but the scars of it remained, deeper than the raw starburst on Lance’s still-beautiful face, even for the rage and anguish twisting his features. “You were dead on arrival, but some fucking fluke of nature brought you back, but even then … Even then, you didn’t … The chance of you staying was …”

 

Keith had to breathe deeply for roughly thirty seconds before he could say the rest. “I would still do that, if anything happened to you on mission. I would throw myself at Zarkon. But I can’t — I shouldn’t. This war is too important. If there’s anything we learned on that planet, it’s that living to fight another day is paramount. So … I need to learn how to do that. I need to find that drive to live … without you.”

 

Lance didn’t (or couldn’t) hide the flinch. He drew in a harsh breath, and quickly wiped at an escaping tear. “Right. I mean it, Keith. You’re right. I still wish I had blown Dras to hell, and that would’ve fucked over everyone — Brisha, Zan, Yathir, Wesdru … I would’ve condemned them to a war they couldn’t win. And could we have left them to it? Probably not … And no one on this Castle would have let us fight that on our own …”

 

The rambling was familiar — Lance working out his problems out loud. How long had it been since Keith had been allowed to listen in? And Lance was right, too.

 

If Dras had died and Jacomir had declared war … They would have stayed. They would have fought. Voltron would’ve been dragged into it — Allura couldn’t and wouldn’t have subjugated an entire planet that didn’t know or understand what had really been happening down on that wild world, and Keith couldn’t imagine Jacomir’s generals just sitting on their hands while they tried to negotiate. Not when the generals had produced people like Dras, like Denna … Like Yathir. People would’ve died on both sides, and the mess would likely have kept Voltron away from the real war … With people on Xelos, on Ghantos II, left on their own …

 

He and Lance couldn’t be this dangerously entangled. They didn’t have that luxury. The consequences of their own personal strife reached out far beyond just the two of them.

 

Keith could find purpose without Lance again. He’d lived most of his life without him. But he held a spot, irrevocably changed for Lance, in his heart. It wasn’t enough to carry them through this — that would take both of them, and Lance currently couldn’t shoulder that weight.

 

But while Keith had to figure out himself without Lance, that didn’t mean that this was forever. Not with the way Lance stared at him, begging without words — the way he held to their promise of sticking with each other through everything, including their own self-destruction. Lance would find his way, too. In fact, maybe this was the best path for both of them.

 

Maybe they had to be apart to come together again, whole and healed.

 

“If I don’t talk to you as much, it’s because I’m dealing with …” Keith let his words hold every bit of pain, all the heartbreak. “But that doesn’t mean that this was your last chance. I’ll work on my own stuff, and you? You deal with yours. However you can. With whoever. If Matt Holt works for you, then talk to Matt Holt. I know Coran will want to keep checking in … Just do something, Lance. If not for yourself, or for me, then for this war.” Keith inhaled deeply. “And if it all it takes is a few days … then come find me? I talk a big game, Lance, but I’d be yours again in a second. Tell that to the me of three years ago, right?”

 

That bit of levity got the tiniest smile out of Lance, though another escaped tear diminished its brightness. “Yeah. Tell the stupid cargo pilot of three years back that the mullet kid was his soulmate? Pfft.” Lance’s smile widened, eyes gleaming, but no more tears slipped down his scarred cheek. “Soulmates. We’re too good out there in the field, whether we’re … engaged or not. But I didn’t need a ring on my finger back then to know that we’re forever, Keith. Just not right now.”

 

“So we’ll be okay?” Keith asked, his own voice cracking all over the place again. “Not right now means someday?”

 

“Yeah,” Lance said easily, even as he had to cough past a hitch in his breath. “Did you see us back at that base? We’ll be incredible. We’re Cowboy and Samurai now, the unbeatable combination. I can’t say when the someday will happen … Do yourself a favour and don’t think too much about that.”

 

A near impossible request, but Lance meant it as a way to lessen the pain. Keith held out a hand. It hung in the empty space between them for a lengthy second before Lance grasped it. Their callouses lined up. Keith shook once, and then let go — they slid from each other’s hold achingly slow.

 

Keith stood up.  He turned around. He waited for a beat. Just one heartbeat for Lance to take it back. To change his mind.

 

All he heard was a muffled sound — it may have been a loud swallow. Or maybe a half-smothered sob.

 

But it wasn’t words, it wasn’t a stop, no, wait.

 

So Keith left. He made it to his room — now officially his  — in a daze. He stumbled into a shower. He sat on the floor beneath the spray, his arms on his knees, his head buried between them. He cried on and off, hyperventilated for a few terrifying minutes, and then somehow found himself wide awake — exhausted, but awake.

 

He could do this.

 

They were good. They were broken. They were alive, and they could fight. Those last two would have to be their top priorities. And while they took time to stop the bleeding, Keith also would try to find that old version of himself that fought for everyone, and not just for that one piece of his heart that he had left behind on the training deck.

 

Someday, Lance would find his way back. And when he did, Keith would be a better person — capable of surviving even more than what he’d already endured.

 

******

Matt

 Two Phoebs and Two Movements On the Castle of Lions

******

 

Matt couldn’t get over his little sister’s genius.

 

The communication array was more than a thing of beauty — Katie had created a complex, innovative network of satellites and probes that produced a symphony of data, capable of conveying images and sounds across massive distances, the likes of which defied all scientific knowledge back on Earth. Hell, it stretched the limits of the advanced technologies around them on this partially magical Castle.

 

He would often find himself tinkering with it — his dad, Hunk, and Coran had made valuable contributions to Katie’s initial designs, but even with all the incredible work put into this device, there was always something they could add or improve. Katie never had a problem with Matt improvising over her work, so long as she knew about it, and so long as he didn’t blow anything up. The latter was a completely valid concern — Matt had definitely blown up many a thing back in his early days of the Garrison.

 

Which is why he jumped hard enough to smash his head hard against a corner of the console — it had suddenly flickered on and let loose several loud, cheery beeps.

 

Ow, quiznaking fuck!” he said, rather redundantly. He dropped his miniature welder, raising a hand to his head, his fingers coming away wet and red. A few more curses escaped his lips — Katie wasn’t around to hear him go off, and good thing, too, otherwise he wouldn’t have a leg to stand on next time he scolded her for the various colourful terms she employed now.

 

It took a moment to register that the communication array had been signalling for a newly received message. And there were only a handful of people who knew this frequency …

 

Matt slammed his clean hand onto the buttons, calling up said message. Based on the sequences of numbers attached to it, he counted backwards in his head rapidly — this was from one week ago. They were far out from 2657-AbbDn — too far to receive messages in that short a time. Matt had been working on improving that range since the beginning … Maybe his latest addition to the circuits had finally paid off …

 

He slid his hand over, his other fingers occupied in keeping the blood from pouring forth in a disastrous mess. He pressed the button for the Castle comms, speaking quickly, “Lance, Keith, get down to the communications room, stat.”

 

He tried to find something to cover up his head with, debating whether the rag he’d used to clean up the delicate circuitry would be a bad idea … The door slid open and he looked up to see Lance, Keith, his sister, and Shiro. Katie and Shiro immediately noticed his bloody hand, naturally.

 

“Matt, seriously.” His sister marched over, jabbing a finger into his chest. “Did you get blood all over my array? I will murder you. Outside of this room, less mess, but you will be dead if you—”

 

She was scanning him with her tablet as she spoke, so Matt knew not to take her seriously. Or, well, too seriously. There might be some lack of hot water in his room in the future, or worse, said hot water might be replaced with food goop, but Katie wouldn’t actually hurt him. Much.

 

Shiro swept in, his flesh and blood hand carefully tugging Matt’s fingers aside. He hissed in sympathy, his metal hand bringing up … a handkerchief?

 

“Why in space do you have a freaking handkerchief?” Matt winced when Shiro pressed it against wound, though the man was unspeakably gentle as he did so.

 

“It’s a diplomatic thing,” Shiro said, brushing long strands of Matt’s hair out of the way as he came in closer to inspect the cut. “Allura hammered the habit into me.”

 

“Mm, hopefully that’s all she hammer—ow!” Matt really thought he’d said that quietly enough to get away with it. Apparently not.

 

“You didn’t just summon us here because you banged your head, right?” Lance drawled out.

 

Matt flicked his gaze over to him and to Keith. Since that dinner a couple of weeks back, Lance and Keith had been … steadier. But that didn’t necessarily mean that Matt felt good about their state of mind. They were calmer, but they were also … distant. Honest, but vaguely so. And Matt didn’t miss the fact that they were still in separate rooms.

 

“There’s a message,” Matt said without further prompting. “From Abbdn.”

 

Both Keith and Lance froze. They seemed to resume breathing at the same time.

 

Pidge rushed over to the console, and she selected the flashing number sequence immediately.

 

Brisha’s kind face appeared on the screen.

 

Lance sucked in a breath, and for all his highly regarded deception skills, his face was an open book for a moment.

 

Matt hadn’t been part of any espionage ops with the rebels. He did run a few covert missions, but that was different — that involved not being seen, zero interactions with the enemy. He wasn’t that good of a liar, when it came down to it. Lance had become a master — but not now. Matt found that reassuring. That something could break down Lance’s walls. Or maybe Lance had reached a level of comfort on this Castle that meant he didn’t instinctually try to hide his feelings from everyone anymore. Either one was a good sign.

 

Keith had always been pretty deadpan — well, a grouchy sort of deadpan — but he took a step towards the screen, his eyes fixed on Brisha, a smile tugging on his lips.

 

“I can … you guys know how to use this,” Katie said, turning around to face them. “We can leave, get Matt’s stupid head looked at—”

 

“Hey, this stupid head increased receiving and transmitting range speeds by 32.3 percent, thereby enabling this message to arrive way, way faster. You’re welcome.

 

His sister waved him off, but Lance gave Matt a smile — one of his genuine ones, similar to the Lance in the pictures that Hunk and Katie had shown him during that year of absence. “Thanks, Matt.”

 

Keith nodded at him, though he spoke to Katie next, “You can stay. Just … hit play, please.”

 

She pushed the button, and Brisha opened her mouth to speak, waving a little. The image was ever so slightly grainy — not quite high resolution. She appeared to be at Yathir’s inn, based on the background. They’d set up that particular array in the former general’s attic.

 

Hey, you two. Oh, and hey to everyone else, if you’re there!” She waved again. “It’s been … well, a long while, and we just wanted to check in, give you an update.” She paused, frowning a little as she shoved a few loose strands of hair back over her ears. “I would’ve sent you this sooner, but Yathir told us to wait. Said you would need time to … find your ground again. I think I know what he means … It’s taken us about this long to find our ground again, without you here to keep things interesting.”

 

Lance snorted, and one corner of Keith’s mouth lifted.

 

Whiero City is more dangerous than normal — almost as bad as Ithorla gets, with the gang wars. But Porthwin and Liruo are making headway.” Brisha, Lance, and Keith all grimaced as one, Matt noted with amusement. “Yathir thinks it’ll be over in another week. Jorlack’s got a few new places set up in Hutton — he and Wesdru are sort of co-running that town, and Wesdru has a few people in Ithorla who’ve given her an in … But Jorlack is more interested in making Hutton the place everyone goes for goods and services. With Denna’s here, and with Whiero being as chaotic as it is …”

 

Lance leaned past Katie to hit pause, and then turned to Keith. “He’s got to have someone keeping Byothal off his back, right? Ollewa won’t take kindly to another boss becoming as powerful and rich as him.”

 

“If Jorlack doesn’t touch his town, then Ollewa should steer clear,” Keith said, crossing his arms, though he looked somewhat pensive. “Though who knows if Jorlack’s got even more up his sleeve than Brisha realizes.”

 

“Wouldn’t surprise me,” Lance agreed before he hit the button to play.

 

… But I think I’ll leave it there. There’s not much to report, other than the usual. Czanliu says hello — he’d be here, but Denna’s has been incredibly busy. Lots of people needing comfort and conversation after … well.” Brisha sighed, scrubbing at her face. “I hope you’re both fully recovered. I miss you. Be good.”

 

 Lance smiled softly at the woman, and Keith uncrossed his arms, looking wistful.

 

Brisha stood up. “Give me a minute, Yathir wanted to give you an update of his own …”

 

That got a hard flinch from Lance, and Keith took another pair of halting steps forward, almost as though by instinct. Katie ducked out from under Lance’s arm, heading for her brother and Shiro.

 

“We should go,” she whispered.

 

Shiro removed his handkerchief from Matt’s head, nodding down at him as he said softly, “You’re not bleeding as much, but we should head for the med wing …”

 

Matt opened his mouth to agree, but right then, a few seconds after Brisha had disappeared from the screen, Yathir took her place. He sat down, four of his six arms folded across his chest, the others resting on the table.

 

When he smiled, Lance sucked in a sudden breath, and Keith took the last few steps needed to be right by his side. Matt stared down at their hands, braced on the console — close, but not touching.

 

I expect that you’re receiving this in good health, though knowing you two, I’m fully aware that you may be bleeding or bruised from your latest encounter. Thankfully, you have those healing pods now. I hope you’re making good use of them.” Yathir raised a grey eyebrow. “Or even better, that you have no need. But I won’t lecture you, you’ve never needed that from me. Much. Mostly, I wanted to inform you that we’ve had no sightings or even rumours of the invaders. Your communications array has occasionally picked up messages from passing ships — most of them in galaxies next to our own. They seem to be unbothered by this universal war.”

 

Lance sighed. “Well, that’s good news.”

 

Of course, I’m not naive enough to believe this will be the case for all time. We’ve begun training a few of Wesdru’s loyal lieutenants in the more battlefield-ready ways of combat. At some point, I will take Brisha and Czanliu aside to do the same … I’ve been in conversations with Denna. She’s considering resuming her teaching position, though it would cost her peace of mind …” Yathir’s smile turned towards that bittersweet edge Matt had seen so often from Lance back on Abbdn. “As you know, peace of mind is often a luxury for the likes of us.” He stopped there for a long pair of seconds. “I know you’re likely already back on the front lines, or at least preparing to do so … I worry for your own minds, but I also know that you two have been each other’s stability, always. Continue to balance one another, and your war is half-won.”

 

Matt could feel Shiro wince even though he wasn’t looking at the man. He hadn’t realized how close they were standing until his skin tingled from Shiro’s tired exhale. He leaned back, grasping Shiro’s wrist.

 

Lance had hung his head for a fraction of a second before taking a large step away from the console. Keith stayed close to the screen; he had gone completely stiff, refusing to make even the slightest movement, it seemed, in response to Lance’s withdrawal.

 

But then Yathir said, his eyes nearly meeting Lance and Keith’s in turn, which was more than a little disconcerting, “I think the worst part of my war was re-entering my home and finding nothing familiar for me, and nothing to ground my existence. I fear you’ll be going through the same, and I feel it may be your undoing, since no one expects the worst to happen after death is no longer your daily companion … But I saw you two fall apart and then gather the pieces, stumbling and bleeding all the while. You made something new out of all that pain. I told you I’d never seen the like when it came to you two. You’re going to be fine.”

 

Yathir made a gesture with one hand — against the base of his throat and then out towards the screen. “Take care, boys. Do not come back unless you must, and don’t reply if your war requires your full attention for the moment. Be well.”

 

As Yathir spoke his final words, Keith turned to Lance. He walked over and stood next to him, leaning in slowly to press his shoulder against Lance’s. Lance didn’t pull away. His head turned to Keith’s … There was a glimmer in his eyes that Matt hadn’t seen since they’d first found Lance and Keith, recovering from burns and ready to wage a bloody war.

 

Ah, Matt thought with a smile. He turned up towards Shiro. The man smiled back down at him, a single eyebrow arched. Then he said, “Med wing. Now.”

 

Matt rolled his eyes, and released his hold on Shiro’s wrist before he walked out of the room. Neither Lance nor Keith paid them any mind as all three of them left.

 

Katie waited until the door had slid shut and they had made it down to the end of the hall before she said, “I wish we could’ve convinced Yathir and the rest to come with us … But I think that … It’s been better. This way.” She made a face, scratching at her neck. “I’m horrible for thinking it. But Lance and Keith … needed to break again, to figure out which pieces were worth fixing? Does that make sense?”

 

It was a process Matt himself was all too familiar with. And that Katie understood it … meant that his little sister, too, was becoming battle-wearied. Shiro had said nothing, but Matt knew that he’d have to take the man aside, and either spar or talk with him, to pull him out of his head, to keep those few fragments Shiro hadn’t been able to reconcile from cutting deep again …

 

But Shiro recognized his own pain, and he’d found the strength to reach out to Matt for help in keeping it from becoming blinding. Matt fought his terror at losing this war by borrowing from Shiro’s steady confidence in their family … And Matt knew Katie had her own demons well in hand, because his sister could do anything — and that included crashing in Matt’s bed, watching over him to keep her own fears from consuming her, and then facing her next morning with a determination that Matt shamelessly borrowed from as well.

 

Lance and Keith might find pieces of themselves too jagged to place within, but they had plenty of other fractured folks to borrow from — and they were all willing to spare the parts.

 

“Yeah, Katie,” Matt said, throwing an arm around her shoulders. “Yeah, it makes sense.”

 

****** 

 

Chapter Text

******

Keith

 Five Months, One Week, and Three Days On the Castle of Lions

******

 

Lance strolled down the corridor at a leisurely pace. He didn’t miss a beat when a Galra sentry droid rounded a corner; he just lifted his right arm and fired his pistol without looking, all while he kept sauntering towards Keith.

 

Keith, for his part, was perched on the console he had hacked with Pidge’s older software (a partially degraded version that had none of her usual signature — the kind of hacking that unsophisticated pirates might use). He leaned back, twirling the data key on his gloved finger.

 

Their masks and helmets didn’t permit them much in the way of facial communication, but the sleek lines of Lance in that suit allowed all kinds of body language to come through. Lance seemed lazycompletely unhurried and relaxed. Keith had left one camera active, as they typically did when they wanted to rub their success in the Galra Empire’s face. His own laid-back pose over the console served as much of a taunt as Lance’s fearless meandering throughout the hallways.

 

“If you’ve got enough time to catch a nap on top of that computer, you could’ve been helping me clear out the rest of this floor,” Lance said, vaguely annoyed, mostly just amused.

 

Keith tilted his head exaggeratedly. “You seemed to be having fun.”

 

Lance halted just short of Keith’s spread legs, and Keith leaned back even further. He’d been tempted, once or twice, to leave evidence of shameless debauchery on the Galra ships and bases they stole from. Not because he had a voyeuristic streak; no, instead he relished the apoplectic rage that would no doubt ensue when those Galra generals witnessed the complete and utter irreverence they had for their supposedly undefeatable empire.

 

But he and Lance weren’t there yet. The flirting had become easier and easier the more time they spent together on these missions, but they were playing their designated roles — almost like The Two McClains, but not quite.

 

Back on the Castle, they remained mostly apart. They didn’t avoid each other on purpose — Keith had begun studying more with Coran about previous Altean and Galra battles. During his leisure time, he was hanging out with Sam Holt in his lab. Lance trained with Serla on the Blade of Marmora base often (soon, he would rival Keith in hand-to-hand combat, even without Galra reflexes), and Lance also had his own time spent with Coran.

 

Though it wasn’t often, when they did interact outside of missions, they had so much to talk about that had no relation to their nameless world. Keith hadn’t realized how badly he needed that with Lance. They’d never stopped being friends, at any stage of their relationship, even now, but they had fallen out of step with each other, and that friendship had suffered. This was verging on a new beginning … They weren’t erasing their time on that planet, but moving on to create new memories.

 

“You’re strengthening your minds and hearts individually, so that you can hold each other up as a unit,” Sam had mused out loud.

 

“That’s … really cheesy,” Keith said, smiling as he rewired his new gauntlets under Sam’s careful supervision.

 

“Absolutely. Matt had to get it from somewhere, though his puns are far worse — or better? — than mine.”

 

Matt’s name no longer made Keith cringe. He pushed the gauntlet over to Sam Holt for inspection. “Then … you think I made the right choice?”

 

“I think that you made the best choice given the circumstances. I can’t speak to Lance’s state of mind, but you seem better lately. Lighter and whole. Which is good for you, but also, if you choose to go back to Lance, it will be better for you both. You can’t siphon fuel from an empty tank, Keith, and you were trying to run two separate jet engines on fumes.”

 

“And that one was both cheesy and lame, Sam.”

 

“Kid, I will rig this fancy spy gadget to explode, and no one will ever suspect a thing.”

 

“We’ve got five doboshes until the explosion,” Lance was saying, and Keith jerked back into the present, his smile fading nearly instantly as he clicked back into the mission.

 

The masks on their helmets also disguised their voices, so Lance’s came out slightly higher, and Keith’s was pitched a touch lower. There was a strange smoothness to his voice, and Lance’s had a breathy quality that worked incredibly well for both his threats and flirting.

 

“Does that mean you found something else worth salvaging aside from this info?” Keith asked, his greed layered in thick.

 

“Nah, the Empire doesn’t really trade in shiny things much — something they should probably start investing in, considering the atrociously boring decor.” Lance directed that last bit up at the sole camera, pointing his gun at it before twirling his weapon and jamming it back into his holster. “I gave us five minutes so we wouldn’t cut it close, like last time. Let’s go, Ren.”

 

While they had initially used Cowboy and Samurai on their private comms while on mission, they had now fallen into the habit of using the names that the Galra Empire’s soldiers had begun to whisper. A widespread reputation born after only six weeks in their new roles. Keith had winced the first he’d heard said whispers. Lance had been delighted.

 

Rull’uren and Ath’era — old Galra warriors of legend, though Serla had been tight-lipped about what legend, exactly.  Ath’era had favoured long-distance weapons, and Rull’uren had been an expert in an ancient long, narrow blade called the thiir. Aside from that information, all Serla had said was that they were a pair of generals who had been on the wrong side of history.  Keith hadn’t yet found the right time to ask whose history?

 

It had been nearly three months, total, since they’d begun their pirate attacks on the Galra, and Keith assumed the mantel of Rull’uren with a grateful sort of ease. He’d missed this …

 

“Ath,” Keith said quietly, all business now that they had reached the end of their mission. “To be fair, last time had a few hiccups because you wanted to steal the general’s shuttle.”

 

“I mean, who the hell grav-locks their own shuttle on their own damn ship?” Lance railed against no one, gesticulating madly. “Freaking paranoid freak.”

 

“Justifiable paranoia since, you know, we were there to steal their stuff.”

 

“Fair, but also, boo.” Lance continued walking towards their docked ship …

 

But Keith caught movement out of the corner of his eye.

 

Before he’d even made the decision to react, his hands gripped his blades, and a second after that, he lunged for the shadowed figure that had darted out of a room, clearly desperate. Keith grabbed the Galra lightning fast. His opponent was strong — he broke free, but wasn’t quick enough to dart away before Keith seized him again, this time using the momentum to toss him towards Lance.

 

Lance, who had thankfully whipped around just in time to catch the Galra soldier and pin him to the ground, one pistol pressed against his skull.

 

Keith walked over, rolling his shoulders as he bent low and jerked the Galra’s head up by his dark hair … And realized this was no soldier.

 

“Ath’era,” Keith said slowly, wishing he could convey more to Lance — the lack of facial communication was sometimes annoying. “It’s Terual.”

 

A Galra agent, a member of their elite spy force, only distantly connected to the druids, but powerful enough to infiltrate the Olkari home-world unnoticed and steal valuable tech. To discover a small cell of anti-Empire rebels on a distant moon and completely eradicate them. (Matt had known a couple of those rebels, though not well. After the slaughter, he had immediately sought to warn other insurgents, and Kolivan had relocated several Blade of Marmora bases that had been in contact with them, even if only once.)

 

Terual had been one of the agents they’d stumbled across on another ship they’d hijacked not three weeks ago. He’d been assigned specifically to hunt them, but also to track various other leaks (the low-ranking Blades stationed on that ship whom Lance and Keith had made “disappear” — meaning their deaths had been faked and they’d been returned, safe and sound, to Kolivan).

 

They’d been steering clear of agents like Terual, wary of blowing their whole cover. But with Terual now captured, Keith was reconsidering this stance. An opportunity to further cement said cover was now presenting itself. Maybe this was a chance to distract the Galra Empire further — to get them to redirect even more resources towards hunting the infamous pirate duo …

 

Lance seemed to be having the same thought, as he said, “Well, this could be a bonus, right?”

 

Keith nodded. “Only if we can be sure he’s alone.”

 

Lance tapped his mask. “My system says we have a hundred and ten seconds before boom. If he’s not alone, he soon will be. And, uh, we’re a bit far from the airlock, so …” Lance hit Terual, already dazed, with the butt of his gun, and the agent went down, unconscious. He bent to heave him over a shoulder, shouting at Keith. “Go! I’ll be right behind you!”

 

Keith needed no further prompting, and they both took off down the corridor.

 

Keith slid through the airlock, simultaneously whirling around, catching sight of Lance in his peripheral vision. Keith slammed the button, the doors sliding shut the instant Lance crossed the threshold. Lance had Terual in a tight hold that Keith didn’t recognize — one that Serla had probably taught Lance recently. Keith reached for the Galra agent, and Lance gave him over easily.

 

“Hm, we’ll need to stop by Liant’s place. She’ll know if he has anything worth selling.”

 

Another way of growing their reputation involved introducing captives to a small portion of their underground network.

 

Liant was an old Yujin who had a finger in every pie — “pie” meaning every gang, mafia, and mercenary band. They had learned quickly that if they wanted to be any kind of threat to the Galra Empire, the various underground networks of pirates, mercs, and thieves had to take them seriously as information gatherers. Only then would word spread about Rull’uren and Ath’era. Liant, in particular, had to view them as reliable sources, so she would recommend them to her vast web of contacts. So far, they seemed to be in her good graces.

 

Keith dragged their captive over to the small storage closet near the bridge, snapping manacles in place around each of his limbs. He then took his place in the pilot seat, with Lance to his right, already flicking on the engines.

 

Keith took over the helm, glancing at Lance. “Sorry for throwing him at your head.”

 

Lance snorted. “I’m a little insulted that you feel the need to apologize. C’mon, you thought I couldn’t handle that?”

 

The Galra ship exploded just then, a blinding white light — the debris spread far and wide, floating through space. It wasn’t the most powerful bomb they could have set. The dense alloy surrounding the communication console would ensure its survival, allowing the Empire a peek at the surveillance, and thus giving them confirmation as to who had successfully attacked yet another of their warships.

 

“Another close call,” Keith said ruefully. “Our guys back home just keep winning money off us.” Specifically, Serla and her uncanny habit of predicting their near-misses.

 

“Yeah, that bit is annoying and more than a little insulting.” Lance crossed his arms and put his feet up on the dash “So … are we going to leave him with Liant? Or are we gonna gather this potentially lucrative intel ourselves?”

 

Meaning, just in case Terual was listening, were they going to sell him to Liant, leaving him to potentially find his way back to the Empire and further their reputation? Or was he too much of a threat, and thus, better off in one of the Blade’s prisons?

 

“Let’s see how much Liant offers us,” Keith said after a long pause. They took him down with barely any trouble, despite representing a larger threat — they should just use him as another witness to attest that Rull'uren and Ath’era were a continuous danger. “Let’s see what she can get out of him first. Maybe he’s not worth as much as we think.”

 

“Well, that would suck, after all that effort.” Lance lifted his arms, flexing rather pointlessly — the armour already accentuated his muscles. Unfairly so. “Did you see me dead-lift him? Weren’t you just a tad impressed by my show of strength?”

 

“I messed with the grav settings, so not that impressive,” Keith said dismissively — which, while true, didn’t detract from Lance’s striking display. Because Keith was still whipped, and probably always would be to some extent.

 

“You are a fun-killer. Meaning, you kill fun, not that you are a killer who is also fun. Just to be clear.”

 

They didn’t banter much beyond that quick exchange, focusing on travelling to Crallipothia, otherwise known as The Wastes. Every inch of the planet surface was covered in a seething, frothing metropolis — Coran had mentioned this place once being home to a small population of aliens who predominantly farmed … In ten thousand years, that had changed. Completely and utterly. The solar system had been used as a haven for many criminals from many galaxies, and while most of the planets were barely hospitable, Crallipothia had a perfectly temperate environment.

 

Nothing remained of the original people. Keith didn’t want to know what had happened to them.

 

At the heart of the Wastes, on the equator, was Cralli’s Hot Pot, a city so named for the heat and the mix of peoples. Everyone had to pass through this port to get to other parts of the planet, and so it was home-base to most of the information brokers, slavers, and other disreputable merchants. They pulled their ship, The Dagos, into the docks, and tossed the usual dock rental toll, plus protection fee, to the two formidable women who ran these docks. Neither of the guards blinked twice at the manacled Galra they carried between them, Lance’s gun pointed at his head.

 

They never took off their helmets, remaining a faceless duo, but that wasn’t outside of the norm here. In fact, most people donned masks, scarves, large hats, and helmets to disguise themselves. Those who didn’t were either desperately poor or weak, or powerful and feared.

 

Like Liant.

 

Her business ran out of a modest building that had only two very obvious entrances, each manned by large guards who were roughly two feet taller than Lance and Keith. They also were silent, eerily so, and rumour had it that their tongues had been cut out so they couldn’t sell any information they may conceivably overhear. Of course, Keith had once heard them whispering about a trip down to the local brothel, and one of them had blatantly hit on Lance on their second visit, so that rumour was just sensationalism at its best.

 

Liant greeted them with snacks and tea, which they couldn’t eat, and a kind, grandmotherly smile. The Yujin were a slender, tallish species, with skin in various shades of blue — in Liant’s case, a deep royal blue — and light fur covering them everywhere but their faces and fingers. Their ears were feline in nature, usually partially hidden by a large mop of hair. Liant’s ears were visible, as she liked to keep her hair in complicated swirls, pinned down with jewelled combs. She had a rather sweet disposition as well … Except Keith had seen her slice the throats of three informants in one go, when she found out they’d sold intel promised to her to another, higher bidder.

 

Grandmotherly kindness was her favourite brand of deception.

 

“Well, I see you’ve brought me something alive and wriggling,” Liant said pleasantly.

 

Lance shackled Terual to a convenient set of chains entrenched in the wall by the kitchen. The building had an open floor concept, with the only enclosed space being the bathroom. Terual had been mostly silent and impassive this entire time, as Keith would expect an agent to be. But when Liant cast her evaluating stare to him, he straightened and glared.

 

“He’s a Galra operative,” Lance said cheerfully, taking a few cookies off the plate and tucking them into his jacket pockets. “The Empire set him on our tail. We’re getting to be quite the thorn in their side.”

 

“If you could infiltrate Voltron beyond the couple of ships you’ve picked off, you would be able to play both sides, and make a far tidier profit,” Liant said, not for the first time. “But I understand that difficulty. Aside from a few outlying rebel groups, Voltron secrets are a pretty prize no one has been able to bring me.”

 

They hadn’t actually picked off any Voltron Alliance ships — those had been clever ploys orchestrated by the Blades. A few non-essential ships had been sacrificed, the crews’ deaths faked, so that Rull’uren and Ath’era would never be linked with Voltron in any way.

 

Keith crossed his arms, maintaining his standard indifferent pose, while also making a mental note to Kolivan that perhaps a few more of those ploys would be necessary.

 

“You’re trying to goad me into taking up the challenge.” Lance drummed his fingers on the table. “Not going to lie, it’s kinda working.”

 

“Well, we’ll save that for another day, youngling.” She stood up and walked over to Terual, her voice still pleasant as she asked, “What would your name be, my dear?”

 

“I serve only the Empire. Victory or Death.”

 

“Ah, words I’ve heard many times before.” She sighed. “Preferable to the screams, but much less sweet than the information that follows.”

 

Terual stayed quiet, his expression didn’t even flicker, and Keith would bet that this young Galra agent had total confidence in his torture-resistance training. And perhaps he did have the ability to withstand Liant’s interrogation before escaping. Keith and Lance hadn’t thoroughly frisked their prisoner beyond ensuring he carried no weapons, so there was every chance he had a concealed lockpick or scrambler on his person. No matter, as once they handed him off, it was Liant’s job to ensure he was clean. (They wanted him to have a chance at escape, after all, to do them the favour of spreading the news of their threat level.)

 

“You said this is one of their spies, yes?” Liant said thoughtfully. “Hm. I’d say that’s worth more than the last soldier you brought. Maybe even more than that flagship’s databanks.”

 

“Don’t tease me, Liant.” Lance held a hand over his heart. “How much are you thinking?”

 

She studied the prisoner for another moment before walking over to her kitchen and opening a drawer. She withdrew a satchel that she tossed Lance’s way. He caught it and opened it in one swift movement.

 

“Holy shit,” he breathed out.

 

He tilted the contents Keith’s way, and damn, that was a lot of gak. Gak was the counterfeited version of GAC, the official Galra Empire Authorized Currency — and gak was actually better than the legit money, as one could use it on more worlds, and far more discreetly. He’d yet to figure out who was counterfeiting it, as there was one (ironically) legitimate source of this currency, carefully balancing the market … But that person was likely the next most powerful person in the universe, after the Empire, and that wasn’t the kind of trouble they needed right now.

 

Liant had given them a bag filled to the brim, most of it in the highest numerical values.

 

“Deal,” Keith said immediately. “He’s all yours. Pleasure doing business.”

 

“Go on then, I’ve got a long night ahead,” she said airily. “Try not to spend it all at The Drive Core, yes?” The concern sounded so very genuine, her smile sweet, even as she picked up a medical scalpel, her eyes focused on the shine sliding up the sharpest point.

 

Keith had to tense his muscles to prevent a shiver.

 

“We’ll only spend about half!” Lance called, already mostly out the door. “And a very good night to you, ma’am!”

 

Keith looked towards Terual one last time — the stoic face and posture, the even breathing.

 

Liant rarely killed her prisoners. Even if she managed to garner all the information she could from them, they were always valuable in some capacity, and she was careful to preserve anything she could sell. All the same, Keith knew that this spy would never be the same again. He couldn’t shrug it off as easily as he once did, even if Terual was an enemy in a far more concrete way, more so than anyone had ever been back on their nameless world.

 

Lance dragged him to The Drive Core, the biggest, loudest bar at the port. They couldn’t drink with their helmets on, so they tended to play the roulette wheels or stock up on bottles they would bring to Coran for his enjoyment (and Kolivan’s — the Blade seemed to spend more time on the Castle of late, preferring to debrief Lance and Keith directly, and then share a few drinks with the Altean).

 

They only played a few rounds of the dice games before leaving; they weren’t friends with anyone here, not even in the loosest terms. No allies, only business contacts. But putting in appearances sold their existence as pirates, as did the various rooms they rented and stayed at, though they were very, very careful about surveillance. It was easier to sleep on the Dagos if they had a deal that spanned a couple of days.

 

Tonight was one of their simpler visits; they played their games, lost a few, won a few more, and then left, boarding their ship with twin sighs of relief.

 

Keith took off his helmet, annoyed by all the lengthy strands of hair sticking to his neck, falling from the hair-tie he used now on a daily basis; his hair reached to nearly the middle of his back. He kept meaning to trim it, but it would slip his mind once he got back to his room and his warm, soft bed beckoned. Or his lovely, hot-water bearing shower. Keith put his constantly forgotten haircut out of his mind, eager to reach that bed and shower sooner rather than later.

 

They journeyed back in the most roundabout way they could, which included Keith pulling a few death-defying maneuvers near black holes and brightly radiating star clusters. This would fry anything on their ship that didn’t belong; they routinely scanned for bugs and trackers, but this was an extra precautionary measure that was also stupid amounts of fun.

 

They met the Castle near one such phenomenon, and Lance whistled as he tracked the pulses of the gas giant on their scanners’ viewscreen. “Man, that one’s gonna make a whole lot of stardust when it goes.”

 

“Hm,” Keith agreed, stretching in the pilot seat.

 

Hey, you two are early — don’t tell me you fucked it up already.”

 

“Serla!” Lance pressed the comm, his grin bright. “Hey, what’re you doing on the Castle?”

 

Checking out some new tech the little Green one has for us. Kolivan, Coran, and the others are catching up on the latest intel.” She paused. “I think Kolivan prefers communicating face-to-face with the Voltron Alliance because of the Yellow one’s cooking.”

 

“Shit, did we miss dinner? Hunk has been so close to nailing garlic knots—”

 

There’s plenty of leftovers, he made sure. Get on board before I do something about that.

 

Lance hit the console with a fist while pointing sharply at the Castle with his other hand. “You heard the woman, Keith, step on it! Garlic knots are at stake.”

 

“You weren’t this frantic about getting off a ship with a bomb on it,” Keith noted dryly.

 

“I would have been if there had been garlic knots on the other side of the airlock.”

 

They arrived in time for Lance to enjoy his garlic knots, which were not exactly the same as the ones on Earth, but close enough for Keith to be hit with a strong sense of nostalgia for their little blue planet. Lance’s eyes were closed almost the entire time he was eating, and his mouth pulled downwards when he wasn’t praising Hunk to the high heavens. Lance had a permanent ache in his chest for his family, but Keith hadn’t seen it so prominently displayed in years.

 

Kolivan had been in deep conversation with Shiro and Coran the entire meal. Once the dessert had been demolished, a sort of thick ice cream with pieces of sweet chocolate-like chunks (Keith might have given himself brain-freeze three times diving into it, and he regretted nothing), the leader of the Blades requested Lance and Keith’s presence in the Castle room that had been designated his office when he stayed aboard.

 

“Standard protocol. It was a drone-run ship, so nothing exciting until we ran into Terual.” Lance barely waited for the door to close before he began talking.

 

“The operative assigned to your case was on that ship — that speaks of a trap,” Kolivan mused.

 

“Maybe,” Keith agreed. “It was a pretty obvious tip and an easy mark. Lots more drones than normal, more firewalls … Nothing we haven’t dealt with before, so clearly, he underestimated us.”

 

“They’re still convinced that they can’t be outfoxed by ‘mere pirate scum,’ even though this cowboy-pirate scum has done them in … a dozen times now?” Lance grinned, tapping his chin as if in thought.

 

“Fourteen,” Kolivan said dispassionately. “What did you do with Terual?”

 

“Sold him to Liant,” Lance said with a shrug. “It seemed the best option. He’s … young. Really believes in the Empire. In the cause. He won’t be a threat. He’ll escape — he’s good enough for that. And he’ll prop up our mythos to the Empire.”

 

Keith’s lungs constricted at that … That image of Terual resolutely facing that scalpel … He shook it off as they outlined their mission in more detail, from start to finish. Kolivan jotted a few notes down onto a tablet before dismissing them.

 

“I’d say it makes sense for you two to ‘go to ground’ after encountering a Galra operative,” Kolivan said as he opened the door ahead of them. “It will be some time before we call on you again.”

 

“Sounds good,” Lance said with a bright grin, his eyes flicking towards the hallway. “Are you and Coran gonna have your usual drinks? I promised him I would help clean out one of the storage rooms after …”

 

“We’ve already had our own debrief,” Kolivan said.

 

Keith could have sworn the older Galra had tightened his grip on his tablet, a line of tension straightening his spine — no more than half a second’s worth of reactions. Keith’s observation skills were nothing to sneer at, particularly after Blade of Marmora training … But he decided that it wasn’t worth commenting on … Though it was worth noting and perhaps keeping track of during their next meeting.

 

“Cool, I’ll go hunt him down then.” Lance waved at them both and headed out.

 

Keith gave Kolivan a nod and turned to head in the opposite direction. He was considering actually delaying his much desired hot shower and instead tracking down Sam for some more lab time (and to tell him how well the latest upgrades on his knife-gauntlets had worked), when Pidge rounded a corner and called his name.

 

“Keith, hey!” She pointed back over his shoulder. “We got a couple more messages while you were gone … Um, Brisha and Yathir.” She paused, pressing her lips together before saying, “Uh, there’s one for each of you.”

 

Since that first message from Yathir, Lance and Keith had managed to exchange a few back-and-forths with everyone back … there. They couldn’t have direct chats at that distance, but they could drop off videos, and wait for replies. Yathir let them know when the Ghantos II fugitive, Jovos Quillin, and his two soldiers had arrived. (Jovos had been making himself useful helping Yathir come up with potential strategies against both the Galra and Jacomir; Havere and Drani were now fast friends with Wesdru.) Yathir had made sure to tag that message as private — only for Lance and Keith’s viewing.

 

After a couple more messages, Yathir began addressing his videos to either Lance or Keith, separately. Neither Lance nor Keith had mentioned their … current personal situation, but he wasn’t surprised that Yathir (and Brisha) had figured it out.

 

For all that they were regaining their footing, there was a noticeable gap between them.

 

Pidge hadn’t said anything about it, nor had anyone else, really, aside from Shiro. Sam had discussed it with Keith, but only because Keith had brought it up first, wanting a more fatherly opinion. Shiro was worried about them both, but Keith knew his older brother figure had a definite bias towards him. Sam was more even-handed, and he seemed to view Keith and Lance on equal terms.

 

“Thanks, Pidge,” Keith said. He made to walk past her, then stopped for a moment. “And thank you. For not asking about things.”

 

“What things exactly?” Pidge asked, her mouth pulled into a sardonic smile. “There’s more than one thing, you see.”

 

Keith winced. “Yeah. Crap, I’m sorry—”

 

“No, no, stop, it’s … it’s fine, I’m just … worried, and taking it out on you, the person I’m worried about. Somewhat counterintuitive, I’m aware.”

 

“Have we …” Keith stared at her, at her teasing smile and too-perceptive gaze. “Have we given you too much? If you want, I can tell Shiro about Ghantos II. We shouldn’t—”

 

“No, it’s fine. Honestly, that secret isn’t all that big of a deal to me,” Pidge said, which gave Keith pause.

 

What other secret was Pidge keeping for them? He couldn’t exactly recall telling her anything else. Unless she was referring to her own accumulated observations … Or …

 

“Has Lance asked you to keep anything from everyone?” From me, he didn’t add, and he wouldn’t ask that. And he would never force Pidge to tell him. He would just … let that one stew in the back of his mind.

 

“No, he hasn’t ask me to keep any secrets beyond Ghantos II,” Pidge said with immediate honesty.

 

Keith still felt uncertain — Pidge knew things. She noticed things … But no, that wasn’t any of his business. “I’m here, if you want to talk. I feel like you’re all forgetting that Lance and I can still listen, you know?”

 

“I know.” Pidge tugged on her lengthy, complicated braid, and Keith realized she must have had another hairstyling session with Lance before they’d left on mission. That was good. It was heartening, even if Pidge looked torn. “But things might still be weird? So it’s not you, it’s me. But also, it’s you. That adjustment period is exceeding projected timelines.”

 

“Fair assessment,” Keith said with a small smile. “You don’t have to wait for us to be ‘adjusted.’ I actually can’t promise that will ever be a thing.”

 

“Candid prediction.” Pidge offered up her own tentative smile and shrugged. “Good to know where we stand. Come hang out in my lab sometime. I’m getting kinda annoyed that my dad gets to mess with your cool new spy toys.”

 

“Sure,” Keith agreed easily, and nudged her playfully as he headed to the comm room.

 

Pidge had left the messages cued up on the screen, and tagged them with their names. He selected the one labelled To Keith, Brisha & Yathir, and sat back in a nearby chair, running a hand through his messy ponytail as Yathir and Brisha appeared on the large screen — large enough to feel as though they were here in the room with him, and that made the last bits of tension ease up from Keith’s frame.

 

Just the usual today, Keith,” Yathir said, and he shifted slightly — Keith noticed that there were bandages peeking out from his shirt collar … He sat up straighter, eyes narrowing. “There isn’t much to report. We’ve picked up more chatter, but nothing about our mutual enemy.”

 

“We’ve been using your gifts to listen in for incoming prisoners. It’s good to know when Jacomir and the others are dropping people off,” Brisha said, smiling brightly. “Jorlack tends to go out and meet them, or Ollewa … There’s a bit of a scuffle there. Vying for position, power, you know, the usual. A couple of young ones were dropped off near Dagos …”

 

Yathir glanced down at the edge of the bandage, and he didn’t bother to tug up his shirt, instead looking straight at the camera with a raised eyebrow. “Calm down, Keith. A few light burns from a grenade. They’d managed to smuggle a few weapons away from their guards. A year or two younger than you and Lance. They’d been convicted of murder. And definitely guilty of it, though I feel it was mostly self-defence.” Yathir had a wry grin now. “Quite determined to survive on their own. Brisha was there, and even her sincerity couldn’t break through to them.”

 

“I’m fine!” Brisha added, as Keith’s eyes had snapped over to her, searching for wounds, a futile gesture from billions of miles away. “Yathir shielded me from the blast, and they took off. I think they were heading to Whiero? That’ll be … a rude awakening.”

 

“I hope your missions have been going well,” Yathir said, keeping it vague. These messages were encrypted three times over by Pidge, Sam, and Coran, but they were still very circumspect when discussing Blade or Voltron issues. “You seemed in fairly good spirits in your last message. Lance did as well.”

 

Brisha flinched here, and then sighed. “You two are driving me up the wall — love that Earth phrase. No small feat, considering you’re not here.”

 

Yathir smiled but didn’t say anything. Keith could see the agreement in his normally inscrutable eyes.

 

Brisha waved a hand at the air. “You are so stupidly perfectly made for each other … But I have to say, based on what Shiro said—”

 

Shiro hadn’t mentioned sending messages to Yathir … But then again, Keith shouldn’t be surprised — Shiro had a bit of a control issue, and he probably wanted his own updates.

 

—what we’re seeing is much better than you were … before.” Brisha frowned. “He wouldn’t tell us details, out of respect for your privacy, but he told us that things are improving? They are, right, Keith?” She sounded so earnest, so concerned, and suddenly Liant’s grandmotherly voice was in his head, ringing hollow — this was what real worry and care sounded like. Guiltiness gnawed at him, yet he warmed up from the inside out.

 

I’d wager you and Lance know what’s best,” Yathir said, putting a hand on Brisha’s shoulder. She sat back, looking slightly mollified. “And if Shiro says you’re on the mend, then I trust him. You just be sure to give Lance every opportunity to speak with you.” Yathir paused there, his gaze growing distant. “I didn’t give him as many chances as I should have, and I didn’t press him to speak. He’d been so resilient until that explosion, I just assumed he had deeper reserves of strength … And I was wrong, Keith. I’ve sent Lance an apology, but I feel I owe you one as well. I’m sorry.”

 

“We did what we could for him,” Brisha said, covering Yathir’s hand on her shoulder with her own. “He was so damn stubborn, Keith. You have no idea. But after all that, you two survived. I’ll take the victory.” She smiled, but it was half-hearted. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry, too. I pushed, but not hard enough. I saw him fading into … And I just couldn’t find a way to stop it without putting him at risk, and you, too.” She shrugged helplessly. “But Yathir’s right. You’re on the mend. Things will get better. And when they do, I want a message from both of you. Together.”

 

Her tone was firm, and her eyes shone brilliantly — Keith had no idea what they had done to earn the friendship of this wonderful person. He found himself smiling, and when they both waved good-bye at him, he nodded to himself, and pressed record before he could lose his resolve.

 

He didn’t say much — had never been one for lengthy conversations, except for maybe with Shiro and Lance — but he did end his summation of his day with a smile right into the camera lens.

 

“We’re finding our own way out here. Some stuff got shifted out of balance, so we had to take a step back, find our footing.” Keith inhaled, nodding his head again. “And we’re doing it, Yathir. We’re honestly doing a lot better. Lance seems … a little more open? It’s slow-going, but I know we’ll get there.”

 

He leaned in, staring intently, picturing the bandage on Yathir’s collarbone, imagining the explosion that could have killed Brisha. “You guys focus on staying alive. Keep your eyes open, stay suspicious, and do not ever go out alone. I don’t care what job Jorlack has for you, Brisha. You find someone you trust to bring along. Keep each other safe.” He didn’t ever know how to wrap these up, so he just ended the message abruptly, as always, and hit the transmit option.

 

Keith stood up, stretching. Tiredness weighed his muscles down, but in the good way — his bed beckoned. He skipped out on meeting Sam and instead headed straight for his room. He finally hopped into the shower, though he found himself too exhausted to indulge for longer than five minutes; soon after, he dropped into bed, not bothering with pyjamas. He was asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow, and it was a perfect, dreamless rest.

 

******

Keith

 Five Months, One Week, and Four Days On the Castle of Lions

******

 

He woke up early and energized. His lack of dreams definitely factored into that restfulness. Usually, if he didn’t dream, it was because he hadn’t slept long enough for the nightmares to take hold.

 

He completed a quick version of his morning routine; by the time he was out roaming the hallway, the silence in his mind allowed him to … hear a faint call. Tentative, tired … as if it had been whispering his name for ages, never-ceasing.

 

Keith stopped dead in the corridor.

 

He’d made a choice, three months ago, and he hadn’t once thought about going back on said choice … But the Castle was quiet, and there was no one around — no one would be up for ages, and the voice grew a touch more insistent, a slight tinge of desperation — no actual words, but Keith recognized his name. And he recognized the longing.

 

Keith walked with purpose to the Lions’ hanger, and specifically made a beeline towards Red.

 

There she sat, dormant, and Keith couldn’t feel anything, not even pain, not right then with his mind firmly closed to any intrusion. He sat down, cross-legged, and stared up at Red.

 

“I think … last time was a mistake. On both our parts.” He inhaled deeply, resting his hands on his knees. “I wasn’t ready, and neither were you. It’d been too long, right? We were out of practice, and I … didn’t really want to be a Paladin anymore. I still don’t. But it seems like I’m going to be linked to you forever, and that’s not a bad thing.”

 

There was the slightest nudge against his mind. Keith nudged back.

 

Allura had done her best to train them in those unbelievably wild first few weeks, but so much of it had been left to instinct and trial by fire. Keith had always been best at those two types of learning, and so felt right at home with improvising now — Allura didn’t really have much to go on when it came to broken Paladin bonds. Black and Zarkon had been separated by darker purposes, and Black did not want to reconnect. Keith had asked Coran, once, tentatively, if there had been anything on pain — and all he’d said was, “Only when there’s conflict in desire and communication … Perhaps it’s for the best that you don’t explore reconnection until you’ve made a firm choice to return as a Paladin?”

 

Keith was now clearly disregarding that sound advice.

 

Once he’d made the choice, he sensed something beyond the faint calls. Red’s emotions were distant, but he felt a flicker of amusement, to the effect of that’s my boy.

 

He couldn’t help the smirk, but it soon faded as he said, honestly, “I don’t think I’m meant to be a Paladin anymore. I think that you need someone like Shiro, or Matt, or … anyone else who isn’t me.” There was something to be said for speaking to someone who was receptive to your words. Lance had taught him that. “I feel like I’m closer to Zarkon now.”

 

A fierce, near painful rebuttal. Keith had to shore up his mental wall, and Red retreated, an apologetic hum, nearly a growl but not quite.

 

“Right, I get it, you don’t see me that way. And I guess …” Keith breathed out slowly, a glimmer of hope, of understanding unfurling in his chest. “I guess, since you actually have a connection at like, mind-level or even … soul-level … You would know.”

 

Red’s humming grew louder, and her eyes flickered on. She crouched down in front of him, and while she didn’t breathe like a real lion, Keith felt a change in the air as she rested her head down and stared at him.

 

Keith laughed a little, and the clouds broke apart. He and Lance weren’t the same Paladins they once were, but they weren’t unspeakably different. There was enough for Red to recognize him. To want him. And between the shaky truce he and Lance were working through, and this early morning revelation that all was not as broken as it seemed … Keith stood up and walked over to Red, bridging the several metres between them with ease belying the past few months of pain and heartache.

 

“Okay. I can’t be a Paladin. But how about you and I get reacquainted?”

 

Red roared, but the connection didn’t flare to life in a brutal fashion, like before. Instead, it opened cautiously, the warmth seeped in with profound slowness  — the lightest of feline steps.

 

Keith understood.

 

It came to him in bits and pieces — the bond, broken by force, never meant to be shattered in such a way. The struggle to find him, to mend it across an impossible distance, and it might have been possible … But Keith had shut her out.

 

Keith had shut the connection down at his end, and only the vaguest sensations escaped to Red. Red apologized wordlessly for trying to force it once he and Lance had returned. Every flare of pain had been an attempt to heal; Keith’s mind rejecting it had exacerbated the wound, as had her struggle in forcing him to accept said healing. They were on the same level, and she had done more damage than good.

 

Keith forgave her in an instant.

 

He had no clue how much time they spent working to tangle the threads of their consciousness again, soothing over the frayed ones, creating entirely new entanglements where the threads had snapped. There was pain, but not nearly as bad as his first encounter with her months ago.

 

The joy Red experienced was total and complete once they were done, and Keith let himself be carried away by it. She showed him Shiro in the cockpit, and how grateful she was to have someone so close to Keith, someone who’d needed prodding to be as quick and impulsive as Keith was, but never quite with that same flair, that same natural ease.

 

Keith envisioned himself and Red together, Red the size of a hippo or rhino, as they walked across the plain of existence that connected them, healed, whole. He breathed easy and was purely, uncomplicatedly happy for a time …

 

Keith! Keith, wake up!”

 

He was on the floor of the hanger, and Pidge’s worried face hovered above his, her eyes huge, one hand pressed against the pulse point of his neck.

 

“Oh, hey, sorry,” Keith croaked out, and he was smiling as he sat up, dizzy with giddiness. “Pidge, it’s okay. Just … trying something out with Red.”

 

She sat back on her heels, hands withdrawing as she gaped at him. “Why? Why now? You said this wasn’t you anymore.”

 

“It’s not,” Keith said. “But Red and me … We were a package deal, and we … couldn’t leave that alone.”

 

We.” Pidge shook her head. “This is … confusing. Can she be Shiro’s and yours?”

 

Keith nodded. “Yes. She knows, she understands. But it was … hurting, not knowing where we stood. But then I blocked out the pain and sort of dealt with my stuff. I can see it all clearly now. It was needed, Pidge, I swear.”

 

“Well, great, glad for your personal awakening and all that, but I am still hauling your stupid ass over to Coran because you were passed out and your pulse was all over the place.

 

“ … Fair enough.”

 

Coran replied to Pidge’s private message instantly, and within three minutes, Keith was sitting on a floating gurney in the medical wing, Coran scanning him five times, and gently scolding him. “It wasn’t an overly cautious warning on my part, Keith. Even if your situation is unprecedented, I was there for the first Paladin bonds. I tried to convey those risks to you for a reason.

 

“I know, I know,” Keith said. “And I’m sorry. I just … had a gut feeling about it. It seemed like the right time. That was probably Red reaching out to me … And it didn’t hurt, Coran. It didn’t.” He could hear his own awe — and he started smiling when Coran grinned up from his examination, his eyes bright.

 

“You’re ship shape. No lasting damage done.” Coran put a hand on Keith’s shoulder. “I have to admit that I’m more than thrilled at this news about you and Red. And I must say that I’m not surprised that you were able to reconnect. You’re a Paladin, through and through, whatever you may believe about yourself.”

 

“It’s not going to change anything.” Keith had to be sure there was no misunderstanding. He was not ready to be a Paladin in any capacity. “And if it’s all right to keep this between us for now …”

 

Pidge shrugged. “Sure.”

 

Keith met her eyes. “Just for now. I’m going to mention it to Shiro, soon. And I want to talk to Lance. He needs to know that it’s possible.”

 

Keith hated that Pidge seemed pleasantly surprised — they really had been asking, whether directly or indirectly, too much of Pidge. She didn’t need to be shouldering all of this on their behalf. He understood that it was instinctual on some level; he would be (and had been) just as protective for anyone he called family … But it didn’t mean he felt good or right about Pidge doing the same.

 

“Once Shiro and Lance know, then feel free to mention it to everyone else,” Keith said firmly. “I don’t know when we’ll find the time, but I promise it’ll be soon.”

 

“Perhaps further in the future than you would like,” Coran said apologetically. “As there has been a request made of Voltron. Allura was in the process of planning it out with Shiro when Pidge summoned me.”

 

Pidge had been studying Keith’s medical scans, and now glanced up, the professionalism of a soldier dominating her stance and expression. “When’s go-time? And where?”

 

“I believe it’s near the De’llorkia sector — a Galra fleet was picked up by one of their scouting satellites before it was destroyed.” Coran gave Pidge a pat on the back. “Those upgrades you’ve provided our allies have allowed for much faster transmissions. I doubt the De’llorkians would’ve received the signal otherwise.”

 

“It’s been me, Matt, dad, and Hunk,” Pidge corrected. “And you. Thank Keith and Lance, too, while we’re at it. They were the whole motivation behind that.”

 

Keith could see that Pidge wasn’t joking — she wasn’t in the frame of mind to joke right then, already strategizing behind those light brown eyes. Keith reached out and yanked on her ponytail, getting a flash of irritation and a fond scowl. A slight return to the teenager she was, which was good to see. “Damn it, Keith. Not you, too.”

 

“Take a bow, genius,” Keith said with a smile. “Don’t thank me and Lance for getting captured. And maybe consider finding Lance before you all take off, yeah? Ponytails are dangerous, unless—”

 

“You know how to counter the attack,” Pidge droned, and Keith hadn’t realized he’d already issued the warning, until Pidge sighed and said, “Matt’s been giving me that lecture on and off for nearly a year. He’s been growing out his hair, too, the hypocrite.”

 

“I can teach you all kinds of countermoves for a hair grab,” Keith offered. “And then you can challenge Matt to a spar and kick his ass.” He was absolutely doing this entirely to help Pidge and not at all because of his unreasonable annoyance with Matt and Lance’s developing friendship. He’d been over that irritation for a while — he truly and solely wanted to help Pidge … and spend more time with her.

 

Pidge bounced up on the balls of her feet. “Oh, I am not going to forget this promise, so you better make time in your schedule, Pirate.”

 

“Whenever you’re not off saving the universe, Paladin.” Keith saluted her, and she stuck her tongue out at him.

 

For all its unexpected intensity, this morning had been a good start to the day.

 

Coran gave Keith’s shoulder a squeeze before he discharged him from the medical ward. “Go on then, trouble-maker.” Coran wore an affection-filled grin, one that widened when he announced, “I have to now call on another one of you mischief-inclined Galra. Kolivan needs to be apprised of this latest Voltron mission. Might lead to Rull’uren and Ath’era plaguing the empire once more.” He walked out of the ward while whistling a jaunty tune.

 

Shortly after that, the Castle was transporting to the De’llorkian system, and Voltron had rushed out to meet the Galra head on.

 

The battle ended swiftly, but they were kept busy routing the Galra from the system, keeping them at bay as their allies shored up defences, and the Yujin and Olkari sent a few fleets of support. By the time Voltron’s Paladins could return for longer than short naps and even shorter meals, Lance and Keith had been contacted by Kolivan. As Coran had predicted, Rull’uren and Ath’era were asked to hit a nearby Galra base that had been left vulnerable in the aftermath.

 

They ended up having a narrow escape from said base, a legion of Galra on their tail. This kept them hiding on The Wastes for a solid three days, constantly moving, looking over their shoulders, and evading anyone who might sell them out to the Galra (though it was an unspoken rule that no Galra Empire or other policing forces were welcome on Crallipothia).

 

They couldn’t rendezvous with Voltron right away — the Castle had been called back to Yujinko’s system for diplomatic reasons, and Kolivan needed them for a debriefing after those three days of no contact. They stayed at the Blade of Marmora base, hanging out with Serla, waiting for a good moment to reunite with the Castle.

 

But before they could, there came the Galra frigate mission.

 

******

Keith

 Five Months, Two Weeks, and Five Days On the Castle of Lions

******

 

Spare only one. Kill the rest.

 

That had been the suggestion right at the top of their pre-mission briefing. This frigate was fresh off the battle with Voltron, supposedly carrying valuable intel and many hardened Galra soldiers — frontline soldiers who slaughtered without remorse or hesitation.

 

But no one knew that a Blade, under deep cover, had been reassigned to the frigate at the last possible second.

 

Regris?” Keith hissed, recognizing him immediately.

 

He knew Regris’s brother — another Blade who often hung around Serla, a tall and shy man, but incredibly tough. And incredibly proud of his younger brother’s espionage skills. Keith had seen various holos and pictures of them together — Telluin loved to brag about Regris and his amazing scores, about his ability to climb the ranks within the Galra Empire despite being only a “half-breed,” which was deeply frowned upon, though the Galra never turned away a highly competent soldier, regardless of background.

 

“Who — you’re Rull’uren and Ath’era.” Regris breathed out, eyes wide. He stared down at the corpses at Keith’s feet, and his head tilted as Lance’s gunfire echoed behind them in the hallway. Followed by Lance’s giddy hollering and whooping.

 

Seize him, don’t let the pirate scum—”

 

More gunfire. Lance’s voice echoed in the ensuing silence, “Yeah, no one really ‘lets’ me do anything. I’m a pretty independent sort of pirate.”

 

“Ath’era!” Keith yelled. “Are we clear?”

 

Regris had his weapon raised, waiting.

 

“Oh yeah, unless you’ve got—“

 

“You’re not clear!” Regris shouted, and his eyes narrowed. “You need to kill me.” His tail snapped through the air, as though punctuating his point.

 

Lance turned the corner into the room, his guns raised. When he saw that Keith hadn’t attacked, and that Regris wasn’t firing, he paused. Then he tilted his head, his eyes also catching on Regris’s familiar features. “Wait a—”

 

“The Empire is thoroughly cataloguing every ship now,” Regris spoke quickly, his tail whipping back and forth as he did. “Everything from intel to equipment and rations to crew. If they find this ship, and my body isn’t accounted for — or worse, if I’m alive — then it’s going to jeopardize several other agents who I’ve managed to put in key positions. And all survivors of your attacks are now being interrogated by druids. You can’t let me live.”

 

They couldn’t adhere to mission parameters now; spare only one didn’t work if the one was a Blade who would be tortured and assaulted mentally by druids, inevitably exposing other agents and the Blade’s other operations … The cleanest way to complete this mission would be to kill Regris …

 

“There’s another solution,” Keith said flatly. “One that doesn’t involve executing the younger brother of a friend and ally.”

 

He turned to face Lance, who seemed … hesitant. Keith’s gaze intensified, though Lance couldn’t see it.

 

“We could space them,” Lance said after that harrowing beat. He glanced around at the dead bodies. “We could space all of these guys right out the airlock.”

 

Keith instantly felt ashamed for his assumption. They had never killed bystanders intentionally as The Two McClains, and Lance hadn’t once insinuated or attempted to do so since they became Rull’uren and Ath’era.

 

“They may still account for the bodies,” Keith said with a pensive frown.

 

“Not if we bring this ship close to that blue dwarf.” Lance had holstered his pistols without any flashy spins, concentrating on the problem at hand. “Some are bound to be drawn to it. Thus, some crew would be unaccounted for. Like Regris.”

 

“This is … you’re breaking pattern!” Regris interrupted, sounding equal parts flabbergasted and annoyed. “You can’t just suddenly break your—”

 

“Regris, my dude, we’re pirates,” Lance cut in, and Keith could hear his grin through the mask. “I break what I want, I take what I want. Hey, this may actually be a good time to change tactics overall. What do you think, Ren?”

 

“I think that sending Terual after us was a mistake we need to make them regret. So maybe from now on there will be no survivors. No remains.” Keith slipped into Rull’uren’s state of mind, not so different from Keith McClain’s, except perhaps for a highly specified goal kept in sight at all times. “And this ship barely had anything worth taking — I find that a damn annoying waste of our time. I’m down for a little petty vengeance.”

 

Lance threw his head back and laughed. Regris was staring back and forth between them, his reptilian eyes widening.

 

“You’re insane. Telluin said as much, but I thought he … He wasn’t. You’re actually like this.”

 

“Look, if you were irrevocably opposed to our idea, you would have already shot yourself in the head,” Keith said bluntly.

 

“But you’re smart,” Lance continued on. “You see that there’s a way out we can provide that keeps your agents safe, keeps our covers intact, and gets you back to your brother in one piece.” He shrugged. “Or do you want to eat your gun instead? Your choice.”

 

Regris actually wavered for a while, but neither Lance nor Keith waited to hear his answer — mission first.

 

“I like the idea of steering this thing right into a star. It’s poetic, right?” Lance wandered out into the main corridor, shouting over his shoulder instead of using his comm. “It’s the whole ‘ashes to ashes’ thing.”

 

“More morbid than poetic,” Keith called back, stepping away from Regris to snatch a few Galra wrist tablets — if there was any chance of getting information off them, they should take it, since this ship had left them no intel worth the effort …

 

Or the deaths, his mind pointed out viciously. He couldn’t even justify it for spreading their fearsome reputation, which had been the main purpose of this assignment. If it all went according to the new, updated plan, there wouldn’t even be evidence they were here. The ship would be counted as either lost, falling to engine malfunction, attacked by Voltron forces, or other mercenaries …

 

Mission first, damn it. At the end of the day, they were rescuing Regris, and reuniting him with his brother. That had to be worth it.

 

“How close can I get before it’s impossible to break away?” Lance shouted.

 

Keith stepped out into the hallway and over the corpses. “It has less to do with distance and more to do with speed — did you not pay attention in astrophysics?”

 

“There is a possibility that was my worst subject,” Lance said cheerily. “But I know how to operate under the inverse square law,  and as for being yanked into orbit, I just need three constants — so give me something, distance, speed, whatever.”

 

Regris brought up a wall console for Keith, and together they called out the frigate’s current distance from the star, its speed, and used a nearby planetoid as another frame of reference.

 

“Got it!” Lance chirped.

 

Keith tilted his head at Regris, who shuffled his feet, his tail flicking out once. Then he was marching past Keith with his head held high.

 

“Be sure you wipe all the logs, and every surveillance system,” Regris ordered briskly. “If they discover even a fraction of that data—”

 

“We’ll stick around until the ship is dust,” Keith said reassuringly. “But yeah, I’ll wipe it all. You hear that, Ath?”

 

“Already in progress!” Lance yelled back.

 

Keith let Regris move ahead. As they walked towards the bridge, Keith took out his small pistol from an inside pocket of his coat. He fired down into the head of each body they passed — with this mission becoming a rescue operation, they really couldn’t risk survivors potentially outing Regris, and therefore his network of spies within the empire’s ranks.

 

“Hey, so,” Lance said once they reached the bridge, turning to face them with a hand resting on the back of his head. “I may have miscalculated my trajectory and speed by, hm, a lot. We’ve got maybe ninety secs before—”

 

He didn’t even wait for Lance to finish — Keith grabbed Regris by the upper arm and all but threw him back down the hall towards the airlock. “Move!”

 

They ended up back on the Dagos with twenty seconds to spare, though despite their success, Keith had plenty of choice words for Lance, in English and in Spanish. He cranked up the fuel intake and burned the engines, pushing them to their limits.

 

“Fuck you, too, Keith,” Lance said peaceably. “Pero, por favor, no nos mates.”

 

“Sería tu culpa,” Keith complained.

 

Lance and Regris both made distressed noises — Keith rolled the ship three times, plunging towards and under the nearby planetoid, all in the space of eight seconds. Once they were safely in a locked orbit around said planetoid, Keith kept the engines at a low burn as they all stared towards the drifting frigate.

 

All three watched in silence as the ship was finally dragged into close proximity to the blue dwarf. The frigate lit up in a glowing white-yellow ball, and the heat shielding held, and held … and then it fizzed out, an abrupt, anticlimactic shower of sparks as the ship became less than ash.

 

“That’s the end of that.” Lance’s mask came down, revealing his face — his bangs were damp and sticking to his forehead; he raised a hand to shove the hair aside while smiling at Regris. “Feeling better? Good to be alive?”

 

Regris rocked back on his heels, his tail slumping to the floor. “The leaders won’t be good with this, I can say that much.”

 

“Everyone came up winning except the Empire,” Keith said. “What the hell do they care?”

 

The answer, they found out later, was that they cared, and they cared a lot.

 

Lance and Keith skipped out on their usual stop at The Wastes, not wanting to take a chance on anyone spotting Regris there. They arrived at the main Blade base, with Regris in tow, expecting a hero’s welcome — which they absolutely got. Initially.

 

“Regris! You’re here!” Serla stared as they all descended The Dagos’s ramp. “How?”

 

At the echo of Regris’s name, everyone’s heads turned — and the crush of Blades formed around them in seconds. Regris was hugged, back-slapped, and yanked in several directions as everyone congratulated him on surviving. He was only meant to return when summoned back or … not at all. Keith couldn’t help but exchange a soft smile with Lance, and the weight of those many deaths lifted somewhat.

 

Particularly when the Blades parted respectfully, revealing Telluin’s broad form, his eyes huge and filled with tears.

 

Regris didn’t say anything — he just took a flying leap at his older brother. Keith watched a few notoriously stoic Blades discreetly wipe away their own tears as the siblings reunited.

 

Lance pulled on Keith’s coat sleeve, and Keith met his eyes again; Lance’s expression was still gentle, though his jaw clenched ever so slightly. “We should find Kolivan.”

 

“Yeah, you’re right.” Keith exhaled slowly and then leaned in close to Serla. “Keep Regris distracted while Lance and I explain this.”

 

Serla’s smile dropped. “This wasn’t part of your mission?”

 

“Nope,” Lance said casually. “But trust us. We covered our bases.”

 

“I don’t know what that means, but you better go explain yourselves before you’re in some serious shit,” Serla hissed at him.

 

Keith hadn’t expected Kolivan to be thrilled, but he did expect his happiness at seeing one of his soldiers back to override his disappointment.

 

The problem was that Kolivan was not alone; he’d been joined, in person, by two other leaders from far flung bases — Celyian and Lirune. They were seething.

 

“He was one of Kolivan’s most successful plants in the Galra hierarchy!” Celyian barked at them. “How dare you interfere!”

 

“It wasn’t our fault he was stationed on the ship you sent us to raid,” Lance snapped back. “They made a last second crew adjustment. From the moment we stepped onto that frigate, his special op was over.”

 

“He was either going to die, or he was going to survive, and in either case, we sacrificed minimal intel.” Keith stared at Kolivan, waiting for him to intervene. “What, exactly, was the better option? Because I think we pulled out a major win.”

 

“He’s not going to be able to go on a single espionage mission now,” Lirune said in a quietly threatening tone.

 

Keith immediately rested a hand on his sword hilt, though Kolivan’s sharp look reminded him that he wasn’t in any real danger. Galra tended to be larger than him and Lance … Keith didn’t think Lirune would attack him, but every instinct told him to be ready, be fast, take advantage, strike first.

 

Lirune seemed unaware of this small exchange as he kept talking coolly, “Not only was his intel invaluable, but also his infiltration skills … They’ll go to waste now. You’ve robbed him of his place.”

 

“So you wanted us to, what? Let him kill us instead?” Lance asked, his anger cooling only slightly. Something else was shifting behind his gaze, but Keith couldn’t suss it out. “You’re playing a game of absolutes. There are other solutions to your problems, you don’t need to sacrifice people once their mission is complete.”

 

“We do not automatically or intentionally sacrifice our soldiers.” Celyian didn’t shout, but she sounded fierce all the same. “You younglings don’t understand what it is to fight a war with only a handful of skilled soldiers against an all-encompassing empire. Sacrifice is a last resort, but it is one we’ve had to use often because we don’t have the resources to risk rescuing every operative. We cannot—”

 

“Well, lucky thing, we did your job for you, then,” Lance said evenly. “I feel like there’s something else you’re pissed about. You know we made the right call. What the hell is going on?”

 

“You’ve been compromised, that’s what. You cost us a valuable spy, and now your intel and distraction methods, effective as they are, are at risk,” Lirune sallied back instantly.

 

Keith didn’t expect such a forthright answer — the Blades were normally so judicious with information. He stood up straighter, his hand tightening on his sword hilt. “How? Who?”

 

“No one specific, but your mock pillaging of our allies is not enough. There are rumours that Galra high command suspects an elaborate hoax.” Kolivan finally contributed to the conversation, his tone suspiciously bland. “Lirune and Celyian, amongst others, have been pushing for you to attack other transports and bases … genuinely. The Galra would likely cease to suspect us or Voltron if that were—”

 

“No.”

 

“Not happening.”

 

Lance and Keith spoke at the exact same time.

 

Keith stared hard at each Blade leader in turn, holding Kolivan’s gaze the longest. “We aren’t attacking any bystanders or allies unless we have an arrangement with them. No one who isn’t our enemy is dying by our hands.”

 

“This war isn’t going to end with you,” Lirune said. “The Blades have been whittling away at the Empire for a few hundred generations. You need to think long-term, past your lifetimes. If we allow for certain pieces of intel to slip, or a few lives—”

 

Sacrifice as a last resort only applies to your troops, then? Damn our allies?” Lance cut in acerbically. “We’re outsiders, and we won’t operate like your perfect soldiers do. Regris has been with you since he was a kid, and it shows. If we hadn’t … He might have shot himself rather than risk his op and his network. Noble, except when it’s not necessary. Except when it’s stupid. This doesn’t do anything to up anyone’s survival odds. You don’t know if we’re compromised beyond a few rumours.”

 

“And until we know more, we’ll keep operating as normal. We’ll ask Coran to coordinate a few more mock attacks against others. Maybe even arrange a run in with a few Lions.” Keith gave Lance a quick half-smile. “Might be a good training exercise.”

 

“Fools. Do you think we survived this long by taking unnecessary risks? As soon as a mission even appears compromised, we withdraw. It saves lives.” Celyian seemed frustrated, and she stared at them in a way that told Keith she was being open. She didn’t want them to die if she could prevent it.

 

He looked at her white hair and wrinkled features, and he wondered how many young soldiers like Regris she’d sent to their deaths. He wondered how many she would have tried to save herself, if the survival of the Blades of Marmora as a whole hadn’t kept her tied to base.

 

“Kolivan,” Keith said after a time, “do you think we should pull back?”

 

Kolivan had been standing with his arms crossed, a few steps away from the others as they tore into Lance and Keith. Now he stepped forward, bracing his hands on the desk in the debriefing room.

 

He didn’t look at either Lirune or Celyian when he said, “No. You shouldn’t. Coran and I have already discussed further false attacks against the Yujin and the Olkari. We’ll contact Ryner as soon as this meeting concludes. Expect those mission debriefs in two quintants.”

 

“Of course, you consult the Altean, but you don’t reach out to us,” Celyian said, though she didn’t say it harshly. More resigned, and … faintly amused? Keith raised his eyebrows at this sudden about-face. “Give him our regards when you send your message.”

 

“He’s a wise and knowledgeable tactician,” Kolivan said a little testily.

 

Now Lance was raising his eyebrows and looking at Keith questioningly. Keith gave the tiniest tilt of the head and lift of one shoulder to silently say, I have no idea what this is.  

 

Kolivan continued, his brow furrowed as he spoke, “He has provided both of you with valuable intel on potential sites for bases or fuel sources—”

 

“She’s not attacking Coran,” Lirune said in a marginally more upbeat tone. “Only commenting on your preference to discuss strategy with him.”

 

“Your visits are rare, and we can’t risk transmitting so far across the universe. The further out the signal, the more likely it will be hacked or—”

 

“We know, Kolivan,” Celyian said, and that was definitely a note of fondness.

 

Keith was getting the impression that Kolivan was actually the youngest of the leaders, and that Celyian and Lirune were significantly older. He had to clench his jaw to hold back a smile as Kolivan bristled under this subtle teasing. Lance sniffed and then coughed to disguise his snort of laughter. This teasing, it sounded like …

 

All of a sudden, Keith recalled that strange half-a-second of tension when Kolivan had mentioned his and Coran’s latest private meeting together. Keith considered all the post-debriefing drinks that Coran and Kolivan shared, the way they communicated often, perhaps not solely about missions, and the way Coran brightened whenever Kolivan decided to stay at the Castle … Holy. Crow. Keith didn’t want to leap to conclusions, so he tucked this theory away. It was … interesting. Maybe worth mentioning in passing to Coran — he should know that Keith knew, so as to avoid any … awkward encounters.

 

Kolivan dismissed them with a rather terse, “Go home. Expect a mission debrief from Coran in two quintants.”

 

Keith nodded, his mind whirling with images he was now going to have to repress — Kolivan was his direct superior, and Coran was like an uncle. He badly wanted to rant to Lance about this … and he might be able to; their friendship had mended, somewhat. He smiled a little as he considered Lance’s reaction to this piece of potential gossip.

 

Regris and Telluin were waiting for them in the hanger by The Dagos. When they were spotted, Telluin rushed forward his hands reaching out to grasp theirs in an enthusiastic double handshake.

 

“You two, I am going to owe you big, forever, for the rest of my life,” he gushed all in one breath.

 

“Look, all you need to do is keep yourself and your baby bro alive,” Lance said with a broad grin. “And maybe save us some of the good rations every once in a while. You know the ones — the pink bars with the spicy nuts?”

 

“You’ll get a whole crate of them next time I see you,” Telluin promised them solemnly, which prompted a brief laugh from Keith.

 

“It’s not mandatory,” he told the tall half-Galra. “Just keep each other safe. And maybe knock some sense into your brother every once in a while. Us younger siblings need that sometimes.”

 

“Noted.” Telluin reached over to tuck Regris beneath his arm. “I know I’m going to hate most of what he has to say about his mission, but for now, I’m just damn glad that he’s back.”

 

“Me too,” Regris agreed quietly, his gaze flicking back and forth between Lance and Keith. “How badly did they reprimand you?”

 

“It was nothing, so no worries,” Lance said. “Even better, it was great to see Kolivan in a room with people who treated him like an annoying younger sibling.”

 

Regris snorted and then looked horrified at himself. “Oh, no. That’s … Celyian and Lirune have about a hundred years on him, so sometimes they forget that he’s been leading the largest faction in the Blade of Marmora for over two hundred years now.”

 

“He was fairly young when he was appointed,” Telluin explained. “Only ninety or so.”

 

Keith tried to remember what the Galra age of maturity was — it varied, especially since there were so many mixed Galra across the universe, thanks to millennia of a far spread empire and intermingling with various populations. There were particularly high amounts of mixed-heritage Galra in the Blades.

 

Keith took his best guess at what constituted entrance into adulthood for the Galra, and then tried to translate that into something understandable to him and Lance as humans. “So Kolivan is currently the equivalent of … forty, in Earth years?”

 

“Is that middle-aged to you?” Regris asked, now sounding fascinated.

 

“Fifty or sixty is closer,” Lance said. “We live to around one hundred ten or fifteen, maybe over one hundred and twenty, if we’re lucky.”

 

“So, you two are … new adults?” Telluin seemed vaguely horrified. “Wait, how old were you when you became Paladins?”

 

“Er, sixteen? Seventeen?” Lance shrugged. “Pidge was fifteen.”

 

Both Regris and Telluin gaped at them. Telluin bristled in anger, seemingly after taking a moment to process the shock. “That’s … That’s obscene. No one should let children into battle ever. There is never a reason to allow this.”

 

“I mean, the fact that we were the only ones who could pilot the Lions at the time was a pretty compelling reason,” Keith said, not quite able to handle the indignant anger on his behalf. “And some of us were already …” He’d been living alone for the better part of a year, hunting Blue, furious at the Garrison’s choice to blame the “crash” on Shiro … He hadn’t been a child since he was nine, but any remaining vestiges of childhood were lost by the time he turned seventeen. “We’re fine now, Telluin.”

 

“Don’t the Blades, ah, train kids? I know that’s how Regris started out—” Lance began.

 

“Battle tactics and self-defence are taught to all, but no child is ever permitted in combat or on missions. Ever. Once they reach the age of majority, they can volunteer for several tests and even more training if they wish to attempt a minor assignment. And after all that, they’re always accompanied by a senior member, until they’re judged skilled enough to go out alone,” Regris rattled off, staring at them with something new in his gaze. Not quite pity — something like awe and sadness mixed together.

 

“Just barely adults, and you two, alone in that place—” Telluin cut himself off, his eyes widening. “Oh. Quiznak, I shouldn’t have — Kolivan told us to never

 

“To never what?” Lance had that inscrutable look on his face again.

 

Keith had grown somewhat used to being unable to read Lance at times, and just leaving it alone. But he did occasionally wonder, as he did now — was this something worth asking about, or should he just leave it, like they had decided to do with many other things.

 

“Kolivan, he gave most of us a … general debrief on your time in exile.” Regris looked uncomfortable, as though he were breaking the rules — his eyes kept darting up towards the upper levels. “And then he gave us strict orders to never ask you about it in detail. Or even in passing, really.”

 

“It’s not an uncommon order,” Telluin told them urgently. “It’s generally understood when some of our Blades return from lengthy ops — particularly if those ops involved imprisonment and interrogation. We are never to speak of it unless they bring it up first.”

 

“There are several specialists who treat those Blades …” Regris seemed to lean further into his brother. “I’ll have to speak with them for at least three phoebs before they’ll consider me for any other missions.”

 

“Is it similar for humans?” Telluin asked, and now, Keith noticed, he was watching them both not unlike how he watched Regris — with affectionate concern. “I’m sure, if you asked Kolivan—”

 

Regris elbowed him as Lance shook his head, moving past them to the ship’s ramp.

 

Lance spoke over his shoulder, “Thanks, but we’re dealing. And we’re also heading out now, before Allura sends out a search team. See you in a few quintants. Remember those ration bars!”

 

He disappeared into the ship, and Keith followed after exchanging farewells with the two brothers, awkwardly apologizing for Lance while also turning down the offer himself.

 

Lance remained silent nearly the entire trip back to the Castle, speaking only to update Keith’s nav settings, or asking innocuously about dinner.

 

It was after their supper (during which Lance had been fairly quiet again, though no one called him out on it — Coran and Shiro both seemed to want to, but Keith quelled them with one intense stare), when Lance finally approached Keith and asked, “Do you mind … coming to mine, if you’re not doing anything right now?”

 

Keith was supposed to join Sam in his lab, but he agreed instantly to follow Lance to his (what had been their) bedroom.

 

Lance sat on the bed, seemingly needing more time to gather his thoughts, as though these past few hours hadn’t been enough. Keith desperately wanted to pace, but forced himself to sit on the cushioned window seat, keeping his leg from bouncing by sheer force of will. Something big was happening right now.

 

He considered and discarded several questions in the ten or so minutes of silence, and when he finally settled on one, Lance didn’t even give Keith a chance to ask. Lance just started talking, as though his stonewalling hadn’t been a massive hundred metre barrier between them for the last five months.

 

“We had it easy on that damn planet.” Lance stared down at his hands, flexing his fingers, and then up at Keith. His face was expressionless, but his eyes … They held onto Keith, unblinking. Keith had the uncomfortable sensation that Lance would rather be looking anywhere else, but he was forcing himself to look at Keith.

 

“What do you mean?” Keith asked in as soft a tone as he could manage, even though he felt as though he were about to rattle apart.

 

“Fucking hell, it was them or us, right?” Lance raked one hand through his hair. “Them or us, all the damn time. If we saved someone, if we let someone die … Unless it was part of the job, it was our own call.” He inhaled sharply. “We could’ve saved more people. Could’ve spared a few here and there. Didn’t though, did we?”

 

“No. We didn’t.” Keith leaned back against the cool glass. “We didn’t, Lance. It wasn’t just you out there.”

 

Lance barked out a laugh. “But it was. It was while you were down. You don’t remember. You don’t remember how I dragged you out of Jorlack’s. Leaving actual pieces of you behind. Chunks of flesh. I could see right down into your intestines, and I knew, I knew right then and there that you were dead. You were dying and there was nothing I could do.”

 

The raw anguish was back — the Lance who had nearly murdered Keegin Dras with a vengeful brutality.

 

Keith didn’t know what to say other than, “I’m here.”

 

“Because Yathir saved you. Because he slapped on half a dozen med-strips and picked you up and drove you back to Dagos. He sent out for the doctor, and he kept you just barely breathing. I stabbed Brisha. Did she tell you that? I had one of your daggers in my hand, and she tried to pull me away from you, and I just …” Lance’s shaking hand stretched out, miming a grip on said dagger. “Just her arm, not deep. Yathir slammed me into the floor before I could do real damage.”

 

Keith had no fucking clue any of this had happened. He sat silently, forcing the questions down, swallowing convulsively and begging inside his mind for Lance to keep talking.

 

“Yathir, he said …” Lance stopped, sucked in a deep breath that he pushed out harshly. “He said that if I didn’t fucking pull it together, I would kill you. He told me that I had to push it all down, had to ignore the fuck out of it, or you would die. I told him nothing mattered anymore, not to me, and he told me to take that apathy and use it. To use it as a prop to hold up my sanity because if I didn’t, then Dras would catch me unaware and slit my throat. And then yours.”

 

For a brief moment, Keith raged against Yathir. That was the fucking worst thing he could’ve said to Lance. Fucking almighty hell, that was … That explained all too much, but still too little. Keith could see where Yathir had made his mistakes, and he’d admitted as much already: “He’d been so resilient until that explosion, I just assumed he had deeper reserves of strength … And I was wrong, Keith.”

 

“I’m not … Sometimes I find it easier to slip back into that mode. It was all automatic. What was the first thing that had to get done? I would do it. Then the next thing. And the next. In the fastest way possible. I didn’t … let myself think beyond that.”

 

Keith recognized that coping method. He’d perfected it after Shiro had disappeared. He clicked back into it often, unconsciously deciding to negate all emotional consequence or sensation as he did what needed to be done — eat, sleep, fight, repeat. But he knew it was unhealthy to linger in that automated functionality — he learned to see it in himself and force his way back. But Lance …

 

“How?” Keith asked when Lance didn’t speak for a few minutes, his breathing a touch louder than normal. For all that Lance was finally giving Keith what he’d yearned for all these months … it was all still too vague. “Lance, I … I’m not trying to make you talk anymore. But if you … want to tell me something, then maybe tell me how you survived — helped both of us survive — for those two weeks.”

 

Lance stared out into space to the right of Keith, his eyes glazing over. For a split second, he seemed to clench his jaw and straighten … But not a moment later, his shoulders hunched, his eyes closed.

 

“I had to get medical supplies, and I needed help to get them.” Lance flicked his gaze down to the right. “Ran that job with the Goylan Death Bringers.”

 

“You mentioned that after I woke up,” Keith reminded him. “I know it went bad for them. But you got out. What next?”

 

“We kept getting attacked randomly by Dras’s goons. I took a few out to get them away from Dagos — from you. Then they became more systematic. More dangerous. So I needed more supplies and people to oppose her … I recruited a few folks, like Wesdru, and ran raids.”

 

And it was during one of the raids that Grisner had died, thanks to Fregola turning traitor and feeding Lance bad intel.

 

“There was one assassin, one of Akros’s crew, he’d been … too good. So I …” Lance shook his head once, slowly, then again. “I can’t. Keith, please, it wasn’t …” Lance’s voice faded, his eyes closing once more. When they fluttered open again, they were filled with tears. “I can’t …”

 

“Stop.” Keith leapt up from his seat, crossing the room in the space of a blink. He came to a halt close enough to touch, and when he reached out a hand, Lance grabbed it and dragged him in, burying his face in Keith’s stomach, crying silently, shoulders heaving, as his hands balled up the back of Keith’s shirt in two fists.

 

Keith gripped the back of Lance’s top in return, saying nothing. He couldn’t think of anything worthwhile. Maybe Lance didn’t need words right now. He raised one hand, tentatively brushing through Lance’s hair. When Lance didn’t ask him to stop or pull away, he ran his fingers again through those dark brown waves; Lance just burrowed further into Keith’s abdomen, the cries tapering off as the seconds ticked by.

 

When Lance had finally cried himself out, he waited for an extra few, quiet seconds before loosening his hold on Keith and pulling back. A few more seconds, and he’d withdrawn a little further. Keith released his own hold on Lance, only to take a seat next to him on the bed.

 

When the silence stretched on, Keith asked, “Do you want me to stay? Just for tonight.”

 

Lance lifted his head, his eyes red-rimmed, his nose running — he wiped at his face with the sleeves of his shirt, and then nodded. He croaked out, “Only if you’re comfortable with that.”

 

“I’m fine. You need sleep.” Keith stood up. “I’m just gonna grab my sleep stuff. You do your thing. Maybe indulge in your moisturizing routine? Might help relax you.”

 

Lance startled a little as Keith mentioned his skincare regimen. “Crap, I haven’t thought about that in … months.” He gestured at his scar. “Did it only for special occasions back at Yathir’s, and after this … Didn’t see any point.”

 

Keith had a feeling Lance’s filter had cracked slightly; he was saying things he wouldn’t admit to normally — and he might hate himself for it tomorrow. He wouldn’t ask any more questions, and spare Lance that pain, at least.

 

Keith reached down to brush Lance’s hair from his forehead, and when Lance didn’t flinch, he trailed his fingers until they lightly grazed over that starburst scar. It wasn’t as bad as it had been in that week after the explosion. The healing gel Lance had stolen had mended Keith’s burn scar to a pink smudge all along his side, right up to his collarbone; while Lance hadn’t used much for his face, his scar was no longer jaggedly pitted or shiny. But it was definitely a burn mark, permanent and highly noticeable.

 

“There’s a point to the whole skincare thing if it makes you feel good. But it’s not, like … it’s not a necessity. You always look good.” Keith gave Lance a small but genuine smile. “I’ll be back in a few.”

 

He left the room and walked to his own quarters, quickly grabbing a pair of pyjamas, a change of clothes for tomorrow morning (so he could avoid any awkward questions), and his toothbrush.

 

By the time he got back, Lance was still in the bathroom — Keith could hear the shower running, and he smiled faintly as he changed into his usual loose pants and tank top. This was too familiar. He didn’t feel even remotely out of place as he dropped his clothes into a pile on the floor, draped his fresh ones on the window seat, and then knocked on the bathroom door.

 

“Can I brush my teeth?”

 

“Do whatever, man — I might … be a while.” Lance sounded exhausted, but not miserable.

 

Keith brushed his teeth quickly and left before any discomfort could blossom between them, enjoying this ease far too much.

 

He was halfway to sleep when Lance finished in the bathroom. Keith had curled up on his side of the bed, his mind wandering; it had been a long day, and his brain had been waiting for any excuse to drift straight into blissful oblivion.

 

He became a touch more aware when Lance lifted the covers and slid into the bed. Keith turned over to face him, and he took a chance on reaching out with one arm. Lance closed the space between them without hesitation. He buried his face in Keith’s chest, near his collarbone, his face wondrously soft and smooth. He smiled into the top of Lance’s head and closed his eyes.

 

The morning came all too swiftly, but when the lights gradually grew brighter, in a simulation of dawn, he felt well-rested. Warm. Content. Lance had moved just far enough to lay his head on his own pillow, but their legs had tangled together, and Lance’s hand lay on Keith’s bare waist, where his shirt had ridden up.

 

This was too good to indulge in. Keith wanted it more than breathing, but they weren’t quite there yet.

 

Lance had just torn part of his heart out — and he hadn’t done it for Keith’s sake, which was good. He’d done it for his own. Because he couldn’t hold it in any longer. And that, that was amazing. Keith wanted Lance to keep figuring himself out, for no other reason than because he, Lance himself, wanted to get better. And maybe, then, they could …

 

But not now.

 

Keith let himself sink into the mattress, watching Lance’s closed eyes, his parted lips, his mussed hair … Watching him shift ever so slightly, feeling that hand drop down to cup Keith’s hip, his fingers just barely slipping past the waistband of his sleep pants. He swallowed down a dozen different morning greetings that ended with, I can’t leave, Lance, tell me to stay.

 

When he finally couldn’t stand it any longer (not without pulling Lance in and never leaving this bed again), he rolled back, and then to his feet. Lance woke up straightaway, sitting up and yawning.

 

“Oh.” Lance scrubbed the sleep from his eyes. “Right. Morning, that’s a thing.”

 

“You slept all night,” Keith said with his usual morning rasp. “That’s good.”

 

“Yeah.” Lance dropped back onto the bed, his left hand disappearing beneath the covers — Keith could see it resting over the warm spot Keith had left behind. He looked away, walking over to his clothes.

 

“I’m just gonna change and head out.” He didn’t once turn around to face Lance as he swapped out of his pyjamas. When he’d finished dressing, he looked over to see Lance watching him unashamedly, the faintest blush on his cheeks. An unrepentant grin overtook Lance’s face, and Keith couldn’t help it — he walked over, and pressed a hand to that scarred cheek. “Good morning.”

 

Lance nuzzled into his palm. “Good morning to you. Thanks for the free show.”

 

“You’re welcome,” Keith said flatly, with an arched eyebrow and a faint smirk. “Now, I think we have some sparring with Shiro today, after breakfast.”

 

Lance rolled away from Keith, taking the blankets with him. From the depths of the blanket burrito, he said, “Why must you do these things to me?”

 

“Because I care. And because you’re stupidly easy to beat first thing in the morning.”

 

“Fuck you, I’m gonna knock you onto that perfect ass inside of thirty seconds.”

 

“Mm, sure. Gotta get out of bed first.”

 

Lance flung a pillow at him, and Keith stepped out of the way without much speed or effort, letting it sail right past. “So much for the sharpshooter.”

 

As expected, Lance flipped him off, and Keith smiled.

 

He ached at not being able to crawl right back into that bed, unwrap Lance like the gift he was, and just spend the entire day there. But this morning was already the best morning he’d had in a long while — a good morning after a string of terrible, then not so bad, and now mostly okay mornings. He wasn’t about to push it further — he held onto his resolve to let (and help, only if asked) Lance unravel the tangled mess of his own mind, before adding his own haphazard disaster back into the mix.

 

Lance was sitting up again, and he was smiling back at Keith with such sweet sincerity, Keith maybe felt himself falling all over again.

 

“You’re forever the samurai to my cowboy,” Lance said with only the faintest hint of teasing. “I don’t have to aim when it comes to you — could pick you out in a crowd without opening my eyes.”

 

“The pillow was just to get me out, then.” Keith gave Lance another mockingly arched eyebrow, but he knew his tender gaze gave him away. “Gotcha. Whatever you need.” Always.

 

“See you in a few, Keith,” Lance said, with all affection and only a little bit of pain.

 

Keith left with a smile and a slight burn to his eyes. Today, today was going to be a good day. And if it served as some kind of sign … then the better days weren’t that far away.

 

******

 

 

Chapter Text

******

Keith

 Five Months and Three Weeks On the Castle of Lions

******

 

“That’s fascinating,” Sam said, reclining back in his seat, one hand reaching for his tablet, no doubt to take notes.

 

Coran had a finger wrapped around his mustache, perched on Sam’s worktable. “Indeed. And so you believe that the pain wasn’t entirely yours?”

 

“I think it was me and Red clashing. The bond was … trying to heal, I guess. But I was shutting it down at every corner, and Red was trying to force it …” Keith tilted his head. “I’m not too sure how else to explain it?”

 

“I believe I understand.” Allura clasped her hands together, her own expression serious. She was pacing as she worked through her theory. “You were both interfering with a natural process — it would take time for a harshly severed bond to heal, but, you, Keith, stymied it completely, and Red was trying to speed it up. The resulting conflict induced those horrible headaches you experienced.”

 

“Sometimes I can’t get over how alike you and Red are,” Shiro said with a grin. He nudged Keith with an elbow. “If you can’t ignore a problem, then you have to confront it head on in the fastest, most brutal way possible—”

 

“Hey, clearly you’ve got some of that, otherwise Red wouldn’t let you pilot her,” Keith countered immediately.

 

“Have you mentioned any of this to Lance yet?” Allura asked, looking vaguely hopeful. “He hasn’t seen Blue since …”

 

“Matt says he’s been closed off about that for months now.” Sam gave Keith an apologetic look, but he’d made peace with Matt and Lance’s friendship, so he just shook his head and shrugged. Sam tapped his chin once. “It seems Lance isn’t ready to try what Keith has.”

 

“Or he doesn’t think it’s possible at all.” Keith didn’t think Lance could face Blue. For any number of reasons; maybe Lance didn’t think he was worthy (Keith certainly hadn’t), maybe Lance didn’t want to be worthy (he definitely didn’t want to be a Paladin), or maybe … Lance didn’t want anyone or anything inside his head.

 

“At first, I really thought it should come from me. But …” Keith looked towards Shiro. “Maybe it would be better if he asked. If I just blurted it out, the way things are between us now … He might see it as me forcing the issue. And I’ve had enough of making him feel cornered.” No one seemed surprised by the implied rift between him and Lance, though he didn’t expect them to be. They all knew that he and Lance didn't share a room anymore, and that they spent more time with Sam and Matt, respectively, than they did with each other.

 

Yet Lance had been crying in his arms the night before last. He’d choked out some of what had broken him, and it had been excruciating to hear … But Keith had never been more grateful for such pain. If he tried to talk to Lance about the Lions now … He didn’t want Lance to think he was pressing for more, not so soon after that.

 

“All right.” Shiro put a hand on Keith’s shoulder. “No one is going to push Lance. Coran, do you think—”

 

“I believe Keith has the right of it.” Coran hopped off Sam’s table. “Without betraying Lance’s confidence, I can tell you that he is … making peace with himself, albeit gradually. There are a few things he may never be able to reconcile with … We may all simply have to accept that.”

 

Keith knew Lance hadn’t been able to give Coran details, but that didn’t mean Coran couldn’t take a fairly educated guess at the myriad of memories that plagued Lance’s conscience. Keith’s nightmares had taken him to places he never wanted to revisit in the light of day; his own twisted imagination conjured up the most depraved notions of what may have happened to Lance while Keith had been injured. Or what Lance could have done.

 

But these past few months had created enough distance between them that Keith could clearly see that Lance was trying. He’d been disappearing with Coran more, and taking time to train with Serla, who exhausted Lance in the best ways. Without the weight of Keith’s expectations, without having to hold himself and Keith up during these long days on the Castle … Lance had been coming to terms, achingly slow, but it was working.

 

That fracture from two nights ago — it was the most hopeful bit of agony Keith had experienced yet from Lance.

 

Their impromptu meeting concluded, as Keith had to now leave with Lance to meet up with Serla.

 

“Where did you disappear off to? Lance asked, leaning against the hanger doors and frowning as Keith jogged towards him.

 

“Just a quick talk with Shiro,” Keith prevaricated. “Don’t have time, we’re gonna be late.”

 

They rushed into The Dagos and took off towards the Blade base.

 

Keith was feeling … awkward. That conversation with the others had felt necessary, but left him feeling like he’d done something behind Lance’s back. He truly did think Lance might take it the wrong way if Keith explained his and Red’s healing bond, particularly so soon after he’d finally opened to Keith about those two weeks …

 

“Hey, did you know that Coran and Kolivan are a thing?” Keith blurted out before they reached the base.

 

Lance nearly fell out of his co-pilot chair as he spun swiftly to face Keith. “Holy crow, what? Are you serious? How did you—”

 

“Pay attention next time they’re talking about each other. Or to each other. I picked up on it when Celyian and Lirune were giving Kolivan grief …” Keith flashed a quick grin as he ducked beneath several asteroids. “So you didn’t know?”

 

“Holy crap,” Lance said, staring off at the distant stars. “I have … no idea what to do with this information … All those ‘drinks’ and those ‘training sessions’ … Keith, Keith, I don’t want to think about Coran—”

 

“Yeah, no, please stop.” Keith jerked the ship a bit roughly, getting Lance to swear at him. “No images needed. That being said … I’m kinda glad. For both of them. Coran seems … happier.”

 

“Yeah,” Lance concurred, his eyes drifting to one side. “Yeah, he does. I can’t read Kolivan at all, but … yeah.” He went silent for a bit, then he laughed. “Man, who do you think asked who out first?”

 

“Coran,” Keith said immediately. “It definitely had to be Coran.”

 

“Hm, you know, I would agree, but Coran can be kinda oblivious when it’s about him, yeah?”

 

They had a good natured argument about it right up until they were disembarking at the base.

 

Serla was waiting, tapping her foot impatiently, and when they reached the bottom of the ramp, she shoved a few crates of supplies in their arms and then began pushing them right back up. 

 

“No time, get moving!” she barked. “We just got a damn good window of opportunity for this, but it’s not a long one!”

 

Keith looked over his shoulder at her. “What the hell?”

 

“Your debrief is in your crate. Read it quick, then purge it. Have fun! Remember, keep making me good money!” She grinned viciously when Lance juggled his crate one-handed so he could flick her off with his other hand.

 

Back on the ship, Keith picked up a small tablet, skimming the perfunctory details of their operation … And he started to grin.

 

This was a mission Keith knew he could enjoy.

 

And not two hours later, Lance seemed to be having a blast, too.

 

“Avast, ye swabs!” Lance crowed.

 

It was a good thing Ryner had made a point to send her best agents to pilot this ship — anybody with lesser espionage training might have cracked. Cracked up laughing as Lance shamelessly chewed up the scenery.

 

This Olkari ship was right on the edge of Galra space, so there was every chance they would be caught either mid-pillaging, or shortly thereafter. The goal was to finish this up quickly so that these agents had a chance to escape onto Lance and Keith’s ship. Then they needed to haul ass before the Galra could get a decent read on them.

 

“Explosives are set, so it’s best if you all settle down and let us take what we want,” Keith said measuredly. “I have no problems blowing this all to hell early.”

 

“Despicable!” Captain Derein spat at them. “Have you not even an atom of conscience? We’re fighting to save lives.

 

“Not mine.” Keith cocked his gun and fired. The shot was absorbed by the Olkari’s armour, but he flew back convincingly, mimed death perfectly.

 

“Ren, you’re not leaving me anyone to play with,” Lance said impishly, stepping over the “corpses” of the other Olkari.

 

“You monsters!” Another Olkari agent rushed them, a dagger in her hand.

 

It was a clever ploy, one they’d discussed just before the mission kicked off. Keith ducked beneath her weapon, stabbing with one of his swords. With a wordless apology, he plunged it into a subtle spot marked on her armour. It was a real wound, one that hopefully wouldn’t bleed out too rapidly. At the same time, another Olkari agent leapt silently, managed to plunge his blade into Keith’s right side.

 

It fucking hurt, but it gave Lance a reason to “kill” Keith’s attacker, and then everyone else, in a burst of controlled anger.

 

“You know what? I think I’m done leaving people alive,” Lance said, once all was silent. “We’ve got enough of a reputation to get good money for our services, and Liant trusts our intel above most of her intelligence gatherers. I’d say, let’s stop the bullshit. No survivors.”

 

“That Galra freighter—”

 

“Was a mistake,” Lance admitted, leaving it open ended, a story untold. “But maybe one we should keep repeating.”

 

“We don’t have time right now,” Keith said, holding up his wrist computer. “Explosives are set, and we’re too close to Empire space. Let’s finish this, and leave.”

 

“You know I’m right,” Lance sing-songed.

 

Keith paused as he gathered up their last bits of loot and hauled the sack over his shoulder, clutching his stab wound tightly. “Yeah, I know, Ath. I’m with you, as always.”

 

Lance took the sack from him and helped him walk (Keith was fine, the dagger hadn’t struck that deep), wrapping an arm around Keith’s waist. Then he pushed a button, unseen, with the hand that was hidden beneath Keith’s coat. It engaged a clever Olkari program that would record as soon as they were gone, loop the video for several seconds — just long enough for these agents to get up and run to the Dagos.

 

The Galra Empire would no doubt be able to cull the security footage from the wreckage, and all it would reveal was two pirates done with their minimal acts of mercy.

 

Their scene would credit them with the completely destroyed freighter that Regris had been on, thus absolving any of his still-undercover connections. Even better, now any Galra ship that disappeared in its entirety would always possibly be associated with them. It would make it that much more difficult for the Galra Empire to track the rebels, to track the Voltron Alliance. This just might muddy the waters so severely that Rull’uren and Ath’era may become a priority, just for the sake of clarity.

 

Once they were back on their ship, Lance immediately tucked Keith into the pilot chair, and then grabbed the medical kit from beneath the main console.

 

“Hold still, dumbass,” Lance ordered him as Keith reached for the controls. “Let me patch you up so at least you have stitches to rip with your stupidity.”

 

Keith rolled his eyes, but let Lance proceed with cleaning, disinfecting, and applying a heavy dollop of healing gel (which hadn’t been there originally — Coran must’ve slipped onto their ship at some point). That gel didn’t work as well as a stay in the cryo pods, but it did speed up the healing process significantly. Lance stuck on a few adhesive stitches to the stab wound, and then scrutinized his work for a solid minute.

 

Keith’s mind didn’t feel the need to dwell on every brush of skin on skin, or the way Lance’s arms rested on Keith’s thighs occasionally when he leaned in closer. This felt … easy. Comfortable. Keith watched that head of dark brown hair, noting that the waves were getting to be unruly. Any longer, and Keith would have to start mocking Lance for his mullet, particularly as Keith had let his hair grow out.

 

By the time Lance had finally wrapped up, the Olkari agents were on the ship, Captain Derein calling out, “All clear!”

 

Man!” Lance threw himself back in his chair, spinning a little. “That was too damn fun!”

 

Keith pulled away from the Olkari ship as fast as he could, pressing the button for the bomb. Ryner’s people had placed a dozen dead Olkari soldiers (lost in the most recent conflict with the Empire), in the hold of the ship, and once the explosion hit, those bodies (and pieces of them) were caught up in the semi-weak blast. Just enough organic material would remain to provide evidence of death. The sacrifice of these soldiers continued on even after death, and Lance and Keith both took a moment of silence for them.

 

That, in addition to the security footage that would survive in the hardy Olkari data chips, would do plenty of good for Rull’uren and Ath’era’s new direction.

 

Captain Derein appeared in the doorway a couple of minutes after the explosion, his eyes taking in the floating debris. “I see all went to plan.”

 

“Thanks to you and your crew,” Lance said, swinging his chair around, grinning up at the Olkari agent. “You guys deserve awards for that acting.”

 

“Surely it pales in comparison to your performance,” Derein said with a broad grin and a shake of his head. “If I hadn’t seen intelligence on your previous missions …”

 

“Tell ‘em we want autographs before we leave!” came a giddy shout from the loading dock, echoing down the hall, along with a burst of raucous laughter.

 

Keith couldn’t hold back a smile, and Lance winked at the captain. “I’ll sign wherever they want.”

 

“Dangerous proposition, Lance,” the Captain said with an answering wink. “I know for a fact that might involve some disrobing.”

 

This got a series of cheers from the dock, and Lance whistled back, laughing afterwards.

 

Their flight took them to a large asteroid where a small Olkari base was hidden. They dropped Captain Derein and his crew there, and after much teasing on both sides, they departed for Crallipothia.

 

“Man, I don’t know that I’m up to dealing with Liant today,” Lance said, his shoulders hunching in, his mouth flattening. “I … it’s been a good day.”

 

“Yeah.” It had been fun. Best of all, the only bloodshed had been planned for, and no one had died. “I know.”

 

Lance went quiet as Keith flew towards The Wastes. His side gave a twinge if he tried any of his more fancy maneuvers, so Keith stuck to a rather boring flight pattern. He didn't say a word for nearly two hours, letting Lance have the silence he seemed to need right now.

 

By the time Keith was landing the ship in the Hot Pot, Lance seemed to have gathered enough of himself to pull up a smile. “Right, let’s deliver this intel, and then let’s … I don’t know.”

 

“How about you take us home?” Keith suggested, resting a hand on his stitched up injury for a moment. “Honestly, my instincts are working against me — every time I try to fly the way I want to, this thing hurts like hell.”

 

“I am going to shamelessly take advantage of that,” Lance said swiftly, his smile shifting into something more genuine.

 

He took a second to tug Keith in close by his jacket, reaching in to lift his shirt and stare at the wound again. Satisfied that Keith hadn’t done any further damage, he dropped the shirt and stepped back.

 

“I can deal with Liant.” Keith blew a few locks of hair out of his face. “Or, I will, if you can just get this damn thing away from me.”

 

At this point, Lance’s smile was a full-fledged grin. He all but pounced on Keith, tugging the hair tie out so he could carefully gather the black strands. “I’ve been dying to braid this disaster for weeks! Can I?” Keith gave a nod, and Lance fist-pumped. “Oh, hell yes. Dude, how about a French braid? You would totally rock that.”

 

“Whatever you want, Lance, as long as it’s out of my face,” Keith said with a half-shrug.

 

His eyes closed as Lance gently finger-combed his hair, the braid forming gradually. When Lance tied it off and let go, he felt the end land solidly in the middle of his back. When he got back to the Castle, he’d trim his hair after his shower — this was way too much to deal with on a daily basis.

 

It was much easier to shove his braided hair into the helmet; a few stubborn locks were already slipping out to frame his face, but they were easily tucked behind his ears.

 

They both made sure they had all their weapons ready, and that they had the money to pay the dock protection fee.

 

In Keith’s inner jacket pocket, he carried the thumb drive with the information they’d accrued; flight patterns of Olkari patrols, a few caches that were going to be sacrificed, along with miscellaneous information about anomalies and black holes. All of it genuine, nothing forged.

 

The patrols would be on high alert due to their “missing” ship, so any pirates Liant tipped off shouldn’t be surprised by extra resistance. The Olkari bases had been informed that their locations were being used on this operation. The caches were full of supplies that were easily replaced, and the guards there were under instructions to give up and run at the first sign of serious opposition.

 

In other words, Liant should be satisfied with this intel, even if it wasn’t as promising as handing over a Galra agent, they should get a decent pay-out, and then it was time to head on back to the Castle.

 

But nothing was ever simple. Not with them.

 

“Your little Galra agent proved to be quite informative in the end,” Liant said as she offered them cookies, as usual. She didn’t seem at all upset. “I acquired a few highly lucrative bits of information from him. I can certainly sell the information to you, at a discounted price.”

 

“You know, we’ve been having a good time with the Voltron Alliance ships lately,” Lance said cheerfully, shoving a few cookies into his pocket. “So I think we’ll lay off the empire for now. What did you do with the kid?”

 

“Oh, I sold him to Edrei over in the Meat District nearly a fortnight ago,” she said peaceably. “She and I had tea earlier this morning — he’s proving quite the challenge to break. She’s never had my talents in that area. She lacks finesse.”

 

Keith’s heart leapt into his throat.

 

Edrei the Thorned, so called because of the twisted vine brand she burned into all her boys and girls, whether they were dealers or prostitutes in her pleasure dens. Keith had seen some of her people around the Hot Pot, wooing customers towards her central command and most expensive brothel — a mansion-like building in the Meat District. The bright smiles, and the artfully styled clothes, expensive, cleanly-pressed, hiding all marks, except that thorned vine brand, crawling up their neck and just behind their left ears …

 

Terual had been with Edrei for maybe two weeks or so? Too much, Keith thought grimly. Too much time. He swallowed dryly, holding back a flinch when Liant smiled gently at him.

 

“You need to eat as well, dear,” she scolded him in her soft, creaking voice. “I can’t imagine that Ath’era shares any of his bounty with you.”

 

“Hey, I’m as generous as they come,” Lance said, though he did make a point to stop shovelling cookies into all available pockets. “I share plenty with Ren. And he takes even more.” Somehow, he managed to get a leer across even with a helmet obscuring his features.

 

Liant threw her head back and laughed. “Well, that settles a bet I had with my boys. Did you hear that, Kenthor? Sorry, but Ath’era is off the market.”

 

The huge, bulking guard, who had flirted with Lance a few times now, nodded and then sighed. “Yeah, I heard ‘im. Crying shame,” he said in a low, grumbling voice.

 

“You can’t even see my face, big guy. For all you know, I’m uglier than a melted Weblum carcass.” Lance stretched in his chair.

 

Kenthor’s dark yellow eyes traced the long lines of muscles on clear display through the form-fitting armour. “Legs like that, wouldn’t have cared,” Kenthor muttered to himself.

 

But Keith picked it up, thanks to his mildly enhanced Galra hearing.

 

He ignored the fact that he, too, was wearing a helmet, and levelled the bodyguard with a vicious glare.

 

Maybe he gave off more menace than normal, thanks to Liant’s horrifying revelation about Terual. Maybe his tolerance for dangerous people blatantly flirting with Lance had lessened significantly, since it didn’t happen every day anymore. Either way, Keith was pretty satisfied with Kenthor ducking his head and retreating even further back into his designated corner.

 

“Well, I thank you for this latest bit of sweet intel, younglings,” Liant said as she stood up. “But these old bones need rest, and you two, I’m sure, have a long night ahead at the Drive Core, as usual.”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” Lance said with a smile in his voice. “I’ll win you something nice at the wheel tables.”

 

She shooed him away with a wrinkled hand. “I know what your luck is like. Go on, now, don’t let this old lady keep you away from your fun. Make good choices.”

 

Lance offered her a silly salute and dragged Keith out, shooting a look over his shoulder at Kenthor, one that the huge alien couldn’t see through his helmet — but he could definitely see the hand Lance had slid under Keith’s coat, resting very obviously at the small of his back before it dropped lower and squeezed.

 

Keith elbowed him as soon as they were out on the streets and away from Liant’s front door. “You’re an asshole.”

 

“Mm. But maybe that creep will keep his eyes to himself from now on,” Lance said absently. “Now, let’s head over to the Drive Core. Gotta make good on our promise.”

 

Keith heard the undertone in Lance’s voice. Which promise was he referring to?

 

As they played the tables, Keith noticed Lance was being particularly grabby tonight. His hands were always on Keith in some way, and even if he couldn’t feel the heat of them through the armour, the pressure generated a heat of its own.

 

But he wasn’t in the mood to indulge that longing — he’d developed a high tolerance to it these last few months. Instead, he kept his focus on maintaining the charade, on letting his own fingers trace the lines of Lance’s muscles through the armour, and snaking his own arm beneath Lance’s coat to wrap around his waist.

 

They didn’t pay much attention to the wheel tables, losing a fair bit of gak. They cashed out with about the same amount they’d come in with, having broken even, and used half of that to pay for a room. A few whistles and howls followed their stumbling journey up the stairs and past the guards …

 

Lance shut the room’s door behind them, and after a quick sweep for bugs and cameras, he yanked the curtains shut and took off his helmet. His eyes were dark, his jaw clenched. Keith stared for a few seconds, but followed suit and removed his own disguise. Lance waited for him to set down the helmet before speaking.

 

“We’re getting Terual out of there.”

 

Keith shouldn’t have been surprised. But he was. He was both surprised and relieved. His knees went weak. He hadn’t seen this Lance since … Since the early days at Yathir’s inn. God, he’d missed him.

 

But Keith, Keith hadn’t been a natural-born hero like Lance, and his time as a mercenary had honed his worst instincts — the ones that kept him alive, and Lance alive. So he had to say it.

 

“We can’t.”

 

Lance’s shoulders straightened. “We promised Shiro to do better. We can’t face him, face any of them, if we let Terual stay in that place.”

 

“He’s probably not the first person we’ve turned over to her to end up there.” Keith hated the bitterness of those words — the foul taste of harsh truth. “And he’s not an innocent bystander. He’s a Galra Empire operative. He was sent to specifically hunt us down, and if not kill us, then pass on intel that would get us killed.”

 

“He’s the first person we know for a fact ended up in that hellhole. He’s a stupid, naive prick who’s been brainwashed his entire life, and tortured into believing the people inflicting the pain actually give a damn,” Lance said flatly. “Those druids haven’t lifted a finger to find him. No one is coming for him. Do you remember that feeling, Keith? Because I do. I remember when I realized no one was coming.”

 

“We knew they cared.” Keith leaned back near the door, tapping his fingers restlessly against the pea-green wallpaper. “The universe is so huge, how could they—”

 

“Yeah, I know. They would’ve been there if they could. But that didn’t make it any less …” Lance looked away, a muscle flexing in his jaw. Then he sighed. “You don’t want to risk it.”

 

“We’ve got our identities secured. The Empire is diverting valuable resources to hunt us, including their best agents. More than anyone on that damn planet ever was, except maybe Dras, this is our enemy.

 

“I’m not asking you to spare anyone in the Empire. It’s a war, and if they come at me, they die.” Lance’s hands clenched into fists at his side. “But this isn’t death. This isn’t execution. This is … this is what Dras and Akros would’ve done to us. And I am not going to let myself resemble those thrice-damned assholes. Not like this.”

 

“It’s only for a few days. You would be left relatively intact, well-fed and cared for between clients. At the end of the week, your execution awaits.” Akros shrugged then, looking so indifferent, so cold as he announced their fate. “And perhaps you may have a chance to escape, who knows?”

 

Akros gave a rather passionless smile. “Your reputation would be in tatters by then, of course. I can think of several of your so-called allies who would pay handsomely to have one of you, or both. And so even if you do somehow manage to save your own lives, what kind of following would you have? We’ve captured you, defeated your cause, and will dismantle your entire support network. No one will want to touch you … unless, of course, you work for someone like Porthwin. Or Denna. Denna would be the kinder option — Dras wouldn’t bother you if you worked for her quietly. Diligently.”

 

Keith remembered the gut-wrenching rage, the horror at having to watch Lance fall to pieces, in ways Lance had already established he just could not handle. He remembered how Lance seemed to almost bend the bars of their cells, to get to Keith, to stab Akros in the face …

 

No one was coming for Terual.

 

“We can’t be Ath’era and Rull’uren for this,” Keith said into the silence.

 

He threw his coat off, standing there in just his armour and swords. He folded the coat up and set it down beside the helmet.

 

Lance stared for a moment, and then a smile, slow and sweet, a sharp edge of a knife that glinted threateningly. He tossed his signature coat down as well.

 

Lance smoothed a hand over his hair, a crooked pull to his mouth. “If the Galra Empire’s worst pirate threat can’t take care of this, then maybe a pair of mercenary cowboys can?”

 

Keith nodded out towards the window, to the bustling streets below them. “We’ll need to go shopping. Don’t hold your breath for a cowboy hat ‘round these parts.”

 

The drawl had Lance laughing, and Keith grinned to himself, a surge of adrenaline, déjà vu in the best way as Lance shot him a wink and said, “I know how disappointed that makes you, but I’m sure I can find something that’ll work.”

 

“Hm, I’ll cover the cost if you do find something halfway decent.” Keith pulled Lance in close before they had to move out. “We’re most likely going to blow our cover with this. They might not figure out we’re Paladins, but they’ll definitely know we’re affiliated with Voltron or the rebels. The only humans around are in those two groups.”

 

“Kolivan is going to be really disappointed, and I know Lirune and Celyian will … Do the Blades have court martials?” Lance shrugged, one of his arms wrapping lightly around Keith’s back. “But I think we can make it work. I think Ath and Ren could be …” He trailed off, uncertain, his smile fading.

 

“McClains,” Keith finished for him. “I think they always were a variation — space cowboys become pirates.”

 

“You’re … okay with that?” Lance stared at him for a second before his eyes drifted to the side.

 

“Lance, you’re my best friend.” Keith tightened his hold, bringing their bodies in closer together. “And I’m proud to share a name with you, in whatever way I can.”

 

“That’s … good.” Lance’s gaze met his again. The smile crept back, slowly, carefully. “Find me a hat, yeah? I can’t be a McClain without a good hat. Oh, and bandanas across the face for us both.”

 

“But the same weapons, same fighting style … Anyone with two brain cells is gonna put it together. Maybe we should just—”

 

“Keith, if you deny me my prime shopping opportunity, te juro que no va terminar bien para ti.”

 

“No te creo,” Keith replied, leaning in to whisper into his ear. “And that’s not much of a threat, considering how you used to wreak your vengeance on me …”

 

Lance shoved him away, laughing, but Keith felt a sharp pang of regret, an ache — one reflected in those blue, blue eyes, even as Lance joked, “Well, I was thinking of spiking your toothpaste with Hunk’s favourite hot sauce, or stealing all your fingerless gloves.”

 

“I’ll just recruit Pidge to my side, and together, we would destroy you,” Keith said dismissively.

 

The grateful smile Lance shot him was brief, but Keith returned it as they geared up with as much as they could attach to their armour. Lance slid open the window, glancing out across the many wires zig-zagging between the various mis-matched buildings, the improvised street lamps and strings of lights … Lance pointed towards a six-storey apartment less than half a block away.

 

“There’s a market district right behind there. We get what we need, and pick up a few grenades at Rennada’s stall. I used most of mine back on the Olkari ship.”

 

“We should find you a couple of projectile pistols, if we can.” Keith put one leg out the window, his booted foot seeking a ledge to balance on. “Change of weapons might help a bit.”

 

Keith knew Lance shot better with a bit of weight to his guns. Lance nodded his agreement, watching as Keith climbed out and upwards. He navigated a path to the roof, cautiously avoiding any open windows. When he was about halfway, he glanced back down at Lance and jerked his head in signal.

 

From the top of The Drive Core, it was relatively simple to plot a path across rooftops and through alleyways towards the closest market.

 

The first thing they bought were a pair of silky scarves (green/blue patterned for Lance, silver and black for Keith) that they quickly wound around their necks, tying them off so they were tight across the lower half of their faces.

 

Next they sought different coats — Lance giggled as he found a dark brown leather jacket with fringed sleeves. He threw it on immediately, his eyes crinkled in a broad smile. Keith chose an understated charcoal grey jacket, which had a handy couple of inner belts and pockets specifically for knives.

 

The coat-seller also had a bunch of nifty little weapons that fit perfectly in the pockets, belts, and hidden compartments of their jackets. Clever merchandizing strategy.

 

Lance insisted on picking up a pair of slim-fitting turquoise trousers, and a blue V-neck shirt that matched his eyes. He followed this up with knee-high boots in a reddish-brown.

 

Keith bought them a bag with a long leather strap. Clearly, they were going armour-less for this, and thus needed somewhere to store said armour.

 

In no time at all, they had found several weapons merchants, including Rennada and her cleverly crafted grenades. They didn’t bother haggling, and once they’d purchased all that they could think of, they sought somewhere to change.

 

They ducked into a dark alleyway and swapped their armour for the rest of their newly purchased wares, one keeping watch while the other changed. Together, they finished strapping on (and concealing) all their weapons, and then leaned back to evaluate each other.

 

Keith nodded to himself — they no longer looked anything like the more subdued Rull’uren and Ath’era.

 

Deciding to complement Lance’s gaudy clothes, Keith had splurged on a pair of midnight-purple pants, tight at the thighs, but a little too big at the waist, and so he held them up with a black strip of leather, knotted at one side. He wore a rather billowy white shirt with silver buttons, tucked into his belted pants. His boots were black with flashy studs along the heels. With both their new heavy coats thrown on top, they were very nearly ready.

 

Lance swooned in a mocking manner, but Keith noted the dark look in his eyes. The welcome kind of dark. He’d likely seen Keith’s own stare lingering on his long legs in those awful tacky pants. Keith hadn’t been trying to hide.

 

But then Lance’s thick lashes fluttered, his gaze shocked. He snatched Keith’s hand, and Keith barely had time to clutch the bag containing their armour as he was yanked out of the alleyway.

 

Near one of the meat-on-a-stick vendors, was another clothing/weapons stand that had an eclectic collection of headgear, from helmets to hats … Immediately, Keith spotted Lance’s target: an earthy clay coloured hat with a wide brim that dipped down just slightly in the front. Not exactly a cowboy hat. But close. There was a smaller, similar one in an ash grey.

 

Keith didn’t wait for Lance to open his mouth. He bought them on the spot, and smashed the clay toned hat over Lance’s head. Lance tugged the brim down, and with the scarf tucked up over his nose, there was only an intimidating flash of his royal blue eyes.

 

Keith placed his own hat on his head, and then nodded.

 

They turned in unison towards Edrei’s lair, towards Terual, their enemy.

 

He’d been in there too long already; Keith knew that at some point in the very near future, if it hadn’t happened already, Edrei would decide to hand him over to her guards for more severe … breaking in. They had to do this now. An impossible escape to orchestrate in an hour, but the Two McClains had always been good at improvisation.

 

Lance wandered over to one of the guards outside the mansion gates. It was odd, seeing this elegant four-storey building crammed tight between lopsided towers and crumbling store fronts. It even had a smallish garden out front and in the back.

 

“Hi there!” Lance said sunnily, a hint of sultry to his tone. His hands were visibly resting on his hips, not close enough to his guns to be a threat, but near enough to make a point.

 

Everyone on this planet was threatening in some capacity, so the guard didn’t tense or pull his own weapons. He was tall and muscular, but not overly so, with his dark green hair buzzed at the sides, the rest short and curly. He had many guns and knives strapped to him, but his four arms were relaxed, two of them crossed over his chest. He dipped his head in acknowledgement, remaining silent.

 

“So, my partner and I recently found ourselves acquiring a few slaves on the fringes of Bantur space — latest place hit by the Galra. And most of ‘em are pretty and spry. We heard this is the place to come to get cargo like that off our hands. We at the right address, kind sir?” Even with half his face hidden, Lance oozed charm.

 

The guard nodded again, speaking in a fairly precise and articulate manner, “That would be correct. However, Edrei only takes the highest quality or most exotic goods. If you wish to impress her, you will need to bring a sample.”

 

“Ah, I understand,” Lance said — the guard’s polite, professional voice had Lance dropping any hint of flirting from his. “She probably gets a lot of offers. Hm.”

 

Keith expected Lance to think quickly on his feet, and he wasn’t disappointed.

 

“Well, since I’m here … How much for a good time?” He said the cliché line with a sarcastic little wink, followed by an eyeroll. “I’m not looking to partake, just looking to see what kind of wares Edrei deems acceptable. If I happen to be interested …” Lance’s tone went fairly indifferent, though still polite. “I have coin to spend. But I won’t lie and say that’s my primary motivation. Mostly just need to see how my stock compares.”

 

The guard appeared to appreciate the seeming veracity. “I’ll let you through, but if you aren’t seen spending gak, you risk being removed. I suggest you seek out a young woman — Glira.” He smiled, a little shyly. “She is quite clever, and may help you further. As well as providing you with … entertainment.”

 

He used a small, electronic key to unlock the gate; Lance and Keith strolled inside, the first part of their plan going off without a hitch.

 

Keith did not expect this to last.

 

There was a surprisingly warm feel to Edrei’s mansion — soft music, mismatched furniture that was all within the same colour scheme (warm reds, oranges, and golds).

 

The first floor seemed to be entirely an open living room area, and guests were mingling with the employees; apparently, you could wander this floor of the mansion without partaking … Until the burly guards likely forced you to either spend money or leave.

 

A receptionist greeted them eventually, and when they asked for Glira, she happily summoned the girl in question.

 

“We saw your weapons on the scanners.” The receptionist accepted their down payment with a sharp-looking grin — literally, as her canines were particularly long. “We don’t prevent anyone from carrying their arsenal in here, as you are entitled to protect yourself. But if you harm anyone of us, Edrei sees it at a personal attack. She will annihilate you and everyone you’ve ever known. Your deaths will take days. If you’re lucky. Welcome to Edrei the Thorned’s House of Pleasurable Pursuits. ”

 

The receptionist bowed and walked away without anything else said. Keith had the feeling that was a speech she recited to every first-timer — it had the distinct sound of being oft repeated. He hiked his bag of armour and grenades further up his chest, unphased by the threat, but he filed it away all the same.

 

When Glira appeared, Keith was surprised to see a happy looking person. Her rich brown skin was unblemished from what was visible, with the exception of Edrei’s tattoo snaking up from her neck to just behind her left ear. She had bright blue hair and dark, dark grey cat’s eyes. She smiled genuinely, bowing and welcoming them with a pleasantly soft voice. When they reached her room — on the second floor, rather large, with a small seating area and a huge, comfy looking bed — she poured them some tea before taking a seat. She was fully dressed, casual in a pair of loose pants and a long-sleeved shirt.

 

This wasn’t anything like Keith expected, which immediately set him on edge.

 

“Your guard friend recommended you to us,” Lance began, picking up his tea, smelling it, but not drinking it. He put it back down gently.

 

Glira’s eyes tracked the motion, and then she smiled sweetly. “I imagine so. Donen tries to send me the kind ones, and if they’re handsome, well, even better.” She winked, as easy and as charming as Lance.

 

Lance raised his eyebrows. “Are you …”

 

“No, no, we’re not.” She smoothed out her pants. “His species only mates twice a year, for the sake of procreation. Outside those two days, they are completely uninterested in any sexual acts.” Her eyes crinkled at the corners. “I have a feeling you’re uninclined to indulge as well, though for different reasons.”

 

Keith cocked his head in acknowledgement. She must have some sort of empathic ability, whether innate or practised, as she wasn’t entirely wrong — Lance and Keith had no intention (or interest) in sleeping with her. Although, given the opportunity to spread Lance out on that warm, soft bed … Keith suppressed the tantalizing shiver across his skin, but not soon enough.

 

Glira’s thick, sculpted eyebrows shot up, her smile broadening towards Keith. “Ah. I see.”

 

She was definitely empathic. Which meant that she would likely sense their deception.

 

“We lied to your friend,” Keith said abruptly, causing Lance to shoot him a glare, though he remained comfortably in his seat. “We’re here to find someone.”

 

She nodded at him. “You wouldn’t be the first. You seem … capable.” Here she shot Lance a small, sad smile.

 

She might have other telepathic abilities. Lance seemed to be catching on to this fact, as he leaned back, his hands dropping to his guns. “What, exactly, do you know?”

 

“Nothing specific. Only that you are powerful and competent. And sad.” She didn’t look at either of them, staring up at the ceiling as though lost in thought. “There are many scars, and they protect you. Your pain does you credit — you’ve learned much from it, for all that you’ve also lost a great deal.”

 

Well … what the hell were they meant to say to that? Keith looked over to see Lance staring at his tea cup, his posture deceptively relaxed.

 

“How do you stay sane?” Lance asked, nearly as abruptly as Keith. “Empaths shouldn’t …” His words trailed off, his eyes glancing about the room, lingering on the bed.

 

Here her smile broadened. “My species can use our skills in a … highly focused manner. I can block out certain sources. Unfortunately, Edrei didn’t listen to me when I told her not to seek out other empaths, especially those not of my species …” Glira’s smile died swiftly. “They did not last long.”

 

Glira smoothed out her pants again, not hiding the shaking of her hands. “I will help you. But you must be quick. This person you’re searching for, I sense no … attachment … He is not a friend?” She seemed curious, and her eyes were flicking back and forth between them, with brief pauses, as though gathering their feelings a little at a time.

 

Lance tapped the table. “No, he’s not. But this isn’t where he should be. This isn’t …” He frowned at her. “No one should be here. Unless it’s by choice. And I mean a real choice. Not because they were hungry, or because they owed money, or because they had nowhere else to go.”

 

Edrei wasn’t Denna, that was certain, Keith thought grimly. No one in Denna’s building had been press-ganged. And those who were desperate were not expected to automatically earn their keep in the same way Czanliu and his comrades did. Edrei traded in slaves and despair, like so many others — and like Porthwin and Liruo, her cruel streak was a mile wide.

 

“He’s a Galra Empire agent,” Keith informed her, making no pretence about who she would be aiding. “If you’re not willing—”

 

“It is as you say. No one should be forced into this kind of life. I was not. I came because I could help. My abilities can ease pain and uplift spirits.” She smiled again. “And I think I know of whom you speak. I’ve met Galra soldiers before. There is a … feeling of metal to their emotions. A solid structure, holding them upright, the source of their convictions. I could feel it when he came in …” Her eyes closed. “And it’s still here. Faint. There is a place, in the sublevels, four floors beneath mine. I will draw you a quick map.”

 

Lance watched her, his discomfort obvious. He seemed on the verge of asking something, but his mouth shut when she glanced his way.

 

Keith didn’t feel all that comfortable with Glira’s abilities either. She was the first empath they’d come across since returning to the Castle. He was tempted to ask how far her reach went. How much she could sense coming from them, if she could reach down and feel things that they weren’t fully aware of … But tonight wasn’t the time for that.

 

They had to find Terual, break him out, and get him to Kolivan before anyone in The Hot Pot realized who they were and where to find them.

 

Glira handed the roughly drawn map to Lance, and he took it by carefully avoiding her skin.

 

“I’m not a touch empath,” she said to him, though she obviously respected his space. “It does not heighten my senses, I assure you.”

 

Lance nodded, standing up and adjusting his clothes and guns. “In that case, we’ll be on our way. What’s the least conspicuous—”

 

“I’ll take you to the baths at the end of this hall. There’s a door that leads to the stairs right next to them. I’ll make sure it looks as though you’re with me. Though I don’t know how well that will hold once you have your prize.”

 

She opened the door and led them out. She smiled at a few others in the corridor, and Keith noticed that no one seemed particularly … despairing. They all offered up welcoming grins and bows, and some even winked and giggled.

 

“Edrei does a very good job of training her acquisitions,” Glira murmured. “Don’t be deceived by the smiles. So many are screaming on the inside. The pain is … It drives most empaths mad. Edrei is greatly annoyed by this. My abilities make me highly sought after. Earns quite a lot of gak. But I’m one of the few empaths who can withstand this place.”

 

They reached the baths with a few more winks and catcalls, but no one interceding. Glira opened the doors to a giant chamber, all white tiles with silver and gold embellishments. Keith stared — there were closed off rooms, and inside the few opened ones, he could see gigantic bathtubs, far too many products lining the shelves, and excess of towels and mirrors.

 

“I … am having a lot of thoughts right now,” Lance said, seemingly out of nowhere, though he did cut Keith with a significant look.

 

Glira nodded to another door just off the main chamber they were currently in. “Down that way. I’ll be inside here, running the bath, making noise. But I will be returning to my room in … an hour. And I’ll be saying you left after that. I can use my own money to fabricate—”

 

“No, no. We already paid half with the receptionist.” Lance gave Glira what remained of his gak. “And this is the rest. Do what you need to be safe. If we get caught, we’ll say we snuck out after … our fun bath times.”

 

She accepted the money, doing a very good job of avoiding Lance’s skin. Once she’d tucked the payment away, Glira bowed deeply to both of them, a hand to her head and then her belly.

 

When she straightened, she said to Lance, “If you could only feel what I feel … I’ve known many great warriors, but few were heroes.” She said this to both Lance and Keith, but her intense gaze rested on Lance longest, as though attempting to embed her words deep in his head.

 

Keith wished it were that easy.

 

Lance seemed nauseated. He looked away, began moving quickly, calling over his shoulder. “Take care of yourself, Glira. I can’t say we’ll be back to help you if …”

 

“Yes. Yes, you would. But I won’t need it.” She waved at them, gifting them one last honest smile, followed by a humble bow.

 

Keith didn’t say anything to Lance as they descended down four floors. He waited until they’d reached the last flight of stairs, putting a hand on Lance’s shoulder. “Let’s see that map.”

 

Their loosely improvised plan now had a touch more structure to it; as they studied Glira’s crude map, Keith pointed out two possible escape routes. They could handle the acrobatics required to climb up and out of here via the elevator shafts and later, the tall fences surrounding the property. They could also attempt an underground getaway. Now, though, the largest obstacle was convincing Terual to come with them.

 

Keith had an idea of how to pull that off, but it would definitely kill off Rull’uren and Ath’era.

 

When he told Lance as much, he just shrugged. “Well, it’s not like we didn’t have a good run,” Lance said with a smile. “Ren and Ath were fun to try on for a bit, but I think we’re McClains down to the core.”

 

“More cowboy than pirate,” Keith agreed, clasping Lance’s shoulder. “Let’s git gone, then.”

 

As always, whenever Keith tapped into his latent Texas accent, Lance couldn’t hold back a broad grin and a poorly concealed giggle. They exchanged a quick high-five and got moving.

 

Finding Terual’s cell wasn’t difficult. The basement was a straightforward dungeon, and the stairway door opened up to a largish area — based on Glira’s map, to their right and around the corner was the elevator, and typically there were only cameras to monitor these rooms …

 

But Terual had given Edrei trouble, according to Liant. They could clearly see down the only two passageways of cells, and at the very end of the left-hand corridor, were three guards stationed in front of a door. Keith stayed tucked against the wall, hidden from their direct line of sight, and tugged down his scarf. Lance did the same, giving him a wink.

 

If they were going at this the Rull’uren and Ath’era way, they’d have set off a few grenades, possibly killing most of the guards, and then sliced through the rest before snatching up their prize and bolting.

 

The Two McClains might have resorted to the same measures, if they didn’t see another option. But there was another route that afforded them slightly more stealth, thus buying them more time to get away.

 

Lance stripped off the outermost layers of his outfit, including his guns and his precious new hat, the latter of which he gave to Keith with a significant don’t you dare lose this glare. He then took one of Keith’s daggers, tucking it in against his back, beneath his shirt. As Keith shoved Lance’s things into their bag of armour and grenades, Lance was left standing there in those form-fitting turquoise pants, and that V-neck shirt that perfectly reflected the blue of his eyes. He tugged off his scarf completely, and then tied it tightly around his waist instead, further concealing the dagger. He looked like one of Edrei’s slaves, casually lounging in clothes perfectly highlighting his best features.

 

Keith raised his eyebrows and pretended to give a silent wolf whistle with two fingers.

 

Lance laughed quietly and then brushed past him, pausing to whisper into his ear, “When I’ve got them pinned, the main camera hub is two metres to the right of this corner, near the elevator. Get Pidge’s looping program in there.”

 

For a split second, Keith could’ve sworn Lance brushed a kiss against his earlobe, but then he was gone, and the phantom sensation disappeared soon after. He had to focus on the urgent issue at hand, but Keith’s mouth quirked up despite himself. He pressed against the edge of the wall, tilting his head to watch Lance do his work.

 

Two burly females and one massive man had been slouching, conversing in whispers that Keith couldn’t make out, but when they spotted Lance, all three of them straightened, and one of the women shouted, “Oi! You ain’t meant to be down here, Fresh Meat!”

 

Lance froze mid-stride. He had his back to Keith, but he could imagine the wide-eyed stare that went with the innocent tone. “Oh, I’m so sorry! Today’s my first day — my master just sold me, and the lady upstairs said to get a feel for the place, while they prepared a room for me on the second floor … It’s, ah, a bit bigger than the last house I was at.” He ducked his head to one side, and Keith could just make out the blush. “Sorry! But … what is this place? I mean, here, specifically, obviously I know …”

 

The other woman, a tall, blue shade, covered in light fur, smiled, and it was nothing like Glira’s. This expression was purely predatory. “Oh, sweet thing, you’re not meant to be here. This is where the miscreants live, where the disobedient must dwell. How about you head on upstairs?”

 

Lance shivered, arms crossing as he walked towards them hesitantly. “I … I’m not sure how I got down here, though …” His shyness wore off the closer he got — Keith could see it in the line of his back, in the way his hips swayed ever so slightly.

 

Two pairs of eyes dropped to those hips, and Keith knew Lance had them.

 

The blue-furred woman didn’t seem to be taken in, but she also wasn’t tensing up as Lance approached. If anything, she seemed amused. She turned to her two comrades. “This one’s soft. If you’re gentle with him, I’ll let you take a break.”

 

“Really?” The man breathed out, his green skin flushing darkly along his cheeks and down his neck. He licked his lips as he glanced towards Lance, who tilted his head and cocked one hip, his hand resting on it … And sliding enticingly along his waist.

 

Towards the dagger.

 

The other woman, purple and lithely muscled, reached out to brush a clawed hand over Lance’s hair.

 

Lance didn’t even flinch. He just looked up at her, and asked in a completely guileless voice, “I guess I could? I mean, that’s what I’m here for? Not too sure about the rules though. At my old place, the guards weren’t allowed … But you seem nice.”

 

When that purple hand dropped to stroke a claw down Lance’s face, Keith held his breath. The claw traced over his starburst scar, and for a moment, the hand behind Lance’s back twitched, grasping for the dagger shakily.

 

“We’re very nice,” the blue-furred woman said, and Keith saw the whip at her waist as she stepped beneath a light — the hints of blood, the splatters on her boots. She grinned wolfishly at Lance. “My friends here will take good care of you. Give you a proper welcome.”

 

The purple woman’s clawed hand had sunk lower, dropping from Keith’s sight.

 

And that’s when Lance moved.

 

He had her flung to her knees, her head jerked back and the dagger pressed against her throat. “Yeah, no, that’s fine. Wasn’t planning on staying here for long.” Lance laughed when they scrambled for weapons, and he stepped hard on the guard’s splayed out ankle, the crack echoing down the hallway, in chorus with the high-pitched scream. “Oh, so sorry, my mistake. Still new here, don’t know the rules.”

 

Keith flung himself around the corner, hitting the box where all the camera wires were routed — he had his computer out and hooked into one of the junctions inside of five seconds. He flicked a glance over his shoulders to check on Lance.

 

The blue-furred woman growled, her whip out and in her hands. “Get your hands off my subordinate, you filth. I don’t care who you belong to, I will leave a mark. Something far worse than that brand on your face.”

 

“Brand? Hm, never thought of it that way,” Lance said contemplatively. “Tell you what, you unlock that door, and I’ll let your buddy here go. Minimal scarring at worst.”

 

The whip cracked, and Keith fired. He wasn’t as good as Lance with these pistols, but he wasn’t trying for anything as fancy as shooting the whip out of her hand. He hit the leader in her shoulder, flinging her back a step as she clutched at the injury.

 

The man whipped around, holding out what looked like a long-barrel pistol — he must’ve been attempting to sneak it out of its holster without Lance noticing, and he succeeded, clearly. But Keith fired again, missing but still hitting the wall by the bastard’s face, and the guard ducked, cursing wildly.

 

Having gained himself a few precious seconds of distraction, Keith yanked his computer out, its work on the camera systems done (someone was going to notice the loop soon, but it might buy them just enough time to get out of the building before the full force of Edrei’s security clued in).

 

He pointed one of Lance’s pistols at the guy with the gun once more, just as Lance stabbed the woman at his feet — he buried Keith’s dagger in her shoulder, and then yanked it out with a vicious twist. Her right arm now useless, he shoved her down before she could regain her bearings, and kicked her viciously in the back of the head, sending her off into an unpleasant sleep.

 

The bigger woman roared, but her cry was truncated by Lance tackling her against Terual’s cell door. The man with the gun stared wide-eyed between Lance and Keith, and by the time he swung his head back around, Keith was on top of the guy, using his swords to pin him to the wall with one plunged through his coat’s left sleeve, and the other through his right forearm.

 

Keith joined Lance in bearing the blue-furred woman to the ground, and he pressed a forearm to her throat, cutting off her air. She went limp. Keith held on for another minute. He wasn’t stupid. He waited until he felt her heart skip a beat beneath him. Then he stood up, keeping an eye on her still form for another few seconds. His side twinged, and he shoved a hand beneath his shirt — it came away with only a few spots of blood. The adhesive stitches were holding, though the wound was aching sharply again.

 

Lance had been fluttering around, grabbing for the key card to the cell. He tossed it to Keith once he found it, and then went back to grab his coat, hat, and his other guns from the bag Keith had dropped by the junction box.

 

Before he did, he slid the dagger back into Keith’s boot. “Sorry for the mess.”

 

“Hm,” Keith said noncommittally. “Sorry for wasting a bullet.”

 

“Good timing and a nice shot are never a waste,” Lance called as he yanked his coat on. He didn’t bother putting the scarf back around his face, leaving it loosely knotted around his neck. Then he simply adjusted everything so it sat just right, with his guns visible and accessible, and his hat jammed on at the perfect angle.

 

Keith also left his scarf at his neck, his face exposed, tilting his hat back. The Two McClains, no longer Rull’uren and Ath’era.

 

He swiped the key card against the door, and Terual tackled him to the floor.

 

The Galra agent tried to get both his hands around Keith’s neck, but Keith managed to grab one arm and yank it painfully at an unnatural angle. The sound of a gun clicking froze Terual, his head slowly tilting upwards. Lance jabbed a pistol into his forehead.

 

“Calm down. We’re here to get you out.”

 

Terual stared. And stared some more. His eyes were so huge they seemed to take up half his face — a face that was far thinner, and heavily marked with bruises. He stared down at Keith as if seeing him for the first time. Keith was about to tell him that they were Rull’uren and Ath’era, the people who had inadvertently sent him to this place and wanted to rectify their mistake; in doing so, he knew the Galra Empire would know their faces, and it wouldn’t be long before they figured out their connection to the Castle … But apparently, Keith didn’t need to bother with that flimsy layer of deception.

 

“You’re … the Paladins. The Lost Paladins.”

 

It sounded like an official title.

 

Keith blinked. He wasn’t expecting to be recognized that quickly. It had honestly seemed like the Galra Empire had forgotten about them once Matt arrived to take Lance’s place in the Blue Lion, Shiro the Red, and Allura the Black. He didn’t think the Galra Empire cared one way or another who was piloting the Lions, so long as they were eliminated.

 

“The lost who?” Lance asked with confusion — his lying was convincing, but Terual didn’t budge.

 

“The druids were tasked with finding you for nearly … two deca-phoebs. Your search was closed as of six phoebs, but …” Terual recoiled from Keith, pressing himself up against a corner. He wore threadbare pants and a sleeveless shirt of grey. He didn’t have any noticeable scars, but bruises littered every visible bit of skin, a few whip lacerations peeking out from his low neckline. He was emaciated, and his hair had grown to shoulder length, the pale lavender strands dishevelled and clumped with sweat and blood.

 

“Just six phoebs ago,” Lance said, glancing at Keith, clearly giving up on the act. “We thought you gave up long before that.”

 

“Leverage,” Terual said by way of answer. “Even though Voltron had found new pilots, if we’d found the Lost Paladins … What would they be willing to trade for your lives?”

 

Keith stood up. Terual didn’t flinch, but he kept his eyes on Lance’s weapons. His hands were tightly clenching his clothes, and his body was curled up defensively. The only reassurance Keith could reach for was that attentive flicker in Terual’s eyes, and the lack of distinctive hand or shackle bruises around his wrists. Terual seemed … okay enough.

 

As far as Keith knew, guards weren’t allowed to use any of Edrei’s new acquisitions until they were situated upstairs, and Edrei’s fiercest, most notable punishments were for those who defied her. Lance had danced that line carefully in his deception for that reason.

 

Right then, Keith hated Edrei. He hated everyone, including the only conscious guard, who had been whimpering as he struggled to free himself, blood pouring sluggishly down his arm. Keith went to retrieve his swords, ripping them out and dropping the guard down to meet his knee. The blow knocked him out, with prejudice.

 

Terual watched this all with the same unflinching stare.

 

“Can you walk? Run?” Lance asked.

 

Terual nodded. Then he said, hesitantly, “Can I … have a weapon?”

 

Keith held up the bloodied dagger. “Can you keep it out of our backs until we’re out of here?”

 

Terual nodded again. Keith exchanged glances with Lance, who gave the smallest flicker of his eyes. Yes.

 

The dagger was handed over, and then they were off.

 

Keith led the way to the elevator shaft. At this point, he expected to be discovered any minute now, and the stairs would be the most likely place their pursuers would head to first — the most obvious access to any exits.

 

But Keith and Lance were experts at climbing elevator shafts at this point. All they needed to do was call the elevator to their floor, and lock it there to prevent it from crushing them.

 

Terual watched them maneuver, his expression curious and somewhat alarmed. Neither of them said a word, and the Galra agent’s eyebrows climbed higher and higher as Lance and Keith moved in near perfect synchronization. If they’d had the time, they would have hacked the elevator controls, but there wasn’t any leeway for anything so smooth. The elevator arrived empty (good luck), but just as they were entering it, they could hear pounding steps on the stairs, (bad but expected luck).

 

Keith reached into the bag containing their armour and some of the extra goodies they’d purchased at the market. He yanked out his prizes and rolled the grenades down the hall, grinning when the heat sensors on them were triggered just as the stairwell doors flew open. He’d missed the ridiculous variety of weapons that mercenaries could play with.

 

Lance yanked him inside just before the elevator doors shut, and then he jammed the button to lock the elevator in place. He’d already opened the ceiling hatch, and jumped up into it as Keith grabbed Terual and told him, “Move.”

 

Lance stuck his hand down, and Terual leapt to grab it, scaling up Lance’s arm. Keith followed soon after, and closed the hatch behind him.

 

“Roof or sewer?” Lance looked at Keith, waiting for him to weigh their options.

 

Keith took a few seconds to consider it, and then said, “Can we risk getting lost down there? Glira’s map ends just outside the mansion grounds.”

 

“Roof it is,” Lance agreed, and leapt up to grab the nearest handhold.

 

Keith surged up, but fell behind quickly, his stab wound radiating pain that reached his arm, preventing him from gripping as tightly as he needed to; it slowed them down considerably, and Keith gritted his teeth as he felt the adhesive stitches finally give. Lance glanced down at him often, his mouth pressed into a hard line, but Keith shook his head each time those eyes fell on him; they had no choice, they had to keep going.

 

Terual hadn’t said a word for the entire struggle upwards, but once they managed to climb nearly five stories (too damn slow, thanks to Keith), just short of the uppermost floor, the young Galra shouted, “Elevator’s moving!”

 

“Well, this is our stop,” Lance announced, prying the double doors open on the third floor. Keith and Terual tumbled out after him, and Lance had his guns up, pointing at … no one. Hopefully, everyone had been summoned down to the lower floors. But that wouldn’t last long. And the elevator was coming up fast.

 

Lance kicked down a nearby bedroom door — and then turned to face them, gesturing, “We get to the roof through here!”

 

They ran, and Lance did his best to gingerly place the door back to cover their tracks, if only momentarily. Terual already had the window open, and Keith registered the ridiculous opulence of this particular bedroom with a quick glance around. He took one of the ornate bottles off the nightstand, and as the last one to climb out of the window, he dumped all the slippery lubricant out onto the floor and window sill.

 

“You think anyone is gonna follow us this way?” Lance asked, amused. “You gonna Home Alone them?”

 

“It looked expensive. If they don’t slip, then at least it was a few extra gak out of Edrei’s pocket,” Keith said with a nonchalant shrug.

 

Terual was scaling the wall outside the mansion as if he hadn’t been held for over a week, and likely beaten on a daily basis. Lance and Keith followed after him, Keith darting over to grab his ankle before Terual could climb much higher. “Wait!”

 

Two frantic dark eyes stared down at him, the yellow sclera seeming to glow. “For what?”

 

Keith scaled up past him, viciously ignoring the fiery, slicing pain from his injury, pressing a finger to his own mouth for silence. He glimpsed over the edge of the roof — there was a neighbouring building pressed up against the mansion, only separated by the fence, on the opposite side from them. Their way out … Except that there were several guards stationed there, and they were clearly on high alert. Keith ducked down and shook his head at Lance.

 

“Change of plans,” Keith said, and he leaned up just far enough to send a couple of grenades over the ledge he gripped. When they exploded, jarring their handholds for a split second, Lance nodded at Keith, who tugged at Terual. “Now, down!”

 

Once they reached the first storey, all three of them fell the rest of the way, and darted for the fence straight ahead. They were at the side of the building, just out of sight from the front-gate guards, but as they made their way to their exit, a few of the grounds guards around the back spotted them.

 

Their shouts spurned Keith on faster. He made a monumental leap to the fence, grasping with near superhuman strength. When he reached the top, he threw another grenade at their attackers, forcing them to scatter. Lance fired back as he climbed, which slowed him down — Terual scaled up past him and then he was past Keith, dropping down on the other side into the alleyway between Edrei’s grounds and the market district.

 

Lance reached Keith a split second later, and they were both falling, landing messily alongside Terual, who was just standing up and finally showing fatigue. He was wincing with each step, but they didn’t have time to check for injuries. Keith's own skin felt wet along his ribs, soaked in blood as if he'd been freshly stabbed. 

 

Without speaking, Keith pushed Terual out into the mouth of the alleyway, holding fast to the Galra agent’s forearm as they tore off at top speed through the crowds. No doubt that Edrei’s guards would be following them shortly, despite their attempts at misdirection.

 

Terual had begun wheezing at some point, but Lance and Keith didn’t dare say a word, didn’t dare waste precious air on anything other than heading at a ceaseless sprint towards The Dagos. They blew right past the guards at the docks, leaving behind their deposit, and ignoring the shouts, that died down within moments, and then picked up not thirty seconds later. Edrei’s people had likely hopped onto some speeders to catch up that quickly.

 

Lance had already pushed the buttons on his tablet that opened their ship’s ramp. They all tumbled in, and Keith abandoned Terual on the floor of their cargo bay as he kept right on sprinting until he hit the pilot’s chair.

 

He didn’t relax, not one bit, not even once they were in the air.

 

He was right to stay alert.

 

Two ships rose up nearly immediately after they’d taken off, and they fired on them with rockets that rattled The Dagos horrifically. Keith managed to break atmosphere, but only just — and still the ships followed.

 

He was an excellent pilot, and he knew The Dagos well, but a lucky shot had knocked their nav computer out, and a second shot hit a portside engine. They didn’t have enough fuel to speed out of the system, their wormhole abilities down.

 

“This is bad,” Keith said when Lance reached his co-pilot seat. “We’re … either going to have to surrender …”

 

“Or go down swinging?” Lance suggested, his grin somehow managing to be both vicious and regretful. “Pretty much how I figured this would end, querido.” One hand wrapped around Keith's briefly before he whipped it back to the gun controls.

 

This meant everything. Keith gritted his teeth because he refused, he outright refused to let this be the end. And not just for him, but for Lance. Even for Terual, who’d just managed to get out of hell. This wasn’t it, not after everything that had almost killed them, everything that had tried to kill them and failed.

 

He turned to face their attackers, and Lance fired off a shot. He nailed the ship, but it wasn’t enough — The Dagos was built for stealth more than anything else, and its weapons were weak.

 

But Keith would swing with everything he had.

 

It turned out, he didn’t need to do much swinging.

 

Because the Red Lion had just appeared above them.

 

And the Blue Lion right alongside her.

 

Lance’s breath audibly caught in his throat, the choking drawing Keith’s eyes, but only for as long as it took Red to swoop down and destroy one of the two ships that had been chasing them. The Blue Lion placed herself in front of them, and sent a blast of ice towards the remaining ship.

 

“Are your fellow Paladins here?”

 

Keith turned to see Terual supporting himself against the wall by the entrance to the bridge, his eyes huge as he stared out towards the Lions. He may not have ever seen them so close. They were much bigger than most people realized — and Voltron was ridiculously massive.

 

Red sent a wave of warmth his way. Keith shook his head. “No, no one’s with them.” He glanced at his co-pilot. Lance remained stunned. “And if Shiro isn’t with Red, I would guess that Matt isn’t in Blue.”

 

It took at least a minute for Lance to find his voice, and Keith didn’t remark on it, not even when it broke over his words. “We can probably … get them to tow us to our rendezvous with … our allies.”

 

Keith wasn’t sure about bringing Terual over to the Blade of Marmora directly. He didn’t like the idea of revealing that connection to this Galra agent, even if he seemed to be fairly tame at the moment. He quickly constructed a coded message to send to Kolivan, even as Red and Blue gently attached tow lines to The Dagos without needing direction.

 

They blasted out of the system before Edrei would’ve been able to muster up a larger force to hunt them down.

 

“They know we’re affiliated with Voltron now,” Lance said, referring to Crallipothia as a whole. “This went about as badly as we expected.”

 

“The Lions are sentient,” Terual croaked out. He had slid down the wall, one hand braced against what were likely broken ribs — his breath had a wheezy quality to it. “We had reports … but no one really …” He stopped, pulling himself out of his daze, and said in a clear, rather neutral tone. “You said ‘affiliated’ … You’re not … main members of Voltron.” A question disguised as a statement.

 

Keith ignored it, speaking with Lance as though Terual were not there. “We knew it would likely end this way. But we can still …”

 

“We can still do our work.” Lance smiled then, a bright flicker in his eyes. “The Two McClains keep on riding. Just more … openly.”

 

“You’re not Paladins,” Terual said with certainty, yet with a fair bit of confusion underlying his inference. “But the Lions …”

 

“Look, kid.” Lance spun his chair, facing him with a gun resting in his lap, casually pointed his way. “We didn’t mean for you to end up in that hellhole, but that’s only because we figured you’d either escape, or that Liant would sell you off to some illegal mining outfit or maybe indentured service to a private militia. Or that she would just kill you once she was done. Now, we’ve fixed our mistake. But that whole dead option? Still on the table.”

 

Terual’s eyes were studying them both with blatant curiosity. There was a moment when they lingered on Lance’s scar. His spy façade fell away, and he looked truly young. Maybe a couple years younger than them, which seemed like eons to Keith. Terual was seemingly fascinated by them, but that fascination was tinged with a healthy fear as he realized that Lance meant every word.

 

Their “prisoner” stayed silent for the rest of the trip, and when they reached the Castle, they escorted him off by gun point, (Keith being sure to tuck his coat closer to his crimson stained right side). Soon after, Matt, Coran, and Shiro took over, leading Terual to his temporary home in the bowels of the Castle, behind lock and key. A much nicer cell than he had been in, and a distinct lack of torture. Probably felt like a paradise, or at least it would until the absence of freedom began to chaff.

 

“Your Lions!” Allura said as soon as Terual was gone. She smiled and clapped her hands, her eyes shining with tears. “Your Lions, they … Oh, I … I am not going to …” She cleared her throat and straightened. “I’m sorry. I won’t speak of it if you’re not ready to speak of it yourself. But I … I am so glad that Red and Blue brought you home, safe.”

 

Keith didn’t look at Lance, but he took a chance, feeling a rough bit of satisfaction from Red, a not-so-gentle scolding when she sensed his own surprise at her appearance.

 

Allura seemed to take a moment to gather herself before taking on her Commander posture and expression. She looked worried as she asked, “How badly did it go awry this time? Surely it must have been … well, quite serious, if the Lions felts the need to respond.” Her gaze pointedly landed on Keith's now mostly red shirt, the coat no longer able to hide much of anything. 

 

“You could say that.” Keith had one eye on Lance as he spoke. “We couldn’t abide where he ended up. It wasn’t something we could walk away from.”

 

Allura was quiet. Even with the lights as bright as ever in the hanger, Keith could see the hallways were dim — it was late, or possibly extremely early. Lance didn’t seem to be in a talking mood, so Keith told the princess, “We can explain, after we’ve had some rest?” And a quick stop by the medical wing, Keith considered as he pressed his hand over his ribs to stop the bleeding. The white shirt was definitely a goner.

 

“Oh, of course,” Allura said immediately, waving a hand. “I’m sorry. I’m just … glad you’re back.” Her eyes were shining still, and her frame shook a little. “I’ll ask Coran to field any calls from the Blades. I think you’ve earned a few days rest after this latest debacle, whatever it was. You look … tired.”

 

Keith nodded. “Yeah, I won’t say no to that.” Especially considering that he and Lance may or may not have just royally screwed over the Blades. And Voltron, in part. That was an explanation better left for tomorrow.

 

Allura took her leave with a beaming smile, which neither of them could quite return. They headed off towards the medical wing, where Lance attended to Keith's side with only a few vague mutterings about his proclivity for destroying Lance's hard work. With the wound re-cleaned, re-disinfected, and re-sealed with adhesive stitches and medical gel, they made their way towards their rooms ... But Lance stopped dead in the hallway, prompting Keith to turn and face him.

 

He didn’t say anything. He knew what this was going to be about.

 

“She came for you.”

 

Keith swallowed. “Yeah.”

 

“Did you … did you sense her?”

 

“Not this time, but …” Keith crossed his arms. “A couple of weeks ago, I took a chance. Went to the hanger. She’d … she’d missed me.”

 

Lance’s face contorted, a rictus of pain, and he hunched in on himself, one hand shaking violently at his side. Keith took a step forward, one hand reaching out, but he withdrew it the instant Lance straightened up, his face nearly completely impassive. Nearly. His hand still shook as he raked his fingers through his hair.

 

“What was it like?”

 

“Fucking awful, at first,” Keith said honestly. “The pain was … unreal, and I mean that in a literal sense. It wasn’t anything here, on this plane of reality. It was all in the bond. It’s a complicated … wound, what happened. To us, and to Red and Blue.” He deliberately mentioned Lance’s Lion, unwilling to let this opportunity go now that Lance had broached the subject. “We tore something that was never meant to be torn, and that means you’re out of sync. Trying to fix it without knowing how or what your other side is up to. It meant pain for me, but for you … It could mean something different.”

 

He left it there, left it open. He wouldn’t push, but fuck, he hoped. He had never been able to quash that damn hope when it came to Lance. He’d been bitter, in pain, destroyed by this man; he’d been convinced that nothing would change, or that it wouldn’t change enough. He’d learned to let go, to gather himself up into a whole being without him … But if Lance could make himself whole again …

 

“This entire time,” Lance started, voice so quiet Keith had to step closer just to make it out, “since early on at Yathir’s … I’ve had nothing, Keith. Nothing. No headaches. No … phantom limb syndrome or whatever. Just. Nothing.”

 

Keith processed those words, but he didn’t really know how to tackle that.

 

“So, I always thought, and I still do … that Blue was done with me.” Lance’s eyes dropped, and Keith considered this carefully before speaking again.

 

“Well, it might be different for you. Our bonds are as different as the Lions are, and they weren’t meant to be severed. Especially not like that.” Keith chewed on the inside of his cheek, and decided that since Lance hadn’t shown any indication of ending this conversation, why not go for broke? “Have you ever tried to connect? Seriously or not. Even a half-thought.”

 

“No,” Lance answered without pause. “Even when I had a passing thought about missing her, I shut that down quick.” He crossed his arms defensively, but he also looked up, his hair long enough that a few locks fell across his eyes. “Self-preservation. Had other things I needed to worry about more.”

 

A surge of warmth from Red, a whirlwind of fear and excitement and anger, and Keith staggered back a step, his hands out at his sides for balance. Lance’s arms uncrossed, reaching out for Keith immediately, latching onto his wrist, his expression worried.

 

“No, no, it’s fine, it’s …” Keith had to take time to parse out his feelings and Red’s, and when he did, he realized Red was trying to convey so much more than she ever had before. “Holy shit, that’s a headache waiting to happen.” Red wasn’t even slightly sorry, and Keith smiled. “Yeah, okay, I get it. The Lions, Lance, when we were gone … I think Red’s trying to tell me that everything I felt from her, Blue felt it, too. As in, Blue was lost without you, desperate to find you.”

 

He suddenly remembered something Matt said, in the early days, though Keith couldn’t recall exactly when. “She only let Matt in because he was her best shot at finding you again. They needed to be able to form Voltron, to stay alive long enough to find us.”

 

Lance was silent for a time. He let go of Keith, his hands shoved deep in the pockets of his ridiculous new jacket. “Okay. But there’s a world of difference between who I was then, and who I am now. Who’s to say she can even connect in the same way? Or at all?”

 

“Well, I did, with Red.” Keith looked over Lance’s shoulder, back towards the hanger. “Find out if you can. One way or another, it’ll put an end to this.”

 

In the next few minutes of silence, Keith didn’t move except to breathe.

 

Lance abruptly spun on his heel, and backtracked, hanging a sharp right towards the Lion hanger.

 

Keith followed, his heart rattling against his ribcage.

 

He gave Lance distance, hanging just far enough behind to keep him in sight. When they reached the hanger, Lance made a beeline for Blue, and then sat down heavily, hands braced against the floor, legs partially folded beneath him.

 

“Hey there, girl,” Lance said quietly. “Been a while.”

 

Keith stayed by the entrance and said nothing. But he hoped and prayed and sent every plea he could out into the universe because if this didn’t happen, something would break for good inside Lance, and there was so little left whole in him as it was.

 

When Lance slumped forward, forehead nearly resting against the floor, Keith’s heart shattered.

 

A second later, Lance reared back, yelling, his hands pressed against either side of his head, fingers digging into his skull.

 

He knew nothing horrific was actually happening to Lance, but Keith ran to his side automatically, crashing down and then hesitating to touch him. He ended up with his fists clenched over his knees, waiting.

 

However many minutes later, Lance’s fingers released his head, though they still looked contorted, as though they had locked into that position. He slumped over, eyes closed, yet unfailingly finding Keith’s chest. He leaned his full weight against him, and Keith held him close. Again, waiting.

 

“She’s pissed,” Lance whispered.

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Yeah.” A rumble as Lance cleared his throat. “Apparently, if you don’t think you’re worthy of the bond, there’s a whole of … unbonding that can happen. Makes it harder for the Lions to reach out.”

 

“I think I got that much from Red.”

 

Lance sat up straight again, though he kept one of his hands splayed out near Keith’s knees. “Blue … hinted that maybe she had felt a faint … something from me. Until …” Lance looked up, his eyes bleary and blood-shot. “Until after those explosions. Around then.”

 

Keith held in the flinch. “Right.” He wouldn’t say anything. Wouldn’t ask anything.

 

“Makes sense,” Lance continued on, flicking his gaze up to the Lion. “I … I sort of shut down, then? Nothing mattered but making sure we survived. So. I know how that happened.”

 

“Is there …” Keith shot a glance towards Blue. “Is it all there?”

 

Lance pulled his hand back into his lap, sitting cross-legged now. “Yeah. I … didn’t let it get that far, just now. It hurt like hell, in case you missed that.”

 

“Oh, I know. I passed out when Red and I did this,” Keith admitted, smiling a little when Lance whipped his head up to stare in worry, and then glare when Keith just shrugged. “I knew she wouldn’t hurt me, even if the bonding itself sucked. There’s a lot of fixing to do, and it hurts because we didn’t break it cleanly, Lance. If you and Blue do this, it’ll hurt. You’re both a bit broken. You’ve got to mend the trust and whatever …” Keith waved a hand in the air. “Whatever that weird magical bond thing is that got torn.”

 

“What if I’m not … meant for this, though. What if I’m not—”

 

A loud rumble, and Blue’s eyes flashed as she crouched down. If she had been a real Lion, Keith was sure there would have been a deliberate puff of air sent Lance’s way. As it was, her eyes glowed bright yellow, and she growled at him in a rather … insulted tone?

 

Lance couldn’t seem to hold back a smile. “Right. Sorry, my lady.” He seemed to be listening to something, and then tilted his head, every bit of his posture relaxing. “Huh. That’s … Huh.”

 

Keith, once again, said nothing. This wasn’t about him, and really, he probably shouldn’t be intruding on this moment. He’d had Red to himself, after all. But Lance hadn’t asked him to go, and until he did, Keith would stay.

 

“You know, that does make all kinds of sense,” Lance said out of nowhere. He turned to Keith, gesturing towards Blue with his head. “It’s a whole thing about personality types and whose soul better … fits within that Lion’s specific plane of existence? With Blue, there’s a flow, like water, right? Extreme adaptability, flexibility, yeah, and this innate sense to just …” Lance made a motion with his hand.

 

“Go with the flow?” Keith interpreted, and Lance snapped his fingers.

 

“Yeah, that’s it. I’m good with that still, in some ways, but I’ve also got, ah, a bit of a control complex, in case you haven’t picked up on that.”

 

“You were a rebel leader. We were sort of generals. And even before that, we were in charge of our own lives for nearly a year …” Keith nodded. “Yeah. You need to be at the helm now.”

 

“We might not fit, in that sense, but … She wants me anyways,” and Lance had wonder in his voice, his eyes glowing in their own way.

 

“Then do it,” Keith said instantly, wanting to preserve this, keep it close, bundle it up for safekeeping forever because Lance deserved all the happiness in the universe. “Finish bonding. I’ll be here. You’ll probably pass out. I’m here, Lance.”

 

Lance’s chest rose and fell as he took in several deep breaths, and then, with both his hands resting listlessly in his lap, he closed his eyes …

 

He didn’t yell this time, just grit his teeth, and within moments, he’d fallen forward — Keith lurched over quickly, catching him before he hit the ground. He carefully settled Lance so his head rested on Keith’s thigh, and so that none of his limbs rested in awkward positions. He sat there, silent — Blue’s eyes had gone dark, and he knew they were together in that strange place where Lions and Paladin’s souls entwined.

 

The night on the Castle ticked by; Keith’s leg went numb, but he didn’t move.

 

A consoling warmth from Red, a fond, excited rush across their bond.

 

Lance’s eyes snapped open.

 

He woke up laughing, carefree, a tear escaping down towards his ear.

 

When he sat up, he reached for Keith, clutching blindly, his eyes on Blue. His hand landed on Keith’s billowy white shirt, fingers bunching it up in a tight grip as he said, “Keith. Keith. I’m gonna … I’m okay. I gotta stay here, though …” He trailed off, his grin so painfully bright and happy. He looked at Keith at last.

 

Keith had to swallow down tears of his own at that smile, fuck, when had he last seen that smile? Right after they’d crashed, when Lance had been so excited …

 

“It was, once upon a cowboy time,” Lance said giddily. “Keith, this is a cowboy planet. I was right, and I don’t care what you say, that’s pretty awesome.”

 

“Keith, go on to bed. I’m gonna stay here and reconnect with my best girl.”

 

With the hand tangled in Keith’s shirt, Lance pulled him in, pressing a soft kiss to Keith’s cheek as he smiled softly and so very happily. His eyes were blood-shot still, shadowed from lack of sleep, and Keith knew there was so much more healing needed; words Lance couldn’t say, hard days ahead when, inevitably, the weight of those words smothered this brightness …

 

But Keith took the hand from his shirt, lifted it to brush a return kiss against Lance’s knuckles.

 

He left without any words said, and it wasn’t until he walked away from the hanger (Lance’s laughter ringing out again, in harmony with a contented rumble from Blue), that he allowed himself a few tears, a shocking relief that Red basked in with him. He fell asleep to his Lion’s own contented purring, and the faintest flicker … from other too-distant bonds.

 

******