1. A female lion
2. A extremely independent, ambitious, driven woman [Urban Dictionary]
Just like in the worst of his nightmares, he doesn’t realize when the nightmare is about to start.
Lance, his skill with ranged fights now nearing expertise, had asked Shiro for help in close combat situations. They’ve been on the training deck all morning and Lance in his typical quick-study fashion delivers a hard knee to Shiro’s head right as the Castle comms ping. For a split tick Shiro isn’t entirely sure he actually heard the internal communication notification, not until Hunk’s voice cuts through the ringing in his ears.
“Shiro, Lance, you gotta get down to the hangar. The Green Lion’s back-”
He feels a warmth explode in his stomach that has nothing to do with where Lance had elbowed him earlier. His lips part in an easy smile.
“But Pidge isn’t in it. There’s no sign of her.”
And that’s when it hits him. The ringing in his head turns into a screech, and he staggers a little as he turns to look at the holoscreen where Hunk’s face hovers. The scrolling Altean text on either side of the display is crisp and intelligible, spitting out Castleship readouts and current navigational information. Katie had worked closely with Allura in adapting the holoscreens so that each one would provide valuable data, not just the ones on the bridge.
Cold crashes over his body, a pulverizing wave that leaves him numb and feeling like his knees will fold at any moment. This has to be a dream. Desperately, Shiro tears off the glove he’d been wearing on his human hand during training and stares at his fingers. Whenever he was in a nightmare his fingerprints were no more than mush, a hazy reassurance that he would wake up from whatever torture his own mind generated. But he can see them clearly now, sharp whorls ridged with callouses.
“Come on, Shiro, I know this is more important to you than training. Let’s go.” Lance’s voice doesn’t have the distant warble of a dream.
The hand that rests on his shoulder is warm but light, like Lance is comforting an animal he half-suspects will attack. Shiro turns slowly and catches Lance shifting his weight back on his heels, ready for whatever Shiro might do next. He can’t blame him. There’s a precedent.
But Shiro’s limbs don’t shunt out his brain and attack Lance on their own; he’s not watching this scene from outside of his body. He can feel the cannonball rolling around in the pit of his stomach just like he can feel the sandpaper scrape as he tries to swallow.
“This is real,” Shiro says.
Lance nods, remorse pinching his brow and twisting his lips. “Yeah it is, buddy. But maybe it’s nothing to worry about yet. Let’s go see Hunk and figure out what’s going on.”
It’s something to worry about, and when it comes to worrying about Katie, Shiro has years of experience.
He and Lance find the Green Lion curled in its bay, the biting tang of fresh laser fire on metal blistering Shiro’s nose. Hunk’s already hooked up his computer to the Lion to run a diagnostic scan, but the massive scorched blasts on its hull and Green’s creaking rumble as Shiro approach are diagnosis enough.
“Allura’s flying back from her trip planetside to make sure something didn’t happen with Pidge like it did with you. As far as I can tell though, Pidge and Green got into a scrap with normal, non-magical attackers...” Hunk trails off with a shrug, making it clear from his expression that he knows it isn’t much consolation.
So they wait. Shiro crosses his arms and settles into a clipped pace and pretends like he can’t feel Lance and Hunk’s eyes on him every time he turns away from them. They don’t ask, though, and he is endlessly appreciative of that. He’s still trying to convince himself, for once, that this is a dream.
Allura isn’t even back by the time the message comes in.
“This is a message for the Paladins of Voltron!”
The alien hunched over in the frame of the transmission screen is tall and angular, and its five bulging eyes and elongated proboscis strike Shiro as insectile. There’s some sort of ornamentation dangling from the crown of its head, possibly indicating an important position in the species’ hierarchy. All Shiro can think is that he’d like to yank the bauble straight off and strangle the creature with it.
Hunk and Lance turn to Shiro to respond.
“We’re listening,” he grits out.
“I am Aaillj, commander of the Gnu fleet and captain of The Alpha Gnura. I speak for the High Leader-”
It’s a good thing Allura isn’t here yet, because diplomacy is the furthest thing from Shiro’s mind as he snaps, “You have thirty ticks to tell us what you want before I cut this line. We have more important things to do than exchange pleasantries.”
Aaillj pauses. Its beady eyes are unflinching, but Shiro gets the sense that it’s taken aback. There’s a snuffling sound from the proboscis.
“The perhaps we can discuss a different sort of exchange,” it says after a tick. Shiro feels the visceral ache of his heart as it stutters hard in his chest.
There’s no movie villain back away or pan to a different part of the room, revealing the hero’s greatest weakness taken hostage. Instead Aaillj describes in a few succinct sentences the prisoner aboard its ship: bipedal; two optical receptors, brown in color; brown patch of fur atop cranium; vulgar mouth in more languages than expected. Presumably Terran. Undeniably the Green Paladin of Voltron.
“We were able to catch the Green Paladin unawares on the surface of one of the moons of P.O.-681,” Aaillj continues, voice buzzing with glee. “But we don’t have a use for it. We want the Lion.”
Shiro, Lance, and Hunk exchange looks. Understanding passes through them, Shiro as resolute as the others that, despite the fact that Pidge was captive, there was no giving up the Green Lion. They’d have to come up with something. Shiro steps up to the control panel of the holoscreen and taps in a quick command.
“I’m sending you the coordinates to an Alliance-neutral moon a few systems over. We can meet and discuss.”
Aaillj tilts its head, seemingly curious. “You really want to discuss when your Paladin’s life is in danger?”
The words spill out before he can stop to wonder what Aaillj will take from them: “My Paladin knows the protocol.” He hears Hunk’s hum of concern from behind, but it’s too late to undo what he’s said. “The coordinates have been sent. You have six vargas to look them over and respond with a meeting time. If you do not comply by then, you’ll have the entire Alliance coming after you. And if there’s any hint that she’s been injured, I’ll come after you myself.”
The alien lets out a pleased-sounding buzz. Shiro cuts the transmission line before it can say anything else.
Allura makes it back and confirms what Shiro already knows: Katie is not inside the Green Lion. It’s less than two vargas before they hear back from Aaillj. It’s not soon enough for Shiro, and only Allura’s grip on his arm, tighter than it looks, keeps him from sending his fist through the holoscreen.
They’ll meet at the designated coordinates six quintants from now.
Strangely, they hear from The Alpha Gnura two quintants later.
It’s not Aaillj, but another of its kind filling the screen. Four eyes, no ornamentation. A subordinate who, in reedy and broken Common insists that their meeting be moved up three quintants.
Shiro swears the thing quivers in relief when Allura agrees.
“She’ll be fine,” Hunk says from his place at Shiro’s shoulder. “The only way Aaijjl and the others don’t accept Allura’s offer is if they haven’t evolved neurons, and considering they managed to nab Pidge in the first place, they have to be pretty smart.”
“Not helping, Hunk,” Shiro mutters. He takes a sharp breath through his nose, and then another slower, deeper one.
Logically Shiro knows that this is an occupational hazard, even after dismantling the Galra Empire. He’s been taken before, as have Lance and Keith, and all of them have made it back with the important bits intact, even if it took some Altean alchemy along the way. But Shiro’s been struggling to stay logical since the Green Lion showed back up on its own. Under any other circumstances, Katie would goad him for his lack of usual cool, but Katie isn’t in her usual place at his side and he’s feeling anything but usual.
They’re already lined up outside of the Castleship with Lions behind them, the mechanical beasts tall even resting on their haunches. The Alpha Gnura is settled not that far away, but has yet to yield its occupants.
The wait is worse, knowing how close she is. Knowing all he’d have to do is charge up to the ship and find a way to split it wide, crack the rotting egg and find the gem inside.
The hatch of the ship opens. Aaillj, as tall and looming as expected, steps down first, followed by three armed soldiers. The soldiers huddle in position around something, something Shiro knows immediately is Katie. And then, like thunder rolling down the length of an open chasm, Shiro hears it: the loud and jarring sound of 90s Earth country pop music.
It’s a tune he thinks Keith has forced him to listen to before, something about boots and beds, but that’s less important than the absolutely smug smirk on Katie’s face that he catches a glimpse of when one of the soldiers shifts its weapon to try and cover what Shiro can only assume are its ears. The knotted steel in Shiro’s chest loosens a hair.
“Paladins of Voltron!” Aaillj declares. For all the gravitas in its words, the alien scuttles over to their group with a desperate sort of urgency.
Allura steps forward. “I am Allura of Alte-”
“We’ve come to negotiate the release of your Green Paladin,” it cuts in. It waves a hand and ushers the soldiers and Katie forward. Its other arm floats at chest level in some kind of glowing stabilizer, as if broken.
Katie, bound with some sort of phasma cuff, still manages to lift her arms and give them a little wave. “Hey guys,” she says. Her voice is raspy, but she sounds upbeat. “Sorry about this mess.”
One of the soldiers whips around to stare her down, but Katie just shakes her head and clucks her tongue. The soldier backs down immediately, and Shiro notices a hard and unnatural-looking bend in its proboscis.
Aaillj turns to watch the brief scene. It shudders visibly, then turns back to Allura and the others.
“I’m sure that we can negotiate fair terms for Pidge’s release,” Allura begins. “Understand from the outset that none of the Lions are going anywhere, but there are plenty of other arrangements that can be made-”
It shakes his head and waves its uninjured hand, cutting Allura off once again.
“Take her,” Aaillj says.
Allura blinks, opens her mouth to say something, and closes it sharply. Country music plays over the silence between the two leaders.
Aaillj’s proboscis twitches, and the soldiers step forward, jostling Katie until she’s in front of them. It doesn’t escape Shiro’s notice that the soldiers keep a healthy distance away even as they flank her.
Her paladin armor is dented and singed, and her left eye has a blue, bruised ring around it. There’s a massive snarl in her thick hair that looks caked with something green and viscous-looking. No doubt Shiro will have to cut it out when they’re back in the Castle. His heart thuds. She’s looking rough, but she’s safe.
“The Green Paladin of Voltron has proved herself a formidable warrior,” Aaillj says with a sniff. It rubs its stabilized arm in a gesture Shiro bets is unconscious. That’s his girl, all right. “No doubt her… perseverance reflects the strength of Voltron and the Alliance as a whole.”
Katie catches Shiro’s attention during Aaillj’s speech. It’s not hard; he hasn’t been able to keep his eyes off of her since the moment she stepped from the ship. She waggles her eyebrows and mouths ‘perseverance’ while making air quotes with her bound hands. Hunk must catch it too, if his snort is any indication.
“So here is our negotiation,” it continues. “You take your Paladin back immediately and sign an agreement that she never come within sixteen kessels of the Gnu fleet. Additionally, we want your affirmation that she will immediately cease the barrage on our computer and navigation systems that she’s somehow managed while in captivity.”
Shiro resists the impulse to mouth ‘What did you do?’ back to her. Lance, however, has no such control, and pipes in with a “Whoa, what did she do to you guys?”
One of the soldiers responds before Aaillj can. “The Lion bitch tormented us with Terran music!”
“She made it impossible for any ships in our fleet to navigate to any location other than the one designated by the coordinates you sent!” the second one cries. “She didn’t even have access to the hub!”
“She broke my mouth!” exclaims the soldier with the broken proboscis.
Aaillj silences them with a sharp wave of its hand, but they still shuffle from limb to limb, clearly agitated.
“We accept your terms,” Allura says. She presses her lips together in a way Shiro knows means she’s trying to hold back laughter. “And would like to discuss a few other matters once our paladin is safely returned to us.”
The soldiers prod Katie forward. Aaillj reaches out and removes the plasma cuffs, letting them drop to the ground rather than remain in contact with her.
She doesn’t hesitate to turn and run back towards the group. She does, however, look over her shoulder long enough to call to the soldiers, “So somehow you all know enough Common for ‘lion’ and ‘bitch’, but don’t know ‘lioness’? You’re stupider than I thought!”
One of the three raises its weapon, clearly infuriated, but the other two grab it by the arms and start dragging it back to the ship. Katie’s laugh rings louder than the music still blaring.
And then she’s launching herself into Shiro’s open arms, burying her face in his chest despite the armor plate and taking a deep, shuddering breath that Shiro feels to his core. Everything else slides away: Allura, Aaillj and the soldiers, any sense of diplomatic propriety that might keep him from exposing his true weak flank. But he finds it hard to care when it feels like he’s in a dream again.
Katie looks up at him with eyes rimmed in red. He can feel her shaking under his hands and he catches her by the elbows a tick before her knees buckle. If he weren’t so glad to have her back, he might take out the whole of Aaillj’s crew for what they did before she’d managed to twist them into giving her up.
There’s a time for pulling off armor and examining the bruises, time for briefings and a trip to the cryopods, but for now, the only thing there’s time for is cupping one cheek in his hand, tilting her head up, and pressing their lips together. Only once they part, heartbeats later and half-breathless, does he ask.
Katie’s eyes glint. “I think ‘Lion Bitch’ is actually more accurate, but it they’re going to spread the story of the time the Green Paladin broke an entire fleet, I may as well make sure it sounds good.”
He shakes his head, relief, disbelief, and amusement all blending into something warm that nestles below his ribs. Shiro dips down and kisses her again, the soft crooning of some country singer carrying them away.