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stealing our own place in the sun

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4.01
Fault Line

            “Are you seeing anything?”

            “Nah…we can do another sweep, but…looks like this place is just as empty as the last.”

            Keith prowled about the base on quiet feet, the sounds of boots on metal a low tap-tap-tapping as he turned another corner and considered Lance’s report. He wrapped his fingers tighter around the hilt of his bayard, eyes narrowing as the hall he peered down came up just as abandoned as every other one before it. Over the comms, the other Paladins breathed steadily, Pidge whispering things to herself that were too quiet for Keith to pick up on. Strings of numbers, it possibly sounded like. Perhaps a way to keep herself calm, as she and the rest of the team faced the heavy reality of the situation: this prison base was clear, of prisoners and personnel alike.

            “We’ve already gone through this place twice,” Keith said, releasing a breath, just as frustrated as the one from Pidge that followed. “I think we need to pull out before someone finds us. We need to call it. …I’m sorry, Pidge.”

            Three other bases in the last two weeks turned up nothing on Matthew Holt, each one of their leads either bad information or a dead end. This one seemed to be no exception.

            For a moment, Keith let his head thunk against the wall, and his arm dropped to his side as lazy eyes surveyed the area around him, just to be certain no one else was coming. It was already late enough—they had to be back at the castle, well-rested, for a meeting in the next six vargas. If Allura hadn’t been outvoted, that was where they all would’ve been at the moment, but Keith had a very strike while the iron is hot approach to things. Especially situations regarding lost siblings.

            Absently, his mind drifted to the day he’d found Shiro, nearly dead in a Galra fighter with no fuel left to keep it going, floating in space. The Black Lion…Black had sensed Shiro, and one insistent tug on his mind had Keith following her whims without a second thought. Maybe it had been a little rash, a little reckless to just up and leave the team without a word, but it was Shiro. He’d never given up on Keith in the past, even when Keith was at his very worst—so why should he have given up on him?

            Why should he force Pidge to give up on Matt?

            “I know,” Pidge sighed on her end of the comms. “We’ve gotta get back to the castle, anyway.”

            The defeat in her voice made Keith’s heart ache, the same pain he suffered through whenever his own searches turned up fruitless. He screwed his eyes shut and forced his mind away from Pidge’s nauseatingly familiar misery, forced it onto things like team leadership and priorities and all of the other junk he wanted to shun but knew he couldn’t.

            “We’re gonna find him, Pidgeotto,” Lance replied then, reassuringly chipper. “It’s just a matter of time. This is just one more base where we know he won’t be!

            “Unless the Galra keep switching bases—”

            “Hunk, don’t even.”

            That got the tiniest of laughs making its way past Keith’s lips as he pushed away from the wall, hefted his bayard, and started back toward the hangar they’d infiltrated the base from. Their Lions—in the form of Voltron, and invisible, thanks to the cloaking device rigged on the Green Lion—were parked outside, eagerly awaiting the Paladins’ returns. So far, nobody had reported a wave of alarm from a Lion, no indication that they’d been found out, but Keith didn’t let himself relax. Wouldn’t, until he and the others were back on the castleship with Shiro and Coran.

            “I’m heading back to Black,” Keith reported to Lance, Pidge, Hunk, and Allura. “Everyone else, move out.”

            The others murmured their understanding of their instructions, albeit with some reluctance on Pidge’s part. Keith bit his lip, but what else was there? He couldn’t control where the Galra kept their prisoners, couldn’t control whether or not a lead would be good, couldn’t control whether or not they’d be fed correct information.

            “We must rest before our meeting,” Allura chose then to speak, and Keith let out a quiet breath of relief, that someone else was taking over for even a minute.

            It was hard enough, coordinating a mission that wouldn’t get them discovered or killed in half an hour. Especially when Pidge had been on the verge of losing all sense of logic in favor of chasing the thread that led them here, and Keith couldn’t help but sympathize with her. It didn’t help to have Shiro breathing down the back of his neck, shooting down half of his plans, and it had taken Lance, Hunk, and Allura’s combined efforts to smooth things over into something cohesive. Something that would work.

            “No problems there,” Hunk said. “I’m freaking tired, man.

            Keith crept down another long hallway, and the comms went quiet, most of the team seemingly too exhausted to carry on a conversation. Or too focused on leaving in one piece, maybe. Too focused on leaving without tripping an alarm, too worried about screwing up so late into the game. He came up to another T in the hall, and peered down both ways. He’d come from the left, before, and headed in that direction and a bang from deep in the hallway stopped him in his tracks. Immediately, he pulled up a 3D rendering of the building, projecting up in blue light from a device embedded somewhere in the wrist area of his armor.

            The rendering showed the five dots he expected, and the outline of Voltron, lying in wait outside. One dot—red—was him. Then there was pink for Allura, yellow for Hunk, green for Pidge, and blue for Lance. All of them were moving around the building, all in the direction of their intended exit point. But then there was suddenly a sixth blip on the map, a generic purple the team used for anyone who wasn’t a Paladin or part of the castleship family.

            “Uh, team?” Keith whispered. “Can someone else check for energy signatures in the building?”

            “Oh no,” Hunk groaned.

            A momentary pause, and then Pidge sucked in a breath, a hissing sound from her end of the comms. Then another string of numbers, vague mutterings about bullshit and Galra and not how I pictured today going.

            Just as it sounded like she was about to speak out loud, the dot vanished from the screen.

            “Did…everyone else just see that?” Lance asked incredulously.

            “Yeah, and I definitely don’t like that,” Pidge answered.

            “Do you think it could be like…a glitch in the system, maybe? I mean, it’s been like, ten thousand years since there were last Paladins, you’d think Altean tech would be a little more prone to glitching than like, Earth tech, and Earth tech’s already pretty glitchy to begin with, and wow, I’m rambling, can someone please explain what the hell that was? Hunk said.

            “I-I don’t know,” Allura responded. “A glitch…perhaps, but highly unlikely.”

            “That was no glitch,” Keith said, voice rising just the slightest, pace quickening as he ventured down the hall. “I heard a noise, some kind of bang. There was definitely someone—or something—in here. I’m going to investigate. The rest of you, get back to the Lions. I’ll link back up soon—it’s gonna be no more than some recon.” He let his projection of the building flicker out, lest the blue light give him away to whatever might’ve still been lurking.

            “Yeah, until you get attacked,” Pidge said. “Keith, it’s…it’s not worth it. The lead’s dead.”

            A frustrated grunt bubbled up and died in the back of Keith’s throat. “It’s not—I need to find out what that was. If we’re in more danger than we thought.”

            “Then don’t go alone,” Lance said. “Here, I’m nearby. Stay where you are—I’m on my way.”

            “Lance—”

            “Nope, no arguing. Always swim with a buddy. Especially in choppy waters full of hungry animals who like the smell of humans. Or, uh, in your case—you know what, never mind.”

            “That metaphor sucked,” Hunk pointed out.

            “That’s why I said never mind! And I’m tired and not a fan of dealing with the Galra. My brain isn’t exactly the most well-rested to be making metaphors in the first place,” Lance shot back.

            Hunk grunted, and the comms fell silent again, save for the sound of the Paladins’ breathing, as Hunk, Pidge, and Allura broke for Voltron, and Lance made his way to Keith’s location.

            Keith waited for him by counting off the seconds in his head, by scanning the area around him, by straining to listen for anything else that might’ve indicated another soul here, besides the Paladins. After a solid eighty-seven seconds of waiting, cautious footsteps sounded behind him, and he turned, bayard raised, only to find Lance approaching with his rifle lifted high, finger lying off to the side of the trigger.

            “There you are,” Lance said, lowering his rifle.

            He gave Keith a grim smile, conveying what must have been pain on Pidge’s behalf, sympathy for how tired the team leader must’ve been, maybe his own exhaustion shining to the surface. But then his smile dropped from his face, and his gaze shifted away from Keith and fixated on the dark corridor stretching out before them. Keith watched him readjust his grip around the handle of his bayard and heft it once more. He flicked eyes to Keith again, nodded toward the length of the hall, and Keith nodded back.

            Without another word, Keith took up leading the two of them.

            They slunk down the hall, Lance dutifully keeping a close eye on their six while Keith swept the area in front of them. So far, neither heard another sound, other than their own breathing, their own footsteps. Lance continually risked glances over his shoulder, only to find the space behind them just as empty as it was the last time he checked. He sucked in a breath through his teeth, the hair on the back of his neck standing up.

            Whatever it was, Keith must have also sensed it. He threw up an arm, and he and Lance ceased movement.

            A sharp bang sounded overhead, and Lance and Keith both jumped, armor clacking as they stumbled into each other. Lance automatically swung the barrel of his rifle in that direction, sinking back as Keith raised his sword.

            “That’s what you heard?” Lance asked, voice high.

            “Yep,” Keith answered, exhaling a shaky breath.

            On his free wrist, he pulled up the building map again. Sure enough, there was a purple dot flashing on the floor above them, directly overhead. Lance cut his eyes to the map, running them along the series of hallways before he grabbed Keith’s wrist, and the projection abruptly vanished. Then he was tugging Keith down the hallway, Keith falling into step next to him as they began running.

            “Where are we going?” Keith asked, voice louder than he’d intended for it to come out. “Are you dragging us toward it?

            “Listen, I once ran right for Alfor’s corrupted AI, and didn’t get to him in time, and then we almost flew into that star when it was going supernova. Of course, I didn’t know it was him, but—anyway. We nip these things in the bud now,” Lance responded sharply, although his eyebrows knitted, face pinched. Like he wasn’t wholly sure he believed in his own confidence.

            Keith didn’t utter a word in reply—just followed, and kept up when Lance relinquished his grip on his wrist.

            Lance led the pair of them down the rest of the hallway. The area darkened, the longer they pressed on, until they were forced to switch the visors on their helmets to night vision. At the end of the hall, they came upon an open-air elevator. Lance glanced behind them, down the two sides where the hall split into a T, up the empty elevator shaft, and then clambered over the safety rail. Keith followed suit, and Lance activated the elevator as soon as they were both in.

            “Pidge,” Keith said, “I need you to scan over this place again. The thing’s back.

            “On it,” Pidge responded, breathless, like she’d been running back to Voltron.

            Keith and Lance waited a few heartbeats, as the gears and ropes working the elevator ground together far overhead, the grating noise echoing back down to them.

            “Shit,” Pidge hissed then. “Keith, Lance, you two need to get out of there.”

            A moment later, a video feed popped up in the top left corner of their visors. Lance inhaled sharply at the same time Keith did—that was how Keith knew that Lance, too, was seeing the video of the druid, surrounded by cracked, splintered crates. A few of them were open, contents either neatly stacked inside or spilling out all over the floor. Vials, many of them glowing.

            “Is that…?” Lance whispered.

            “Quintessence,” Keith finished for him. “This was what Kolivan was talking about last week.”

            “I’m uploading this feed to everyone else right now,” Pidge said, “but you two need to get out of there.”

            “Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a minute. Why is a druid bringing quintessence to an empty prison base? That doesn’t make any sense!” Hunk pointed out. “Don’t you think this should be investigated further?”

            “Last time Keith went up against a druid, he needed extraction,” Pidge replied.

            Keith’s teeth worried at his lower lip as his eyes narrowed, and he exchanged a glance with Lance. Finally, he spoke up: “Yeah, but I’m not alone this time.”

            “We have a meeting in a matter of vargas,” Allura reminded everyone then, and Keith stifled a groan.

            “The meeting’s about this kind of stuff, isn’t it? Lotor’s after pure quintessence, and if he managed to swing a few druids to his side, then this could be his doing, couldn’t it?” Lance said. “And…if it’s in a prison base…it could have a link to Matt or Sam. I say we look into it. Two on one should be no problem for us. We take out the druid, we steal a couple samples of this stuff, and then we can trace its route back to its source…that’s possible, right?”

            “Keith,” Hunk jumped in, “call’s yours, dude.”

            Keith hesitated. He looked at Lance again, and then down the hall before them as the elevator ground to a shuddering halt.

            “If we stay to investigate, the whole team stays. We can’t disband Voltron without all of us in the Lions. This has to be unanimous—and we’ve gotta agree fast.” In the video feed, Keith watched as the druid disappeared, poofing out of existence. Lance frowned, and pulled up the building projection. Sure enough, the purple dot was gone. “Now or never, guys. All in?”

            “I’m in,” Lance responded immediately, and gave Keith another tight-lipped smile, one that he tried his best to keep plastered on his face as he turned forward. Keith noted the way his throat bobbed as he looked down the hall, how his eyes still kept some spark of mischief as he stared ahead.

            “We’re already here, may as well,” Hunk said.

            Keith and Lance stepped out of the elevator, and Keith motioned for Lance to take up rear position again.

            “I say we do it,” Pidge chimed in.

            “Allura?” Keith asked. “It’s on you.”

            Everything stilled in those few seconds that Allura hesitated, Keith hyper-aware of every sound around himself, around Lance. Hyper-aware of Hunk and Pidge waiting on an answer, as they stopped moving for their Lions, and stalled in their locations. Hunk was breathing hard, like he’d just come off a marathon, and Pidge was still going at that numeric sequence—Fibonacci, maybe?

            “…We must move quickly.”

            “Alright! She’s on board, let’s do this!” Hunk cheered immediately, while Pidge quieted down her set of numbers.

            “Pidge, Hunk, Allura, I need you to get to the closest exits in your sectors and lock this place down. Nothing gets in or out—”

            “Unless it’s teleporting,” Lance interrupted, and his statement lacked the cheekiness, the levity Keith expected. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the way Lance’s face fell, ashen, and a thud sounded again, far too close for comfort. Lance raised his rifle, and Keith turned on his heel, the air nearly leaving his lungs at the sight of the druid standing before them, surrounded by a rattled pile of crates that hadn’t been there one moment earlier.

            No fanfare, no snark. Keith had thrown his arm back up the moment he caught sight of the druid, and now, he motioned forward, two fingers extended, toward the druid. He and Lance charged in tandem; Lance fired his gun four times, while Keith lunged for the druid. He dodged around every blast from Lance, and each one would’ve hit its mark, if the druid didn’t insist on shimmering out of existence every split second before the shot collided, before rematerializing. Keith couldn’t see its face, behind the mask, but he was certain the druid was grinning at them.

            Toying.

            A question burned at the back of Keith’s mind as he ducked underneath a swipe of the druid’s hand, blazing with a fuchsia burst of magic, of whether or not this was a distraction from something else. It could’ve have been, right? The druid hadn’t known they were coming, couldn’t have known they were coming—the run-in had to be coincidence. They had no time to set up for some kind of distraction.

            “Keith!” Lance shouted, and had to say nothing more before Keith dropped into a roll. The druid went tumbling over him, and Lance fired five times in rapid succession. A distorted, metallic sound shrieked out from behind the mask, as three of Lance’s shots hit their mark, while the other two grazed the back of the druid’s billowing black cloak and scorched it.

            While the druid stumbled, too busy trying to figure out how the hell they’d been caught off-guard enough for Lance to land a hit, Keith came at it again. The druid moved like mercury, and where Keith’s sword should’ve gone clean through the chest, it sliced deep into the druid’s side, before Keith was suddenly staggering back, momentum thrown. In those precious few seconds, the druid turned on him, and Keith saw the claws. His vision spotted, as bright pink came right for his face. He threw up his shield at the last second and curled in behind it, as the druid’s hand made contact.

            Jagged bolts of electricity sent ripples across his shield, over his shield, behind his shield. Keith couldn’t retract it—not quick enough to stop the electricity from connecting with the rest of him, and not unless he wanted his helmet destroyed, his face torn apart. The scream tore from his throat as the druid’s magic traveled up his arm.

            When Keith went down, Lance went in for the kill.

            The druid had its back to Lance, and Lance seized his opportunity, and fired until he’d made a pattern of holes and burns on the back of the druid’s cloak, until the druid was on the ground, gasping and wheezing. Then it vanished, and left Keith and Lance alone with the crates.

            “Keith, you alright?” Lance asked, and bent down next to him.

            Keith had curled into the fetal position—underrated survival tactic, in his opinion—and cradled the arm that took the brunt of the druid’s magic. He sat up slowly, and took the hand Lance offered him. Lance waited silently, waited for Keith to get back on his feet on his own, rather than immediately yanking him up. Keith took his time, testing the integrity of his legs after that shock, and Lance didn’t unclasp their hands until Keith stood solidly, flexing his fingers, making sure his bayard was still in good shape.

            “Okay,” Lance said, and let out a breath, “note to self: more than two people needed to efficiently take on a druid.”

            “Definitely more than two,” Keith grunted. “It got away, and it’s probably going to heal and tell someone about this. We can’t stick around for long.”

            “We snoop around with these crates, and then we go,” Lance agreed.

            He set to work sifting through one of the ones that had cracked open when it crashed down, while Keith used his bayard as a crowbar to wrench the lid off of one of the ones that hadn’t.

            “Team,” Keith said between breaths, when the lid finally gave way and fell off to the side, “I need status updates.”

            “All clear on my end. Building scans showing it’s just us in here,” Hunk responded first.

            “Nothing my way,” Allura confirmed. “The sooner we leave, the better.”

            “Nothing here, either,” Pidge said, and her voice was smaller than everyone else’s.

            Keith ignored the clenching in his heart at the sound of her, uttered an acknowledgment that good, everything else was going about as smoothly as it could, aside from his and Lance’s roles in this excursion.

            “What’s going on with you guys?” Hunk asked.

            “Druid attacked us,” Keith replied. “It’s gone now, and hopefully not coming back. It left some crates behind, and Lance and I are looking into them right now.” As he spoke, he peered inside of the crate. Sure enough, more of the same thing: glowing vials of what must have been quintessence. “It looks like it’s all the same.” He picked up one of the vials, and some energy in his skin burned as soon as he did. He nearly dropped the vial, as the sensation spread throughout him.

            “Keith?” Lance asked, and Keith stiffened, grateful he had his back to Lance so he couldn’t see the brief panic that flashed through his expression. “You alright there, buddy?”

            “I’m fine,” Keith snapped more harshly than intended, shaking arm setting the container of quintessence back in its crate. When he turned, Lance had his hands in the air at either side of his head, clearly disgruntled with Keith’s outburst.

            “I’m fine,” he mimicked. “Jeez, alright, Mr. Grumpypants. Message received. Don’t get your mullet in a twist.”

            “What is your fixation with my hair?” Keith asked, and then threw his own hands up, waving them around. “You know what? Never mind. Let’s just get this crate and get out of here.”

            Keith and Lance both put away their bayards; in a flash of light, both the rifle and the katar were gone, safely stored in their armor. With them gone, Keith and Lance hoisted up the crate, Lance grunting with the effort.

            Even just carrying the crate set Keith’s nerves on fire. His hands tingled, like something was stretching beneath his skin, making an attempt to unfurl. An attempt to break free. He bit his lip, narrowed his eyes, and focused on directing the team back to Voltron to keep his mind off of it, focused on leading Lance back to the rest of the group, focused on anything other than whatever the hell effect the quintessence in the vials was having on him.


            They were late.

            Lugging the crates back to Voltron took longer than Keith anticipated; by the time they arrived, the others had already been back for a good ten minutes. Loading their cargo took time, too, as it was infinitely more difficult to find the loading bay in Voltron than it was in any individual Lion. That was on top of the sudden appearance of fighters—a small, difficult cropping that took more time than anyone would’ve liked to take down. They were sweaty and breathless when they came stumbling back into the castle.

            Nobody had time to debrief Shiro or Coran before the meeting on everything they’d encountered on their mission. The Paladins broke for the showers, prepared to get ready to sit with the visiting diplomats, visiting allies, and by the time the last one of them actually sat down at the table (Lance, shifting uncomfortably when he realized he was the hold-up), none of them looked too pleased.

            Least of all, Shiro.

            Lance shrank under the scrutinizing gaze he turned on the other Paladins, save for Allura. If the diplomats noticed the way their former Black Paladin was looking upon the team, they said nothing of it. Instead, they turned their attention to the princess, rising from her seat at the head of the table, demurely spreading her hands across its sleek white surface.

            “Friends, allies, we welcome you aboard the Castle of Lions,” she began. “I apologize for the delay—” a glance in Lance’s direction, and Lance cast his gaze to the table, “—but nevertheless, we’re here now, to discuss the Voltron Coalition, its mission, and our mission from today.”

            A screen at Allura’s back lit up, and a much smaller holoscreen appeared to her left. She tapped at the small screen, while projections came up on the one behind her.

            It was a diagram, of the many members of the Coalition. At the center of the diagram was Voltron itself, and lines traced outward, connecting their immediate allies. Smaller lines, thinner and thinner branches of a tree, connected allies’ allies, and then allies of those allies, so on and so forth until the text became so small that Lance would’ve had trouble reading it, had he been able to comprehend the language before him at all.

            “Our ranks are growing,” Allura said, and smiled out at the people gathered before her. Familiar allies, like Ryner and Kolivan, were outnumbered by those the Paladins didn’t know that well—those they hadn’t had missions with, hadn’t quite gotten acquainted with yet. Lance eyed them, tallying up a solid fifteen people in this room that weren’t the seven members of Team Voltron. Two of them he knew; several, only vague memories of their identities—queens, kings, presidents, the like—and then there was a chunk he was clueless about. “This is excellent news, as we’ve stumbled upon…more trying times. As you all know, the biggest problem we currently face lies at the heart of the Empire: Prince Lotor.”

            The room didn’t fall into some mystified hush—it was already silent before. Instead, seats scraped floor, allies grumbled, and a woman sitting next to Kolivan huffed out a breath. She was shorter than him, but only slightly. Undoubtedly Galra, undoubtedly a Blade. Heads swiveled in her direction at the sound, and she looked up, not the least bit put-off.

            “We have an update on Prince Lotor, actually,” the Blade spoke, “and the rest of the Empire, as a matter of fact.”

            Allura didn’t speak, allowing Kolivan to continue, “The Empire is fracturing, and we have it on good word that the prince has been…demoted.”

            Demoted.

            Lance rolled the word around in his brain, eyes narrowing at the two Blades sitting across the table and down some. From the corner of his eye, he could see Keith, next to him, doing the same.

            “What do you mean, demoted?” Keith asked, leaning forward on his elbows. His hands fisted, and Lance shot glances over the table at Hunk and Pidge. Hunk, at least, seemed to have picked up on Keith’s shift in demeanor, and wore the same wary look as Lance. A glimpse of Shiro’s face confirmed that he, too, picked up on it, at least somewhat.

            “Yeah, uh, dramatics aren’t really helping, and usually I’m all for them, but, uh, if we could maybe not beat around the bush?” Lance suggested quickly, turning back toward Kolivan and the other Blade, flashing a polite albeit nervous smile.

            Kolivan and the Blade exchanged glances, while other representatives for the Coalition leaned forward.

            “Zarkon’s been healed,” Kolivan announced. “I’ve received word from one of our other bases less than a varga ago that he’s reclaimed his role as emperor, and Lotor’s reign as regent emperor has come to an end. Zarkon’s actually put out a bounty for Lotor, to be brought back to him…dead or alive.”

            Now the hush fell over the room. The Paladins stilled in their seats; even Lance, who was prone to fidgeting since he was a kid, ceased moving altogether. He would’ve preferred a punch to the face over that news, and a quick scan of the others confirmed they were all aboard the same train of thought.

            “And as we all know,” the Blade next to him jumped back in, “Prince Lotor’s gone off the grid since his last fight with Voltron. Unless, you’ve discovered something in your mission today?”

            The Blade settled her eyes on Allura, a hard look that Lance could’ve sworn he’d seen somewhere before.

            “We did, actually,” Keith interjected. He waited, for the attention to settle upon him, for those who’d begun murmuring or whispering to quiet, for a nod from Allura that confirmed he could continue speaking. “We were on an abandoned prison base, and then a druid showed up with crates full of quintessence.”

            “Quintessence?” the Blade asked.

            At that moment, Allura motioned for Coran to step forward. He’d been lingering near the corner of the room the whole time, near a white veil covering something up. At Allura’s gesture, he removed the veil, revealing seven completely sealed vials of quintessence.

            Keith flinched in his seat, almost imperceptibly, and the representatives of the room didn’t even notice, too occupied in gaping at the glowing yellow items.

            “Weren’t there ten before?” Pidge spoke up, while the others took in the sight.

            “Correct, Number Five,” Coran said. “Two were damaged and had to be disposed of, before anything adverse could happen—don’t want quintessence like this around you for too long! We haven’t completely finished analyzing the quintessence, but already, Allura and I were able to identify it as some strong stuff! After this meeting concludes, we’ll be running more tests in the lab, just to get the full breakdown.”

            Pidge nodded, eyes wide and alight with curiosity. Hunk peered over her at Lance and shook his head, and Lance mirrored him, throwing in a quiet tsk that Pidge either ignored or didn’t hear.

            “And what actually happened during this mission?” Shiro asked. “I heard Keith got hurt.”

            Keith’s eyes snapped to Lance, because Lance was the only one who’d been there to witness his injury in the druid fight, and Lance’s eyes widened in confused fear.

            “I didn’t say anything,” Lance spoke up automatically. “I was the last one here, remember? No time to talk to Shiro!”

            “We kinda pieced it together when Keith came back holding his arm,” Pidge said sheepishly, and smiled at Keith like the effort of it pained her.

            “Guys,” Shiro cut in. “The mission? Why did you come back later than expected? You were nearly half a varga overdue to return by the time you go back with the quintessence.”

            “It was sort of impromptu,” Hunk replied. “We swept the place, right? And we were on our way out when Keith heard this bang, and then an energy signature just showed up out of nowhere. And we were debating whether or not to investigate.”

            “I was gonna go investigate by myself,” Keith said, “but Lance said it would be safer if he went with me. So we did. And then the druid showed up, and we discovered that it was dropping all these crates. We weren’t just gonna let it keep coming and going, especially if the place was supposed to be abandoned.”

            “You could’ve been hurt,” Shiro said. “You were hurt. It wasn’t your call to stay later than you were supposed to. And you—” he swung his gaze to Lance, who jumped, startled by the sudden glare being pinned on him, “—weren’t supposed to enable him. You both knew we had a meeting.”

            For a beat, both Keith and Lance hesitated. Keith opened his mouth to protest, but Hunk, seated next to Shiro, beat him to the punch. He threw a hand forward, drawing the attention of the room to him.

            “Okay, guys? Yeah, it was bad that we stayed later than we supposed to. Duties, and all that. And it was bad Keith got hurt, and maybe he and Lance should’ve evacuated rather than engaged. But look, we got critical information from that. We found out the base isn’t as useless as we thought, we found out it’s the druids, and we found out exactly what they’re carting around. Not to mention, y’know…Keith was the one in the Black Lion, Shiro. It…kinda actually was his call to make.”

            Hunk’s voice softened at the end of his statement. For a moment, all Shiro could do was stare with a tightened jaw. Hunk didn’t let his gaze drop, didn’t look away from Shiro’s eyes, but he sank into his seat, slowly.

            “The Yellow Paladin makes a valid point,” Ryner spoke up, then, and Hunk let out a quiet breath of relief when Shiro finally looked away first. “This mission provides insight as to who might be the grandmaster behind these operations with pure quintessence, whether it’s Lotor, or perhaps Haggar running experiments of her own.”

            “Krolia and I will look into the matter when we return to base,” Kolivan rumbled. “We’ll have some of our top Blades on it, and we’ll report findings to the Castle of Lions right away.”

            The statement satisfied much of the group, as murmurs of agreement went up. Allura herself nodded along, wearing a grateful smile directed toward Kolivan and the Blade at his side.

            The rest of the meeting carried out in relative calm. Lance kept a close eye on Shiro, on Keith, on the rest of the team throughout, as Allura led a discussion about the future of the Coalition, about obtaining more members. Tactics like holding public forums, perhaps even performances—to which Keith vehemently disagreed—to lure people to their cause. By the time the meeting adjourned, it was nearly the castle’s night cycle.

            He walked swiftly by the others before anyone could stop him. He walked by Hunk, who looked like he was headed down to the kitchen for a meal to make up for the dinner the team missed. He walked by Pidge and Coran, who headed straight for one of the labs. He walked by Shiro, pulling an irritated Keith aside, inevitably for some leadership discussion or another. He walked by Allura, who lingered to speak to the representatives who stuck around after the meeting.


            By all means, Pidge should’ve been seconds from wiping out.

            She spent hours after the meeting with Coran, analyzing the quintessence samples for things like purity and molecular structure, for whatever lingering traces of other elements there might’ve been, for how quintessence like this could’ve been obtained or manufactured. Coran turned in for the night a varga ago, and left Pidge alone. A mistake, leaving her with a computer and a hunger that hadn’t settled down in days.

            Her eyes were latched onto a string of code, and excitement buzzed underneath her skin, had her practically bouncing in her seat as she tapped at the screen in front of her, muttering that same sequence of numbers from before.

            This was it, it had to be.

            It had come up too many times for it to not.

            She shot a sharp glance over her shoulder, but the lab was just as empty as it had been the moment Coran walked out the door. A jog to the door in question turned up an empty hallway, and an empty hallway turned up a room full of armored suits and void of life.

            She’d be quick. The location was close enough by them now, was just one set of numbers off from the base they’d been investigating that afternoon. A simple mistake with a simple fix. The castle’s night cycle was synced with the planet they were coming up on—it should’ve been night there, too. And darkness would be the perfect cover for a prison break.

            If she timed it right, she’d be back before the others woke up. No need to leave a note, in that case.

            But a need for her to leave. Right now.

            Pidge slipped into the room and suited up without a word, and then sprinted down the dead hallways, dimmed light from the wall sconces guiding her way down to Green’s hangar. Green creaked when she sensed Pidge’s presence.

            “C’mon, girl,” Pidge whispered, with one last cautious glimpse over her shoulder, before turning forward. “I need you. We’ve got a brother to save.”

Chapter Text

4.02
Decoder

            “What do you mean, gone?

            He hadn’t slept that well last night, and didn’t feel like talking to Shiro or Allura—not after yesterday, not after he’d been reprimanded right in front of every last visiting representative for the Voltron Coalition. He hoped for breakfast to be slightly better, and got up earlier than most of the other Paladins in order to avoid them. He didn’t anticipate Shiro confronting him, and Allura tamping down panic, because the Green Lion left her hangar in the dead of night and never came back.

            “We mean exactly what we said,” Shiro responded, and crossed the bridge, while Keith splayed his hands in frazzled confusion. “The Green Lion’s gone. Pidge is gone.”

            Keith blinked, and then followed after Shiro, as he stopped at one of the computer stations, holoscreens pulling up in front of him, at either side of him. He tapped away, hardly sparing Keith a glance, eyes flitting over data points that seemed to be of some importance. Keith tried to keep up with the flow of data, but Shiro moved quickly, methodically, mechanically, nearly machine-like.

            “Have you tried contacting her?” Keith asked.

            “Yes,” Allura answered, and Keith spun to face her, eyebrows raised in question.

            “And?”

            “Every transmission failed. We couldn’t reach her…nor could we reach the Green Lion. We don’t know if she cut things off herself, or if someone got to her. We’ve even lost the ability to track the Green Lion.”

            “Only Pidge could manage,” Keith muttered under his breath.

            He made his way over to his station—the Black Paladin’s chair, formerly Shiro’s—and called up holoscreens of his own. Truthfully, there wasn’t much he could do, not much left to look into, that Shiro and Allura hadn’t already tried. But he needed to make himself busy, make himself look busy, if he was going to get through this calmly and in one piece. Either way, he was about to be chewed out for letting one of the Paladins slip away on his watch. He’d just rather have been chewed out for that only, and not for also slacking off when the Paladin in question had apparently gone off the grid.

            True to Allura’s word, when Keith tried pulling up the coordinates of the Green Lion, the castle locked onto nothing, and instead displayed an error message, a red exclamation point framed by a triangle appearing where normally a map with Green’s energy signature would’ve been. Attempting to reach Pidge’s comms through the castle earned him nothing but static, and he guessed, from the way Shiro stood rigidly, one hand pressed to the side of his helmet, that reaching her through the links in the suits wasn’t helpful, either.

            “Wake the other Paladins,” Shiro ordered then, and Keith looked up sharply. Then the hardness in his expression vanished; Shiro appeared nothing but worried, and hadn’t even turned around when he’d spoken. He kept his eyes on the windows, on the stretches of space beyond them, on the planet they’d passed last night fading into the distance. Keith could tell his arms were crossed, and shot a glance at Allura. Her mouth curved down, as did her eyebrows.

            “Shiro,” she said, and turned away from Keith, “I trust you and Coran will be keeping the visiting representatives busy while we’re gone?”

            At that, Shiro finally moved. He looked at Allura, eyes widening fractionally, jaw tightening. Keith noted it, noted the rod-straight set to his spine, noticed the twitch of his fingers, however minuscule and brief. He spent a lot of time, learning to read the tiniest movements, the smallest tells. His fingers itched to pull the knife strapped to his waist before he even registered it; he tamped down on that feeling. This was Shiro.

            Just overtired, Keith tried to reassure himself. Overtired, and worried about Pidge.

            “What makes you think I’m not going on the mission?” Shiro asked, and brought Keith back to reality. He blinked at his question, noted Allura’s eyes flicking between the two of them as she debated whether or not to voice her concern.

            Or concerns, if she had more than one, as Keith did.

            “We…ah…,” Allura started, and faltered.

            “Never assumed that,” Keith jumped in.

            “Just based things off of the last mission,” Allura added quickly. “It…was a shock you stayed behind, last time. That’s all.”

            So maybe their statements were a little conflicting.

            “I’ll go wake Hunk,” Allura decided then, and Keith agreed with her, nodded, added, “And I’ll wake up Lance.”

            Keith wasn’t one to ever really be in sync with Allura. They’d moved past that nonsense with his heritage, but the memory of it still haunted Keith sometimes, deep into the night, choked him and reminded him that there were many spaces across the universe that would never truly accept him, even as a Paladin. Spaces where he’d constantly have to be on guard. To say it put a damper on things for a while…well, both under- and over-statement. It chilled things, definitely, and his relationship with her was still behind where it could’ve been, where it was with the others. But Keith couldn’t deny that they were steadily on the same frequency now, moving out of the bridge at the same pace, neither letting their shoulders slump until they were in the hallway, and the doors shut between them and Shiro.

            They traded looks with each other, suspicious eyes and thin lines for mouths.

            “He’s just worried,” Allura finally decided, at last.

            Understandably so, but still…even worried about the others before, Shiro never possessed that sort of iciness. Maybe Keith was fine-tuned to people and the way they operated, and especially so to the older brother who’d pulled him out of hell and gave him a sense of purpose, however long and begrudging the process was, and maybe alarm bells were going off, and maybe Keith couldn’t quite place the root of the issue.

            No time. Pidge is in trouble.


            So the plan wasn’t going as well as Pidge had initially hoped.

            When she fled the castle, chasing the loose thread that should’ve led her straight to her older brother, she’d intended to go one-on-one with the contact, steal whatever information she needed from them, and get the job done within a timeframe of roughly three hours, give or take another. She didn’t intend to go on a wild goose chase to track down her contact through a labyrinthine black market carved out of a mountainside and into a building, undoubtedly some kind of lab or base. This one wasn’t marked by GalraTech, though.

            Things here were lines and hard angles and grit, multiple pipes running parallel along walls and ceilings, twisting metal sets of stairs, blast door after blast door. Grimy floors and dangling wires sparking at their ends spoke to disuse and disrepair…or a lot of misuse. Perhaps fighting—some of the wires looked like they’d been sliced clean through with blades that were possibly sharper than the katar her bayard turned into.

            She wove past a particularly thick tangle of them and listened to the distant hum and bang and whir of machinery. Every five minutes or so—and yes, she’d timed it—the building shook with the force of something floors above her. Each time, it sent a shower of sparks raining down from the exposed cables. Her helmet protected her head, thankfully, when she was caught unawares by one such shower, golden pricks of light cascading over her before fizzling away.

            “Green?” Pidge whispered. “You still with me?”

            Pidge already knew the answer, expected the low purr of a yes in her head that followed her question. Green’s pull was fading, the deeper she walked into this place, like the building was actively trying to jam their signals, their comms. An attempt at masking activity here, maybe. It was a thing that indicated illegality, a thing that indicated the suspicions Pidge had had about her contact were correct: space pirates.

            That was the only reason she could think of, that Matt had suddenly gone off the grid and left her stumbling after scattered puzzle pieces, desperately trying to fit them into place. The reason he no longer came up in official databases for any established rebel group—or at least, established rebel groups that the Voltron Coalition could find. Allies, allies of allies…

            “Well, well,” a voice rumbled behind her, amused, and Pidge spun on her heel, bayard materializing in her hand in a green flash. She didn’t activate it, not yet, and truthfully hadn’t even meant to call it up in the first place, because now this guy knew she was armed, and her armor clearly gave away her affiliations.

            This guy knew she was capable of fighting. What Paladin of Voltron wasn’t?

            Pidge studied the person before her. A dark helmet, angular. It sharpened to a point at back of their head, and sloped almost snout-like in the front. The visor was entirely black, and Pidge found her own reflection in it. Underneath a long trench coat, a gunmetal gray down to the guy’s knees, they wore armor, made of similar material to the helmet. Shiny, sleek. Pidge spotted a utility belt. When the guy stepped forward, she found twin daggers strapped to their legs, when the coat brushed aside long enough for her to get a glimpse. She was willing to put money on more weapons resting beneath the rest of the coat—strapped to the back, the side, maybe a few slipped into boots or tucked up into arms. Even their dark gloves had to have something hidden. Needles, maybe. Tiny knives.

            Definitely space pirate material.

            “Are you Arva Melis?” Pidge asked, and against her better judgment, took a forward step of her own.

            The pirate laughed, muffled behind their helmet. “So you’re Gunderson. I didn’t think Voltron Paladins dealt with criminals.”

            “If the Empire’s ruling, doesn’t that also make Voltron a band of criminals?” Pidge offered, spreading her palms, trying for a smile.

            Her smile faltered as Arva Melis drew a blade from their thigh. It caught the light, and Pidge swallowed hard, smile faltering.

            “I don’t think we’re quite the same, Paladin.”


            “So wait…you mean to tell us that Pidge just got up in the middle of the night and left in the Green Lion without telling anyone? And now we can’t track her through Green or her suit and you don’t know why? And she’s probably in danger?”

            Lance’s eyebrows were nearly to his hairline as he appraised the other members of the team—or, more specifically, Keith, who, as Black Paladin, had broken down the situation for Lance and Hunk when everyone regrouped on the bridge. He had his arms crossed too, and when Keith nodded in confirmation, with a quiet, well, yeah, basically, he uncrossed them, and placed his hands on his hips.

            “Yep, sounds about right.”

            “What do you mean sounds about right?” Shiro asked then.

            Lance shrugged. “Y’know, par for the course with her? I mean, there was that time she tried to ditch the team to go find Matt and her dad, right? And then back at the Garrison, she’d disappear for hours. Hunk and I would try to go find her to do stuff and we’d find her on like, the roof.”

            “And now here we are, far from home, piloting a bunch of robotic cats. All because we found Pidge on the roof,” Hunk muttered under his breath.

            For a moment, the team was quiet. Shiro and Keith traded certain glances, while Allura furrowed her brow, as though she wasn’t quite sure whether or not she should’ve asked any further questions. Before she could, though, Keith cleared his throat.

            “Yeah, uh…anyway. Pidge is missing. We tracked the Green Lion’s route from the castle all the way back to the planet we passing by last night. Once they reach the atmosphere, we lose it. We’ve only got four Lions, but we’re going to need to cover ground. Lance, Hunk, you two are going to cover the southwestern portions of the planet. Shiro, Allura, and I will take the northeastern sections. Watch your time. We regroup in four hours,” he said. “Be careful. We don’t know what’s on that planet.”

            “Hold on, hold on, hold on,” Lance said, and put his hands up. “You mean to tell me we’re walking in blind? We don’t know anything about that planet? Not about its people, flora, fauna, affiliations—do we even know its name?”

            “Its name is Duagkanor,” Allura answered, “but even that information is questionable at best. Information acquired secondhand and uploaded to our databases long ago…by Coran.”

            At that, every Paladin in the room turned. Coran wasn’t paying attention; he was bent over his work station, humming to himself, like he didn’t even realize there was a mission briefing happening. He only glanced up when he realized there were five pairs of eyes on him, and when he straightened out, his eyes twinkled with an old mischief.

            “You’ve got stories, don’t you?” Lance asked, crossing his arms again.

            “That I do, m’boy, that I do.”

            He took in a breath, deep to the chest, like he was prepared to spin some long-winded tale that may or may not have contained more fiction than fact, more exaggerated detail than hard truth, but Shiro cut him off.

            “We don’t exactly have the time,” he said, “but maybe later. Right now, Pidge is priority one.”

            Keith nodded, looked away from Shiro, looked to the rest of the team. “Let’s head to the Lions.”


            “Are you sure they’re going down there?”

            Ezor squinted, stared hard at the reading in front of her. The tiny red blip on the ship’s scanners moved ever-closer to the planet lying not-too-distantly ahead of them. It baffled her, and a quick glance to her left showed Zethrid in a similar state of confusion. Narti, too, seemed put-off, but when Ezor flicked her gaze, Narti turned back to her task.

            “Yes. Their trajectory puts them on a path straight for it,” Acxa answered from Ezor’s right.

            “But why?” Ezor questioned further. “That place is a dump.”

            “This is why,” Acxa said, and pointed at the screen.

            Ezor dropped her eyes to it again. Four more blips appeared on the screen, all streaking away from the first.

            Only four.

            “Aren’t there five Lions?” Ezor cocked her head to the side as she spoke, squinting harder now. A smile tugged at the ends of her lips. “Oh. Lion Five is down there.”

            “Precisely,” a deeper voice called from behind them, and at that, all four generals turned.

            Lotor sat sprawled on his throne, leaning on one arm, legs spread. He’d spoken casually, and continued on: “With the Paladins chasing after a rogue Lion, they’ll be too occupied to notice us. You slip in, get what we need, and it’s smooth sailing from here. Of course, should there be a run-in…at least, don’t make it a repeat of what happened back at our base. You’re going to win this time. Exploit their weaknesses, by any means necessary.”


            Their comms went to shit the moment they hit the atmosphere.

            “This better not be Thayserix all over again,” Lance grumbled. He could hardly make out the sound of Hunk breathing through the copious amounts of static pouring into his ears, and his response to Lance was just as garbled.

            “Yeah—sure Thay—matized—lura a—bit.”

            Lance groaned, and leaned back in his seat as his eyes scanned the ground below for somewhere to land. His scanners weren’t even pulling up basic information that he could see right in front of him, like buildings and people. Whatever was in the air, be it natural or…well, it couldn’t be man-made, because the those things on the ground did not look like humans, but whatever was the word for it out here—alien-made, maybe, sure, that worked—anyway, point was, it was jamming everything.

            Lance had a sinking feeling it was that second one, and this was going to be a lot more dangerous than Thayserix.

            “You ever get the feeling we should’ve let Coran tell us that story?” Lance asked.

            “No—sually, bu—this ti—yeah.”

            The static over the comms cleared up a little, and Lance glanced out of Red’s right-side window to see Hunk pulling Yellow in tighter formation. Something tickled the back of Lance’s mind, a tiny flame from Red, indicating that Yellow found someplace suitable for them to set down. Lance let the Lion take control, hands loosely gripping the controls as both Lions slowed their descent toward a cleared patch of airstrip, surrounded by other dirty spacecrafts, covered in soot and dirt and—oh, that was…okay, yeah, cool, this was definitely someplace Lance wanted to go on a mission, with the team split in two.

            “Is that blood?” Hunk asked, and Lance gagged.

            “Yep. Mmhmm.”

            Neither spoke again until after the Lions touched down and opened up, and the pair of Paladins stepped out into the airstrip. Automatically, their helmets activated, and sealed them off from the environment. Lance narrowed his eyes. It could have been just that the air here wasn’t very breathable for them, or it could have been something else. Certain gases maybe meant to knock out those who weren’t supposed to be here.

            “I don’t like this,” Lance muttered.

            “This looks like a place where nice guys get jumped and murdered, and I dunno about you, but I like to consider myself a nice guy. Paladins are supposed to be nice guys. AKA, we’re the ones who are gonna get jumped here!” Hunk shout-whispered, and when Lance looked over, Hunk clutched his bayard tightly, waiting for the moment he’d need to transform it into a weapon.

            “Did you ever pay attention on movie night?” Lance asked. “What about Coran’s spiel that time we went to the space mall?”

            “The space mall we had disguises and it turned out to be harmless, and movies are fiction. The good guys are almost guaranteed to live!” Hunk responded, eyes shining with alarm.

            Lance sighed. “Alright. I get it. But listen—Pidge is here. Alone. She’s probably smarter than both of us but she’s tinier, and sometimes…”

            He trailed off, eyes fixed on some middle distance that Hunk couldn’t follow. Hunk flicked his eyes up, to see if maybe there was something approaching, something that moved and Lance had become fixated upon it, but then it occurred to Hunk that Lance wasn’t here at all. He was somewhere else entirely, if the glaze in his eyes was any indication.

            “She’s gonna be okay,” Hunk said. “I mean, she saved the whole castle before, right?”

            And this time, Hunk didn’t pick up on the shift in Lance’s demeanor, on the sudden stiffness in his posture at the mention of the mission that Lance spent most of knocked all the way out. The mission where Shiro got hurt trying to protect him, where Pidge got hurt trying to save the both of them, where he spent his time doing nothing, save for one lucky shot in a brief emergence from his unconsciousness. The rest of the team had been making an effort, in one way or another.

            Not him.

            “Right,” Lance said, and cleared his throat. Put on his mask—James Bond, Han Solo, either one of those worked. “Now, let’s do this thing.”


            “Listen,” Pidge said, eying Arva’s blade warily, while her contact stalked another step forward, “maybe we’re not the same. B-But I’m not here on behalf of Voltron—a-anyone, actually. I’m just here, one…ah, outlaw to another. You told me you would give me the information I was seeking. So, you give me the information—” Pidge paused, and cursed herself for not thinking to wear some kind of disguise, bring some kind of bag, anything that might’ve made her look a bit more the part of a prospective buyer, “—and I can guarantee you that the law will leave you alone. Permanently.”

            “Hefty price,” Arva answered, and if Pidge could’ve seen their eyes, she would’ve sworn they darkened, “but empty words.”

            They twirled their blade, and in an instant, had a second one in hand, while they pulled a third out with the other. Dexterous fingers had all three daggers spinning as they approached Pidge, and Pidge made herself stay firmly planted in one spot, even as the blades swung closer and closer to her. She had to believe her suit would protect her from the worst blows, if it came down to it—which, it wouldn’t. She would make sure of that.

            “Many shames for you, Paladin,” Arva went on, and stopped just a foot from Pidge, towering over her. “I do not work on word alone. And you’ve already been outbid.”

            “P-Please,” Pidge stammered, “I need this information, you don’t understand—”

            But the two-bladed hand twitched, and Pidge scowled and dropped her terrified little lamb performance as she activated her bayard.

            Her katar came to life in a burst of green as she swung her arm up and met the blade that would’ve taken her head clean off, had she been a second or two later. She shoved and ducked as Arva’s other arm came at her, and then dropped into a backward roll and shot back to her feet, in an effort to put distance between them. Arva chuckled at the sight of it, just as something sharp struck Pidge in the back, in the space protected only by her black jumpsuit.

            She cried out and fell forward, onto her knees. She scrabbled for her fallen bayard, took it up, and whipped around, into a crouch, aiming it at her assailant. Her eyes widened at the sight of a hooded figure, cloaked in shades of brown and orange. Most striking, though, was the gaunt face underneath the hood, the dulled amber eyes she often found when looking in a mirror.

            The shock of it stole the air from her lungs, left her gasping and struggling to speak as the figure dropped their hood, revealing shaggy, strawberry brown hair.

            “Pidge?”


            Uneasiness clamped down on Keith the moment he, Shiro, and Allura left the castle in the Black and Blue Lions, and didn’t release him once. Not in the flight back to Duagkanor, when Shiro tried to backseat lead, calling paths Keith should’ve been taking and questioning his decisions on where to land, how to fly—anything and everything there was to be criticized, Shiro was on it, until Keith snapped at him to be quiet, he needed to concentrate.

            Not when they touched down on the planet, hiding Black and Blue away in the shadow of a mountain, between thick clusters of what might’ve been trees and other flora, and Keith found himself wondering if this was really a good place to cover the Lions associated with air and water, rather than earth and rock.

            Not when he spotted a terrifyingly familiar uniform ducking out of sight in the disorganized chaos of a marketplace—a uniform that blended into the colors of overcast skies and gray rock and shadows, while the trio of Paladins stuck out like sore thumbs in black, red, pink, and white. Keith held tightly to his Marmora knife, like it would do him any good here, and questioned over and over again why he’d even brought it, scolding himself, telling himself it would’ve been better to have just left it behind on the castleship.

            “Keith, I think I have a lead,” Allura murmured then, from where she flanked Keith’s left.

            It was strange, Keith found, for the three of them to be moving in formation like this. He offered for them to split up, suggested that being on the ground in such close proximity might not have screwed with their comms as much, but Shiro was adamant about sticking together, now that the group had already been divided in half. He was already scared enough for Pidge, he’d said. He didn’t want to worry about losing Keith and Allura, too.

            So Keith had backed down.

            “Alright,” Keith said, and gestured for Allura to take the lead.

            He fell back as she stepped forward, and wound the group around tables and stalls and shady vendors with hooded eyes—eyes that kept piercing through Keith, eyes that burned holes in the back of his head, even through his helmet. Had he not been wearing gloves, sweat would’ve slicked his grip on his Marmora knife, even through the gauze wrapped around the handle.

            Constant vigilance.

            Even in bright, firetruck red, Keith usually knew how to make himself blend in with the crowd. If anything Keith learned at the Garrison was any indication, then Shiro could, too, if he wanted. And Allura could shapeshift—there was no reason they should’ve all been so blatantly obvious as they marched toward some building.

            If the black market had been carved into the side of this mountain, rock making for twisting stairways and cliffs perfect for throwing rowdy customers off of, then the building was built into the rock. Keith spotted the entrance through throngs of unsavory shoppers, aliens up to shifty business. One shadowy form lurked near the entrance, although Keith didn’t miss the glint of a weapon. Must’ve been a blade, simple enough for him to handle. Unless they were concealing more.

            “Anyone know how we’re gonna get past them?” Keith whispered as they drew closer.

            By now, they’d drawn the alien’s attention. It tipped its head toward them, and Keith saw then that it wore a helmet that masked its face completely, and left nothing but a dark mirror that reflected the whole of the black market.

            “Just follow me and don’t question a thing,” Allura answered, and squared her shoulders.

            Ah. So the diplomatic approach.

            This wasn’t going to end well.

            Keith and Shiro followed quietly nonetheless, as Allura led the group forward. By now, they had to be drawing glances from onlookers. Keith kept aware of it, but focused his eyes in front of him, focused on the entrance to the building. A long tunnel leading into darkness, with only glowing red dots to indicate that there was likely a door at the end, with an access panel.

            “Stop right there,” the stranger said then, and Keith and Shiro pulled up short, while Allura walked a few more feet, until she was right in front of the alien who guarded the entrance. “What are a bunch of Voltron Paladins doing here?

            Keith didn’t dare get his hopes up, didn’t think for a second that this alien would let them in just on the virtue that they were the universe’s last line of defense against the Galra Empire. He kept his hands down at his sides, kept his knife out of sight of the alien as Allura tilted her head and smiled at them, like they weren’t armed and dangerous and clearly not in the mood to deal with sweet-talk.

            “Official business,” Allura answered.

            Keith was certain the alien squinted behind the mask as they leaned in to study Allura’s expression, and Allura seized her chance. She brought her hand up; blue light flared momentarily, and faded just as quickly, and the alien dropped to the ground without a word. Keith would’ve gaped, if he wasn’t so concerned with the fact that there were potential witnesses everywhere.

            “H-How did you…?” Shiro asked, and gestured to the alien.

            Allura flashed another smile over her shoulder and wiggled her fingers. “A gift from my father.”

            She motioned Keith and Shiro forward again; they traded looks, Keith exasperated and Shiro stunned, before they fell into step behind her. All the while, the hair on the back of Keith’s neck stood up, and he risked another glance over his shoulder, and then kept watching.

            “Keith?” Shiro whispered, and Keith looked up, long enough to shake his head.

            “I…someone’s watching us. I know it.”

            And neither of them spotted the acrobat, bathed in darkness, clinging to the rocky ceiling just above them.


            Must hung in the air in the tunnel Lance and Hunk slunk through. It was dark enough down here to warrant night vision as they traipsed through dirt and mold, murky water and mildew. Sludge stuck to the bottoms of their boots as they walked on, Hunk in front and Lance behind.

            It was Hunk’s idea to come down here. Something about it had felt right to him, and his hunch had been correct: within minutes of entering the underground through a manhole cover in the airstrip, in a quick getaway from some people who decided to take issue with Voltron Paladins being at their base of operations…whatever those operations might’ve been, they uncovered a computer system, and more importantly, a map.

            Unfortunately, they couldn’t get a long enough range, even jacked into the system, to give a head’s up to the other Paladins, an edge that might’ve helped them.

            “Y’think Pidge is okay?” Hunk asked.

            Lance glared sharply at the back of Hunk’s head. “You’re the one who told me she’d be fine.”

            “Yeah, well…maybe I’m…starting to get nervous.”

            “Hunk—”

            Lance stopped as something splashed, and echoed down the tunnel, from behind them. He summoned his bayard, and at once, it elongated into his rifle. Hunk, too, prepped his cannon, and aimed it down into the dark.

            “Should we ask who’s there?” Hunk whispered, after roughly two minutes of silence.

            “What, and give ourselves away?” Lance hissed back. “Absolutely not.”

            He didn’t lower his rifle, but began backing up. Hunk mimicked him, and each of them swept the area around them with their eyes—and Hunk was too late on his warning.

            “Lance—!”

            Something dropped from the ceiling and smashed their elbow over Lance’s head. His helmet saved him from being knocked out—or killed, for that matter—but he was still stunned, and hit the ground as his attacker wound something around his neck. Hunk tried shooting at them, but every shot missed, both because their opponent was too agile, and because he was trying to avoid shooting Lance by accident.

            Lance deactivated his bayard, let it fade back into his suit. He didn’t need whoever this was taking it, but he definitely needed both hands if he was going to avoid getting choked to death. He wrapped both hands around whatever was currently around his neck as he wheezed, sucking in every lungful of air that he could manage, before his helmet was wrenched from his head.

            “No—nonono—”

            He wheezed again, choked. Hunk lunged for him, only to get a boot to the face, and Lance recognized the armor. His terror kicked into high gear, and he struggled harder, only for the tail, it was a fucking tail, to tighten around his neck.

            “Let him go!” Hunk bellowed then, aiming his bayard for the general who had Lance in a chokehold, as if the threat would do anything.

            Lance would’ve shaken his head, would’ve told Hunk to run, if he had the ability. Instead, he tried to ration his air, like it would do him any good, like he could get any in to save up in the first place. Colors bled into his line of vision, as the world around him blurred. Then came the dark patches, the tingling in his limbs, the fog in his brain…

            “Lance!”

            “Stand down, Yellow Paladin, and no one has to be hurt.”

            If Lance could have a coherent thought, he would’ve recognized the owner of the voice. Probably groaned, too, because of course. Of course this one would come after him, after she nearly ended his life back on that base, and went toe-to-toe with Keith.

            “H-Hun—Hunk—”

            “Narti, take him,” the other general said.

            Lance might’ve expected that to mean take him away, as in, knock him out and let’s run before the other one can do anything about it. But that didn’t happen. Clawed hands grasped his head in a hand too big for comfort, and Lance gasped as the tail released his neck. His eyes rolled back, and if felt as though Lance’s body dropped out from under him.

            He didn’t summon his bayard on his own accord. Didn’t activate it with his own free will. Definitely didn’t aim it at Hunk by choice.

            “Now,” the other general said, voice dark, “walk, Yellow Paladin.”

            With shaking hands, empty of his bayard and raised to the side of his head in surrender, Hunk obeyed.

Chapter Text

4.03
Green Screen

            Lance was possessed.

            Cool, cool. Absolutely fine. Add that to the list of things Hunk would just have to roll with, because he didn’t really have much of a choice in the matter, now, did he? Nope, no he did not. Okay. Fine. Great! He could handle this. Essentially it was just one-on-one, right? Kinda? Maybe Lance…maybe he’d find some way to fight things and distract Lotor’s lizard general whose name might have been escaping him at the moment, leaving Hunk free to fight the scary one who had the same grumpy expressions as Keith.

            No problem. Not at all.

            Hunk desperately wanted to ask where the hell these generals were taking him, as the blue one called out directions for him to walk, but he knew better than to speak up when one of them had a gun, and the other one was making Lance point his gun. He didn’t know whether or not Lance’s abilities as a sharpshooter translated well through mind control, but he did know that when Lance was in charge, he didn’t miss. Like, at all. Combat training was the one area in the Garrison in which Lance excelled with perfect scores—not that Iverson would’ve ever told him that.

            “Left,” the blue-haired general called, and Hunk turned in that direction.

            He studied the walls, and caught sight of another map not unlike the one he and Lance had spotted earlier. His eyes flitted over it, absorbing as much information as he could. He couldn’t linger, lest he be discovered and hurt. Or killed. Though Hunk had a funny feeling these two didn’t want him dead. At least, not yet. They would have murdered him right off the bat, if that was the case. Unless they were trying to lure him into a false sense of security so he’d put up less resistance. But was it really necessary, if he was already outmatched—?

            Stop that.

            Hunk lost track of how long they’d been walking, how long Lance had been under the influence of the lizard. He kept track of their progress through the tunnels by the maps posted on the wall every so often, and found that the blue-haired general was directing them up inclines, and they were approaching a stairwell that would lead into a building. It was about the same time his comms came back online, and about the same time Hunk remembered that Lance wasn’t wearing his helmet.

            He didn’t let loose his sigh of relief when he spotted it in the blue general’s hands. Not like she needed to see him relaxing.

            “Right,” the general ordered, and Hunk turned. As he did, he snuck another glance over his shoulder at her. She carried an authoritative air about her that the other one didn’t, and Hunk recalled her keeping the same air when the team faced all four of Lotor’s generals. She must have been his second-in-command, right hand, whatever their little squad was referring to the role as.

            And no wonder. She kept a terrifyingly close eye on Hunk, the gun never once dropping back down to her side. At the same time, though, she kept watch of the one she’d called Narti, kept watch of Lance, swept her gaze around the base to make sure they weren’t being followed. Hunk recognized the deeply analytical glint in her eyes, and the steel behind it. She was definitely someone dedicated to her cause, that was for sure. It begged the question: what the hell linked her to Lotor? What linked the others to Lotor? How and where did they train, if vast stretches of the universe didn’t even know they existed, when Lotor was Zarkon’s son?

            Things to look into, Hunk thought, and made a mental note of it, another item on his research agenda. Maybe Allura or Coran had an idea. He’d have to ask—once, of course, he managed to find a way to get himself and Lance out of the situation at hand.

            “Halt,” the general said suddenly, and Hunk froze mid-step. He turned his head slightly, enough to see the general out of the corner of his eye. She appeared as though she were listening to something, maybe the comms in her helmet.

            Hunk peered at Lance again, while the general was preoccupied. The lizard general, too, appeared as though they were hearing something, but they still kept a firm grip on Lance. But that wasn’t what frightened Hunk. No, what frightened Hunk was that, as he took in the sight of Lance’s face, he discovered his best friend’s eyes were glowing, a brilliant celeste, and maybe it was the Voltron Paladin bond, but something told Hunk to seize his opportunity and seize it now.

            And he did.

            And Lance did.

            Hunk summoned his bayard out of his suit and transformed it into a cannon just as the first shot from Acxa came for his head. He ducked underneath it and raised the cannon, and fired away at her. At the same time, Lance dropped to the floor and rolled, and came up on one knee. He swung his rifle in Narti’s direction and shot, and when Hunk looked at him again, the glow was fading from his eyes.

            “How?”

            Hunk didn’t miss the small utterance from the blue general as she tossed Lance’s helmet over her shoulder in favor of aiming her gun at the pair of Paladins before her. The same question burned in the back of his mind, but he and Lance had more important things to attend to, like getting Lance’s helmet back and getting out of there in one piece.

            “Lance! You’re alright!” Hunk said.

            “Yep,” Lance responded, voice far too high for the cocky tone he attempted. To Hunk, he sounded shaken, and neither had time to talk about the matter—not at the moment. Hunk made a second mental note to talk to Lance about this later, and then switched his focus entirely on the helmet sitting on the floor across the way.

            One of them would have to get retrieve it, and one of them would have to try and keep both generals engaged long enough for the other to slip away. One exchanged look with Lance told Hunk that he’d be the one bolting for it, because Lance was already moving, away from his helmet, taunting their opponents. Pulling off what could have been dance moves, fluid and nimble. He drew fire from the leading general, while the lizard attempted to charge him.

            Hunk lunged.

            His bulk would give him the edge, if he were to be attacked from the side or from behind. He at least knew he wouldn’t go down right away—but Lance was another matter. Two on one, and Lance might’ve been strong, as the Paladins had to be if they wanted to save the universe, he wasn’t strong enough to physically fight off both of them if they dropped their weapons and came at him with nothing but their bare hands.

            Hunk swooped in for the helmet at the same time a shot whizzed over his head. He whipped around, and found Lance swinging his gun like a baseball bat, a weak attempt to hit the blue general over the head as she came within point-blank range and fired.

            And missed.

            The shot grazed the side of Narti’s suit as Lance swung around, and revealed that the lizard general had been attempting to get him into another chokehold from behind. The lizard general made no noise as they released Lance, but the blue general shouted something in Galran that might’ve been a swearword, as Lance wrenched himself completely free. He hit the ground, on his back, and fired. This time, his shot nailed the lizard general just below the chestplate.

            Not fatal, but enough to incapacitate.

            Just what Lance had been aiming for.

            In those precious few seconds where the blue general struggled between helping her injured teammate, and going at Lance to make him pay, Lance surged back to his feet and yelled over his shoulder: “Hunk, come on!”

            Hunk tucked the helmet under his arm and took off after Lance, swerving around the blue general as she leveled a gun at him. He switched his bayard for his shield to protect him as he ran, and let his bayard rematerialize once he handed Lance’s helmet off to him. All the while, he wondered why Lance’s exposure to the air here didn’t have him dead on the ground yet, if their helmets had sealed them off from the environment to protect them in the first place.


            “Pidge?”

            Time froze in that moment. Pidge stared at wide eyes, as the figure before her stared right back. There was no way, absolutely no way. Every last thread she found wove a map of a prisoner, not of…not of whoever was before her. She was looking for someone held captive, not someone out here, striking a deal with a space pirate…and yet…

            “Matt?” she whispered, voice more broken than she intended it to be; when she blinked, she found something warm and wet sliding down her cheeks, and blinked again, frustrated. She didn’t cry—Paladins on crucial missions didn’t cry. Not in front of space pirates. And not in front of people who looked just like your older brother, but older and taller and with more muscle and no glasses and—

            Strong arms swept her into an embrace before her brain caught up with everything, came out of its Error 404: Page Not Found state and finished processing everything around her. It took her a moment, to realize that this was really Matt, which meant she found him, he was here and alive and he was holding her and my brother’s alive, my brother’s alive, he’s okay.

            She melted as the realization finally sank in, wrapped her arms tightly around him.

            She didn’t realize until now that Matt was muttering, through a clear mask that covered the bottom half of his face, from the bridge of his nose to his chin, things similar to her train of thought: Katie, it’s really my sister, she’s in space, what the hell is my baby sister doing in space?

            “How lovely,” Arva Melis’ voice interrupted, and Pidge stiffened, as did Matt. Her brother—I still can’t believe it—let her go, and she dropped back to her feet, as Arva continued on, “Now, I believe I have a deal to strike with you.

            Their eyes were likely on Matt, but that fucking helmet still kept Pidge from seeing them.

            Matt tightened his grip on what was apparently a staff of sorts, while Pidge held fast to her bayard, as Arva stalked forward, until they were directly in front of Matt. Matt didn’t so much as flinch, didn’t bat an eye. His face slid into some cool expression, eyes hard as he took in the space pirate before him. He inched forward, angled himself in front of Pidge.

            “You do,” Matt said, and dug his other hand into his pocket. He produced something that looked like a flashdrive. “This is everything you asked for. I trust you have what I came for?”

            The space pirate took the flashdrive between their fingers and held it up to the light.

            And then crushed it in their fist.

            Matt took an involuntary step back, as did Pidge. He held his staff in both hands, across his body, as a safeguard against the space pirate. Pidge raised her katar and balled her other hand into a fist. She set her jaw, and nodded when Matt glanced back at her, almost as though asking if she were prepared for a fight. And then he looked back again, eyes fractionally wider, as he looked her up and down. Took in the armor she wore. Inhaled sharply.

            Nodded and turned away.

            “I did,” Arva said, and took another step forward, until Matt’s staff was about the only thing separating the two of them, “but now I think I have something even better on my hands.”

            Pidge tracked Arva’s one hand, drifting down to their thigh, while they distracted Matt by letting the crushed bits of his flashdrive sprinkle to the ground, out of the other. Matt swallowed as he looked at Arva, inched back, made himself straighten out.

            “Really now?” Matt asked.

            “Oh, yes. Do you know how much someone would pay for a Paladin of Voltron and a ranking officer of an elite rebel force? One that has been a thorn in the side of not just the Empire, but the Fire of Purification? Other warring factions? They’ll all be tripping over themselves, trying to snatch one of you. Perhaps I can up the bids, make you two a package deal, after that heartfelt reunion…”

            Neither Pidge nor Matt intended on stopping them from talking. Matt held their locked gazes—or, what he assumed were locked gazes, because that damn visor was getting in his way—as he shifted back another few inches, and Arva kept moving forward.

            “Ranking officer, huh?” Pidge muttered. “You’ve been busy.”

            “Paladin of Voltron,” Matt countered without looking back. “You and I have a lot of catching up to do.”

            “Yep,” Pidge agreed, and narrowed her eyes just as Arva lunged. “Right after we punch this guy’s face in!”

            Pidge shoved Matt aside, hand with her katar shooting out to block a strike Arva aimed for Matt’s neck with a serrated dagger, and while Arva switched their attention to her, for the briefest second, Matt swept his staff underneath Arva’s legs. Arva reacted quickly, and hooked a leg around Matt’s staff and dropped into a roll. Matt’s grip on his staff never slipped, and he pitched forward, going into a roll of his own to keep up. Pidge lashed out with her bayard, switching from her katar to her grappling hook without a beat of hesitation.

            An angry sound tore out of Arva’s throat as they brought their blade up to block Pidge. At the same time, they delivered a well-aimed kick to Matt’s head,  one that sent Matt falling back on his ass, his staff still clutched tightly in his hands. While he struggled to blink the stars out of his eyes, Pidge bore down with a guttural cry of her own; Arva surged up, and Pidge lunged with her bayard. She went art Arva’s neck with the cord of her grappling hook, and Arva met her halfway.

            The serrated edge of their blade grated against whatever the cord was reinforced with, sending a shower of sparks over Pidge as they rolled, and Pidge ended up pinned underneath the space pirate, struggling to keep them at bay. She grunted, eyes flicking to Arva’s wrists, the way they pressed down with both hands. She couldn’t help the smirk that pulled up the corners of her mouth, the rush of satisfaction at knowing that even at just fifteen, she was holding her own against someone more than twice her size.

            The things war did.

            “Cocky, now, Paladin?” Arva snarled. “Quite unbecoming.”

            Pidge did a lot of unbecoming things, like swear and fight and sneak into the Garrison under a false identity and rough up aliens who came after her team. After her family. The way she came off to others was the least of her concerns, especially when they had a knife and were attempting to slit her throat.

            “Didn’t ask, don’t care,” Pidge retorted, and shoved with everything she had. She criss-crossed her arms in a flash, wrapping the cord of her bayard around Arva’s wrists and yanking it tight, tight enough for their dagger to get caught up in the mix, sparking. At that same moment, Matt rammed into Arva’s side with his staff, hard enough to throw them off of Pidge and send them feet across the floor—dragging Pidge a bit, too, until she got her bearings and readjusted her grip on the grappling hook.

            Before Arva could get up, Matt stomped over and placed both a boot and the end of his staff against Arva’s chest, while Pidge stood over their head, still pulling the ropes of her bayard tightly.

            “Now,” Matt said, “I think that’s enough nonsense. You’re gonna give me the information I came for, and then you’re gonna get out of here, while we’re still feeling nice enough to let you leave. Because, y’know, Paladin of Voltron…high-ranking rebel officer…both of us have the means to turn you in to the proper authorities. But we’re feeling generous right now, aren’t we, Pidge?”

            “Yep,” Pidge responded, and then hardened her gaze as she looked down. “Dunno how long that’s gonna last for, though.”

            Matt nodded to her, and then joined her in glaring at the space pirate. He pressed down harder with his staff. “Now, start talking.”


            If Keith was uneasy before, then the sputtering wires and endlessly twisting sets of stairs, covered in layers of filth and grime, shoved him over the edge. He activated his bayard just feet into the building, as the lighting overhead flickered; down the hall, one light panel guttered out. He kept his sword not at his side but raised in front of him, poised like a viper seeking prey, prepared to strike at any moment.

            Yet again, Shiro opened his mouth to chide him.

            “Keith—”

            “Shiro, don’t.”

            Honestly, what was with him? He’d been more paranoid, more critical, more vocal about opposition to a leadership he’d championed before his disappearance, ever since he got back. What happened? What the fuck had he seen that had him so against anything Keith offered? And why the hell wouldn’t he talk about it? Any time Keith brought up his rescue, anything between that and his disappearance, Shiro went quiet. Uncomfortably and unsettlingly so.

            “I just think—”

            “Think what?” Keith interrupted, raising challenging eyebrows.

            It was enough to get Allura to turn around and glare daggers at the both of them. “Keith, Shiro, focus.

            “Yeah, guys, focus. Don’t want anyone sneaking up on you, right?” a voice called, and the trio whipped around.

            Keith’s heart shot to his throat. One of Lotor’s generals—the red one, the acrobat who’d had no qualms about going at him before—sat perched on one of the stairwell railings, high above them. She swung her legs and cocked her head, grinning as she studied the group. She feigned absence as she gripped the rail with one hand to steady herself, and stuck the other out, pretending to inspect her nails.

            “Been a little while, right?” she asked without so much as another glance down. “So, how have you guys been? Made any new allies lately? New enemies?”

            Shiro and Allura both continued to gape at her, but Keith’s head snapped in another direction at the slightest sound, the tiniest tap of a boot against the metal floors. Allura caught his movement first, and looked back, eyes widening.

            “Hello, Princess,” another of Lotor’s generals greeted.

            The burly one with the big ears—Allura remembered this one well enough, and steeled herself. Didn’t take a step back but rather took one forward, hands balling into fists. Her bayard appeared in one hand in a flash of blue light, and only at that flash did Shiro seem to gather his bearings, looking away from the red general and toward the large-eared one.

            “Well, you’re new,” the bigger one remarked, switching her gaze to Shiro. “And weren’t there initially five of you?”

            “Well, there are still five now,” the acrobat called, and leapt down, landing in a crouch. She smiled and rose slowly, while Keith turned until he had both of them in his line of sight.

            “What do you mean, still five?”

            The hilt of his Marmora knife burned in his palm, practically begging to transform, so he was dual-wielding two swords, instead of one long katar and one dagger.

            “Oh, you don’t know?” the acrobat asked, voice high and pretty. “Zeth, you wanna tell ‘em?”

            “Pidge,” Shiro muttered before he could stop himself, and whirled on the one the acrobat called Zeth. “What did you do?” His voice didn’t go much higher than a terrified whisper, and Keith pinpointed the second his hands began trembling. His GalraTech hand flared up, bright purple, and before the burly general got the chance to answer, Shiro attacked.

            “How’s she supposed to tell you if you’re trying to kill her?” the acrobat asked, and Keith traded narrow-eyed glances with Allura, before the two of them turned.

            The acrobat had already moved; her spot was empty.

            Allura called the warning too late.

            Keith hit the floor as the acrobat attacked him from above, dropping onto his neck and wrapping her legs around tight. He slashed back and up with both blades, and the general caught one of them with both hands—his Marmora knife. He hadn’t transformed it, and between struggling for oxygen, struggling to get back on his feet, and trying to stab with his bayard, Keith lost his grip on it.

            Luckily, Allura had him covered.

            Just as the red general smirked down at him, prepared to dangle the knife in his face as she continued to try and squeeze the life out of him, Allura’s whip lashed out, and caught the general around the wrist. In her surprise, she dropped the knife, and loosened her legs just slightly enough for Keith to surge up and wrench himself free. He scrambled on his knees for the dagger, lying on the floor, and as soon as he locked fingers around it, it elongated into a sword, scimitar-like.

            He shot back to his feet and flicked his gazes between the two fights—Allura engaging the red general, and Shiro engaging Zeth. Allura seemed to be handling herself just fine, as she spun and yanked on her whip, drawing the red general in closer as she stumbled over her own feet with the sudden force of Allura’s persistence. Shiro, meanwhile, struggled.

            Zeth held her hand around his throat, and Keith wondered what the hell was up with these people and trying to asphyxiate the Paladins, as if there weren’t other methods for murder.

            “It was a shame, too,” Zeth was saying, as Keith charged. Her eyes lit up as she saw Keith, and she raised her voice. “So small! So fragile! The sound of her bones breaking, and her screams—”

            She spun, just as Keith moved in. Keith skidded to a halt and dodged to the side, as the burly general whipped Shiro in his direction as a body shield, before throwing him. He collided with Keith like a bowling ball, sending them both across the floor. Keith let his bayard shrink down to standard size and disappear into his suit as they went tumbling, and his Marmora knife returned to dagger form. He didn’t need to be hurting Shiro any more than he already was, whether or not he did it accidentally.

            “She’s right!” the red general chimed in, seemingly unconcerned with the way she duked it out with Allura. She palmed two daggers of her own, sliding out from compartments that must have been tucked away in the armor on her forearms. “She was fun to play with, though! The Green Paladin really is the smart one! I mean, some of her tactics? Genius! Kinda tragic you guys won’t have that anymore.”

            Keith staggered back to his feet, aided Shiro from the floor. A vein in Shiro’s forehead twitched as he cut his eyes to both generals. They were wide, angry, darkening.

            Then he let loose a war cry and charged, ripping himself away from Keith.

            Keith chased after him, as he went back to Zeth. He contemplated handing off the black bayard to Shiro, if only to give him a weapon other than his own fist, but Shiro seemed to have things under control this time. He ducked underneath a swing from Zeth’s fist and brought his GalraTech hand up for an uppercut, while Keith attacked from the side, aiming his blade near what should’ve been a thinner part of Zeth’s armor, the jumpsuit beneath her chestplate.

            She saw right through them. She maneuvered out of the way of Shiro’s uppercut and carried her arm all the way around. She missed Shiro’s head, but punched Keith squarely in the side of his. He stumbled; his helmet saved him from most of the blow, but it still stunned him, and Zeth kicked him hard in the stomach. He doubled over, Zeth lunged, and Shiro intervened.

            He blocked a slashing arc that would’ve taken Keith’s head off, and Zeth grinned.

            “Is it a thing you all have, a drive to protect the smaller ones?”

            Keith’s head snapped up. “I’m not that small!”

            Zeth stabbed at Shiro, while Shiro side-stepped and swung back around with his hand. She ducked underneath the blow and let Shiro’s momentum carry him over her back as she rounded on Keith, blades clanging.

            “Perhaps not for a—”

            “Zethrid!” the other general yelled then. “We’ve gotta go!”

            Zeth—Zethrid, that was her full name, Keith understood then—barely cut a glance to her companion before Shiro came back around. He attacked from behind, and Zethrid spun with a growl, killing a cry of pain in the back of her throat, while Keith took note of the fresh burn mark on her armor. Shiro didn’t have enough time to inflict the damage he wanted, but it was enough to piss her off.

            “Should we take one of them with us?” Zethrid had the audacity to ask, and turned her back on Shiro, advancing on Keith with a tackle that sent him to the ground.

            He stabbed up with one of his blades and missed her neck by hardly an inch. She pinned both of his hands with just one of hers, and used her other arm to try and crush his windpipe. Keith thrashed underneath her, adrenaline pumping through him. His skin tingled, some urge tugging at him as he wheezed, as his suit and helmet worked overtime to try and give him the oxygen he needed. Zethrid’s grin widened enough to reveal razor-sharp fangs, and then vanished, as she did.

            Keith bolted up, gasping, as Shiro tackled her. He spent only a second debating whether to jump back into the melee or to help Allura when the red general stumbled straight into him, a fresh slash ripping across the torso of her suit. Keith’s eyes cut to Allura, who breathed heavily, and his eyes widened when he saw the serrated edges of her whip.

            That was new.

            The red general whirled around and attempted a punch in the face before Keith could even think to grab her.

            “Take this one!” she shouted. “Remember what Acxa said?”

            Acxa…Acxa…which one—

            She swept a leg underneath Keith, but Keith had other ideas, as he stabbed with his Marmora knife and embedded it in the red general’s shoulder, straight through the armor. He dragged her down with him, giving Allura enough time to lash out again with her whip, and catch the general around the wrist with it. Keith grunted and rolled, until the red general on the ground, pinned underneath him with Allura on standby. He summoned his bayard and let it transform, and brought it down in what should’ve been a killing blow when the roof above them caved in.


            Lotor’s generals must have had a high pain tolerance, or hyper-healing capabilities. That was the only reason Lance could find that they would be after him and Hunk again so quickly as they charged up a stairwell. Both of them had their shields up by now, and Lance made a mental note then to ask someone—Pidge, maybe Coran—about a suit upgrade that would allow their shields to materialize on their backs, instead of their forearms.

            The thought of Pidge nearly knocked him over.

            Of course, the blue general coming at him was a bit of a problem, too.

            Lance didn’t even see where she came from, just knew that one moment he was running, and the next, there was a gunshot searing the back of his knee. He cried out and stumbled, and Hunk caught his arm before he hit the floor. Hunk dragged him up, kept him on his feet, kept him running, even as the two generals advanced on them.

            The blue one was moving faster than the lizard, but they were both still keeping up steady paces, the lizard apparently more than capable of holding their own; the blue one didn’t make a move to help them at all. Instead, she kept her gun trained on Lance, and fired again. The shot missed his foot, but not by much. He yelped, and Hunk didn’t dare look back as they kept running.

            “This will be just as easy as the other one,” the blue general said, far too calm for the situation as she shot at Lance again. And again. One shot zipped by his head; the other struck the armor protecting his elbow, the elbow on the arm with which he carried his rifle. The armor cracked, and the crack echoed, and Lance halted, turned, and fired.

            “Lance, what are you doing?

            “What do you mean just as easy?” Lance shouted, ignoring Hunk, and it was by then that Hunk realized what the blue general had said. He stopped, too, and the lizard stopped, and the blue general stopped. “What did you do to Pidge?”

            “Pidge, huh?” the blue general asked. “If only we could’ve known her name before we killed her.”

            Lance stilled. Hunk stilled. The blue general smiled and raised her gun, while the lizard attacked from the side.

            Both of them went at Lance.

            Lance dodged the shot, but couldn’t dodge the lizard. He tripped over his own feet, and with another cry, he and Narti went tumbling down the flight of stairs. His armor protected him from most blows, including a sharp one to the head that surely would’ve knocked him out otherwise. The blue general stepped out of their way, and then rushed at Hunk while he gaped at the scene.

            He snapped to his senses just in time to raise his gun and block a shot that flew for his face, flew for his visor. Had it landed, the visor would have shattered, and Hunk didn’t want to risk breathing in whatever his suit was trying to protect him from.

            “Listen, can’t we just talk this out?” Hunk asked, desperately, as the general shot at his face. “You tell us what you did to Pidge, show us where she is, and then we can let this all go, right?”

            The blue general fired her gun again, while Hunk’s shield absorbed the shot. He sighed.

            “Or not.”

            He cut a glance toward Lance and Narti. Lance had activated his jetpack in an effort to get himself back to his feet, but Narti had activated her own, and now things were mostly the two of them tumbling through the air, wrestling. Hunk had to hand it to him—he was holding his own. And giving Hunk ideas. He moved quickly, and activated his own jetpack. He leapt up, caught the air. The blue general scowled switching gazes between Hunk, and the fight happening between Lance and Narti. And then she flinched—evidently, something new had come through her comms.

            Hunk almost took compassion, almost asked what was going on, but it was about that point that the ground shook.

            “Narti!” the general shouted. “He’s not worth it!”

            Narti’s head snapped up; even without a distinct expression, Hunk almost felt the anger radiating off of her, the sense that she thought otherwise—that Lance was worth wasting their time on, for one reason or another. It unsettled him, enough for him to not seize his opportunity when the blue general growled and dove for them.

            “He’s not—!”

            And she stopped herself, just as Hunk gathered his bearings.

            Perhaps Narti was telling her something, maybe through a mindlink, or perhaps the blue general was saving herself from revealing something critical. Either way, anxiety took hold of Hunk. He swallowed, and instead of letting fear paralyze him, took off after the blue general, and intercepted her just seconds before she reached Narti and Lance. The blue general yelped as Hunk deactivated his jetpack and took them both to the floor. The back of her helmet smacked the ground, and it stunned her, giving Hunk enough time to launch himself back into the air and barrel right for Narti and Lance.

            “Lance!” Hunk shouted, as Lance wrestled for his bayard.

            Narti was adept at fighting with all four limbs, plus the tail. That much Hunk gathered from watching her climb Lance like a tree in an effort to steal his weapon, and probably get revenge for how he’d shot her. But that was her biggest disadvantage: her wound slowed her down, and at Hunk’s yell, Lance let an animalistic sound rip from his throat, and he tore his bayard away from her. It shrank, out of its rifle and back to standard size, and then disappeared, giving Lance use of both hands as he broke free.

            Hunk took the opening, aimed his cannon, and fired.

            Not to kill—to stun.

            A nifty upgrade he uncovered by accident in the lab with Pidge, while she was tinkering away with her own bayard, searching for any way to unlock an upgrade that didn’t involve the Paladins’ lives dangling in their faces by a thread.

            Hunk had no answer as to why he went for a stun, just like he had no answer as to why Lance went for incapacitation, and neither of them moved in for the kill. But some feeling of rightness washed over him, followed by immediate alarm.

            “Is Yellow trying to tell you anything?” Lance gasped out, as they took the stairs three at a time, using their jetpacks to boost themselves.

            “Is that what that was?” Hunk wheezed. “Thought they couldn’t reach us…”

            “Wait…the comms—Pidge!”

            Lance’s face pinched as he called for her, and Hunk tasked himself with watching their backs. Though well-intentioned, it meant Hunk missed the figure running down the stairs at them, the figure who flung herself at the two of them and nearly sent the whole group tumbling backwards, right back for the danger.

            “Hunk! Lance!”

            Hunk steadied all three of them, as Pidge latched on—one arm around Hunk’s waist, and the other around Lance’s.

            “Pidge! You’re alright!” Hunk exclaimed.

            “Yeah, but we don’t have much time,” Pidge said, and when she drew back, Hunk studied her face. Her eyes were glassy and red, like she’d been crying not too long ago. Her face indicated tear tracks, ones she’d had no chance to scrub away. “We have to go. Galra troops are moving in on this planet, and—what the fuck? Why are they here?!

            Pidge pointed behind Hunk and Lance. Lance looked back, face whitening.

            “No idea, but I’ve had enough of them! We’re leaving! Go!”

            Hunk and Pidge took off at Lance’s command, while Lance summoned his bayard again and aimed his rifle down below. He squeezed off two shots before Hunk had a hand on the collar of his armor, yanking him until he fell into step behind them.

            “No self-sacrificing BS today, Lance!” Hunk said. “Not after what happened!”

            “No idea what you’re talking about!” Lance lied.

            Hunk glared, Lance glared right back. Pidge was either oblivious or chose to ignore them as she ran at the front of the group.

            “According to the readings Matt and I managed to pull up, the others are in another sector of this building, and if they’re being attacked by Lotor’s generals, on top of Galra fighters…,” she said, absently, and Lance almost halted there.

            “Matt? You found him?”

            “Oh, yeah. I did!” Pidge said. “He went to help them, but we’ve gotta move fast!”

            “Okay, well, congrats, we can celebrate when we’re not about to die!” Hunk said, and looked over his shoulder again. Narti and the other general were paused on a step, watching them go. Hunk met gazes with the blue general, and she scowled, before pulling her comrade away.

            Something settled uncomfortably in the pit of Hunk’s stomach at that.

            “Hunk?” Lance asked, noticing his line of sight, and followed it.

            Lance swallowed when he saw the two generals retreating, at the same time the ground further down shook again, dislodging dust from the ceiling. It rained down over their heads, and Hunk and Lance righted themselves again. They shared a glance and a nod, and continued running, protecting Pidge’s back while she led them on, back toward the rest of the team.


            The roof caving would have been less of a problem if the roof wasn’t floors above them, and wasn’t bringing down chunks of ceiling and wall and floor from every level they’d been underneath. Warped metal rained down, as staircases blew apart. Smoke and dust rose up in thick clouds, obscuring Keith’s sight of most of the group as he grappled with the red general for the upper hand.

            His killing blow missed. The surprise of the roof crashing down stole Keith’s attention and switched him from fight mode to flight mode, back to self-preservation. In that case, it meant getting out of the way when a particularly large chunk of ceiling fell right for him. So he’d rolled, until he was on the floor next to the red general, and then he’d made to bolt when she grabbed his ankle and brought him back down. He hit the ground chin-first, the shock shooting through his helmet and through the rest of him.

            “Shiro! Allura!” he yelled, and rolled onto his back.

            At this distance, he couldn’t swipe at the acrobat with either of his blades, and when he couldn’t see most of the room, throwing them wasn’t an option, either. He settled for kicking with his other leg, but his kicks did nothing but entertain the general. She laughed at him as he struggled, and he growled, low in the back of his throat.

            “Keith!”

            Blue light flared as Allura’s whip lashed out around the red general’s waist and took hold. Allura grunted and yanked, and the red general cried out, dropped Keith’s foot. Allura pulled the red general in until she was close enough to punch in the face, and did just that, sending deep cracks spiderwebbing across her helmet. The red general stumbled back, and Keith tripped her, as he pointed toward the ceiling, at the laser bolts shooting down.

            “Galra fighters. That’s why they wanted to go,” he breathed. “That means we need to go.”

            “We haven’t found Pidge,” Allura pointed out. “And the others are still on the other side of the planet.”

            “And Shiro’s still fighting Zethrid,” Keith said, and then his eyes widened when he realized what, exactly, just came out of his mouth. He and Allura both whipped around, scanning the room for Shiro, when a body flew past them. They each ducked underneath it, trading startled looks as they glanced back, and found it was Shiro who was thrown across the room.

            “Shiro!” Keith shouted, and broke into a sprint, Allura after him.

            They stumbled up to Shiro’s side at the same time another figure did, emerging from the dust and smoke clouds with a staff in hand, pointed at the two of them. They had some kind of breathing mechanism clamped over the bottom of their face, but Keith still recognized them anyway, and took an involuntary step back.

            “Matt?”

            The stranger blinked, and slightly lowered their staff. “Keith. You’re in space too. And so’s Shiro. Along with Katie.” He swallowed, and nodded. “Alright. Yeah. Makes…perfect sense. Uh—we’ve gotta get moving.”

            “You’re not going anywhere.”

            Keith and Allura both spun around while Shiro sat up with a grunt, and Matt paled as Zethrid appeared, angry and carrying her blade. Keith and Allura stepped closer together, in tighter formation in front of Shiro, while Matt kept guard from behind. None of them paid much attention to the other general, who groaned as she got up from the floor, palming dual blades of her own.

            “We just need the one of you,” Zethrid said, gesturing toward Keith, “and the rest of you can walk out of here.”

            “You wish,” Matt snapped, before anyone else could get a word in.

            At that moment, a wave of alarm rolled over Keith. He shook his head, as though trying to clear his mind, and when he looked at Allura, he knew she’d felt the same thing.

            The Lions could reach them, and if the Lions could reach them…

            “Team,” Keith breathed into the comms, “if you can hear me, we need backup now.

            He reached out, too, for his connection to Black. It pulsed with Black’s restlessness, bolstered by the other Lions. They must’ve seen the fighters, must’ve known the Paladins needed to get out of there.

            “I thought we told you the others weren’t coming…and who are you?” the red general said, and cocked her head as she studied Matt.

            “Looks just like…,” Zethrid started, and then stopped.

            One end of Matt’s mouth turned up. “Just like who, General?”

            “Just like me, right?”

            Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted Pidge, Hunk, and Lance. They walked slowly out of the dust clouds, and Keith almost cursed their dramatic timing right then and there. Of course. Lance was with them, of course they had to make some grand entrance.

            They all looked worse for wear, but they each stood in one piece, so Keith counted it as a small victory. But they weren’t out of the woods yet. The red general looked between the three of them, and then the other three Paladins, plus Matt. Zethrid took a few steps forward, and Keith snapped back to attention, lifting his blade.

            “You’re outnumbered,” he said.

            And this time, by more than one.

            “That we are,” Zethrid said, and dared to take another step in Keith’s direction when Lance lifted his bayard.

            “Not another move,” he snapped, and for a heartbeat, all Keith could do was stare.

            He didn’t notice his own staring until the red general snickered, and Keith broke from his stupor by raising his sword and staring down the two generals in front of the group. He hoped to death she was snickering about something else, because there was no way—no, don’t even go there.

            “Let’s go,” the red general said then, as the laser bolts got closer. “This isn’t the last time we’ll meet, Paladins!”

            And with that, she bounded off into the dust, and Zethrid waited a moment longer before following her. Keith watched Lance set his jaw, tighten his finger slightly over the trigger of his gun, and then let his finger fall away as he finally lowered the rifle.

            “Area’s clear,” Pidge said then, and when Keith turned, he saw that she had a 3D map of the building projecting out of her suit. Evidently, she’d got some system back up and running. “Of the generals, I mean. All four of them are gone. But we’ve got fighters moving in.”


            Coran just about screamed when the Paladins reentered the bridge sometime later that afternoon, singed and exhausted and carrying an unfamiliar human between Pidge and Keith.

            “What in Burzimyzer’s name happened to you all?” Coran demanded. “And who’s that?!

            Allura winced at Coran’s shouting and put a hand up. “Coran, it’s alright. This is Pidge’s brother.”

            Matt raised his head, long enough to give a feeble wave. In raising his head, he exposed his face, and the old scar on one cheek, the new scars near his mouth from a hit he took in the last battle, one that pressed his oxygen mask too far into his cheeks. Then he groaned and slumped back down, putting most of his weight on Keith. Keith grunted, and he and Pidge readjusted to better support him.

            “He needs a healing pod,” Keith groaned. “Preferably sooner rather than later.”

            Coran blinked for a second and then nodded, and motioned for Keith to help him take Matt down to the pod room, leaving the others alone on the bridge—leaving Allura, and Shiro straightening out from where he’d been leaning between Lance and Hunk, and Pidge, arms free now that Matt was being taken care of.

            “Alright, listen,” Pidge started, “I know that I shouldn’t have left in the middle of the night, and I’m sorry—”

            “Are you sorry?” Shiro interrupted, and Pidge shut her mouth, eyes widening. She looked to the others, and found Lance, Hunk, and Allura just as stunned into silence as she was.

            “I—yes?” Pidge said.

            “What you did was reckless,” Shiro went on. “You put the team in danger. You could’ve told us, and we could’ve gone as a unit. Instead, we got separated and attacked, with no lines to communicate with each other.”

            “I know, Shiro, I—”

            “I don’t think you understand,” Shiro interrupted again. He opened his mouth to continue, but Lance cut him off.

            “Shiro, dude. Calm down. Yeah, she was reckless, but we made it back here, didn’t we? And she found Matt. Cut her a little slack, alright?”

            Shiro whirled on him, and Lance stumbled a step back as he looked at Shiro.

            “I didn’t ask, Lance.”

            His voice came out harsh, sharp, like a spear straight through Lance’s chest, and then he turned away. Lance stared, mutely, face falling as Shiro turned away from him. He didn’t notice the sympathetic looks Hunk was shooting him, or the startled way Pidge watched Shiro, or the way Allura narrowed her eyes. None of them dared speak out against Shiro, none of them spoke up in Lance’s defense. Because who would question their leader?

            …Former. Former leader.

            “I don’t think Pidge asked, either,” Lance muttered, and Shiro stiffened. Lance schooled his face into a neutral mask as Shiro slowly turned back around to face him once more.

            “What?”

            “Pidge didn’t ask us to come after her. After all, she and Matt ended up being just fine,” Lance said. “That was the point of her sneaking out—so we wouldn’t follow. She didn’t want to put us in danger.”

            “She should’ve said something—”

            “Who died and made you the Black Paladin again?” Lance demanded, just as the door to the bridge opened, and Keith stepped in. The current Black Paladin went unnoticed as Lance curled his fists at his sides and continued on: “Last I checked, we spent months without an official leader because Keith didn’t give up looking for you! And when he did? He snuck out, too! You wouldn’t be here to complain if Keith didn’t pull the same stunts Pidge just did.”

            Keith froze just inside the door, as it slid shut behind him. He stuck to the wall, eyes flicking between the group as Hunk put a hand on Lance’s shoulder.

            “Buddy, I think…”

            Lance wrenched himself away from Hunk, hunched his shoulders, and started for the door. “I’m going back to bed.”

            He breezed past the group, and only stopped in front of Keith. Keith’s legs wouldn’t work, wouldn’t let him step out of Lance’s way. He met Lance’s eyes, saw the tired lines underneath them, as Lance finally brushed past him and out of the bridge.

            “What…just happened?” Keith asked, switching his gaze to the other Paladins.

            “Nothing,” Pidge answered, voice quieter than Keith expected. “I’m…sorry I jeopardized the team. I’m gonna go check on Matt.”

            And then she followed in Lance’s wake, exiting the bridge quicker than she needed to. Keith looked at Hunk, at Allura, and finally at Shiro. Shiro wouldn’t look him in the eye, instead choosing to look down at the floor, choosing to pace to some computer station, and busy himself doing something or other. Hunk and Allura took that as their cue to disband from the group. Hunk wandered out of the bridge, a passing shake of the head the only indication that Keith shouldn’t ask what was going on.

            “Seriously,” Keith said, “what was that all about? I was gone for five minutes.”

            “It’s done and over with,” Shiro responded without so much as a glance back. “Just drop it, Keith.”

            Keith flexed his fingers at his sides, debating whether or not to listen. Finally, he scowled. “Fine. Then I’m going to hit the training deck.”


            “Two of them?”

            Lotor smiled, lazily, amusedly, as he leaned back on his throne. His fingers skimmed over a hologram of the galaxy his ship drifted through, as it drew further and further away from Duagkanor. Narti stood before him, her thoughts rolling over Lotor in wave after wave of critical information about how the mission had gone down. Zethrid, Ezor, and Acxa stood in a semicircle behind Narti.

            “Interesting…”

            Lotor shut off the hologram and got to his feet, as Narti stepped back, into a space between Acxa and Ezor. He appraised the four generals in front of him as he clasped his hands behind his back, and then peered over their heads, at the windows of his ship. The galaxy drifted by in deep shades of green…nebulae and planets, stars and star clusters. Somewhere, Voltron drifted among them in their pristine castleship. Not too far away—if Lotor wanted, he could attack right now.

            But he would wait.

            “You did not complete the task I wanted you to,” Lotor said, lowering his eyes to the group again, and while Zethrid and Ezor cast shameful gazes at the ground, and Narti dropped her head, Acxa tipped her chin, like she knew there was more to come. Lotor smirked at the glint in her eyes, and Acxa allowed the corners of her mouth to tug up. “However, you’ve brought back…valuable information. And I believe I know precisely the right way to wield it.”

Chapter Text

4.04
Voltron: The Musical!

            Lance spent most of the night staring at the ceiling.

            His headphones filled his ears with ocean noises, but nothing ever made it to his brain. The back of his knee still ached and stung with the pain of the laser blast he’d taken from the blue general’s gun, an injury he refused to go down to the pods for. Not when Matt needed a pod more, and the Paladins needed to be in top shape more than ever. He’d been lucky, that he’d been with Hunk, who’d rather show concern and help him fix things than point out exactly where Lance went wrong. And there were a lot of places he’d gone wrong.

            He shivered at the memory of the lizard, Narti, as she popped his helmet from his head—his helmet, pumping him the oxygen he needed to breathe. There had to be some reason it had activated and sealed him off from the environment completely, so the fact that he’d breathed in that air, and hadn’t died…and the fact that he’d managed to free himself from Narti’s possession…

            A knock at the door dragged Lance out of the cesspool of anxiety his mind had become. He swung his legs over the side of his bed and let his feet fall into his Blue Lion slippers, and then padded over to the door. He opened it, only to reveal Hunk’s face. He appeared just as sleep-deprived and anxious as Lance did, and Lance couldn’t help but raise his eyebrows at the sight.

            “What are you doing here?” Lance asked with a yawn, and shuffled back over to his bed while Hunk entered the room, and let the door slide shut behind him. “Shouldn’t you be sleeping, or like…I dunno, in the kitchen, or something?”

            “I appreciate the concern, but this is a stress baking isn’t gonna fix,” Hunk said, and Lance’s eyebrows rose higher as he realized Hunk didn’t sound the least bit exhausted, like he hadn’t attempted sleeping at all. “Plus, you really shouldn’t be concerned about me.”

            Lance groaned and flopped back onto his bed, hand flying out and slapping the bed several times until finally his fingers locked around his sleeping mask. Then it slipped away from him, as Hunk reached over and plucked it out of his hand. Lance rocketed forward, but Hunk dangled it over his head, and though Hunk had just a couple of inches on Lance, he was standing, and Lance was sitting, and Lance had no inclination to fight that hard for it.

            “Lance, we need to talk about this.”

            “There’s…what’s there to talk about?”

            “Lance.”

            Lance’s shoulders slumped, and he fell backwards again, against his mattress. His hands came down at either side of his head, and he resumed his earlier position of staring up at the ceiling. Hunk, meanwhile, sat down at the edge of the bed.

            “Buddy, we can’t ignore what happened. I didn’t even know people could break out of…whatever that was that Narti did, but you did. How?”

            “I don’t know,” Lance answered. His eyes followed the short pipe of blue light above his bed, dimmed in the castle’s light cycle. It gave him something to do, a way to occupy his mind and a reason for him not to meet Hunk’s insistent, worried gaze. “I mean…I just kinda tried to do what felt right, I guess? And what felt right was getting away from her. I-I don’t…”

            “Lance, your eyes were glowing.

            At that, Lance stiffened. Pushed himself into a sitting position. Hunk watched, silently, as Lance gaped at him, eyes large as saucers.

            “They were what?

            Hunk nodded. “Glowing, dude. Like, bright blue. Like…kinda like when Allura was healing the Balmera? That color. Kinda scary, if I’m being honest.”

            Lance pressed his fingers over one eyelid, frowning. His eyes felt normal, and Hunk wasn’t staring at him like anything was wrong now, aside from the obvious. Slowly, he lowered his hand, let it fall back to his lap.

            “I…I don’t know what happened,” Lance said. “Like…a Paladin’s never been possessed like that, right?”

            Hunk shook his head.

            “So maybe…maybe it was the Voltron connection,” Lance said. “We’re Paladins, right? Chosen for some special reason? Magical lion bonds? I bet anything…one of the Lions came to my rescue. Maybe…maybe Blue.”

            “Don’t you think you would know if it was one of them?” Hunk asked.

            Lance shrugged. “Unfamiliar situation. Maybe not.”

            They fell into silence. Lance rubbed one of his arms as though fighting off a chill, while Hunk twiddled his thumbs. Neither of them looked at each other; both of them kept their heads down. The longer they sat, the deeper into his own thoughts Lance waded, until he was treading upon the memory of the mission earlier in the day, the memory of Narti invading his mind, seizing control of his limbs. He’d nearly stopped breathing when his hands pointed the barrel of his gun at Hunk, and if he hadn’t broken free…if he’d taken the shot…

            “I thought it was the Paladin bond too, if it helps,” Hunk finally spoke up. “And, y’know what? Maybe it is. Maybe we should talk—”

            “No!” Lance interrupted, head snapping up fast enough to give him whiplash. Before Hunk could say anything else, Lance went on, “I-I just…they don’t need to know. I got out of it. We got out of there. No one needs to know. It’s not that s—”

            “If you’re about to tell me it’s not that serious, let me explain to you: you got possessed, Lance. I think that’s pretty serious. And we don’t know for sure that that’s gonna be the last time that happens in battle. What if it happens to one of the others? They need to know what Narti’s capable of. And the fact that her name is Narti. Y’know, for how many times we’ve run into them by now, you’d think we’d have names,” Hunk began rambling, but Lance recognized it.

            Putting his two cents without an objection, and then changing the subject to something lighter, more agreeable. He’d tried it often enough at the Garrison, weak attempts to talk Lance out of some idea or another. They seldom worked, depending on how exhausted Lance was on a given day.

            “Hunk,” he interrupted, and Hunk paused, the slightest trace of hope in his expression. “Fine. I’ll do it. I’ll talk to Keith about it later.”

            Keith, because he was their leader, and Shiro was less agreeable than usual as of late. Keith, because he sucked at giving advice, but at least he seemed to care about the team. Keith, because Lance already opened up to him once, and he hadn’t laughed him out of the room, and he hadn’t been totally flippant, so where was the harm in doing it again?

            Besides, who else would he tell?

            Hunk was already nervous as hell, and Lance didn’t need more pity, more anxiety directed toward him. He had plenty of that on his own. And he couldn’t go to Pidge, because she’d just gotten Matt back, and she’d probably demand to do something ridiculous like run a bunch of tests on him, and Coran would probably go right to Allura and the rest of the team with the matter, and Allura…

            Lance couldn’t tell her about this. She didn’t need to know he’d slipped in battle.

            And Shiro was out of the question.

            So Keith it was.

            “Good,” Hunk breathed out, and rose from the edge of Lance’s bed. He started for the door, and then paused about halfway there, as Lance started lying back down. “Oh, also, go do something about your knee. You can’t fight if you’re limping. And people are gonna notice.”

            Lance made an indignant noise in the back of his throat as Hunk left the room, and the door sealed between them. Once he heard Hunk’s footsteps pad back down the hall, he swung his legs over the side of the bed, stretching the one out, turning it around as much as he could, and rolled up his pant leg. The injury was ugly, and it may or may not have left gross stains on the inside of his pants—the hasty bandages he applied weren’t doing much to help. Maybe he should’ve taken a little more time to actually cleanse and wrap his wound, but the med kit was in the med bay, and he had to be quick about things.

            Could’ve just smuggled the med kit back to your room, he thought to himself then, and scowled.

            “I hate it when Hunk’s right,” he grumbled, and his feet hit the floor, and he ambled out of the room and back down to the med bay.


            Back in the desert, Keith’s days began with the first rays of sunlight peaking over dunes, streaking red and orange, watery against the warped glass of the shack windows, streaming in through a thin layer of dust he only got to cleaning every once in a while. Here in space, his days began with the ceiling lights suddenly flickering back on, if it was a good day. With an alarm, if it was a bad day. Today, it was the former.

            Keith’s body worked on autopilot, as always. Brief shower, followed by getting dressed, followed by heading down to breakfast in the dining room. As per the usual, he was early. Allura and Coran already occupied two seats, and the Holt siblings sat in another two. Both of them appeared frazzled, like they’d spent more time last night reconnecting than sleeping. Keith couldn’t blame them—he’d spent a long time in Shiro’s room after his second rescue, trying to piece together what the hell happened after that last battle against Zarkon. Admittedly, he hadn’t learned much, because Shiro didn’t know much, but it still comforted Keith to know he had his brother back.

            Even if aforementioned brother was acting like an ass.

            Not the first time he’s kept to himself, Keith reminded himself, his brain drifting off to orange uniforms and long days spent awaiting the outcomes of arguments against Garrison superiors. Some habits died hard. Especially if you only really had yourself to trust and confide in for a year in space…and then got lost to the merciless universe for a second time.

            “Oh, Keith! Good, you’re awake!” Coran said, as Keith slid into his own seat, where an empty bowl and a box of space cereal (Galr-O’s, picked up from the space mall at Lance’s insistent request, Keith still wasn’t sure how to feel about them) waited for him. He quirked an eyebrow and slowed himself down as he eased into the chair, hand reaching out for the cereal box.

            “Oh, he’s gonna love this,” Pidge muttered across the table, giggly from sleep deprivation as she nudged Matt over-enthusiastically.

            Matt furrowed his brow a moment, and then burst into giggles of his own, snorting up milk from his cereal.

            “Why are they laughing?” Keith asked, glancing over the two Alteans.

            “Last night, we were deep in talks with Matt,” Allura answered, hands folded in front of her. “He’s been to many a planet with his group of rebels, and while we’ve made fast allies out of them, it’s been brought to our attention that we haven’t put nearly as much focus as we should have on adding even more people to the Voltron Coalition. We need to take initiative.”

            “Okay…” Keith reached across the table and swiped the space milk—it was a suspicious blue that Keith still wasn’t used to, but he would take what he could get—from in front of Matt and Pidge, which only had them laughing harder, hard enough for Pidge to nearly fall out of her seat as she collapsed on Matt. “So…why are you so happy I’m here?”

            “Well, you’re the Black Paladin!” Coran said, and Keith shifted uncomfortably in his seat as he picked up his spoon.

            “I guess.”

            Allura frowned. Cleared her throat. Drew Keith’s attention away from Coran and over to her.

            “As the Black Paladin, you should be the first to know about this, for when we debrief the rest of the team later on,” Allura said. “You also aid us in making our decision, although I’m afraid that this is a lighter matter, compared to some of our other issues.”

            “Just tell him about the idea!” Pidge wheezed, slapping the table as she doubled over.

            “What idea?” someone yawned from the entrance to the dining room.

            Keith turned; Lance entered the dining room with disheveled hair and bags under his eyes. His hands rested in his jacket pockets, a jacket tugged on over pajamas—clearly, Lance didn’t bother with any kind of morning routine. Keith watched him carefully as he collapsed in the seat next to him and absently reached for the cereal.

            “We’re just waiting on Hunk and Shiro,” Allura answered. “Hunk’s in the kitchen, and—ah! Shiro!”

            Keith didn’t miss the way Lance didn’t turn around like the others did as Shiro entered the dining room—just kept pouring his cereal. Keith also didn’t miss the way Lance sagged with relief when Shiro sat in the empty seat next to Coran, across from Allura, leaving an empty chair between himself and Lance that Hunk would probably take up, if he didn’t take the one between Allura and Matt.

            “What’s this about an idea?” Shiro asked, calm, casual, far different from how he’d been yesterday.

            He smiled down the table at the other Paladins; Keith’s gut twisted. Was he just not going to acknowledge his behavior yesterday? He’d snapped at the team—Pidge and Lance most especially. Keith flicked his eyes to Pidge at that thought. The laughter had faded from her, and she’d gone quieter, sat up straighter in her seat. Lance, too, seemed to have noticed. He looked at Keith, eyes unreadable, and then dropped them back down to his cereal.

            Shame curled up on top of the anxiety gnawing at Keith, dropping like a stone in his stomach. Was he supposed to do something? He had a certain measure of authority, but Shiro had been their leader first, had had seniority over them all as a Garrison instructor while they were cadets, was supposed to be wiser than all of them to the Galra’s schemes. After all, he was the only one of them—aside from Matt, too, now—that had ever experienced an extended prison sentence under their cruel authority. And he’d done it twice.

            “I heard idea,” Hunk jumped in, entering the dining room with a steaming platter of something that looked leagues more appetizing than any sort of breakfast Coran came up with. The steam twisting through the air, up and off of the white dish, almost made Keith regret taking cereal so soon, but it was too late now. Keith leaned back in his chair, his spoon clanking against his bowl as he set it down.

            “Yes,” Allura said, as Hunk sat down in the space between Allura and Matt, after a pause for mental deliberation. “So, now that we’ve all gathered, we’ll explain further. Keith, if perhaps you could move down…”

            Move down. Right. Over two chairs, to the space between Lance, who seemed quieter than usual, and Shiro, whose entire attitude as of recently was a mystery that Keith couldn’t solve. Sit in that spot. Okay.

            Keith rose from his chair and took his bowl of cereal with him as he made the painstaking walk to his new spot. He set his bowl down first, ignoring the stares of everyone else as he sat back down and scooted in. He looked at Allura, silently willing her to continue and get the attention off of him.

            “Well,” Allura said, “now that we’re all here. Coran and I have spoken yesterday and this morning with Matt. If you weren’t yet aware, Matt is an officer in just one of the many rebel forces fighting against the Galra. And while we’ve managed to secure a quick alliance with his group, through him—” she paused, long enough for the group to glance over at Matt, who smiled and waved, and then broke down into another giggling fit with Pidge, “—it’s been brought to our attention that we should be making a better effort to make connections for the Voltron Coalition throughout the rest of the universe. We’ve been severely lacking in the public relations department, as of late.”

            “Kinda difficult to have good public relations when the people in charge want you dead,” Lance muttered.

            Keith snorted softly, quiet enough for Lance to shoot him an appreciative look, there and gone in the blink of an eye, and for Shiro to give him a longer, more reprimanding one. Keith stared back, until Shiro looked away, back at Allura, and Keith smiled; he would take these small sorts of victories as they came.

            “So, Coran and I were thinking, and we’ve come up with a solution that will bring a glimmer of light to some of the darker corners of the universe, and hopefully, will empower the people enough to join our cause,” Allura went on, and lifted one hand in gesture to her advisor. Coran practically exploded out of his seat, slamming his hands palms-down onto the table and startling the others, even getting the Holts to finally stop giggling—although Pidge did bite her lip in giddy anticipation.

            “A Voltron Coalition tour with Voltron shows!”

            “Excuse me?” Keith asked at once, and Pidge and Matt burst out laughing again. Pidge gasped, rearing back in her chair, and then nearly falling out of it as she listed sideways. Matt grabbed her in a weak attempt to steady her, until the two of them bent over each other, laughing again.

            “It’s a better alternative to luring the Galra to a planet and fighting them off,” Allura said, “which, if you’d notice, is how we make most our allies: by fighting off the Galra. It’s been difficult to make allies outside of a brute show of strength, and we think this may change things. And a show will bring the people pleasure, and let them get to know the Paladins on a more intimate scale. We won’t just be some intimidating Defenders of the Universe. We prove that we’re people, just like them.”    

            She waited a heartbeat, to let this information sink in. Finally, Hunk cleared his throat, and flicked his eyes up and down the expanse of the table. “I dunno about you all, but I actually like this plan. We get to have fun and make friends and, oh yeah, not run the risk of dying.”

            “Unless the Galra show up,” Keith was quick to point out. “Voltron shows? Seriously? If the Galra attack, we put masses of people in danger, because they’ll all be in one place to see us.”

            “The people are in constant danger of a Galra attack whether or not Voltron is there, and it’s safer for them to be with Voltron, if anything. They know they’ll have Voltron’s protection,” Shiro countered. His eyes were sharp; his voice blunted that edge, but it was still enough of a stab to get Keith to quiet, to lower himself in his seat, to make himself look at Allura instead, because maybe she could better be reasoned with.

            “Yes, Keith,” she said. “The question now is what kind of show to put on.” She spread her hands in gesture to the other Paladins. “Ideas?”

            And while Keith gaped, mouth opening and closing as he struggled to find the right words to express how utterly unfathomable this whole thing seemed to him, the others shouted ideas. Pidge and Matt wheezed as they pitched Voltron On Ice!, until Hunk shot it down, and then proposed a display of power in their Lions—tricks in the air, forming and deforming Voltron to fight back against castle-led, simulated attacks. Shiro vetoed that, citing too many risks, like the show wasn’t a giant risk in itself, a big-ass sign flashing neon to the Galra: DISTRACTED PALADINS HERE! COME AND GET US!

            “You’re all morons,” Lance said, and Keith turned to him, a grateful smile ready to go, until Lance continued: “The best course of action is a musical.”

            And Keith’s smile vanished before it ever showed up, replaced by an incredulous glare, while Matt and Pidge howled, clearly on board with this and taking pleasure in Keith’s misery. Hunk voiced his own agreement, while Allura leaned forward, eyes alight with interest. Keith groaned and sank back in his seat, both hands flying to the sides of his head, carding roughly through his hair as he willed himself not to lose it then and there.

            “A musical,” Shiro echoed as he crossed his arms, and then nodded. “I like it.”

            Keith ran through every argument against this he could think of, and when the table finally quieted enough for him to speak, he seized his opportunity: “Okay, fine, but how are we supposed to explain to everyone that there are six Paladins now?”

            If Shiro wasn’t pushing every last one of his buttons, Keith might’ve never questioned whether or not Shiro would be involved—his automatic assumption would’ve been no. But after that last mission, and considering his direct involvement this morning…

            Next to Keith, Lance tensed up. Only slightly, not enough for anyone else to notice. Not enough for an untrained eye.

            But Keith did, and winced when he realized why. He forced his eyes back to Coran, who now had his eyebrows raised. “There are two Black Paladins,” he said. “Is one of us just gonna sit out for this?” A pause, and then: “Wait, actually, yes. I’ll sit out.”

            “Absolutely not,” Allura said, voice more surprised than biting. “You’re our Black Paladin now, Keith. The leader of Voltron surely needs to be present at these shows. I am aware, Shiro no longer pilots a Lion…”

            Her eyes drifted to Shiro, and she frowned, and then her gaze became unfocused, as she went elsewhere. Plotting. Thinking up ways to make this work.

            “What if our musical had a plot?” Coran asked, raising a finger to draw everyone’s attention. Keith lifted his eyebrows.

            “A plot?”

            “Yes! A show of the mercilessness of the Galra, and how the strength of Voltron overcomes them! Keith, you and Shiro can both be present—you’ll fight for the Black Lion!”

            “What?” Keith choked out, air suddenly rushing from his lungs as he shot a look at Shiro. Shiro stilled in his seat, but didn’t dare look at Keith.

            “Voltron is all about the bonds between the Paladins,” Coran rushed to explain. “Shiro will be corrupted by the Galra, and trying to steal the Black Lion from you. At first, it’ll look like a battle, you two against each other. But the power of friendship prevails! You bring Shiro back, and work against the Galra, in the Black Lion, as one!”

            Shiro will be corrupted by the Galra, Keith repeated in his head, as white noise blocked out everything else. He focused in on Shiro, horrified, only to find Shiro picking through Coran’s words with the most casual, thoughtful expression Keith had ever seen. By all means, Shiro should’ve been vehemently against this, for the sake of his own mental health.

            “Shiro,” Keith said. “I-I—”

            “Interesting,” Shiro finally settled on. “I think it’ll do a good job to get the message across. What about you, Keith?”

            “W-What?” Keith stammered. “No! I—this whole thing’s ridiculous! I’m not doing the show!”

            “Party-pooper,” Lance sing-songed under his breath, and Keith’s shoulders bunched, fists clenched, temper rose.

            “I’m not a party-pooper!” Keith shouted as he whirled on Lance, but Lance leaned back in his chair with an easy grin, clasping his hands behind his head as he kicked his feet up on the table.

            “Oh yeah? Prove it, Mullet.”


            Keith decided, over the course of the next few weeks, that the rest of the team was out of their minds.

            They spent their days split three ways between training, resting, and preparing Voltron: The Musical! Rehearsals were long and grueling, and ate up about three times as much time as they dedicated to being on the training deck. Keith found out that most of the team could sing, and Coran’s music did them no justice, and after raising complaints, Lance ended up tasked with fixing Coran’s musical mistakes, and writing lyrics for all of their songs.

            The musical wasn’t very long. It opened with the team being attacked, and Shiro being corrupted on a secluded part of the battlefield by Haggar herself. Two numbers there—one intense rock ballad for them to battle along to, and one dramatic song for Shiro and “Haggar”—Coran in a wig, with an awful imitation of an old woman with a smoking problem—to sing as Shiro became corrupted. Another song, about the importance of teamwork, as the team came back together, while Shiro’s character continually went off to the beat of his own drum, quite literally. A song for the Paladins minus Shiro to sing, about their concern for Shiro’s health. Another intense rock song for their final battle, juxtaposed against a powerful duet as Keith battled it out with Shiro. One final song about teamwork, and how great it was to be a Paladin, going about their days defending the universe.

            So their message was a little hamfisted, but at least the lyrics didn’t suck.

            Lance, it turned out, could write songs, and write them well.

            “My family loves music,” he’d explained to the team during their very first read-through of the scripts he’d put together. “Just…sorta second nature, I guess.”

            And maybe Keith would never tell him, but Lance managed to nail the subtle nuances of everyone’s emotions, managed to hit realism over the head and drive it home. If Allura wanted the people to see that the Paladins were just like them, and not some fearless, untouchable protectors…well, then Lance managed that tenfold.


            Their opening show was a smash hit, and word spread rapidly across their starting galaxy, and then branched out to the galaxies beyond, until the Paladins were putting on multiple shows a day. Keith guessed that if they hadn’t been on the Galra’s radar before, they surely were now. A show all about friendship, blatantly making fun of the witch at the emperor’s side? Mocking her experiments with the Champion?

            This would do nothing but attract trouble, and that thought plagued Keith every time he went out on stage, and especially as he duked it out with Shiro.

            He doubted Shiro would ever openly admit it, but it seemed that the battle between himself and Keith was his favorite part of every show. He got into it, almost putting up more of a fight than he ever did when they were training. Keith wheezed every time they ended that scene, let his steps become stumbles as soon as he was backstage, let whoever was on standby—usually Matt, with nothing better to do, having been written out of the script for time constraints—hand him water and get him a chair.

            That scene ended with him helping Shiro limp off the stage, and typically, he dropped out from underneath Shiro’s arm. Shiro would walk away, while Keith collapsed and guzzled the first drops of water he got his hands on, watching Shiro pace around in preparation for their next scene, not the slightest bit winded.

            If anyone else noticed anything amiss, they said nothing.


            With each passing show, crowds grew, swelled, pushed at the limits of their venues. With growing crowds meant growing numbers of people who wished to interact with the Paladins. Meant after-parties. The others didn’t seem to sense any danger with this, as they began booking extended hours at each of their stops, consumed food locals prepared for them like things didn’t have the potential to be poisoned, signed autograph after autograph after autograph until wrists cramped and feet ached from walking around for too long like these things didn’t have the potential to hinder them in battle.

            When Keith got the chance to slip away, he took it.

            He posted himself at one of the exit doors, cool breeze ruffling his hair. He was grateful that at the very least, costume changes hadn’t been written into the script, and the Paladins had no time between the show and the party to change out of their armor. At least, if they got attacked, they had some kind of bodily protection, and could jump right into battle without wasting time.

            “So, I was right when I called you a party-pooper,” a voice said, and Keith rolled his eyes and turned, pushing away from the wall as Lance came to his side.

            Keith couldn’t bring himself to argue back—he was tired, and actively avoiding the party, ducking away from the prying eyes of fans who might’ve chased after him demanding an autograph, would have undermined any argument he attempted to make. So he sighed, melodramatically, and spread his palms.

            “Caught in the act,” he responded.

            Lance laughed at that; he bent his head and covered his mouth with a fist, eyes shutting as his grin split his face, like a bow releasing its tension after firing an arrow. In this case, Lance fired that arrow straight into Keith’s heart, and Keith took a step back with the force of it, one hand reaching out behind him as he used the wall to steady himself.

            “Seriously, though,” Lance said, when he composed himself, and to Keith’s relief, he hadn’t seen Keith’s reaction to his laughter whatsoever, “why are you all by yourself back here? Too many adoring fans?”

            Truthfully, Lance and Shiro were the crowd favorites. A gaggle of children swarmed Lance once they entered the party, begging for autographs, demanding Lance show off his skills with a bayard. The others attacked Shiro with nothing but love and praise for his performance as a tortured soldier, something that ate away at Keith with every performance. But Shiro took it in stride, put his arm on display, and interacted pleasantly with every single person who came his way.

            “Nothing compared to yours,” Keith said then, and then shrugged. “Honestly? I’m just not…”

            He stopped. Furrowed his brow. Lance leaned into his space with a frown of his own, and waved a hand in front of Keith’s face when he took more than a minute to carry on.

            “Keith? Everything alright?”

            Keith blinked himself back to reality, and found the amusement gone from Lance’s expression, replaced with nothing but concern. His body language indicated softness and hesitation, and he angled himself between Keith and the door back to the party. A buffer between Keith and the world he was trying to escape. Between that, and the fact that Lance had sought him out for comfort before—as the team leader, and nothing more, a little voice in the back of Keith’s head insisted—Keith exhaled.

            “I’m not one for scenes like this,” Keith answered, and Lance lifted his eyebrows in a motion for Keith to go on. “Big crowds? Loud noises? I’m barely even a people person. I just…I needed air. And some space to think. I don’t…this isn’t safe. We’re putting so many people in danger. Anyone here could be a spy, and if Zarkon, or Sendak, or even Lotor gets wind of what we’re doing, and coordinates a plan of attack while we’re all busy partying…”

            Keith stopped himself again and shook his head, waving one hand as if to clear the air.

            “Never mind. It’s stupid.”

            “No, it’s not stupid,” Lance said, and reached out one hand of his own. It froze mid-air, a beat of hesitation. Then he finished his motion, wrapping the hand around Keith’s wrist and bringing it down.

            Keith pretended like his soul wasn’t attempting to break free of his skin.

            “Dude,” Lance went on, “I’m glad you told me. I’m supposed to be your right hand, right? Let me handle any questions people have for you. Let me handle the crowds. You’re the leader—you focus on whatever you think is best for the team. We’re supposed to have each others’ backs, right? You back me, and let me back you.”

            Keith nodded, nodded again, let his wrist slip out of Lance’s grip. Lance kept concerned eyes on him for a moment longer, before jerking a thumb back over his shoulder, at the door behind him.

            “I’m going back in there. You do whatever you’ve gotta do.”

            Keith didn’t trust his voice, so he settled for a third nod, and crossed his arms again as he resumed his position, leaning against the door frame. He didn’t see Lance stop halfway through his return to the party, but he heard the footsteps coming to a halt, heard the nervous breath that made its way past Lance’s lips. Heard Lance sigh, and continue back to the party.

            Only then did Keith let himself look back, allowed himself the smallest of smiles.

            And in that split second, he missed the hooded figure, fleeing the building, escaping to the safety of the shadows.


            Approximately one week later, Keith stood under the stage lights of one of their biggest venues. A planet known for news and gossip, with a reach that extended for galaxies. A media epicenter. Reporters, newscasters, thousands upon thousands of anxious fans lying in wait just beyond the curtain for a chance to see the famous Paladins of Voltron.

            “I don’t like this,” he hissed, hoping that whatever his mic picked up on would be drowned out by the roar of the audience.

            The others all responded with shrugs, and Keith shot a look at Lance. Lance shot one right back, desperately. What were they supposed to do? Their intro music was nearing its crescendo, right before the curtain was set to open. There was no calling off the show now.

            Keith scowled. “Just…keep your guards up.”

            This place was the perfect location for whole groups of enemies to slip in, undetected, and attack, whether it be the audience or the Paladins they went after. The others had to know that, had to understand that. Keith couldn’t seriously believe they’d all gotten caught up in the sensation of being in the spotlight, all gotten caught up in performing and forgot that they still had a universe to defend. They were putting on these shows to get people to join the Voltron Coalition for protection. This was a military alliance. They weren’t signing up for the Paladins’ singing and acting abilities.

            Alright, alright. Settle. It’s showtime, Keith reminded himself, schooling his face back into a battle-hardened glare, as the curtains rose, and the music shifted from the upbeat introduction into the rock song that the Paladins were supposed to battle along to. Keith broke from formation with a lunge, taking his place at the front of the group, motioning them with his sword and mentally cursing every higher power out there.

            “Paladins, let’s go!” he sang for what felt like the millionth time, though it never got any easier. “We’ve got a battle to fight! We’re not letting the Galra win, not letting ‘em succeed tonight!”

            The other Paladins rose to their ranks alongside him, Shiro trailing behind the rest of them. Coran had said something about dual symbolism, but Keith was paying more attention, as they were staging, to the fact that he would rather have been the one in the back—Shiro should’ve been the one up front. Keith should’ve swapped with him, had the corruption storyline, anything to stop the constant reminders of Shiro’s time in Galra captivity.

            “Copy that, team leader!” Lance jumped in, taking another step closer to Keith’s side. “What do you need us to do?”

            “It’s your call, BP, it’s on you!” Hunk added.

            Each of the Paladins anxiously yet eagerly awaited orders, eyes falling to Keith as they closed around him in a semicircle, leaving a single spotlight shining over him as he called out their orders in the form of song: “Hunk, Pidge, take Yellow and Green, defend that ridge!”

            Hunk and Pidge backed his vocals with murmurs of agreement, as they tore away from the group, headed for cardboard cutouts of their Lion heads on stage left.

            “Allura, Shiro, get to Blue! It’s time to defend the galaxy; do what you need to do!”

            Again, Allura and Shiro called out their affirmations that they’d heard and understood Keith’s orders, and ran to stage right, where the Blue Lion cardboard cutout waited for them. That left Lance and Keith center stage. Each time they performed, half of Keith’s acting efforts went to either keeping from flushing, or pretending the flush was because he was overheating.

            “And Lance?”

            “Yeah?”

            “You’re with me—no letting those Galra get away, no letting them be!”

            Each time they performed, Keith sang those words with the fieriest glint in his eye he could muster. Each time they performed, Lance responded with a mischievous grin and an equally as dangerous expression. Keith’s stomach leapt, every single performance, without fail. He wondered if that look was purely an act, or if there was something genuine underneath it, as he and Lance gave each other nods, and then raced forward and jumped off the stage, bolting down the aisles and circling back toward the backstage entrances.

            The song carried on, with the team battling inside of their cardboard Lions, and ended on an abrupt note with Shiro taking a tumble out of the Blue Lion. Allura’s voice cut out, as she dashed offstage, lugging Blue’s cutout head with her, leaving Shiro alone. A fog machine kicked in at that precise moment, and the music changed with grating and clanging, from their rock song, to something slower. Eerier. More menacing.

            Shiro pushed off of the ground, eyes wide as he took in the scene around him. His features tightened with a clearly-readable fear as he realized that he was all by his lonesome onstage, although laughter echoed around the venue—Coran’s voice, distorted thanks to whatever special effects had been used.

            “Hello?” Shiro sang, tentatively, apprehensively. “Is anybody there?”

            He dragged out that last word, voice swelling, cresting toward a high note, falling just short.

            At first, there was nothing but silence in the wake of his question. But then the cackling started up again, grew sharper and louder, while Shiro looked from side to side, up and down, took steps back, downstage and center. Keith watched it all from the wings with his arms crossed over his chest, alongside Matt Holt, who wore a headset, and clutched a stack of papers with the script, along with a remote.

            “Don’t you think this is a little cruel?” Keith whispered, eyes narrowing.

            Matt’s jaw tightened, as he watched Shiro’s performance.

            “I tried to get them to change this part, but Coran insisted on running with it when Shiro said that it seemed too cool and interesting to cut,” he responded. “I…I don’t know what’s up with that.”

            Keith opened his mouth to respond, and winced as Coran’s Haggar impression boomed out over the venue speakers: “Didn’t your friends tell you, Paladin? To look out? To beware?”

            Coran’s performance was originally scripted to be as haunting and creepy as the music backing his vocals, but his gargling old lady voice overshadowed all of that, rendering the performance closer to comedic, as he and Shiro grappled for the upper hand, trading blow after blow, until finally Coran nailed one that sent Shiro staggering back, collapsing. Keith tensed as he watched the scene, watched Shiro tip his head back to gape at Coran and his stringy white wig, while Coran sang about putting the Paladins through hell before slaughtering them all.

            “Please,” Shiro choked out, “spare them. Leave the Paladins…and do your worst to me.”

            He sang quietly, slowly, a performance that had the audience mystified every time. A drawn-out pause followed, as Coran sneered at him, and then drew back the flashlight he held, covered with a thin piece of fuchsia paper to match Haggar’s magic.

            “Hasty decisions lead to suffering and regret,” Coran replied, voice low and dangerous and still ridiculously gravelly. “What you’ve asked for is what you’ll get!”

            He extended his hand, covered in a clawed glove. Shiro reached up, feigning weakness as best he could, and Coran snatched his hand into a crushing grip. At that second, Matt snapped Keith from his reverie by slamming a thumb down on some button. Strobe lights filled the stage as fog billowed out from their fog machines, until no one could see anything but Shiro and Coran’s silhouettes. The music crescendoed as a scream tore from Shiro’s throat.

            So many performances, and Keith still couldn’t handle this bit.

            He turned away and walked briskly through the wing, until he came to the door that let out to the several rooms backstage, including the team’s shared dressing room. He should’ve remained in the wings, been preparing for his entrance for the team’s song about teamwork, but he needed this moment. He gripped the back of one of the chairs in the room and inhaled deeply, slowly.

            Distantly, the door creaked, and Keith slowly raised his head, to see who was back here, to see who would make that leap and ask if he was alright. But when he caught sight of the door, drifting open, there was no one in the doorway.

            Probably thought better of it, Keith realized then. A distressed Keith was usually a Keith no one wanted to deal with—avoiding him and pretending to never have seen him was usually the course of action people took. And if they’d gotten away, without Keith catching sight of them? Even better. He had no one to direct his bitterness to but himself, for being so unapproachable in the first place.

            Keith walked back to the wing just in time for Matt to whisper-shout in his ear, demanding to know where he’d gone, giving Keith no space to answer as he pushed him into the rest of the group, and the whole of them entered the stage, recounting that last battle—through song, because how else?—while Shiro continually distanced himself. He walked in one direction, while the team went in another. He tried to redirect the conversation away from battle tactics and the Galra’s weaknesses in favor of irrelevant topics, like dinner and napping.

            “It’s been a long enough day,” Shiro insisted with a lazy smile, at one point, resting an elbow on top of Keith’s head, much to Keith’s chagrin. “Why don’t we all get some rest instead? Nice, hot showers, dinner, then off to bed?”

            “We can’t just ignore what happened out there,” Allura replied, while Keith ducked out from underneath Shiro’s arm and stood at Allura’s side, and added, “Why are you acting like you don’t even care?”

            “Everything alright, buddy?” Hunk asked, and Lance followed up, “Everything okay, bro?”

            “We’re always rushing around,” Shiro responded, stepping away from the other five Paladins. “Why can’t we just pause a minute, and take things slow?”

            “The Galra are still out there, any moment they could attack,” Pidge insisted, and then the rest of the Paladins joined in and sang as one: “We can’t stop, there’s no time to step back!”

            The Paladins pressed forward, while Shiro stepped back, hands raised defensively, innocently, although his smile offset that attitude by being sly, coy. He spun away from them, to the empty stage left. The others watched him go for a moment before regrouping on their own, singing about the importance of staying on task, of striking while the iron was hot, while Shiro’s lyrics became more corrupted. He sang about the downfall of the Paladins, how he’d be the one to crush them in his own iron grip by using all of their strengths against them, and stabbing straight into their weaknesses.

            Unease speared through Keith every time Shiro sent a glance in the Paladins’ direction.

            His last glance came as he backed off the stage, stage left, leaving the Paladins to shift down and center. Keith watched him disappear into the wings, shrugging off his overzealous, corrupted persona like a jacket. Then he returned his focus to the team surrounding him, as their teamwork song gradually shifted, slowed down, into being about the team itself.

            Into being about Shiro.

            “Do you ever wonder if there’s something one of us is going through?” Lance asked quietly. “Do you ever wonder what to do? What can be done, what should be done?”

            He looked earnestly at the rest of the team, attention shifting to Allura as she stepped forward.

            “There’s a weight upon his shoulders,” she sang, “and a weight upon yours too.”

            She gestured to Lance, and then to Hunk: “And yours.”

            To Pidge. “And yours as well.”

            To Keith. “You’re no exception.”

            She turned her back on all of them and paced to stage right, hands clasped behind her back, straight as a rod. Chin high. A princess—in dirty, battle-damaged armor, but a princess no less. “We’ve all got problems on our shoulders that don’t get enough attention.”

            She cast a longing look over her shoulder, to the space where Shiro had been before his exit. “But there’s something else wrong with him. I don’t know what, or how, or why…but a broken Atlas cannot hold up the sky.”

            The Atlas metaphor likely flew over the head of every single alien in the venue, but Lance had insisted on including it anyway. Why, Keith had no idea. But Lance was the only one willing to actually write the lyrics for them, so after a bit of explaining of that myth, Coran and Allura gave him the green light.

            “The fight,” Keith insisted, pulling away from his thoughts. “He wasn’t the same when he returned. There’s gotta be something wrong…”

            “Something he’s discovered?” Pidge chimed in, and Hunk added, “Something he’s learned?”

            The Paladins turned around, away from each other. They stepped backwards, closer to center-stage, in a semicircle, until they were all pressed together, back-to-back and shoulder-to-shoulder, each singing in harmony about the potential issues that could’ve been plaguing Shiro, coming together in resolution to be there for him as best they could. And then the scene faded out, leaving the Paladins to scramble backstage to get ready for the next scene, while Shiro took to the stage for a soliloquy, to cover up the set change.

            “You ready?” Lance hissed, grinning at Keith as they took up their positions behind the curtain. “This is one of our best performances yet. The energy from the audience…man, I miss theater.”

            “You miss theater?” Keith replied curiously.

            Lance nodded, but then noted the others shifting on their feet, prepared for the curtain to draw back, and waved Keith off. “Tell ya later.”

            When the curtain pulled all the way back, Shiro stood at the center of the Paladins. Keith stepped to his side first, and called orders for Hunk and Pidge to cover one section of the battlefield, and for Lance and Allura to take another. That left him alone with Shiro, and while the others sang about teamwork, in what was partially a reprise of their first battle song, Shiro turned to Keith.

            Keith swallowed hard, as Shiro stared down at him, towered over him. That jacket came back—sheer malice entered Shiro’s eyes, as he activated his arm, summoning a blade of fuchsia energy. He initially wasn’t scripted to do so, until they’d accidentally discovered that feature during rehearsal. Since then, Shiro insisted on using it, just as Keith used his bayard. Both very real weapons, both very dangerous, both very capable of creating disaster with the slightest wrong move.

            Easy to do, when their fight was never the same.

            Shiro changed it up on Keith during every performance, even when he was told not to. It added to the drama, he’d insisted. It created real fear and desperation, and Keith felt both sensations: fear, coiling in his gut. Desperation, fueling the adrenaline pumping through his veins as he looked up, eyes wide.

            “Shiro?” he made himself sing. “Is everything okay? You haven’t been yourself…it’s like you’ve gone away, and there’s another you in your place.” Keith eyed the blade, swallowed again, sang on. “You can talk to me. It doesn’t have to be—”

            Shiro laughed, interrupting his singing, and swung his blade. Keith ducked underneath it, and cursed at the very real heat emanating from the thing as it missed him by less than an inch. He took a few steps back, while the other Paladins backed them a capella, zipping around with their cardboard Lion cutouts.

            “Doesn’t have to be what?” Shiro taunted, and spread his arms wide. “I’m more alive than I’ve ever been! Top of the world, with nobody here to bring me down!”

            He lunged for Keith again, while Keith side-stepped and spun, into an arcing slash that barely missed Shiro. Keith suppressed the urge to wince, because he hadn’t meant to get that close.

            “Not even you!” Shiro went on, and delivered a harsher-than-necessary kick to Keith’s chest that sent him halfway across the stage, sending up a cloud of fog around him as he hit the ground. Shiro stalked over to him, laughing, practically drunk on power. “And what could you do? Take the Black Lion, take my role? You’re too weak for the authority you stole.”

            Every time they performed this song, Keith’s breathing came a little sharper, a little faster.

            He’d okayed the lyrics, once it was clear Shiro wasn’t backing out of it…but it didn’t mean the words didn’t cut deep, right to his core.

            Shiro went at him while he was down, and Keith didn’t need to act as he forced himself to fight back, to play defense, until he delivered a blow to Shiro’s head that incapacitated him for a moment, and sent him sprawling out on the ground. Keith knelt next to him, legs shaking. What was supposed to happen next was that Shiro got up, apparently confused about everything between the first battle and now, and he and Keith would walk off the stage together, and then come back together with the rest of the team for one final battle, and one final song about how fulfilling life as a Paladin was.

            That wasn’t what happened next.

            “Oh, dear, what’s this?” a voice boomed from the back of the venue, and Keith’s head snapped up, in that direction. The air rushed from his lungs as he saw a Galra general swaggering down the aisle, a line of soldiers trailing him, while a group of sentries marched down the other. The music cut out abruptly, as the other Paladins froze in place.

            Keith whipped his head to the side, where Matt stood in the wings, gaping. Then he caught sight of Keith, who motioned to his face—his mic—and then drew a finger across his throat. Matt nodded, and with a pop of static, each Paladin’s mic cut out, leaving them free to whisper to each other over the comms.

            “What do we do?” Pidge asked immediately. Keith watched her out of the corner of his eye, as she and the others came back together, slowly creeping up behind Keith and Shiro. They’d all ditched their Lion head cutouts, and instead had weapons drawn. Pidge and Hunk flanked Keith and Shiro on stage right, while Allura and Lance took up positions stage left.

            “We can’t panic the audience,” Matt answered in a low voice, daring to poke his head out from behind the curtain to observe everyone.

            Keith shifted his gaze in that direction, too, but it was Coran who voiced his thoughts: “They don’t appear fazed at all! It’s like they think this is part of the performance!”

            “Quiet, are we?” the general boomed then, interrupting the group, aiming a gun at Keith’s chest.

            Even from their distance, a shot would still do damage, if taken directly. Keith summoned his shield in one hand, his bayard in the other, and stood in front of Shiro, who remained on the ground, confused as to whether or not he should’ve stood up.

            “Wait, Coran, say that again,” Lance whispered, and when Keith looked at him, he saw his face slack, like he was coming to some realization. Or maybe getting an idea—the gears in his head were definitely turning.

            “The audience thinks this is part of the performance?” Coran didn’t so much as repeat but questioned, and Keith watched the smile split Lance’s face.

            “Exactly. Team, change in script. We’re gonna have to ad lib our way through this one.”

            The general strode forward, and Keith’s attention snapped back to them, bayard elongating into his sword. Behind him, Pidge’s katar flared to life, buzzing with electricity, while Hunk and Lance summoned their guns, each one whining as it charged up. Allura, meanwhile, called upon her whip, materializing in her hand, unfurling like a waterfall.

            “We’re going to what?” Hunk asked incredulously.

            “I love this plan,” Pidge muttered, grinning the same gremlin grin that Lance wore.

            “I hate this plan,” Keith responded, and would’ve closed his eyes in exasperation if he didn’t have a need to be so alert.

            “Matt,” Lance said, “get those mics back on. And find some way to break into the Galra comms. Let’s…break some legs.

            “Mics back on in three…two…go for it,” Matt said, ignoring the groans from Keith and Allura, and then disappeared from the wings, abandoning his script on a chair, tucking the remote into his robes. They fluttered in his wake, as he left the team alone on stage, with no one to keep the wings clear.

            “Keith, we got a plan?” Lance asked, stepping forward, until he and Keith were almost shoulder-to-shoulder, both of them blocking Shiro from the general and their soldiers and sentries.

            “We’re gonna do what we can,” Keith responded, and stole another glance at Shiro. They needed someone in the back with Matt, needed someone to make sure no one was charging through there with the intent on going for a surprise attack. “I’m getting Shiro to safety! I’m gonna need backup and cover, because the Galra aren’t taking another—”

            And Lance cut him off, with perfect timing to preserve his rhyme: “I’ve got you, team leader! Get Shiro outta here—everyone else, weapons up! This is no time for fear, it’s time to squad up!”

            The Galra general just smiled at them and kept moving forward, whispering orders into some commlink on their gauntlet. A group of soldiers split off and charged for the entrances to the backstage area, and Keith seized his opportunity. He helped Shiro up—Shiro, who seemed to have miraculously recovered from that fake blow Keith delivered—and staggered along with an unconvincing limp, just long enough for the two of them to hit the curtain line.

            “Why did you announce what you were doing?” Shiro whisper-shouted, whirling on Keith.

            “Divide and conquer,” Keith replied sharply. “We draw some of them back here and take them out, the audience sees less of a body count.”

            Keith bit his tongue before he could go further, before he could bite out that he’d been right about this, it was only a matter of time before they were attacked. The audience wasn’t freaking out yet, and as long as they weren’t freaking out, the Paladins still had a way to save the show. Hell, they had one in progress, thanks to Lance. Even if it involved rhyming on the fly and hoping it came out sounding kind of like music.

            “There you two are,” Matt’s voice came then, and Keith and Shiro turned as he came running up to them. “We’re running out of time. Building scans have a lot of soldiers moving back here, and they don’t look like they intend on being merciful.”

            “Are we jacked into their comms?” Keith whispered.

            Matt nodded vigorously. “Hit as many high notes as you want. Maybe we’ll knock some of them out. Do you think Galra hearing is closer to like, dog hearing than human hearing? Do you think they’re more sensitive?”

            Keith paused a moment to look at him, and then realized it was a genuine question, and not a jab. And Matt had no idea he’d just asked the part-Galra Paladin, because he didn’t know. They hadn’t gotten that far with bringing Matt up to speed, because Keith had never been prepared for that conversation. Still wasn’t. So he shrugged, and shook his head, and turned away, as clanging footfalls filled the hallway. Shiro and Matt pressed in on either side of him—Shiro activated his GalraTech hand, and called up that blade, while a scepter shot into Matt’s hand from some component of his rebel gear, hidden by his robe. He flicked it, and it extended from scepter to staff. He held it at the ready, and Keith couldn’t help but think about how much they needed a shooter back here, someone with long-range capabilities.

            They’d only last so long.

            “I’m going the other way,” Keith said then, and ducked out from between them, as the first of the soldiers appeared.

            “Keith—!” Shiro started, but Keith flapped his hand.

            “I’ve got a plan of my own, don’t try to make me stay! Just trust me, Shiro, I’ve got it under control!”


            An ice show would not have brought on these kinds of problems, Hunk couldn’t help but think as he aimed his cannon at a group of sentries standing in front of the audience, trying to calculate his chances of hitting all of them without hurting an audience member in the process.

            “Stand aside, stand down!” Hunk bellowed at them anyway, while Lance provided some sort of beat, a capella, from the other side of the stage. “Bold and rash and wrong of you to come back around!”

            Back around, like you’ve ever seen these people before, Hunk thought. He didn’t even know this general’s name, or if it was a general at all. Or who they even worked for. A quick glance at their uniform immediately marked them as one of the Empire’s—not Lotor’s. As far as Hunk knew, Lotor only had the four.

            But an Empire uniform didn’t necessarily mean Zarkon. The Empire was splintering, pulling at the seams. Groups that rose up initially to oppose Lotor now openly stood against Zarkon’s reign, stood against Haggar. Groups like Sendak’s group—which, Hunk hadn’t enjoyed hearing that Sendak survived a spacewalk after being ejected from the Castle of Lions—now attacked whoever railed against them. People like the Empire. People like the Paladins.

            It made for a very confusing web of the enemy of my enemy is my friend, except they’re all my enemy, except maybe one might be my friend if they’ve got the firepower I need, but also that’s messed up.

            “Surrender now,” the general responded instead, “and we’ll have mercy on you and your captive audience.”

            “IIIIIIIIIIIIIIII DON’T THINK SO!” Pidge jumped in, swinging down from the rafters with her grappling hook, delivering a sharp kick to the general’s head. She tucked her legs back in as she swung over Hunk, in circles around the stage. Some of the sentries and soldiers, startled, aimed guns for her, but not a single one landed a shot.

            “IIIIIIIIIIIII DON’T THINK YOU CAN SAY SO!” Pidge continued on. “IIIIIIII THINK IT’S TIME FOR YOU TO GOOOOO!”

            She unhooked her grappling hook and tumbled toward the stage. She hit the ground in a role and came up to one knee, bayard switching back to katar form as she stuck a hand out at one of the soldiers standing by their fallen general. She curled two fingers in, in what Hunk supposed was the universal gesture for come at me, bro, because the soldier charged up on stage…only for Allura to lash out with her whip and strike them down.

            It drew the attention of the sentries in front of the audience long enough for Lance to fire off a series of shots in rapid succession, striking each of them down without harming the audience in the slightest. Instead, they oohed and awwed over the star sharpshooter, giving Hunk enough cover to jump down and slip away, to take one the other soldiers trying to get away, out the back.

            “You can try and stop us, but we’ll always rise!” Lance sang, keeping the audience’s eyes forward, and Pidge, Hunk, and Allura each echoed him with another always rise. “No matter how hard you tryyyyyyy—!”

            Lance cut himself off as a group of three soldiers charged the stage, and Allura took over for him: “We’ll always be stronger than the other—” she took a breath, and belted, “—GUYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY!”

            It was enough to pause Hunk. Enough to pause Pidge. Certainly enough to pause Lance, who gaped at her, momentarily forgetting he was being attacked. It paused the audience, and then they erupted with claps, even though the music was still going, replaying tracks from earlier in the show to cover up the fact that they should’ve wrapped by now.

            They only got moving again when the venue shook, and the ceiling suddenly exploded.


            “Fighters in the air, fighters in the sky!” Pidge didn’t sing so much as warned.

            Keith tripped over himself as he sped down the hallways, cutting down every soldier and sentry who got in his way with a few precise swings of his sword. Even back here, the ceiling came down, raining in chunks over his head. His helmet saved him from being knocked out by a particularly heavy piece, but he did hit the floor, and in that split second, another soldier bore down on him.

            “Can anyone tell me how and WHY?” Keith ground out.

            With one arm, he struggled to keep the soldier at bay with his bayard. With his other, he fumbled to unsheath his Marmora knife, pinned underneath him. He finally wrenched it free, the flat side of the blade pressing into his suit, and he nearly stabbed himself as he angled his arm, and in one motion, stabbed up into the soldier’s gut.

            And then let the sword elongate.

            The soldier choked on blood as they slackened, and Keith shoved them off. His breathing went irregular again, but he couldn’t afford that, dammit. He shot to his feet and broke back into a run, skidding to a halt as he hit another wave of soldiers.

            “It’s Zarkon’s…it’s his son,” Allura replied in shock. “I thought our battle against him was done!”

            Evidently, the soldiers before Keith heard Allura’s response. They all turned to each other with questioning looks, and Keith wasted no time sprinting through the group of them, throwing elbows, slashing out with both blades. One of them swung at his head, and he ducked underneath, sliding along the floor, striking at legs when he could.

            “I don’t think we should trust him—” Lance started, and Hunk followed up, “I think we should bust him—” and then Pidge, “Thrust him back into space!”

            “I understand we’ve had our differences,” Lotor’s voice broke over the mic link, and Keith nearly had a heart attack as he stumbled back out onto the stage, to take in the sight of Lotor’s generals dropping from a plane hovering in the air above the broken ceiling. The audience members who hadn’t already gotten up and ran out, screaming, sat in their seats still, mesmerized by the sight, and Keith wondered how the hell any of them could’ve still thought this was all planned. “But it’s time we put it all aside.”

            “Don’t trust him, don’t listen to a word he says—” Keith began, rushing forward, but Lotor cut him off: “I like you, Paladins. I’ve never lied, you’ve got no reason to distrust me now, follow my lead, and I’ll get you to trust me, let me just show you how!”

            Keith wasn’t sure what he hated more: Lotor swooping in when they already had one problem to deal with, or the fact that he was trying to take over, or the fact that he was singing now, too. So he just grit his teeth, and called out: “…We’ve got a deal, make it fast! Paladins, to me, don’t let this fight be our last!”

            “Let me take care of these pesky ships in the air,” Lotor offered. “I’m sure you all can handle things down there.”

            “Just do what you think’s best!” Lance shouted in response. “Leave us be down here! Let us handle the rest!” He turned to Keith, genuine worry shining in his eyes. “Keith, plan of action?”

            “Keep fighting, we make gains, don’t lose traction,” Keith said, voice hard, and then remembered Matt and Shiro, still fighting backstage. So far, neither had screamed, although Shiro’s constant grunting still accompanied the music. And then remembered Coran, and realized Coran was nowhere to be found.

            “Allura, where’s Coran?” he asked, trying to follow the song’s melody, and winced.

            To her credit, Allura didn’t even give him a look. Just replied.

            “I don’t know, I think he gave us the slip—”

            Pidge interrupted then, pointing up at the ceiling, where blue laser beams shot across the night sky, mingling with purple and red from Lotor and the other Galran fighters. “Or he went back to the castleship!”

            Keith nodded, nodded again, tried to think of something else to do other than nod, tried to think of orders to give, plans weaving together and falling apart too quickly. He needed tight stitches, he needed seamless, and all he came up with was loose thread. He shot a pleading look at Lance.

            “Right hand, I’m gonna need you. You’re good with directives—what do you think we should do?”

            The ad libbing had been Lance’s idea, and so far, it kept about half of the audience from freaking out. It kept the Paladins from freaking out.

            Lance blinked at Keith.

            “Me?”

            “Yes, you. I’m putting us into your hands. Team, whatever he says, follow his commands!”

            The exact opposite of what Shiro would’ve wanted. He would’ve wanted Keith to think a little longer, a little harder, but that was time the team didn’t have when they were surrounded, and had civilians to save, and were suddenly working with Lotor, when his generals tried to kill the team just a few weeks ago. Lance was the one who could strategize on the fly, think on his feet…

            How could you ever think about stepping aside? Keith allowed himself one brief second to wonder.

            Meanwhile, Lance stared at Keith, and then seemed to snap out of some stupor as he nodded back to him. “Alright, team—”


            It took a lot of singing, and too many near-death experiences. Lotor’s generals weren’t inclined to show the Paladins any mercy, even working alongside them. A few close calls, where one general’s aim was off, or so they said. Mostly, it came down to shots that grazed Lance’s side, one that nearly hit Hunk’s chestplate dead-center, a couple that knocked Pidge down, even one that got the best of Allura.

            Lance had directed Shiro and Matt to clear out of the backstage area, and draw everyone back out to the main stage. Hunk and Allura were tasked with getting the civilians to safety, alongside the burly general, Zethrid. Pidge and Keith were directed to work alongside the blue general, Acxa, and the lizard general, Narti, to attack the soldiers still in the stage area. Lance himself ended up with Ezor—she came at soldiers with close combat, her acrobatic skills put to work, while Lance stuck to sharpshooting. They guarded the exit doors, to keep the soldiers from going at the evacuating civilians.

            Nobody came away without injury.

            The team stumbled back into the castleship, out of their Lions’ hangars, with Allura commanding Coran to gun it away from this planet, to get to somewhere safer. Away from the Galra faction that attacked them, and away from Lotor and his generals.

            “That was a disaster,” Keith announced breathlessly, collapsing into the Black Paladin’s chair on the bridge, while the others slumped over into their own respective seats, save for Allura, who stood at her space in the center, slumping over on one of the two posts at her side.

            “Could’ve been worse,” Lance mumbled. “Could’ve died.”

            No, there were more ways than that it could’ve been worse. Many ways.

            Like the way in which things got worse the next morning after the castle’s night cycle, when the team came back onto the bridge to Coran, with his face hollow.

            “Coran?” Allura asked, while the rest of the team struggled to find their voices, still shook off sleep, didn’t want to ask, for fear of the answer.

            Coran didn’t respond—not verbally. Instead, his fingers flew over a holoscreen at his side. Moments later, the bridge darkened, and a new broadcast illuminated the central screen:

VOLTRON WORKING ALONGSIDE PRINCE LOTOR.

Chapter Text

4.05
Diffraction

            Cold.

            That was the only way Allura could describe it.

            She stood on the bridge, surrounded by four Earth teens and two of their older brothers, Coran at her side, and the potential beginnings of a smear campaign staring them in the face. Her eyes scrolled over the headline a dozen times, and mentally, she cursed herself for not seeing this coming, for not seeing what might have been such an obvious setup. A huge venue, an audience who refused to leave even when the ceiling crashed down, a planet known for their reach. A communications hub.

            Bitterly, Allura forced herself to acknowledge that maybe Keith had been onto something. Had been right in thinking that the shows were a distraction to their true mission, and an invitation for the Galra to stab them between the ribs and twist the knife. She wondered a million things—wondered whether the planet had contacted the Galra, wondered whether they’d contacted Lotor, wondered if they were in on it at all or if this was just a well-calculated strike. She wondered a million things and came up with exactly zero answers for anything.

            She curled and uncurled her fists at her side, flexed her fingers. She couldn’t stare at this screen forever; as the princess, as the one who’d given the Paladins a Lion to pilot in the first place, she’d assumed some sort of leadership role, Black Paladin or not. In crisis, the Paladins looked to her before they ever looked to Shiro or Keith. She was the one with ancient knowledge, she was the one who was supposed to know what to do, but all she could feel was the terror from that night, ten thousand years ago, when fires raged and her father marched off into his final battle. Her instinct had been to fight back, to form Voltron, to rail against the people railing against them. That same drive just wasn’t there. Not now, when she’d seen the broader universe, had a more intricate understanding of how these things worked.

            You couldn’t just bring a giant robot smashing into your problems.

            “Coran,” Allura finally spoke, and still didn’t turn around, “how long has this been circulating?”

            Coran swallowed and scanned over the broadcast again. “About eight vargas…almost immediately after the battle ended. There must have been reporters on the site. By now…multiple systems will have seen this, and it will only spread from there. There’s no possible way to contain this—not at the rate it’s going.”

            No possible way to contain this…multiple systems…will only spread…

            This cut out Allura’s work for her: no doubt, members of the Coalition would get wind of this soon. Lotor and his band of generals, perhaps—Lotor, and his band of generals

            “Do we know for a fact who put out this broadcast in the first place?” Allura asked, voice louder than it had been when she asked her first question. She squared her shoulders, stepped forward, crossed her arms. Tipped her head back as she scanned over the article again, willed herself to keep steady as she read over the words condemning Voltron, for turning on audiences, for trapping them, pinned between factions: the Fire of Purification, responsible for the initial attack, and Lotor and his generals, responsible for that second wave. Responsible for teaming up with Voltron.

            Biased reporting at its finest.

            “A publication based back on Hirenouv,” Coran answered. “They’ve got no known affiliations in the last dozen decaphoebs. No indication as to which side they’d sway to, although more than likely, they’d be with Voltron. They were at the Coalition show, after all!”

            “Yeah, calling us out for our heinous crimes sure makes it sound like they’re with us,” Hunk muttered under his breath, and Allura tensed.

            She still had yet to turn around and address the other Paladins, though she was certain all of them wore her expression, or at least, some shade of her concern, the bitterness she tried to keep at bay.

            “Allura, what were you getting at?” Shiro asked, and Allura loosed a silent breath and made herself face the others.

            Yep: Keith, Matt, and Shiro all had their arms crossed, looking like a set of triplets; Lance had a hand on his hip; Pidge was staring at the screen with a scrutinizing eye, probably not even listening to the conversation happening—or if she was, she was mostly tuned out—and Hunk, Hunk was her mirror image, disgust clear in his expression, betrayal, uncertainty. Allura leveled eyes at him, and he nodded in some sort of understanding, before Allura turned away, to answer Shiro’s question.

            “I’m wondering if perhaps we’re being sabotaged by someone else. Someone other than a publication with which we’ve no known history,” Allura said. “I was wondering if perhaps Lotor got into contact with them…but that wouldn’t make sense.”

            “It wouldn’t,” Hunk agreed. “They’re pretty anti-Lotor. But it does make you wonder if maybe they’re working with the Empire, or have allegiance to it…or maybe another faction against the Empire?”

            “I need a computer,” Pidge interrupted. “Let me run scans on that.”

            “Scans for what?” Lance asked.

            “Trace the roots of that thing,” Pidge answered, and prepared to spin on her heel and dash out of the bridge when the projection of the broadcast suddenly vanished. She froze in her spot, while the other Paladins stiffened.

            Allura whirled around to face the screen, as it darkened, as the speakers of the bridge suddenly screeched with static. The others jumped, and Lance even let out a yelp. Feet scuffed the floor as the Paladins moved in closer to each other, and Allura willed herself not to take a step back toward them, willed herself to stay rooted to her spot and straighten out and keep her head up.

            Another pop of static gave way to a video feed, and Allura’s jaw nearly hit the floor.

            “Hailing the Castle of Lions,” Prince Lotor said, grinning with a grin that might have sent other people running for the hills, just like Allura’s mind yelled at her to do right now. He had fangs—many Galra did—and they were on prominent display now, the way he smiled at the team.

            “Prince Lotor, state your business.”

            The diplomat voice. Allura never got to use it often, back in the days when Altea was alive and thriving. Her father and mother handled most of the political affairs, and while Allura sat in on meetings, she rarely ever needed to speak up. The rare accusation or allegation against her parents, or even herself, had her speaking up, but that was in a different way. Slightly more demure. Pacifistic. This voice she used more so when dealing with suitors, dealing with the children of other diplomats and representatives. And now, in front of the last person she ever wanted to talk to: the son of her father’s murderer.

            “I trust you’ve seen the headlines,” Lotor said, and leaned forward, chin propped up on laced fingers. “I’ll admit, they surprised me. I didn’t realize we were working together, but if that’s what yesterday’s stunt was…well.”

            “Enough skirting the issue, Lotor,” Allura said, and tightened her arms across her chest. “What business do you have in contacting us?”

            Lotor’s smile sharpened. “I was just getting to the matter, Princess. I’m sure you’re aware that patience is a virtue, and can be especially useful in dealings with my father, and the factions rebelling against both his rule and my own.”

            “Do you ever get tired of hearing yourself talk?” Lance interjected.

            Lotor’s eyes flicked to him, smile fading as he appraised the group of Paladins behind Allura, none of them pleased in the slightest.

            “Only occasionally,” Lotor responded, voice blunted. “To get to the point: perhaps these headlines merely…got ahead of themselves. I think we made quite the effective team in that last battle, don’t you? We made quick work of Sendak’s faction, and we were able to get civilians to safety before there could be true casualties…or fatalities.”

            He took a moment, to let the words sink in. For Allura, they sank in relatively quickly. For the others, it took a few moments, but the tense energy that filled the bridge became clear: everyone understood.

            “Absolutely not,” Allura bit out, right away, when no one else spoke up.

            Lotor’s smile came back, slowly. It wasn’t so much hesitation but more so that he held back on purpose. Slow to unsettle, slow to show that he had at least some semblance of patience. “I wouldn’t advise being rash in your decision-making, Princess. You’ve a team to discuss the matter with, don’t you? I would think that as a team, group input would be of value.

            “And what if we agree with her?” Lance called out, and Allura looked back, long enough to shoot a grateful smile in his direction. Lance grinned back at her, momentarily breaking away from his glare to do so.

            “And do you now speak on behalf of all of your teammates?” Lotor countered, and leaned back, smugly, as Allura and Lance finally faced the rest of the group. Most of the others shifted on their feet, clearly uncomfortable with being put on the spot.

            A look passed over Keith’s face, and he started forward, until he caught sight of Shiro. Shiro had his arms crossed, jaw set, but his eyes were on the ground, unfocused, and at that, Keith sank back, looked to the others. Hunk wrung his hands, while Pidge balled her fists at her side, head whipping between teammates in quick assessment, eyes widening slightly when she discovered that not all of them jumped to her same decision.

            “I thought not,” Lotor said, and steepled his fingers, elbows resting on the arms of his seat. “I’ll tell you what, Voltron. I’ll give you a few quintants to talk things over with each other, though it would be in both your best interests and mine to come to a decision in a timely fashion. The next time we come into contact, I expect a decision to be made.”

            “We never agreed that we’d even make a decision,” Keith said, and Lotor’s gaze settled on him. His eyebrows rose in interest, and Allura watched them with growing apprehension. She recalled Keith mentioning the weblum—he’d run into one of Lotor’s generals there, had helped them and been betrayed in turn. And Hunk had mentioned something when they’d come back from that mission, something about Galra Keith being cooler than regular Keith…

            To Keith’s credit, he never flinched.

            “There are many things that occur in war that none of us ever truly agree to,” Lotor responded, and Lance groaned.

            “Oh, now you’re giving us cryptic philosophy. Real nice. Just keep trying to ignore the important stuff,” he said, and popped out his elbow, leaned his arm on Pidge’s head, and crossed his legs at the ankle.

            “I can’t say you’re doing much differently,” Lotor pointed out. “Stalling, in hopes I’ll back down or forget my request entirely. Rest assured, Paladin, my life experiences have made it certain that I don’t forget the important things. Four quintants, you have to make a decision. I’d advise spending more than a dobosh thinking on things—you might find that the best decision isn’t necessarily the one you thought it would be.”

            And with that, before Lance could get out some other snarky remark, or Allura could jump back into the conversation, Lotor cut off the transmission, plunging the bridge into tense silence.

            “So, I know that was bad,” Hunk said, after a few minutes of no one else speaking. “How about I go make us some lunch, and then when we’ve all had an hour to think about this, we sit down and talk this out? Seems like a good plan, right? Good! I hope everyone likes space turkey, because that’s what I found in the freezer last night.”

            Hunk rushed out of the bridge before anyone else could call after him to stop, or object to his plans. The others stared after him, until Matt turned to them. He pursed his lips, the gears in his head turning, grinding with a precision fluidity like Pidge’s, a well-oiled machine working overtime. Finally, he shrugged, palms raised high.

            “I mean, what else is there to do?” he offered. “We’ve—or at least, you all’ve—gotta talk this out at some point, right? And you’re getting food from Hunk out of it. I, for one, think it’s a brilliant idea, and it gives us an hour to kill while he bakes. That gives Pidge time to trace the roots of the broadcast, and gives us all a little more time to think about this for ourselves before we get talking.”

            He waited a heartbeat for a response; when none came, the others still too busy trying to formulate one, he shrugged, and walked out. “I’ll be down on the training deck.”

            “And I’ll be in the lab. I’ve got my work cut out for me,” Pidge said, and ran after her brother, calling for Matt to wait up and come help her.

            That left Shiro, Allura, Keith, Lance, and Coran on the bridge, and a sudden indecision over who to defer to. Shiro looked down at the floor, arms crossed, glare on his face. Lance looked to Allura, who looked at Keith, who watched Shiro with pained eyes. Coran’s eyes flitted over the four of them, frown deepening as he turned away, back to the screens around his station.

            “We’ll have to get into contact with the Voltron Coalition and explain the situation to them,” he pointed out, not forcefully but not softly, either. Just even enough to come off as unbiased.

            “Not yet,” Shiro said, raising his head, grabbing the others’ attention. “We haven’t come to a decision. We can’t tell the rest of the Coalition that we haven’t teamed up with Lotor, and then turn around and team up with him. And we can’t confirm the headline, either, if we haven’t officially teamed up yet.”

            “You keep talking like we’re going to go through with it,” Lance said, voice hard. He crossed his arms, mirroring Shiro’s pose as he turned on him. “Why?”

            “This could be beneficial to us,” Shiro answered in a voice even harder, and he took a step forward, daring to use his height to his advantage. Lance wavered but ultimately kept still, ultimately kept his eyes trained on the man in front of him. “Lotor might have information we don’t, and if he’s inclined to help us instead of trying to kill us, then I say we take this opportunity.”

            “Need I remind you he tried to kill us the last time we ran into him?” Keith interrupted.

            Lance parted his lips, to add onto Keith’s statement, to explain what Narti had done, but faltered. He still hadn’t told anyone but Hunk. To his knowledge, Hunk kept his secret. He wasn’t about to let that out in front of Shiro and Allura. Not here. Not when Shiro was blowing up and Allura was suspiciously silent, brow furrowed as she watched the others duke it out.

            “The last time we ran into him was yesterday, and he helped us,” Shiro shot back.

            “Fighting is getting us nowhere,” Allura jumped in then, and stepped forward, stepped toward Shiro, daring him to challenge her. Shiro turned away from Lance, and Lance let himself deflate.

            “It’s not fighting—”

            “It is fighting, Shiro.” Another step forward. “We’ve already agreed to have a civil debate over lunch, and we’ll be sticking to that agreement. I believe we all need to take a step back and think about this on our own. You’ve formulated an opinion already, clearly. Some of us are still thinking on it, and we don’t need our thoughts swayed. Not when we’re confused enough. And Keith has a point: yesterday was a strange turn of events that not all of us have had the time to process.”

            “Sometimes you don’t get time,” Shiro argued. “Sometimes you have to just have to act and make do with the consequences.”

            “What’s gotten into you?” Keith demanded, throwing his hands up.

            “Gotten into me?” Shiro asked incredulously.

            Keith nearly spoke again, and Lance watched him. Watched whatever he was about to say die on his lips, mere seconds from tipping over. Then he shook his head. “Never mind. I’m…I’m…I’ve gotta think about this.”

            Nobody went after Keith when he clenched his fists and walked briskly out of the bridge, shoulders hunched. Lance, he nearly did. A jolt went through his legs, some energy nearly propelling him, but he stopped himself, kept himself in check. An angry Keith was best left alone, left to cool off. On another day, maybe Lance would’ve poked at him. On another day, maybe Lance would’ve followed and risked the snapping.

            But not today.

            “Coran,” Allura said, when no one else spoke, “set up a transmission with members of the Coalition.”

            “What are you doing?” Shiro asked, and Allura turned to him with narrowed eyes. Lance shrank back this time, stepped away from them.

            “This news of our apparently alliance with Lotor and his generals is still spreading, no matter whether or not we’ve come to a decision. I intend to inform the Coalition of what’s actually happened, and tell them about Lotor’s offer. Our allies might be able to offer insight as to whether or not we should trust the same man whose father murdered mine.”

            Coran stiffened at that, while Lance’s jaw dropped. He shut it, as soon as Shiro looked between him and Coran, and then back at Allura.

            “I’m sorry,” Shiro finally conceded.

            A gap followed his words, and Allura kept her face perfectly neutral as she searched for the right response. A gap followed his words, and Coran didn’t dare turn around, didn’t dare even look at whatever the hell was going down behind his back. A gap followed his words, and Lance wondered what the hell was happening to Team Voltron, that one transmission from a purple Legolas wannabe could bring them to this.

            Lance flicked his eyes between Shiro and Allura, as Allura finally nodded to him, and then turned her back on him, toward the screens before her. Shiro’s expression changed, into a glare that had the hair on the back of Lance’s neck standing up. He stalked out of the bridge with a rigid posture, leaving Lance debating whether to linger here, to be a pillar of support as Allura contacted their allies, or to go elsewhere, and busy himself until Hunk made lunch.

            Hunk.

            An image came to Lance’s mind, of Hunk shaking his head in shame, because Lance wasn’t making good on his promise to talk to Keith. Between that, and Allura never turning around to see if anyone remained on the bridge, to see if Lance would join her, Lance made up his mind, and headed out the door in search of Keith.


            Keith never ended up on the training deck.

            Clanging echoed down the hall from the deck long before Keith got to it, indicating that Matt had made good on his statement, and Keith didn’t feel like sparring with anyone who wasn’t a bot. Hell, Keith barely felt like sparring with the bot, but it was his best way to blow off steam—the same steam still building under his tightly-sealed lid, pressure rising.

            He didn’t have time to turn around, head back to his room, change into his swimming trunks, and hit the pool, and then change back and go to lunch. It just wasn’t doable. He considered heading deeper into the castleship, exploring the places he still hadn’t set foot, hadn’t laid eyes on, before deciding he didn’t want to accidentally get lost and never make it back in time for the group discussion.

            With nothing left to do, he headed back to his room.

            There goes Keith, sulking for a good hour by himself, he thought, drawing his Marmora knife from its sheath. He turned it over in his hands, twirled it between his fingers as he started on the way to his room.

            About halfway to his room, loud footfalls thumped against the floor. Keith spun, only to see Lance jogging up to him. Immediately, Keith ceased twirling his knife, setting it back into its sheath on the back of his belt and then crossing his arms, halting in the middle of the hallway. Lance stopped in front of him, a good few feet of distance between them.

            “Hey, man,” Lance said, “can I…can I talk to you? It’s…kinda important.”

            Keith’s heart fluttered, and he hated himself for it.

            Important could mean a lot of things, one of which was something that stayed close to his heart, but it would never hold that same meaning with Lance. Keith forced down his disgust with himself, forced down his already-deflating hopefulness, forced down his ensuing disappointment, and appraised Lance with what he hoped was the most neutral and vaguely-curious expression he could muster.

            “Sure,” Keith said, and Lance glanced at the space around them.

            Stepped closer.

            Dropped his voice.

            “Can we do this somewhere private?”

            Just seconds before, Keith had been certain this wasn’t some kind of confession, but his heart jumped, its beat transforming from the steady beat of a drum to the thundering gallop of a horse. His face warmed, and he hoped to hell that Lance couldn’t see the blush, or wouldn’t see the blush, or maybe if he did he would never bring it up.

            Even with his heart jackhammering, though, Keith’s hope plummeted through the floor.

            Lance hung his head, and had his hands jammed into his pockets, and his voice was uncharacteristically quiet, void of any and all levity. Like he was ashamed. Afraid. And of course—of course! It made sense, to be ashamed of something as ridiculous as liking Keith, and—

            Focus, Kogane.

            “Uh, yeah,” Keith answered, and led the way to his room. Lance didn’t trail behind, didn’t try and take the lead. He raised his chin the slightest, made a weak attempt at straightening out his shoulders and back, and remained at Keith’s side as they walked.

            Silence fell between them. A few times, it occurred to Keith to try and break it, to maybe ask Lance what he wanted to talk about, but each time, the words lodged in his throat. Keith was left to watch Lance helplessly, dread building with every step. By the time they reached Keith’s door, he wanted nothing more than to be alone to breathe.

            But being alone wouldn’t get him answers. It would just make things worse.

            The door opened, Keith and Lance stepped inside, and then the door closed, sealing them off from the rest of the castleship.

            “So what’s this you have to talk to me about?” Keith asked, arms still carefully crossed over his chest.

            Last time Lance came to talk to him, Keith thought Lance would have addressed him as a friend. Not the Black Paladin. This time, he fully prepared himself for a discussion from team leader to right hand…if this conversation steered away from the romantic, as Keith hoped it both would and wouldn’t. He restrained himself from digging his nails into his arm, as he took in Lance, whose shoulders drooped the moment the door shut, and he had to put on airs for no one.

            “I, uh…I actually talked about this with Hunk first, a-and I tried to tell him it wasn’t a big deal! But he made me do this, so…” Lance took in a deep breath, and if Keith’s heart was a racehorse, then it would’ve placed first. He stayed rooted to his spot, while Lance shifted his weight from leg to leg just a handful of feet away from him, a careful distance, maybe calculated, maybe not.

            Keith waited for Lance to keep going, as Lance scuffed the floor with the sole of his sneaker. Rubbed his foot back and forth over the metal. Played with the hem of his jacket sleeve. Let his breath go and deflated like a balloon, before he raised his head and cast a longing glance at the door.

            “Maybe I…yeah, no, sorry, this…this is a bad idea, I’m sorry, I can’t…”

            Bad idea.

            And Keith told himself not to let the words get to him, but they struck true, echoing in his mind. He stared at Lance, mouth and brain each refusing to form words. At Keith’s silence, Lance sighed, and turned on his heel, headed toward the door—

            “Lance, wait.”

            Keith’s hand shot out before he could stop it, wrapped around Lance’s wrist before he realized what he was doing. Lance’s eyes widened when he looked back at Keith, and Keith swallowed down his growing terror, made himself look as concerned but neutral as possible, slowly released Lance’s wrist when it became clear Lance would stay.

            “What’s going on with you?” Keith asked.

            He didn’t do friends, didn’t do the whole social thing in general. Not even when Shiro and Adam took him under their collective wing. Getting booted from the Garrison and living in the desert never gave him much time to practice making friends, being attentive to them and their needs, and he hoped that his question came out caring and non-confrontational.

            He kept his arms to his side this time, studying Lance. His fingers flexed at his side, at a loss without somewhere to put them. His jacket had no pockets, and the ones on his jeggings weren’t the most functional.

            Keith met eyes with Lance as Lance hesitated, crossed his arms, ducked his head and peered at Keith from below his forehead. “I…something happened on that mission. When we went after Pidge. And Hunk’s the only one who knows about it, but that’s only because he was there. I-I didn’t plan on telling anyone, but he said I had to tell someone, and I figured…you’re probably my best bet.”

            Then he broke their gazes.

            Keith’s insides coiled tighter and unraveled all at once. It wasn’t the confrontation he was hoping for and dreading, but he didn’t glean much else from Lance’s words beyond something meaning something bad, based on how jumpy Lance was, how touchy the topic seemed for him.

            “What do you mean something happened? That’s vague, Lance, lots of things—”

            “I got possessed, alright?” Lance blurted, sharper than he meant to, and then one hand flew to his mouth as he took a step back. His head snapped up, and he stared at Keith like a deer in headlights. Meanwhile, Keith stiffened, and mentally began running through his recollection of that day’s events. He’d been with Shiro and Allura—Allura tried something on the guard—they’d been confronted by two of Lotor’s four generals, the burly one and the acrobat, leaving the other two for Lance and Hunk—

            “How?” Keith pressed, and just like Lance, his voice rose, came out sharp, almost accusatory, and Lance flinched back.

            “I-I don’t know, one second I was fine and then the next, Narti—”

            “Wait, wait, wait, which one is Narti?” Keith interrupted.

            Lance paused, blinked.

            “The lizard,” he answered, raising his eyebrows. “Remember? Yesterday? Never mind that. She…she has mind control powers, Keith. She just needs to make contact with your skin, and then she’s in your head, and you…you shouldn’t be able to do anything about it.” He waited a beat, for Keith to register his words, to let them sink in, and then added on, “But I was able to.”

            He winced as he watched multiple realizations dawn on Keith’s face, and braced himself for an inevitable scolding, for getting into Narti’s close range in the first place when he was the sharpshooter, for allowing her to incapacitate him, for allowing her to make skin contact when he was supposed to be covered in armor from head to toe.

            But instead, Keith was pale.

            “What do you mean, she needs to make contact with your skin? We were fully covered,” he said, and still, his voice rose, and only fell again when Lance shrank in on himself and looked over his shoulder at the door. “Where did she get to you, Lance?”

            Lance’s eyes drifted to the ceiling, and he rubbed the back of his neck. “Uh…besides when I got shot?”

            Keith made a choking noise.

            Lance winced again.

            “You got shot? Did you ever go into a pod?”

            “Uh…well…no.”

            Keith groaned in frustration, and Lance took a step back, while Keith began pacing. “What do you mean, you didn’t go into a pod? You literally—you got shot, and you never decided that it was worth maybe getting healed?”

            “Hey,” Lance replied, raising his hands defensively, “I went and got a med kit, alright? And it was a laser blast. Instantly cauterized. Besides, getting shot is like, part of the job.”

            Keith’s mouth opened and closed several times. He spread his palms in exasperation as he tried and failed to come up with a proper response, and ended up groaning again, running a hand raggedly through his hair. He reminded himself that this mission was several weeks old now. Lance seemed fine enough during their Voltron Coalition shows, especially yesterday—jeez, had that really only been yesterday?—and so the injury no longer became relevant.

            But Keith still filed that away.

            “Fine,” he conceded, “so then where did she make contact with you if it wasn’t wherever you got shot?”

            Lance hesitated. He looked back at the door, shifted a foot in that direction.

            “Hey, no running,” Keith said, and even took a step closer to the door. “This is important, Lance. You can’t just—just drop this on me and then not finish explaining! How the hell am I supposed to lead—?”

            Lance drew back, as Keith’s voice shot up. Keith took note and stopped, blew out a frustrated breath, and dropped his hands down to his sides.

            “Sorry. I’m sorry. I…this…you’re part of the team. I need to know when something happens, I have to be able to lead you all, and I can’t lead if I don’t have all the information I need. And…”

            Keith sighed again, while Lance watched. He blew a piece of hair out of his face.

            “I’ve gotta know when something happens to one of my friends. So what happened?

            Lance looked Keith up and down, skittish. Cagey. Keith’s frustration built as he forced a lid over it, and had to remind himself that this was the second time Lance was volunteering sensitive information to him, and Keith had a chance to do better than last time—sometimes he still woke up in a cold sweat, scowling over his parting words to Lance. Leave the math to Pidge.

            Way to insult his intelligence, Keith.

            “Promise you won’t tell anyone else,” Lance said, voice dropping. “I didn’t even want Hunk to know, and if word gets out to the others, I-I don’t know what’ll happen then. How they’ll react.”

            “I promise,” Keith replied, without a second of hesitation.

            It almost scared him, how quickly he responded, and it took Lance aback. He stood in silence for a moment, face slackening as he registered Keith’s vow. He didn’t stop to consider his options, didn’t stop to consider for himself how telling the others might or might not have been helpful.

            But Keith didn’t need to.

            Shiro was getting on his every last nerve, and jealousy—however ugly it sat, in the core of Keith’s heart—would keep him from telling Allura anything Lance told him. And he knew enough that Pidge and Coran would be a terrifying duo, curiosity getting the better of them as they questioned and pestered Lance about something he didn’t want to talk about.

            And then yes, that.

            The fact that Lance didn’t want to talk about it.

            “Okay,” Lance said, and took in a deep breath. “Just—try not to say anything until I get this all out. I’m still processing it all, if I’m being honest.”

            Another deep breath. He pulled his jacket tighter around him, and kept his eyes on the floor. “So, Hunk and I were scouting in like, these sewers, I guess? And something dropped from the ceiling and tried to knock me out. It was Narti, and she got…she got her tail around my neck…” Lance’s voice grew quieter, more somber, and his gaze became unfocused, as he recalled the day’s events. One hand drifted to his neck, fingers lightly probing his throat as he swallowed. “She got my helmet off of me, and then got her hand on my head…”

            Keith had to physically bite down on his tongue to keep from interrupting.

            “Once she did that, it was kinda like I was a prisoner in my own body. I could feel everything, I was watching everything happen, but I had no control. I-It was like this voice in my head, compelling me, and I just…did it without question? I…” He squeezed his eyes shut, hunched over himself. “If she wanted me to, I could have shot Hunk then and there. I had my gun pointed at his head.”

            Lance trembled. Keith bit his lip, and then reached a hand out. Lance flinched when Keith made contact, a hand on Lance’s bicep as he gestured to the bed.

            “I know you said not to interrupt, but…at least sit down.”

            It’s alright. It’s okay. That’s over now. You’re okay.

            Keith would’ve loved for those words to leave his mouth. From anyone else, they probably would’ve sounded comforting. But Keith was certain he’d be a blushing mess as soon as he said them, because this wasn’t any other one of his teammates. This was Lance, former self-proclaimed rival, now his right-hand man. And friend.

            A friend and nothing more.

            Stop with the pity-party, Lance needs you.

            Lance nodded and shuffled over to the bed, perching on the edge of it, still tense. Still ready to run.

            “So then,” he continued, and let go of his arms, flexed his hands as they fell into his lap, “I just…I knew I needed to break free, and next thing you know…I did. And I thought everything was fine, but then Hunk told me…” Another breath. “Hunk told me my eyes were glowing. Like, bright blue. He compared it to how Allura glowed when she healed the Balmera. But. Yeah. Glowing eyes.”

            A shaky exhale.

            He didn’t look up.

            Keith stilled, as he took in Lance’s words.

            “Both of the generals were confused,” Lance whispered, and Keith almost didn’t catch it. “They…I…I wasn’t supposed to be able to do that, I guess. And I thought maybe it was just the Voltron connection, y’know, like one of the Lions coming to my rescue, or something with our quintessence, because Hunk was there, and he wanted me free just as badly, and I still don’t get space magic, but…I-I don’t know. I…I wasn’t wearing my helmet, either—”

            “And the helmets sealed us off from the environment because it was dangerous,” Keith whispered, eyes widening.

            Lance raised his head. His pupils were constricted, his face pale. “Keith, please, you can’t tell anyone.

            “Lance—”

            “Please.”

            The desperation in his voice tore Keith’s heart in two, and he stood here with a choice to make: not tell anyone, keep this under wraps, and potentially endanger the team, if anything more came out of it, but keep Lance’s secret safe, keep his trust. Or, he could tell someone, and they could look further into this. Evidently, two of Lotor’s generals now knew something was up with Lance, something strange.

            Keith met Lance’s eyes, bit his lip, and caved.

            “I won’t,” Keith said, but before Lance could breathe out a sigh of relief, he continued on, “but we still need to look into this. You said Hunk knows…maybe he can help us.”

            Lance shook his head. “He’s not like Pidge or Matt with encyclopedic knowledge of pretty much anything and everything science. He’s a baker and an engineer, not a biologist. And especially not an alien biologist.”

            “We’ve still gotta try something, Lance,” Keith said, and hesitated, before sitting down on the edge of the bed next to him, leaving a gap of about a foot between them. “Narti and…who was the other one? Acxa?” At Lance’s nod, Keith went on. “They both know something’s up. And if they figure it out before us, they can use that against us. I—”

            He froze.

            Lance’s brow furrowed.

            He continued.

            “—don’t want to see you get hurt. O-Or anyone, for that matter. I think, between you, me, and Hunk…maybe we can still figure something out. Maybe we can get Coran on board.”

            Lance shook his head quickly. “No. He’ll want to run a bunch of tests, and then the others will get suspicious, and he might let it slip, and…you and Hunk are the only two people I can trust for this.”

            Lance’s eyes bore intensely into Keith’s, and dammit, Keith’s cheeks heated up. He turned away, crossed his arms, and paced the length of the room, just to keep Lance from seeing his face.

            “Alright,” Keith conceded. “Fine. For now, we’ll lay low, but if this gets bad, or something else happens, then we have to do something about it. For the good of the team, and for the good of your own safety.”

            When he turned back to look at Lance, Lance sagged in relief. He lifted his head, offering a grateful smile. “Thank you, Keith.”

            The smile didn’t reach his eyes, and the gratitude in his words was weak. He rose to unsteady legs, and started for the door. Keith thought to call after him, to inform him that he had his back in this, would always have his back, but the words never made it past his lips. So Lance left, with his hands jammed into his pockets. He straightened his back, and swaggered out into the hall like nothing was wrong, disappearing as the door shut again.

            Meanwhile, nausea rolled over Keith.


            If the others weren’t watching him bring his trays of food into the dining room, Hunk’s eyes would’ve rolled to the back of his head.

            The tension in the room slammed into him like a brick wall, as he set down three platters, all of which had been carefully stacked on top of each other for the trip from the kitchen to here. He spread them out across the table, and then slid into an empty seat on Pidge’s right. Matt sat on her left; to his left was Shiro, at one head of the table. Then Keith, Lance, Coran, and finally Allura, at the other head of the table, easily extendable and collapsible to adjust to their number of guests.

            “Alright, dig in,” Hunk muttered, when no one leaned forward, but instead shared uneasy glances.

            Still, no one reached for the food.

            After more than a few beats of uncomfortable silence, Allura cleared her throat, and every eye in the room shifted to her.

            “So,” she said, folding her hands, sitting up taller in her seat, “I believe there’s an issue we need to discuss.”

            Shiro watched her intently, jaw tight. Keith stared at his empty plate. Lance shifted in his seat, the chair squeaking underneath him, loud in the ensuing quiet. Pidge looked up and down the table, before exchanging glances with Matt. And Hunk watched all of them, frustration building. He glanced at Lance; Lance seemed to sense he was being watched, and met Hunk’s eyes only for a second before letting go.

            “Alright,” Hunk said, voice louder than Allura’s had been, startling a few members of the team as their heads snapped in his direction, “guess I’ll just jump right into it. Lotor. The prince of this whole empire. The guy who saved our butts yesterday. He wants to make an alliance with us, and headlines are already spreading that we’re working together.”

            “I contacted the Coalition,” Allura said quickly. “I let them know everything that transpired yesterday and this morning. They’ve all been understanding, but they are…quite leery of working alongside Lotor. A few of them had intel, and said that Lotor’s bent on fighting back against his father…but it seems to be for his own gain, rather than any good of the universe. The Blade of Marmora has been particularly helpful, tracing trade routes Lotor’s been using to gather disturbing amounts of pure quintessence. Nobody knows what he wants it for, but we’ve come to the conclusion that an alliance with us is to advance his own agenda, rather than to be of aid. I myself agree with this assessment. We cannot work with Lotor.”

            “I disagree,” Shiro said immediately.

            Even though his hands remained underneath the table, Hunk could practically see Keith clenching his fists, just from the way his arms and shoulders tensed. He settled an irritated look on Shiro, while the others did better to remain as neutral as possible.

            “You got a good reason for that, or…?” Lance asked, leaning one arm on the table and propping his cheek on his fist as he turned in Shiro’s direction.

            “Yes,” Shiro deadpanned.

            Lance motioned him to go on, raising his eyebrows. The others looked on, all of them just as curious.

            “I think Lotor would be a good source of intel on the Empire. He’d be able to provide us valuable insight as to how Zarkon operates,” Shiro said evenly, gaze shifting between each member of the team as he looked up and down the table. His tension seemed to melt away, leaving nothing but a pleasant Shiro behind, smiling as he explained his point of view. “We’ve all heard of the enemy of my enemy is my friend, right? And as long as Lotor’s not fighting against us, and is willing to work with us, I think we should seize this opportunity while we can.”

            “Unless he’s plotting to use us and betray us,” Keith snapped then, raising his head. “He’s done nothing but fight against us until now, and do you know what just happened? He just lost control of the Empire. Zarkon took it away from him, that’s the only reason he’s turning to us! Because we’re the only people powerful enough to stop Zarkon. As soon as he’s done with us and regains control, he’s going to turn on us.”

            Keith’s voice strained and broke. He stared Shiro down with wide eyes, fists now resting on the table.

            “Keith, this isn’t purely black and white,” Shiro said, and while Keith gaped at him, Matt cleared his throat.

            “Shiro’s got a point,” he said quietly, and Pidge whipped around in her seat.

            “What?!

            Hunk tracked Matt’s eyes, as Matt looked at Coran, who was nodding solemnly. The other Paladins soon also followed Matt’s line of sight.

            “Sometimes, war forces us to make seemingly nonsensical or even dangerous choices,” Coran said. “In this case, siding with Lotor is indeed dangerous, even ludicrous! But our alternatives also leave something to be desired, wouldn’t you say?”

            “So what, we just go in there and trust him and then let him betray us?” Pidge demanded, spreading her palms on the table as she stood up.

            “Katie—”

            “Matt, no. I don’t—I don’t get how you can just sit here and say we can trust him! He and his generals tried to kill us on more than one occasion, but because they saved us once you all suddenly think this is a good idea?”

            “This is a once-in-a-lifetime—” Shiro started, but Lance cut him off.

            “Our lifetimes won’t be that long if Lotor turns around and kills us!

            The room fell silent at his outburst. He sank back in his seat, breathing heavily, before he finally sighed and leaned forward, and tugged a platter toward him, like it would magically break up the meeting and give him the last word. But it didn’t. While Lance scraped a few pieces of food onto his plate—Hunk’s space turkey, suspiciously greenish and truthfully not that appetizing, but infinitely more appealing than the debate happening.

            “This has to be unanimous,” Allura said, after a few minutes.

            “Hunk’s been quiet,” Shiro pointed out almost immediately once Allura finished speaking. “We’ve heard input from everyone else. As long as we’re debating, we may as well have everyone’s initial opinions out in the open.”

            Hunk suppressed a tired glare as everyone turned to look at him. He cleared his throat, and folded his hands on the table, not unlike how Allura had been earlier.

            “Well,” he started, and scanned over everyone’s faces, the anxiety and anticipation. He took special care to note that he was sitting next to Pidge, who moments ago had been yelling at Matt, and who would likely not hesitate to also yell at him. He took special care to note that Lance was sitting just across the way, and was staring at him with such intense pleading for agreement with him that Hunk’s heart hurt. “I think…Coran, Matt, and Shiro might actually be onto something here.”

            “Are you for real?!”

            Pidge practically exploded out of her seat, and Lance’s fork scraped his plate with a screech that it grated on everyone else’s ears. Even Keith wore a look of betrayal, while Shiro sat back in his seat, the tiniest trace of a smirk on his lips. Allura stared, expression unreadable—too many at once for Hunk to pin down one that encompassed them all. Coran’s eyes widened in surprise, while Matt looked down at the table and whistled lowly.

            “Look,” Hunk said, raising his hands defensively, “all I’m saying is that they have some valid points. I’m not comfortable with allying with Lotor either, but…he does probably have info we could use.”

            “We have one of the best hackers in the universe right there!” Lance shouted, throwing a hand in Pidge’s direction. “We need anything, she can get it!”

            A look passed between the two of them then; solidarity, and the slightest bit of pride on Pidge’s part as they nodded at each other, and sealed their pact right then and there.

            “But she doesn’t have Lotor’s experiences, and if there’s anything he’s logged away in somewhere we can’t possibly access, or don’t know about, or never logged it or only just wrote it down…what good is that?” Hunk asked, and willed himself to keep his voice even, even as tension in the room rose, and Lance was staring him down, borderline shaking with bridled rage.

            “I’m just saying, maybe…maybe we need to look at a bigger picture. I know this is dangerous, but if we went into this preparing to be betrayed, and not putting our full trust in Lotor…maybe this could work out. He’s not going to divulge everything to us, is he? No, of course not. So we don’t divulge anything that isn’t absolutely necessary to him,” Hunk elaborated.

            He spoke hopefully, like maybe this would bridge the divide between the two factions at the table, but even now, he could see battle lines clearly drawn in the sand.

            “Maybe we shouldn’t try and come to a conclusion today,” Keith finally decided, bitterness dripping in his voice. “Maybe we need a couple more days to think on this, instead of just an hour.” He spoke pointedly, as he reached for the platter of food, and Lance nudged it in his direction. “We’ve got four days, and I think we’re done talking about this right now.”

            He spoke with an air of finality, and for once, Shiro didn’t challenge him.

            No one challenged him.

            The table fell into uneasy silence as everyone else began eating their lunch, and no one followed up with a more relaxed conversation. The team ate tensely, kept to themselves, and one by one, left the dining room. Pidge got up first, her food half-finished, and muttered something about lab work needing to be done. One harsh look over her shoulder had Matt walking in the complete opposite direction.

            Lance got up without a word to anyone, his shoulders sagging and feet dragging as he jammed his hands into his pockets.

            Minutes later, Keith got up in similar fashion. Shiro followed as soon as Keith disappeared through the door, a perfect gap where Keith couldn’t tell him to stay away, and no one else tried to tell him that maybe following Keith was a bad idea.

            “Allura,” Hunk said pleadingly, once the others were gone, and it was just the two of them, plus Coran, “you’ve got to understand, I hate this, but I think, if we played our cards right, we could make this work. Obviously we don’t fully trust him. I don’t fully trust him. Like, of course I don’t. But we might be able to get information out of him, and if we can use that information, better for us, right?”

            Allura wouldn’t meet his eyes. Her one hand tightened around her fork, while with the other, she pinched the bridge of her nose.

            “I don’t know, Hunk. I…I can’t. Not right now. I feel as though we’re being pushed into position, rather than truly coming to a conclusion for ourselves,” she responded, and she shut her eyes, squeezed them. “I don’t know how big a hand Lotor’s had in getting us here, and I’m afraid to find out.”


            Two days later, and they still came no closer to an agreement.

            No one even dared to touch the topic with a ten-foot pole.

            The team barely even approached each other.

            Allura threw herself into corresponding with allies, reaching further and further as she asked for insight, and nearly every response was to not trust Lotor. Keith spent long hours on the training deck alone with the bots, but bolted as soon as another member of the team approached, because usually, it wasn’t Lance or Pidge; usually, it was Shiro or Hunk, or even Matt, trying to make him see their point of view.

            He knew, deep down, that as a leader, he was supposed to take into account the whole team. The bitter part of him wanted to argue that Shiro was no longer an official Paladin, and Matt was never a Paladin to begin with, and by that logic, he and the others outnumbered their argument, but the rational side of him kept him in check, knew his argument would be harsh and would cut them down severely.

            Lance and Pidge practically vanished, and resigned themselves to their respective places in the castle—the labs, the pool, their rooms. A few times, they crossed paths, and those few times, they did nothing more but exchange glances, terse nods, silent agreements.

            Hunk tried to assuage the tension, tried to make the Paladins see eye to eye, but every effort failed. Most of the team remained staunch in their stances, and Hunk silently pleaded with the higher powers out there, throughout the day, that soon the team would come back to their senses and try to talk this over without blowing up and getting angry.

            The answer to his pleading came in the form of an attack on the castleship.

            “Hunk, Allura, I need you two in closest range to the castle! Pidge, cloak! Lance, I need Red at full speed!” Keith’s voice rang out over the comms as Hunk and Yellow zipped out of the hangar and into open space.

            He sounded particularly frenetic, but Hunk could understand. The sheer numbers of fighters pouring in overwhelmed the castle defenses almost immediately, and caught the team off-guard. It had taken the group less than five minutes to bolt from an awkward breakfast down to get suited up and get into the Lions, one of their fastest times, and getting faster every time.

            “I’m picking up three cruisers coming in!” Coran announced from the bridge. “The size of the ion cannons on those things…best you take them down quickly!”

            Keith swore on his end of the comms, and Hunk winced.

            “Fine, change in plans!” he practically growled. “Hunk, Allura, you’re with me! We need to take out those cruisers! Lance, Pidge, move in closer to the castle and take down anything that comes your way!”

            “Shiro and I are heading down to the shuttles. We can provide a distraction and draw some of their fire,” Matt announced then.

            “Do you guys have enough shielding for that?” Hunk asked.

            “Don’t worry about it, ol’ Matty-boy’s got some moves. Haven’t made it to an officer rank by doing nothing,” Matt answered, and Hunk could practically see him winking. “Besides, Shiro was a freakin’ star back at the Garrison—”

            “Okay, we don’t have time!” Keith interrupted. “Just go! If it gets too dangerous, pull back, now let’s move!”

            He sounded stressed and like he was two seconds away from losing his shit completely, the events of the last few days compounding on top of him, all at once. So Hunk obeyed, and brought Yellow into tight formation as Allura brought in Blue, the two of them flanking the Black Lion. In Hunk’s left window, he spotted Red zipping by, tearing through fighters with jawblades equipped as the Lion sped toward the castle. He couldn’t see the Green Lion—only the trail of destruction left behind, making it evident that Pidge had turned on Green’s cloaking.

            “Keith, what’s the plan here?” Hunk asked.

            “If we can get the cruisers to take each other out, it’s less work for us,” Keith answered. “Hunk, you’re the biggest armor. We need you to draw the cruisers into each others’ lines of fire. Allura, freeze up the ion cannons as best you can. It’ll distract them long enough for Hunk to move in and out while taking as little fire as possible. I’m gonna go piss off the big one.”

            “By yourself?!” Lance screeched over the comms.

            “Focus on your own task, I’ve got this!” Keith shouted back, and Hunk heard his following statement, quiet, under his breath: “Didn’t get under Iverson’s skin for nothing.”

            And with that, the Black Lion bolted forward.

            Hunk and Allura had no choice but to follow suit.

            Hunk guided Yellow into a dive, in and out of sight of those manning the ion cannon on the leftmost ship. They wove between that one and the center ship, while Keith placed himself directly in the largest ship’s line of fire, and Hunk wondered why the hell Keith didn’t put Lance there instead. Keith might’ve been a fantastic pilot, but Red was the fastest Lion—a much better option if he needed to get out of there as soon as possible.

            “Keith—” Hunk started.

            “I know what I’m doing!” Keith interrupted.

            The Black Lion’s turbo boosters fired up, purple light flaring out behind him as they dove, and a blast from the center cruiser’s ion cannon shot out where the Lion had been hardly a second before. Hunk let out a breath and kept weaving through the group, getting one the left cruiser to turn toward him. Meanwhile, Allura and Blue cut trails through the cruisers, striking where they could.

            “They’ve got other cannons!” Allura announced over the comms, just a few seconds too late.

            Both ships Hunk and Yellow were sandwiched between opened fire, and they had no choice but to drop. Both cruisers took damage from the other, and a few of the cannons exploded, but not enough. Fireballs grazed the sides of the Yellow Lion, and for a moment the cockpit flared with heat. Hunk grit his teeth as Yellow zoomed back up, the force of it pushing Hunk back in his seat.

            He stayed mindful of the Black Lion, dodging in and out of the three cruisers’ ranges, as the rightmost cruiser started turning, descending for Keith.

            Keith and Black cut a hard turn up, and Hunk’s breath caught in the back of his throat as five fighters tried to converge on them, and the rightmost cruiser fired.

            The center cruiser’s ion cannon snapped off in a blinding explosion, obscuring Hunk’s view of the fighters, of Keith and Black, of Allura and Blue. His windows whited out, and he screwed his eyes shut. Yellow’s energy wrapped around him, and Hunk reached out, tried to see through Yellow’s eyes, only for them to come back as blind as his own.

            “Guys?” Hunk called out. “Keith? Allura?”

            “What’s happening?” Pidge demanded.

            “Are they alright?” Lance asked, and then swore, presumably as he and Red dodged around another fighter.

            “I’m here!” Allura shouted. “The center cruiser’s been destroyed!”

            Static exploded over the comms, then, followed by coughing.

            “Keith?” Hunk tried again, while his windows began clearing up, presenting him with the wreckage of the middle cruiser. The other two cruisers took on damage of their own, gashes ripped into their hulls by the debris. Pain echoed through Hunk, and he realized then that Yellow was holding back on a portion of their connection—the portion that let Hunk feel his pain in full.

            “Keith, you there?” Shiro asked, breathless, he and Matt still too occupied with their own cropping of fighters.

            “I’m here,” Keith wheezed. “I’m here.”

            There—Hunk spotted Black behind the cruisers, dead-set on the one on the left. Even from this distance, Hunk could tell that, just like Yellow and presumably Blue, Black had taken damage, and as Black had been closest to the crosshairs of the blast, well…

            “That was too close,” Allura said. “We need a better plan of action!”

            “Yeah, I don’t think Pidge and I are making much of a dent over here!” Lance called.

            Hunk correctly predicted the next words to leave Keith’s mouth: “We need to form Voltron!”

            Hunk almost questioned whether or not Black, or even Blue and Yellow, had the kind of power left for that, but then decided against it. Black shot out from behind the left cruiser, passing briefly through its line of sight before dipping out again, winding and twisting back behind it. Hunk took that as instruction to follow, and Yellow rocketed forward. Out the window, he watched Blue do the same.

            Something doesn’t feel right about this.

            Red and Green zipped into his line of sight out the other window, as all five Lions fell into formation—Red and Green on Black’s right and left, Yellow next to Green, Blue next to Red. Sweat rolled down Hunk’s brow as he waited for that pull, the telltale hum of the other Lions’ energies, right before they would form the universe’s greatest weapon.

            But nothing happened.

            “Uh, guys?” Lance asked, panic edging his voice. “Why aren’t we forming Voltron?”

            “Everybody, focus!” Keith snapped back.

            Hunk’s cockpit plunged into red as Yellow’s warning bells began going off. Over the comms, the sound echoed back to him, four times over. Keith growled low in the back of his throat, and Hunk’s eyes flicked over to his scanners, analyzing, searching for the source of the alarm, only to find both cruisers converging on them, ion cannons pointed.

            “Guys, we need to go—!”

            The air around Hunk changed, shifted, Yellow’s entire demeanor thrown. The others all made to bolt, and Hunk thrust both levers at his side forward. The alarms still screeched in his ears, as the universe around him lit up, bathing everything in pink-purple, the same shade as the ion cannons—

            “Go, go, go!” Keith yelled, as fireballs exploded behind them, and the world faded from purple to bright orange, yellow, white as heat seared the Lions.

            “What the fuck is that?” Pidge yelled back.

            Hunk itched to turn Yellow around and get a glimpse of what just happened, because as far as he was concerned, all of them should’ve been dead at that moment. But static sputtered over the comms again, and a video feed pulled up at Hunk’s right.

            “A-Are you guys seeing this?” Hunk asked, at the same time that Allura gasped and Keith muttered something unintelligible.

            Evidently, Coran had pulled this up—Hunk recognized the view from the windows of the Castle of Lions. The video zoomed in on five ships: one in the center, and four smaller, similar versions flanking it in X formation. Hunk’s breath caught in the back of his throat, because those same ships had been there just a few days ago, when Sendak’s faction had attacked. These ships had saved them then, and the way the lights glowed and flickered on that middle ship, the way they pulsed down toward one singular point at the front-center of the craft…these ships just saved them again.

            Lotor saved them again.

            “No way,” Lance breathed.

            Hunk’s scanners beeped and whirred again, and Hunk looked them over. Fighters, zipping away from them, barreling for Lotor and his ships. In the video feed from Coran, the four flanking the center broke formation and fell into line, one by one, rolling as they fired laser cannons, ripping apart fighter after fighter. For a moment, Hunk watched, mesmerized, until Keith yelled through the comms again.

            “Team, let’s move!”

            “Coran, do we have any residual quintessence left to execute a wormhole jump now?” Allura asked, voice tight.

            “Afraid not, Princess! We’ll need all of you back aboard the castle—”

            “Why run?” Shiro called over the comms. “We should be getting rid of these ships before any of them can get away and tell Sendak what happened!”

            “He’s right,” Keith said, and Hunk didn’t think he imagined the note of defeat in his voice. “We’re not leaving until this is finished.”


            As soon as Keith parked Black in the hangar, he bolted, before the adrenaline of battle could wear off and leave him vulnerable. He was tired enough, exhausted enough, and in just a few hours he’d have to deal with Prince Lotor—Prince Lotor, all four generals, what the hell are they thinking?—on the moon the team had landed on. Small enough for a meeting. Unpopulated, and therefore no citizens to disturb. The team would have an hour and no more to have their final deliberations over whether or not to trust Lotor, and every nerve in Keith screamed to run.

            So run he did.

            He tore down hallways, evaded team members leaving the other hangars, steered clear of the kitchen and the training deck and the lounge and the dining room, any place where he might’ve found another teammate. He stayed away from the bridge especially, because he would’ve bet anything half the team took the elevators back up there, to have their meeting now, but he needed a few minutes, needed to breathe and process—

            “Keith.”

            Fuck.

            Keith staggered to a halt, refrained from grabbing the wall to steady himself. Shiro walked down the hallway, arms crossed, and Keith’s stomach lurched. He was rarely ever in the mood for a lecture, but something about the way Shiro approached him had him even more on edge. His fingers twitched, and instinct almost had Keith pull his bayard—almost. Instead, though, he righted himself, straightened his back, made himself look Shiro in the eyes.

            “What?” he asked.

            He debated with himself, whether to come off as exhausted, or like he could handle continuing on, even though weariness sank into his bones, and he wanted nothing more than to be away from here, be alone, not have to go see Lotor and the generals in just a few hours.

            “What was that back there?” Shiro asked.

            Keith couldn’t peg his voice. It wasn’t scolding older brother—not like it was back in the Garrison, back before Shiro disappeared on Keith for the second time. This was more detached, more accusatory, and some part of Keith, the scared, abandoned boy from his childhood, shrank back at it, even as Keith squared his shoulders, stood taller.

            “What do you mean, what was that? You mean Lotor just randomly showing up—?”

            “No,” Shiro said, “I mean you. Putting yourself directly in the line of fire. And the team not being able to form Voltron. Do you understand what could’ve happened? Do you know what would’ve happened if Lotor hadn’t been there?”

            Of course Keith did.

            It was the other source of his nausea, tag-teaming with this conversation in a game to see which would make him keel over and vomit first.

            “I was trying my best,” Keith responded sharply. “That was a surprise attack! And you can’t pin us not being able to form Voltron on me alone. I don’t know what that was—”

            “And what about throwing yourself directly into the line of fire?” Shiro interrupted. “Lance and Hunk both tried to warn you.”

            “What else was I supposed to do?” Keith threw his hands up. “It was them or me. Hunk already had a job to do, and I wasn’t going to put them in harm’s way. I knew I could handle it, and I did! Why do you have to keep questioning everything I’m doing? I’m trying, Shiro! But you’re not making it any easier!”

            “A leader—”

            “I’m not a fucking leader!” Keith’s voice went high and broke. “I didn’t ask for this, don’t you get it? You wanted this for me! I didn’t want Black to choose me, I wanted it to be anyone but me! She chose me because you wanted this! And now you’re doing—” Keith choked on something that could’ve possibly have been a sob, because he didn’t cry, not in front of other people. “You’re doing nothing but undermining me every chance you get! I don’t understand! What the hell do you want from me?”

            Keith’s vision blurred.

            No—fuck, don’t do this—not now.

            He blinked, and missed the dark look that passed over Shiro’s face in those brief seconds, before it slid into something that might have resembled concern.

            “I just want to help you to do the best you can,” Shiro said, voice softer. “And I think you’re missing out on an opportunity here by immediately denying Lotor’s offers of help. He might have been an enemy before, but he’s saved the team twice now. I think we need to look beyond his past and be more open to what he could offer us in the future. After all, if we keep judging people by their past behavior…”

            Shiro trailed off, and Keith’s blood ran cold.

            “Think about the good of the team, Keith,” Shiro went on, then, and set a hand on Keith’s shoulder and squeezed, like he wasn’t urging Keith to choose the deadly end of a life-or-death decision.

            He released Keith’s shoulder and walked down the hall, leaving Keith alone with his thoughts, and the knots in his stomach, and the nausea rolling over him. He stood rooted to his spot as he watched Shiro go, his mind buzzing and his mind numb. His hands felt inexplicably cold, but it was at least a thought to draw his mind to as he flexed his fingers, and tried to ignore the ringing in his ears, the crushing feeling settling upon his lungs—

            “…Keith…?”

            Keith whipped around, stumbled, with all of his walls down and nothing to catch himself on. He scrubbed a hand over his face as Lance watched him, wide-eyed and hesitant. He wrung his hands in front of him as he studied Keith; he knew he’d seen—or heard, or maybe both, those thoughts all terrified Keith—something he wasn’t supposed to.

            In his shock, Keith met Lance’s eyes. Couldn’t stop himself. And Lance didn’t break their gazes—he held it, and something passed between them, some sort of understanding, some silent vow. And with that understanding between them, Lance took a step forward, and Keith didn’t flinch away.

            “What was that about?” Lance asked, like he didn’t already know.

            “Just…team leader stuff,” Keith lied, dread pulling the knot in his stomach tighter. “Uh, about the Lotor thing. The team needs to make a decision, and I know before we were split…but I’ve made my decision. I need you to back me on this.”

            Lance raised his eyebrows. “Well, what’s your decision?”

            Keith stared.

            He stared at Lance, who just a few days before entrusted a secret to him and begged him to keep it. He stared at Lance, who’d already confided his insecurities to Keith, had come to him for advice. He stared at Lance, his self-proclaimed rival, who seemed to be doing a lot more to help than to compete as of late. He stared at Lance, and hoped he wouldn’t ruin whatever tenuous friendship they had with his next words.

            “We’re going to accept Lotor’s offer.”

            Lance’s face went through several expressions. Shock, disbelief, confusion, more shock, before finally softening into concern. Genuine, honest-to-God concern, so different from anything that anyone else had dared give Keith the last few days.

            “You know that’s like, one of the worst ideas ever, right?” he asked, quiet, risking the glance over his shoulder to make sure they were alone. “Like, it’s Lotor? Zarkon’s son? Was just trying to kill us a couple weeks ago?”

            Keith squeezed his eyes shut and pinched the bridge of his nose.

            “I know, I know. But I…I think I know what I’m doing. Are you gonna back me on this or not? You’re…you’re supposed to be my right-hand man.”

            He looked up, just as Lance huffed out a laugh. “You know right-hand men aren’t just supposed to be yes men, right?” He put his hands on his hips and cast a thoughtful look at the ceiling. “Like, they’re supposed to support the leader, yeah, but they’re also supposed to let him know when he’s about to do something stupid.”

            Keith crossed his arms and ducked his head. Maybe this wouldn’t be so easy; maybe the understanding between them didn’t run as deeply as Keith would’ve liked.

            “But,” Lance said, and Keith looked up sharply, fleeting hope in his eyes, “I trust you.”

            And that you carried some weight that made Keith’s heart flutter, as a small smile tugged up the ends of his mouth. Lance returned it, let his whole body relax along with it, and for a moment, it was just the two of them, smiling at each other, until Lance blinked, and seemed to snap back to some reality.

            “Th-This time, at least! But you’re on thin ice, Kogane!” he said, and pointed a finger at him, and for once, Keith didn’t have the fire to snap back at him, and let Lance leave, spinning on his heel and muttering about trusting a walking L’Oreal commercial and I think I’d trust myself on a math test without studying more than I trust that guy and this is going to go so badly.

            Only after Lance disappeared from sight did Keith deflate, and let the anxiety come rushing back as he now set his mind on the next hurdle: discussing this with the rest of the team.


            By the time Allura kicked off the next meeting, half an hour later, the tension from the last meeting flooded in, in full force.

            “So,” she began, steepling her fingers, elbows resting on the table, “I understand it’s been…a strange few quintants. But no dancing around the matter: Lotor wants an alliance with us, and we’ve had several quintants to think this over. Our other meeting ended in a divide, but this decision must be unanimous if we want things to go as smoothly as possible. We must be a united front. Hunk has…some words I believe would do us all well to hear.”

            She gestured to Hunk, everyone’s eyes shifting in his direction. He cleared his throat, when he realized he had everyone’s attention.

            “Right, so. Lotor. That’s like, an issue we’ve got. I thought it over, and I considered everyone’s arguments. Some people are saying to trust him because of the amount of intel we can collect from him, and some of you guys don’t wanna trust him because he’s super sketchy and could turn on us at literally any second. Both of those are valid arguments, and there’s a solution here,” Hunk said, spreading his palms, nodding toward individual members of the table—Pidge, glaring; Keith, uncomfortably tense; Lance, fidgeting in his seat; Shiro, eyebrows raised in interest; Coran, smiling encouragingly; Allura, with a neutral but phony smile; Matt, curiosity piqued.

            “So what’s the solution?” Lance asked.

            Hunk swallowed. Appraised the group again.

            “We trust him, but not completely,” he said. “I think…I think some people are perceiving this as we’re going to trust Lotor and give him every last intimate detail of our personal lives. But it’s not. We make sure we give ourselves an easy way out of the alliance, make sure he doesn’t know about any aces we may have up our sleeves, and rely on him as little as we possibly can. Lance made a good point, about us having Pidge. We’ve got the whole team, right? We were all chosen for some reason, there’s something we all bring to the table that can’t be replicated by anyone else. We could pull things off without Lotor, but this is just…an added booster. Like…chicken. Chicken’s edible all on its own. It’ll keep you alive. But some spices? Makes it even better. Lotor’s alliance is the spice on our chicken.”

            Nobody responded right away.

            Hunk bit his lip as the others looked at each other. He paid careful attention to Allura, Pidge, Keith, and Lance, last meeting’s dissenters. Allura smiled thinly at Hunk, before nodding, and conceding: “I’m afraid he makes a compelling case. I support an alliance.”

            Even so, she winced, like it pained her to say.

            Matt, Coran, and Shiro all echoed their agreement with her sentiment, but Keith, Lance, and Pidge stayed quiet, until finally, Keith raised his head. Looked between Lance and Pidge, and then out at the rest of the group.

            “Hunk’s right. As long as we trust in the team above all else…we should be able to pull an alliance off. But we have to pull out if it gets too risky.”

            Across the table, Pidge gaped, but Lance nodded, mouth a grim line.

            “Mullet’s got a point,” he said. “I’m with him.”

            That made seven votes, of eight.

            Hunk didn’t dare call out Pidge. Not with her narrowed eyes on the table, her hands fisting at her sides. He knew she knew she was outnumbered, and knew that even if she gave an agreeing statement, made for unanimity, the vote wasn’t truly unanimous. She’d be pressured into it, and Hunk doubted Keith and Lance had come to their conclusions on their own. Even Allura had seemed reluctant.

            Hunk’s eyes flicked to Shiro.

            He’d been the first to voice his favor for allying with Lotor, and he held some measure of sway over the others. He was the oldest here, second only to Coran. Hunk, Pidge, Keith, and Lance had all known him as an instructor at the Garrison, and even though Matt seemed a little closer to him, Shiro still had at least two years on him.

            Shiro’s level of authority almost rivaled Allura’s, and probably would’ve trumped hers, if she wasn’t a princess, and wasn’t an active Paladin.

            It made sense for the others to defer to him, especially given he seemed so…severe lately. He wasn’t wholly himself—not the same Shiro who’d been there in that last battle against Zarkon. Hunk noticed it, and knew the others did, too. There was some piece of him—cracked, fractured, maybe shattered—that he was trying and failing to keep under wraps, a piece he wouldn’t let the others touch.

            It made sense, then, that no one would challenge him.

            “Pidge,” Shiro said then, almost like he knew Hunk was thinking about him, on top of the whole situation.

            Pidge let out a harsh breath. “Fine. I’m in.”

            Shiro nodded, smiling, and Allura breathed out a sigh of relief.

            “Alright, so we’ve come to an agreement,” Allura said. “Coran, get into contact with members of the Coalition. As for the rest of us…prepare to meet up with Prince Lotor.”

Chapter Text

4.06
Rendezvous

            “The time for distrust is behind us.”

            Orange dust stretched for miles in each direction, while yellow clouds rolled lazily through the valley, for the most part obscuring the sprawling base before the castleship as it touched down on an airstrip. Hunk swallowed thickly as he remembered the fortress that was the Galaxy Garrison, the endless stretches of nothing that’d surrounded that place, too.

            “I have a base in the nearby Dalavera System. It’s a small system, on the outskirts of one much larger, and has been mostly forgotten by my father and his central powers. He left it to me several thousand decaphoebs ago.”

            Three suns illuminated the sky, fiery circles obscured by the cloud-cover. Two appeared as the sun did on an overcast day, white orbs hanging high above, while the third shone red, even through the yellow. That one startled Hunk, the longer he stared, before finally he tore his gaze away, while Allura began directing the Paladins off of the bridge, down toward the gangway to deboard.

            “In a show of good faith, I am allowing you all inside of this base. You’ll have free reign to do as you please, to explore my labs and archives to your heart’s content. I understand that my past endeavors are not so easily comprehended; this will shed some light on my deeds, and hopefully open the door to a more amicable alliance.”

            No guards posted at the outside of the base. Hunk shielded his face while he waited for his helmet to activate and seal him off from the environment, squinting as harsh winds blew the sands into his eyes. Around him, the others did the same, until one by one, they each were covered. Now Hunk could better see the outline of the front entrance, two hulking blast doors that slowly opened, revealing five figures in their own gear to protect against nature.

            “Everyone keep your guards up,” Keith muttered under his breath, so quietly the others heard it only over the comms as Lotor and his generals drew closer, until finally they halted just feet from Team Voltron.

            “Paladins,” Lotor greeted, “I hope you’ll excuse the conditions. The storms at this point in the decaphoeb are rather harsh, but I felt this was one trip that couldn’t wait for the turbulent season to finish. Regardless, welcome to my home base.” He spread his palms, while each of his generals tipped their chins in Team Voltron’s general direction.

            “Thank you for hosting us,” Shiro said, stepping forward with an extended hand.

            Lotor met him halfway and took the hand, shook it, raised a singular eyebrow.

            “The Black Paladin?”

            “Former,” Shiro corrected, and then gestured to Keith. Keith stiffened; at a small motion from Shiro, he stepped forward, and reluctantly stuck out his hand for Lotor to shake. Lotor appraised Keith as he took his hand, some knowing passing over his face, and Hunk’s breath caught in his throat as he thought back on the weblum, thought back on how loud he’d been about Galra Keith…

            Hunk watched Lotor’s eyes scan over the rest of the group, silently assessing, maybe trying to determine who piloted what Lion, if Shiro appeared to pilot none—or at least, didn’t pilot the Black Lion.

            “I see now,” Lotor said then, and Hunk wondered what he’d just seen, what he pieced together in those few seconds of silence. “My apologies for our past run-ins. I do hope today will make things up to you all. Please, follow us inside. This storm is rather…annoying.”

            Lotor released Keith’s hand and spun on his heel. He didn’t check once to make sure the Paladins followed, and neither did his generals. Keith scowled as he retracted his arm and fell back into the bulk of the group, while Shiro led them. Nobody had the guts to ask what Lotor meant, nor did anyone have the guts to lag behind to talk about it, out of earshot of Lotor and the generals. Hunk resigned himself to walking alongside his fellow Paladins, sandwiched between Lance and Pidge, trailing almost directly behind Keith.

            Shadows fell over the group as they entered through the blast doors, and the ground trembled underneath their feet once they were inside. The doors groaned in their slow procession, and eventually clanged shut. Hunk’s eyes adjusted quickly to the change in light, from bright to dim, from hazy yellow to purple. The lower half of his helmet fizzled away, exposing him to the sterile air of what appeared to be an entry hall. Several other hallways branched off from here, each marked in unreadable Galran. None were accompanied by markers, images that might’ve given away what lay beyond.

            “Though you all will get a chance to explore and roam this base for yourselves,” Lotor said without turning around, running under the mere assumption that the others deemed him important enough to listen to, which, with a warning like be on guard, the assumption rang true, unfortunately, “I’d like to give a small tour of my own to the leaders among you.”

            Now he turned around.

            “Dramatic much?” Lance whispered, leaning closer to Hunk; nonetheless, Hunk found Lance’s eyes locked onto Lotor, found him leaning forward with a sort of eagerness as Lotor approached the group. He extended a hand to Allura first.

            “Princess,” he said, and when she took his hand, he lifted it to his mouth, pressed a light kiss to the back of her knuckles. Lance’s excitement vanished right there, almost as though someone flipped a switch. He gaped and then glared, and crossed his arms over his chest. Hunk patted his shoulder in mock sympathy, as Lotor then moved on to Shiro.

            “Former Black Paladin,” and then a flick of his eyes to Keith, “and current.”

            He stopped at Coran. “And you are…?”

            “Coran, my advisor,” Allura answered. Hunk didn’t miss the trace of a bite in her tone. Lotor paused momentarily to study her, and sighed and turned back to Coran.

            “And the advisor. The rest of you are free to go. Meander at your will, explore what you must. We’ll be meeting back here in…approximately four vargas, unless plans change. Acxa, Ezor, Zethrid, and Narti will be roaming to keep an eye on things, but I trust the rest of you to behave yourselves,” Lotor said. He paused again, swept eyes over Hunk, Lance, and Pidge, while Lance hid his hands behind his back as they balled into fists. “You’re Paladins of Voltron, after all.”

            With that, he turned around again, and motioned Keith, Allura, Shiro, and Coran after him. Keith walked at the back of the group, and cast a final, helpless look over his shoulder at the Paladins remaining behind. Hunk frowned, and found Lance downright upset, staring after the group with the look of a kicked puppy. Pidge, on the other hand, shrugged. She looked up at the generals still standing in a cluster nearby.

            “You guys have any labs?”

            Several weeks ago, the four aliens standing before them had taken pleasure in pretending Pidge was dead, going on about the fun they’d had killing her. Hunk didn’t understand how Pidge could so flippantly ask them a question, until he spotted her fingers twitching down at her sides, tapping out patterns on the white armor covering her thigh. Itching to pull her bayard, forcing herself to do otherwise.

            “Uh…yeah?” Ezor answered. “Why do you wanna see our labs?” She stepped up to the group of Paladins and squatted down until she was Pidge’s height, and clearly in her personal space bubble as she examined Pidge’s face. “Are you up to something?”

            Pidge opened her mouth to respond when Lance took a step in front of her, and Ezor went back to full height as she switched her attention.

            “She just likes science. The easiest way to keep her occupied and from bothering you is to let her loose in a lab,” he answered. “I think it’s a pretty sweet deal. Let her do her thing, the less you have to worry about.”

            “Let her do her thing?” Acxa questioned, and immediately, Lance shrank back. Hunk closed in on his left while Pidge inched closer to his right. “What does that mean, exactly? I’m not sure leaving the Green Paladin with a bunch of lab equipment—”

            “Actually, we don’t know for sure she’s the Green Paladin,” Ezor pointed out. “The one in the red is the Black Paladin now, right? Any one of these guys could be in the Red Lion. Any of them could be in any Lion.”

            “Didn’t Lotor say letting us have free reign to roam around would lead the way to a more amicable alliance?” Pidge interrupted, crossing her arms. “I just wanna see the lab and play around. You guys have probably been way more active than Voltron lately and seen more of the universe, right? I wanna study, that’s it.”

            Pidge stared insistently at Acxa; finally, Acxa sighed, and turned to Zethrid. “Go show her where the labs are.”

            Zethrid grunted in acknowledgment and tipped her chin at Pidge. Pidge rolled her shoulders and followed Zethrid, leaving Hunk and Lance alone with the others…two of whom had tried to kill them before. One of whom had straight-up possessed Lance.

            “Any other things in particular you want to see?” Acxa asked, bored-sounding. “Or can I leave you alone?”

            Hunk and Lance both hesitated, before Lance shook his head. “I think I’m just gonna walk around.”

            He didn’t wait for Hunk’s response. He started walking, chose a hall at random, and disappeared from Hunk’s line of sight after a matter of minutes. That left Hunk with the three generals. Ezor smiled and crossed her arms, while Narti remained eerily still. Acxa still wore the dead-inside look on her face.

            “And you?” she asked.

            Hunk shrugged. He supposed he should have been making good use of his time. Sure, Lotor didn’t deem him important enough to take on a grand tour, but that was okay. He really didn’t feel like being stuck around him that long, anyway. Pidge had already busied herself, prepping to put their plan into action, and Lance…maybe Hunk should’ve checked on him, but the longer he waited, the further away Lance got. With his luck, Hunk would get himself lost.

            So he might as well have done something useful for the team.

            “Do you guys have archives?” he asked. “Or like, records? History ever since the Paladins of Old, or something?”

            “Why would you need that?” Ezor asked in return.

            “Just to understand Zarkon’s moves better,” Hunk answered. “I mean, we’re all on the same side now, right? Voltron’s been out of commission for ten thousand years. We don’t know what he was up to in that time, but maybe if we had a better idea, we could…y’know, put a stop to him. The universe gets saved and liberated faster, the war ends faster, relief efforts begin…”

            Hunk trailed off, eyes hopeful.

            Acxa pinched the bridge of her nose. “Ezor, go show him the archives. Be extremely careful.”

            “You got it!” Ezor said, and then motioned for Hunk to follow her.

            Hunk kept his hand down near his side the whole time he walked away from Acxa and Narti, the whole time he had his back turned. Sandwiched between three generals on a base he didn’t understand…right. Like this wasn’t a totally bad idea. Like they wouldn’t hesitate to trap him somewhere, because who was he to know better?

            Alright, Hunk, calm down. You can do this.

            Find the archives, figure out how to get the information back to the Castle of Lions. Simple enough, as long as Ezor left, and didn’t remain behind, breathing down his neck.

            Easy.

            Maybe too easy.


            Keith would rather have been anywhere but here.

            Granted, part of the mission was listening to everything Lotor said and hoping that the comms picked up on it enough for Matt to record, but there were four of them. He doubted Allura would ever get distracted about something like this, and Shiro seemed almost eager to hear every word that came out of Lotor’s mouth. Coran was maybe the only other person who Keith suspected would have liked to break away from the group and go do his own thing; he wore a vacant expression, and seemed to blink himself back to reality every few minutes or so, and Keith found it infinitely more entertaining to watch than whatever Lotor was showing them.

            At the moment, it happened to be an empty meeting room, with a table and only five chairs—one for himself, and one for each of his generals.

            “Please, have a seat,” Lotor said. “We’ve just the right amount of people to have a discussion.”

            He took up position at the head of the table. Keith eyed him warily, and then looked at the others. Allura’s expression darkened for a moment, and then, reluctantly, she slid into the seat at Lotor’s right, with Coran next to her. Shiro sat at Lotor’s left, leaving one last seat for Keith to take next to him. He cast a longing look at the blast door that shut in the group’s wake, sealing them into this room.

            He’d been thrust unwillingly into the role of Black Paladin, at both Shiro’s insistence and the Black Lion’s choosing. He wasn’t supposed to be sitting at this table surrounded by actual leaders, much less anywhere near Lotor, who kept glancing at him every so often, enough to be unusual, enough to be unsettling. He let his hands drop into his lap, let them ball into fists, shut his eyes and reminded himself patience yields focus, and then opened them again.

            Found Lotor watching him.

            Keith dropped his gaze, because if he didn’t, he would’ve glared, and he really would’ve liked to not have Lotor calling him out in front of everyone for being difficult in the face of a potential partnership.

            “I would firstly like to issue a formal apology to the lot of you,” Lotor said. He folded his hands and set them down on the table in front of him, taking the time to look every other person in the room in the eye. “I cannot stress enough how regretful I am of our past encounters. On behalf of myself and my generals, my sincerest apologies.”

            Allura sat up straighter in her seat; Keith’s eyes flicked to her, to the blank stare on her face, the tightening in her jaw. One end of Keith’s mouth quirked up in amusement, despite himself.

            “I hope you know we don’t take these issues lightly, Lotor,” Allura said. “You’ve attempted murder on my Paladins several times over the course of the last few phoebs, and your history in the universe at large, though not known to us in full, is enough to be…alarming.”

            Keith raised his eyebrows. He shifted his gaze over, to Coran. Coran seemed just as tense as Allura, and seemed to know exactly what she was talking about. Keith then looked to Shiro, and took relief in finding him just as lost.

            “My history?” Lotor asked.

            “Yes.” Allura narrowed her eyes. “I’ve done enough research to know what I’m walking into, and what sort of memories a mention of your name might carry for some civilizations, what sort of feelings it might dig up. You’ve conquered planets, haven’t you?”

            A shadow passed over Lotor’s face. “Perhaps, Princess, but you must know whatever records you’ve seen are likely biased. I’ve conquered planets but let the people rule themselves; my influence there is as small as possible, nearly nonexistent. Other planets have come to me from my father’s iron rule, and I’ve stripped away many of his ruling implementations, again, to let the people govern themselves.”

            “As long as they stay within boundaries,” Allura countered. “A planet like that isn’t free, as much as you’d like it to be. You pretend to give them autonomy, but at the end of the day, they fall under your jurisdiction.”

            Lotor didn’t answer right away. He let Allura’s words sink in, and swept eyes over the rest of the group.

            “I take it you all agree with the princess’s perspective?”

            “Well…yes,” Coran said, after a beat of hesitation. “Planets generally would like to rule themselves without fear of accidentally angering their overlords, and people…don’t like to be conquered. It also doesn’t help your reputation among free planets, to hear your influence remains in others.”

            Lotor nodded and dropped his gaze to the table, as if in consideration. Then he leveled eyes at Shiro and Keith. They lingered on Shiro for moments longer than necessary, the same way they’d remained on Keith before.

            “You two have been quiet, and I’m afraid I don’t know your names. Earthlings, if I’m correct?”

            “Yes,” Shiro answered, while Keith kept quiet, didn’t bother to respond at all. “You can call me Shiro.”

            “Shiro.” Lotor spoke his name like he was tasting it, like he was rolling it around in his mind, now openly studying Shiro. His eyes landed on the scar across the bridge of his nose, on the metal arm on his right side, unmistakably GalraTech. His expression morphed from confusion, concentration, into surprise, recognition, and Keith almost flinched at the word that next left his mouth: “Champion.”

            Shiro stiffened. “I…yes.”

            Lotor pursed his lips, and switched his gaze to Keith. “And you…I believe I’ve heard your name before, but it escapes me now.”

            Keith had to stop and consider how and where he’d heard it, whether through the Voltron Show or one of his generals. Then he had to stop and consider Lotor’s staring and glancing every two seconds, had to stop and consider what he might’ve known, and concluded he had no way to lie his way out of this.

            “Keith,” he bit out at last.

            “The Weblum Paladin,” Lotor said, after brief contemplation.

            Keith narrowed his eyes. So Acxa had told him, evidently, of their encounter in the weblum, and the incident over the scaultrite.

            “Yeah…?”

            “And the both of you,” Lotor said, and glanced in Shiro’s direction again, “you also agree with the princess?”

            “Yes?” Keith said immediately, leaning forward on the table to see around Shiro, to get a better look at Lotor. To his dismay, Shiro dropped his head and studied the table, frowning with narrowed eyes as he mulled his response over. “Not sure a lot of people are fans of having their planets invaded and then being allowed to rule by someone who doesn’t even live there.”

            Lotor shut his eyes, processed Keith’s words, nodded. Turned to Shiro and opened his eyes. “And you agree as well?”

            “Well…yes,” he said, “but I think you have the right intentions in mind. If they’d fallen to you or your father before, under your jurisdiction, working alongside you, they’d have your firepower, right?”

            “Shiro—” Allura started, but Lotor held up a hand.

            “Continue.”

            “It’s like an alliance in its own right,” Shiro said. “They have your resources backing them, should someone like your father come around. And that’s what we want, isn’t it? The Coalition needs Lotor backing us—we’re strong with him fighting with us, instead of against us, and we’ll have a better chance standing up to Zarkon, the Fire of Purification, and all the other factions vying for power.”

            Keith blinked. His brain tried to process the words, the backwards logic behind them, but at the moment, most of his willpower was holding him back from snapping completely, because there was no way Shiro just sided with Lotor, right in front of Allura, Coran, and himself. He cut his eyes to Lotor, who grinned while Allura gaped, and Coran drew his mouth into a thin line, eyes wide.

            “You just heard yourself, right?” Keith asked. Every eye in the room turned on him, as he splayed one palm flat on the table, the other growing into a tighter fist in his lap. “I don’t think—”

            “So clearly there’s disunity among you,” Lotor cut Keith off, and dragged the attention back over to him. Keith grit his teeth, openly glaring while Lotor returned his look with an impassive stare, a sheet of ice barely visible in his eyes.

            “Well, we didn’t exactly get the time to talk these points over with each other before you insisted we come here,” he snapped before he could stop himself. Allura shot a warning look in his direction, but by then, he’d already pushed out of his chair and started for the door.

            Remaining at that table any longer wouldn’t do anyone good. It was better for him to get up and leave and blow off steam, and just have one of the others fill him in on what he missed. If he stayed any longer, there’d be a fist in Lotor’s face. Maybe a knife. Either way, he’d lash out completely, and how would that reflect on the rest of the team, when Lotor inevitably kicked them out and exposed them to the galaxy?

            “Keith,” Allura called after him, but Keith just rolled his shoulders. The door opened up for him, and he walked out into the hall, ignoring the stab in his chest as Lotor flippantly remarked that they should continue on without him. It was what he’d asked for, anyway.

            As soon as the door closed, and Keith vanished from the rest of the team’s view, he bolted.


            Pidge didn’t intend on spending her first ten minutes in the lab explaining the concept of babysitting to Zethrid, clearing up every disconcerting misconception she’d had about the subject, but if this was what it took to get her off her back, and standing guard outside of the door, rather than watching from inside, well, so be it.

            It just made it that much easier to disconnect the door from its control panel to the left and seal herself in.

            “Alright Matt, I’m in.” Pidge kept her voice down to a whisper as her eyes swept over the technology before her—shelves lined with beakers, chemicals, containers, artifacts, things that could have potentially been body parts from other alien races; computer screens and various flashing keyboards; clear tanks filled with liquid and tables lined with equipment, sterilized and sparkling in the bright lights of the room. “You seeing what I’m uploading through my visor?”

            “Holy quiznak,” Matt responded, awed. “That place looks fucking terrifying. Out of every sci-fi horror movie I’ve ever seen. Watch out—next thing you know, they’re gonna stick you in one of those tanks and start harvesting your organs or something.”

            Pidge groaned.

            “You’re gross, you weirdo,” she said. “Can you start running identification scans or not?”

            “Uh, I can, thank you. But some of the stuff I need closeups on. Especially the shelves. I have no idea what some of that stuff is, and it’s too blurry for the castle to pick up on.”

            “You got it,” Pidge responded. “After this, I’m gonna jack you into the computer system so you can start pulling data. And remember what we talked about—”

            “Pull everything, nothing gets left behind, every last piece of information is important. Yeah, I know, Pidge.

            “You better.”

            Pidge stepped cautiously toward the shelves, constantly checking around her for traps. Unlikely, seeing as this was a lab that probably saw everyday use, but she couldn’t be too careful. As it was, she kept a tight grip on her bayard, lest Zethrid find out she overrode the door system and get angry.

            “Can you scan now?”

            “Yeah. I’m already getting readings on some of the stuff I’ve scanned through, and it looks like Lotor’s got quintessence from all over the galaxy. Like, the quintessence is strong in that room. I’m—holy…yeah, be careful with that stuff. That’s pure concentrations of quintessence, and…some of it’s not even coming up on my maps. Like, no matter where in the universe I go.”

            “Like the quintessence Keith and Lance found the druid carrying around on the prison base,” Pidge whispered. She let her bayard dematerialize and picked up a vial from a rack on one of the shelves. She turned it over in her hands and watched faintly-glowing blue liquid slosh around inside, before she set it back down and turned toward the computer.

            “Maybe we’ll have more answers once we get into Lotor’s databases. How’s Hunk doing on his end of things?”

            “Last I checked, he was still talking with Ezor, so I told him to turn his channel back on when he’s ready to go. His energy signature is still next to a general’s, that’s for sure.”

            “Can you check where Zethrid is?”

            Pidge stopped before the computer, scanning over the buttons and keys in front of her, and then looking up at the massive screens. All of them were powered down, and Pidge didn’t know enough Galran to figure out which button did what.

            But her helmet did.

            Pidge interfaced with the screen laid over her visor; one by one, in rapid succession, the Galra symbols before her turned into the closest English rendering. She found the power button and pushed it, and immediately, the screens lit up with only a small pop of static, while the glowing of the buttons and keys brightened.

            “She’s still outside the door to the room. Looks like she’s pacing. You should be good for a little bit.”

            “Little bit’s all I need.”

            The screens before her all displayed different functions—entries into security feeds, data lists, ship logs from every time Lotor docked here, journals…a wealth of information at her fingertips, and too little time to read it all. With a sigh, Pidge began typing, running the bug that would link every computer on the base to Matt and the castleship.

            “You seeing this?”

            “Oh, yep…we’re in, Pidgey.”

            “If you and Lance keep calling me the names of Pokémon, we’re gonna have a real tough time getting through the rest of this war together,” Pidge muttered. “Anyway, see anything interesting? There’s a ton here to comb through and I don’t know where to begin, or if I should even bother.”

            So many options before her. Her fingers hovered over the keys and buttons; each time she reached for one, she hesitated and drew back. Strategy files would likely be the hardest to find, but were probably the most important. But other folders read only as secret or authorized personnel only. Then there was the matter of what appeared to be prisoner logs, and something in her chest cracked at the thought of her father, still missing out in space.

            Leads on Matt had been far easier to come by, because he’d been like Shiro, imprisoned, stationed in one spot for a long time—a spot that they knew about. Sam had been sent to some unnamed work camp, and all of Pidge’s searches so far turned up fruitless. Endless galaxies, endless planets, so many possible locations, every one so far empty.

            “Some of these are heavily encrypted,” Matt answered. “They’ve either got a virus or they’re just gonna be hell to bust into. Y’think Lotor’ll know we’re doing this?”

            “He shouldn’t,” Pidge replied, grateful for the distraction to pull her out of her thoughts. “My bug’s designed to be undetectable, because trust me, I’ve been caught before. Not fun. And don’t worry about the encryptions. You can start trying to get through them now or just wait until we get back. Once I can sit down and look at them, they shouldn’t be that hard to bust through.”

            “Excuse me, who do you think taught you? I got this.

            Matt added a confident little laugh at the end of his statement, eliciting an eyeroll from Pidge as she finally sighed and began work on getting into restricted files. Data filled the screen as soon as she opened a folder, dozens of lines scrolling down the page. Her eyes flitted over them, flitted over what had to be firewalls, code, cyphers that would need more than five minutes to crack, Galra military jargon that was meaningless in English.

            Fine. I’ll do it later. With a scowl, Pidge closed the folder, and made a metal note to scrub through everything later, back aboard the castleship, when she’d have her full set of tools at her fingertips, her main computer and the castle’s computers backing her. That meant the strategy files would have to wait, too. With that in mind, Pidge clicked open the prisoner files.

            All she got were strings of numbers.

            “Are you fucking kidding me?

            She had to whisper it, because if she didn’t whisper, she’d be shouting, and then Zethrid would hear her and know something was up.

            “That’s a quarter in the swear jar,” Matt sing-songed, and then dropped the cheerful tone. “What’d you find?”

            “Prison logs and records, but it’s all numbers. I don’t know what any of it means, and I don’t have the time to spend decoding now. But if things keep piling up like this, I’m not gonna have the time to do it later, either!” Pidge hissed. “Matt, please, I need you to start trying to crack this. Do you see the folder full of the files I’m talking about?”

            “Nope…wait, yes? Prison logs…oh, jeez. These…is this a code for something?”

            “That’s what I don’t know and need you to find out while I dump the rest of the data and then wipe out any indication I was here,” Pidge responded. “It looks like it might be, and if it is…”

            Pidge swallowed the lump building in her throat and forced those thoughts away, but Matt had already caught on, had already failed to stifle a gasp of his own.

            “Sorry,” Pidge muttered. “I didn’t…”

            “It’s alright,” Matt responded, voice strained. “I know…I know what you meant, and it’s not completely out of the realm of possibility. We’re people of science, right? Gotta look at every angle.”

            Pidge pictured her brother’s lopsided, half-hearted grin, the same one he always wore when he tried to comfort her as a kid during touchy situations, the grin that never met his eyes. When she was little, she didn’t catch onto that. It wasn’t until much later that she realized, and wondered exactly how many times he’d slid that one by her after a rough day at school, after commotion among his commanding officers at the Garrison…

            “Yeah, every angle,” she whispered, and then raised her voice: “I’ve gotta go and look through the rest of this stuff, maybe find some experiment logs…I’ll get back to you soon.”

            “Alrighty, Pidgeot,” Matt said, and this time, Pidge allowed herself to smile. “Be careful out there. You’ve got this.”

            Matt cut off their comm feed, leaving Pidge with a quiet buzz in her ear. She spent another five minutes at the computer, digging as deep as she could. The further she went into the system, the more encrypted the files seemed to become, the more encrypted files there seemed to be, until she found nothing else important. Experiment logs? Locked. Data on the base’s infrastructure? Locked. Anything and everything useful behind firewall after firewall, chains and locks.

            Walk away, Pidge told herself as her frustration mounted, and nearly resulted in her slamming a fist on the keyboard. Other parts of the lab remained unexplored, unexamined, and Zethrid was likely growing restless by the minute. Any second, she could walk in and find Pidge busy snooping, if she wasn’t suspecting it already.

            With a final sigh, Pidge shut off the computer and turned to the rest of the lab. So much more to be discovered, with the clock quickly ticking down.

            Alright, let’s do this.


            Ezor talked Hunk’s ear off all the way to the base’s archives; even inside the sprawling room, more akin to a warehouse than anything, she continued to walk by his side and babble on. Every so often she’d sprinkle in a suspicious question or two, just to let him know she hadn’t let her guard down, that maybe the others have, but not me! And Hunk did his best to answer each question as nonchalantly as possible.

            Please leave, Hunk almost asked. He would’ve been polite about it, the kindest and most tired voice he could muster. But he didn’t. He held his tongue and paid closer attention to the clock in the top-right corner of his visor, the clock he’d called up to keep an eye on the time. Four vargas remaining became three too quickly for his liking, and that was when he finally held up a hand, and cut Ezor off in the middle of some story about two officers back on a ship she’d been working closely with the commander of before Lotor called her back to his side.

            “Ezor, listen, this story’s riveting and all—like, really exciting, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve kinda got a headache,” Hunk lied. “I think I just need some peace and quiet. I kinda wanted to explore on my own, y’know? I’m more of a solo studier than a group studier, if you get what I mean.”

            And now he was babbling.

            He cut himself off and held back from cringing. Ezor blinked at him for a moment, before her face returned bright and sunny, clear skies, chance of rain at zero percent.

            “Yeah, sure!” she said, and then narrowed her eyes and poked him on his chestplate. “But I find out you’re up to something, and it’s…” She pulled back and drew her finger across her throat. To emphasize her point, she pulled the blaster at her waist out of its holster and twirled it around her finger, before letting it fly up in the air. She caught it and clicked the safety off as soon as she did, and while Hunk gaped at her, she winked, holstered it again, and sauntered off. “I’ll be nearby!”

            Hunk shut his mouth and blinked, still dazed and slightly terrified as he watched her walk away. Then he shook his head and gathered his bearings, and reminded himself that he had a job to do here. Matt was still waiting for him to radio in, still waiting on him to scan the room and upload everything he found to the castleship.

            Ezor could be anywhere, he reminded himself as he began walking around the shelves, eyes sweeping over each and every item. He should have been scanning all of them, artifacts that varied in size and shape and color and texture—different in every single way, indicating different planets, galaxies, star systems from every reach of the universe.

            Given, or taken by force? Hunk wondered as he passed each item. Sculptures, rock structures, what must have passed for art on other planets…

            Across the way, Hunk’s eyes spotted what appeared to be bookshelves.

            Bingo.

            He drifted closer to them, constantly looking over his shoulder for any sign of the red general. If she was stalking him from any hidden spot in the room, he must have looked sketchy as hell, so all Hunk could do was hope that she wasn’t, that she was somewhere far away from here as he let his shoulders relax, once he reached the shelves. Upon closer inspection he found large tomes, scrolls, datapads. A wealth of information, right at his fingertips.

            “Matt,” he whispered as he switched on his comms. “You there?”

            “If I see one more fuckdamn three in this string I’m gonna—oh, yeah, hey, Hunk. You into the archives?”

            “…Yes?” Hunk answered. “You alright?”

            “Just some code I’m trying to crack, don’t worry about it.”

            “Okay…I’ve got a variety of stuff here. Some of it looks like books, so I’m not gonna be able to scan every individual page. If I send the spines, or the covers, do you think you could maybe find them? Like in a database or something? Or do you think Allura would be able to find them, or the rebels…?”

            “I am one man, Hunk, Matt answered. “I’m already trying to crack like forty some-odd codes for Pidge, on top of wondering what the hell Lance is up to, because his energy signature is in some random part of the building, Keith got up and left whatever he was doing with Shiro, Allura, and Coran, and now I’m supposed to find books?”

            Hunk didn’t answer.

            “You fool. I’m perfectly capable,” Matt finally said. “Granted, I’m going to need time. There’s only so much I can do at once, but I’ll see.”

            Hunk breathed out a sigh of relief. “Thank you, this is why you’re my favorite Holt sibling.”

            “Aw, Pidge isn’t that bad, is she?” Matt asked.

            Hunk didn’t miss the tiny click and pop of static that told him Matt was linking in another comm channel and sighed. “Anyway, there’s other stuff here besides books and scrolls. Some of it’s like, ancient artifacts, and I’m not even sure I wanna know how this stuff got here.”

            “Oh, Hunk, you’re finally here!” Pidge said then. “What’s this about artifacts?”

            “Gimme a sec.”

            Hunk linked up a video feed from his visor back to the castleship. He spun in a slow circle, capturing the shelves surrounding him. Each item lit up in green on his visor as it was scanned, and Matt and Pidge both breathed out their own awed utterances. Then Matt gasped softly, and began typing in the background. Moments later, several boxes appeared in Hunk’s line of vision, hovering over a few of the items—indications as to what they were. Trophies, frozen plants, taxidermied animals…

            “Where the hell did he get some of this stuff?” Matt whispered, more to himself than anything.

            “Spoils of war, probably,” Pidge responded bitterly. “Matt, the files I sent to you—there’s gotta be something on conquests in there. I guarantee you that’s where half of this stuff comes from.”

            “Again, Pidge, these codes are going to kill me—”

            “Oh, quit whining, you’re not the one with one of Lotor’s generals breathing down your neck—”

            “Okay, guys, appreciate this and all, but can we maybe focus?” Hunk asked. “I’m gonna keep looking around and scanning.” He dropped his voice. “Ezor’s still hanging around, and I’d like to be able to hear if she’s coming. This place is like a freaking maze…she could be anywhere.”

            Hunk peered over his shoulder, up and down the rows of shelves, glanced up toward the top of the shelves, scanned the ceiling. He confirmed he was alone before he carried on his slow procession through the archives. Strangely enough, the place was absent of dust, each shelf meticulously scrubbed and sparkling silver, each item gleaming. Did Lotor and his generals use the things in here, or did they just have miraculous upkeep? And if they used them, what did they even do?

            “Speaking of people being anywhere, anyone know what’s up with Lance and Keith? They’re just…wandering,” Matt said.

            “Wandering?” Pidge asked, and Hunk furrowed his brow.

            “Lance went off on his own, but Keith…should be with Lotor, Shiro, Allura, and Coran, right? Unless they’re already done doing whatever it was?”

            “Shiro, Allura, and Coran are still with Lotor,” Matt said. “Keith took off a little while ago, and now he’s just moving around the base. And I’m seeing…ah! There we go, that’s where that went—okay, Hunk, you should be good on Ezor right now. Pidge, Zethrid still hasn’t moved. One of the other generals is near Lance, though…and then one’s moving toward Lotor’s location.”

            One of the other generals is near Lance

            The air rushed from Hunk’s lungs. If Zethrid was keeping tabs on Pidge, and Ezor was wandering around here with him…that left two options to trail Lance, and neither of them were particularly pleasant. Hunk made to switch comm channels to Lance when a soft thud sounded nearby. Hunk froze in place, bayard automatically materializing in his hand. After a few moments of standing still, he crept forward, and peered around one of the shelves.

            Nothing.

            Empty floor, more artifacts. Information continued popping up in Hunk’s line of sight, until he ducked his head and continued moving in a different direction, away from where he’d heard the sound. …Or where he thought he’d heard the sound, maybe? If Ezor was an acrobat of sorts, or some kind of gymnast—

            “Hey!”

            Hunk stumbled to a halt and spun on his heel to see Ezor stepping out from behind a set of shelves she definitely hadn’t been behind a minute ago.

            “Uh, I was—”

            “You can’t be back here. This section’s off-limits, Yellow.”

            Yellow? Hunk’s mind tripped up on the nickname as Ezor swaggered past him and stopped before a door he hadn’t even noticed in his absent walking. It looked like most other doors, save for several other scanners next to the typical handprint scanner. It also had no window whatsoever, not even a tiny rectangle to see into the room beyond. Several markings above the door highlighted in his visor, and seconds later, translated roughly to English: AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.

            Hunk tapped the microphone near his mouth as he pretended to scratch his chin, and cleared his throat.

            “Right, well, I didn’t even notice that,” he said. “But I definitely won’t be going in there.”

            “Your acting sucks,” Pidge muttered. “Soon as she walks away, I’ll get that disabled for you.”

            Hunk could not say thank you Pidge, you’re a blessing, as he wanted to. Instead, he acted like he wasn’t actively communicating with the Holts, or trying to break into a restricted area of Lotor’s base all for the sake of spying. He smiled at Ezor as she squinted and appraised him, and finally tilted her head, gave a vague nod, and then crossed her arms.

            “So then you’ll be on your way, right?”

            Quick as a wink, she held her blaster.

            Hunk raised both hands to the side of his head, and only realized then that he was still holding his bayard in plain sight. He lowered that arm with a sheepish grin, while Ezor raised a single, skeptical eyebrow and leaned against the wall, crossing her arms once more. She watched as Hunk slowly turned around and walked away, the hair on the back of his neck standing on end.

            “Are you seriously walking away?” Matt asked.

            Hunk couldn’t argue back that he didn’t have much of a choice, because it didn’t look like Ezor would be budging any time soon. So he sighed and resigned himself to wandering around for a while more. Hopefully he could widen the gap between them, and she’d leave the door alone, and he could circle around and sneak in before anyone could catch him.

            Hopefully.


            Lotor’s dismissal stung.

            Lance tried not to let it get to him as he roamed the empty corridors of the base, but every step he walked alone reminded him of just how unnecessary he was to this trip—he should’ve stayed back on the castleship to sift through data with Matt, because his own excursion was turning up nothing, where Pidge and Hunk’s investigations were likely resulting in mounds of information, heaps upon heaps of intel that would give Voltron the upper hand in this alliance, and the others had a front-row seat to a tour from Lotor himself. Invaluable information.

            Information Lance just wasn’t important enough to have.

            He’d hoped at least Keith or Shiro would also have been left behind—had been banking on having someone there to talk to and hang around with, someone to watch his back. Not like he couldn’t watch his own, but the thought of having another person there with him, in the belly of the beast, would have calmed the nerves currently eating him alive. He glanced over his shoulder every so often, and openly clutched his bayard.

            At first he anticipated a sentry or soldier of some sort sneaking up on him, anticipated walking into one every time he rounded a corner. But Lotor’s base seemed to be void of those—it appeared as though the only personnel here were Lotor and his generals. That didn’t help Lance very much at all, because Lotor was already busy with the others. Zethrid had gone off with Pidge. That left Acxa, Narti, or Ezor to come find him, and Lance wasn’t keen on a single one of them. Especially not Narti.

            Lance stalked down the hall, posture rigid. For all he knew, the other generals were watching him on a set of security cameras right at this moment, were plotting how to attack him and make the least ruckus doing so, plotting how to attack and get away with it…

            Lance’s footsteps echoed back to him, several times over. Something about the walls—his steps came back at him from all directions, at varying pitches and volumes. Every few minutes he paused in his motions and let the echoes peter out, just to be sure he wasn’t being pursued. After the first four times of stopping and listening and hearing no one else, the paranoia finally kicked his senses back into him, and he held his wrist out in front of him, let a projection of the building unfurl before his eyes.

            Yellow dot, with a nearby purple—Hunk and one of the generals. Green for Pidge, with a purple for Zethrid nearby. Purple, pink, black, and orange clustered in one room together…missing red. Lance found red moving quickly through another part of the building—somewhere nearby—with a solo purple coming up near Lotor and the others…and one final purple, dangerously close to Lance’s location, and heading in his direction.

            No, come on, why me?

            Lance kept the projection going and picked up his pace. He needed to do something, and make himself useful somehow. He swept his eyes over the doors he passed, and tried to interface with the translator somewhere in his visor, Galran letters scrambling briefly in his line of sight before becoming semi-coherent English. A lot of closets, control rooms, areas labeled as being off-limits to anyone who wasn’t authorized to have access…

            But then again, hadn’t Lotor given them free reign to venture where they pleased?

            Let’s test that out, shall we?

            Lance scanned over the door closest to him, some room marked as another closet. He put his hand down on the print scanner next to it, unsure of what to expect. Maybe for the door to open? But it didn’t—it didn’t, because he wasn’t Galra, and there wasn’t a single sentry around for him to slice the arm off of, not one guard posted for him to ask to open up the room for him, just the general nearby and—

            The general nearby.

            Lance blanched and looked at the projection again, looked at the purple dot closing in on him and turned, eyes flitting over the empty hallway where the general should’ve been approaching from. Should’ve, because there was no one there, even with the dot drifting closer, and the red dot, too. A tremor ran through Lance and he shoved it down and pretended like it didn’t happen as he allowed his bayard to transform into his rifle. He raised it, listened for the sounds of footsteps that weren’t his.

            He didn’t get it.

            Instead, he got skittering, like some sort of rodent, and the thought crossed his mind to ask Lotor when the last time he cleaned this place out was, because if there were space rodents running around, well.

            Lance took a step back, then another, until his jetpack clacked against the closet door. Now, at least nothing could sneak up behind him, as he peered down both ends of the hallway, and then looked up.

            Nothing.

            The purple dot on the building projection was practically on top of the blue one that marked his own location; by all means, whichever general was around here should have been visible. Lance scowled and dropped his gaze forward again, then to his left, then right—

            “What the cheese?!

            Lance jumped and staggered back a few steps, letting the building projection vanish and swinging his rifle until the barrel of the gun pointed several inches to the left of the door he’d been standing against just seconds before. Narti clung to the wall not unlike Peter Parker in the vintage posters of Spider-Man in Lance’s brother’s room, and cocked her head to one side. A cat Lance hadn’t noticed before perched on her shoulder, perfectly readjusting itself as Narti leapt to the floor and landed with a feline grace. She rose to full height and stalked forward while Lance froze in place, mouth opening and closing as he tried to muster up something to say to her, something other than a terrified shriek.

            “What—what were you doing?” Lance finally managed. “A-And don’t come any closer!”

            Narti stopped. Her tail flicked back and forth in time with the cat’s, and then her head suddenly snapped up, neck craning as she turned to the left. Lance took another step back as his eyes followed the direction in which her face had turned. Feet, pounding the ground—running, someone running

            And then Keith appeared at the end of the hall.

            He skidded to a halt as he spotted Lance and Narti. He clutched his bayard, already transformed into his sword. His eyes widened as he met Lance’s gaze, then looked at Narti and the cat, each still as statues.

            “Keith?” Lance asked, genuine confusion in his voice.

            “Lance?” Keith countered, narrowing his eyes. “Everything alright?”

            Lance glanced once again at Narti and the cat, panic briefly crossing his features, and then quickly let his bayard shrink to standard form and dematerialize, disappearing into his suit. “Yeah, yeah! Everything’s fine! Narti was just showing me where the, uh…the other hangars were! Y’know, I wanted to see their ships…fighter pilot and all…can’t keep me away from the air…”

            He finger-gunned weakly.

            “…Right,” Keith said. “Well, um…” Keith’s bayard shrank now, too, as he walked cautiously toward Lance and Narti, but he didn’t dare let go of it. “I was looking for you, because…” Keith stifled a sigh. “Prince Lotor needs you too, actually. You know, because you’re my right hand man, and all.”

            Lance’s face lit up, and Keith hated himself for it.

            “Really?”

            You are an awful human being, Keith thought, and nodded. “Yeah.” He looked to Narti. “Sorry, we’ll be going now.”

            Keith didn’t get moving until Lance joined him, firmly at his side. The hair on the back of his neck stood up as they turned their backs and walked away from Narti. Keith continually glanced over his shoulder at her, still remaining in place, while Lance practically vibrated with excitement. Keith ran over the possible ways to let Lance down gently, the further they got from the general, when the breath caught in the back of his throat the next time he looked back.

            She’d moved.

            Her previous spot was empty, and Keith’s eyes scanned quickly over the walls and ceilings as he came to a halt and grabbed Lance’s wrist to stop him, too.

            “What—?”

            “There!”

            Narti clung to the ceiling just a few feet away from them. If she launched herself properly, she could reach them from that distance. Keith shoved Lance and activated his bayard once more.

            “Run!”

            Lance didn’t need to be told twice. He stumbled a few feet before he fell into a rhythm, legs pumping underneath him as he sprinted, with Keith hot on his heels, while Narti upped her pace until she was directly overhead, and then leapt down. Keith cried out as she pounced, and landed squarely on his shoulders. He tripped and went sprawling, but she never once lost her balance.

            “Fuck!”

            Lance spun around at the sound of it, wind rushing from his lungs as he witnessed Narti yanking Keith’s helmet free from his head.

            “Hey!” His voice came out far rougher, far harsher than he’d meant for it, scraping against his throat as he summoned his bayard and let his gun whine to life in a flash of red light. Narti abruptly ceased movement, and even Keith froze. Lance couldn’t pinpoint the look on his face—maybe awe, maybe terror, maybe both or maybe neither—but it didn’t exactly matter, at the moment.

            What mattered was Narti’s hand resting on the back of Keith’s head with a grip too hard for Lance’s liking.

            “Lotor said we’d get free reign to explore the place,” Lance bit out. “He said we’re supposed to have an alliance. I don’t think allies just go around attacking each other. Let him go and give him back his helmet, and we’ll be done here, and nobody else needs to hear about any of this.”

            Narti might have suspected he was lying, but Lance himself couldn’t be sure of that, because explaining the situation very well might have led to the rest of the team finding out about what happened back on Duagkanor, whether he or Keith or Hunk volunteered the information or merely let it slip.

            Not the time to dwell on that.

            Lance hefted his rifle and tracked Narti’s every move—or would’ve, if she’d been moving. But she kept still, tail swishing, and it occurred to Lance then that the cat wasn’t with her anymore.

            No, the cat attacked Lance’s face, only choosing now to drop from the ceiling.

            Lance screamed and Narti seized her opportunity, wrenching Keith’s head back and forcing him to stand while he grit his teeth. His tried to swing backwards with his sword, only for his limbs to lock up on him, as control fell away and into Narti’s grasp. Momentarily, his eyes rolled back, before righting themselves with a certain glaze. All the while, Lance wrestled with the cat. He’d dropped his bayard and went at it with both hands, trying to pry it from his visor, earning a few scratches along his exposed chin.

            Then the cat suddenly let him go, and wriggled out of his hands. It dropped to the floor and scurried a few feet away, staring right at him, but Lance had no time to deal with it. He swept his bayard back into his hands and looked up, only to find Keith with sword in hand and Narti right behind him. He looked as Lance must have back on Duagkanor, a zombie on his feet as Narti compelled his every move.

            “Lotor won’t hear a word of this.”

            Oh, Dios mío.

            Narti must have been using Keith as a vessel to speak to Lance, and just hearing the words leave the Black Paladin’s mouth put him on edge. He couldn’t just aim his rifle at her—she had Keith in front of him, could very easily use him as a body shield, and Lance wasn’t keen on shooting the team leader—shooting his friend.

            Lance flicked his eyes to the cat, tail still swishing in time with Narti’s.

            He wouldn’t shoot the cat, either. Bile crawled up the back of his throat at the mere idea of it, regardless that maybe the cat had something to do with all this; undoubtedly, it was connected to Narti. But his family’d fostered its fair share of animals, adopted a few, more than one of them cats. Lance spent countless afternoons with them, perched on his shoulder or sitting in his lap or curled around his leg.

            “Surrender now, do as I ask, and I…won’t hurt either…of you,” Narti went on through Keith, drawing Lance away from his thoughts, away from the cat.

            Lance furrowed his brow.

            Keith’s voice became more strained as the command went on, and immediately after, Narti stiffened, head snapping in Keith’s direction, rather than Lance’s, at the same time the cat’s head swiveled. Keith’s suddenly hunched over himself and let out a strangled gasp while Narti climbed over his back.

            With her focus entirely on him, Lance fired.

            His shot struck Narti through the arm. She didn’t cry out but went falling backwards to the ground, releasing Keith. He wheezed as his head snapped up, and Lance’s breath caught in his throat.

            His eyes burned yellow, blazing light fading as he regained his composure.

            Blood roared in Lance’s ears and his heart whacked against chest as the possibilities of what that meant ran through his head—no time, no time, gotta go

            Keith panted as he met Lance’s eyes, and then let them drop, scanning the floor for his helmet. He found it and stooped down and scooped it into his arms, and then staggered back to his feet and took off running again. Lance followed without question. He glanced over his shoulder and found that the cat didn’t follow—it remained near Narti, still trying to recover from her injury.

            Neither Keith nor Lance spoke to each other as they ran and turned corner after corner. Lance winced as he heard footfalls, nails scratching metal, and realized Narti’d finally gotten up to follow them. He opened his mouth to ask Keith about a plan of action when Keith grabbed his wrist and yanked him sideways. They stopped just outside of a door—Keith slammed his hand down on the handprint scanner right next to it, and the door opened for them. Keith ushered Lance in ahead of him, clumsy and wordless, and then entered right behind him, and let the door fall shut.

            “What—”

            “Shut up.”

            Keith took his helmet off and pressed an ear against the door, while Lance pulled up the building projection. The purple mark that they now knew stood for Narti drew closer to their location. Keith and Lance both kept still as possible—Lance hardly breathed, even though his lungs burned for air. The dot slowed down as it got to the hallway this room—a closet, Lance realized, as he looked around, and found stacks of crates, empty containers, other odds and ends haphazardly flung about—resided in.

            Keith screwed his eyes shut, and his lips moved as he listened to Narti’s footsteps just beyond the door. Lance raised his eyebrows at that but ultimately didn’t question it, because everyone had their own rituals, even if he didn’t take Keith for someone spiritual.

            After a moment, Keith sagged in relief against the door, and Lance looked at the projection again. The purple dot moved away from them; still, they kept quiet, until she was several hallways away, and it didn’t look like she was coming back.

            “We’re clear,” Lance finally breathed out.

            “Yeah, clear,” Keith retorted quietly, and slid down against the door with his legs bent. He set his helmet down, rested his arms on his knees, and ducked his head. “That was…”

            “Terrifying?” Lance supplied.

            Keith nodded, and lifted his head just long enough to shoot him an appreciative look. “Yeah, terrifying.”

            Then he dropped his head again.

            Lance leaned against a stack of crates and crossed his arms and watched Keith, watch him draw in and let go of ragged breath after ragged breath, until finally he steadied himself, until finally his breathing regulated. He carded one hand through his hair and allowed himself to look up again.

            “What happened?” he asked. “I mean—I know, she was controlling me, but…from your perspective, what…what did it look like?”

            Lance let his gaze drift to the ceiling. “I mean…okay, well…I didn’t see all of it. I got attacked by the cat. Like, it attacked, and that’s when she started trying to take control, I think. When the cat stopped attacking me, you looked like a freaking zombie. Like, you looked dead inside. Then Narti started like, speaking through you? It was your voice but not your words and it was creepy as hell. Then I guess you were fighting back because you like, sorta retook control? So then I shot her, and then you looked up and…”

            Keith waited, but Lance didn’t go on.

            “I looked up and what?” Keith asked.

            Lance expected attitude, expected Keith to snap. He didn’t expect soft—didn’t expect any kind of concern.

            Keith’s the one who just got possessed. You should be showing him concern right now.

            “Your eyes,” Lance finally said, and closed his own so he didn’t have to look Keith in the face, didn’t have to watch realization dawn upon his features. “They—they were glowing. But they weren’t blue. They were yellow.”

            “Yellow,” Keith repeated in a whisper.

            Lance opened his eyes to find Keith staring at the floor, deep in thought. He waited, for Keith to speak up again, for him to draw some conclusion, but he merely shook his head. “This isn’t the time, but this is still…” Keith blew out a breath. “This is something we’ll have to look into later.”

            “Yeah,” Lance agreed, and pushed away from the crates, “and speaking of things we have to do, didn’t you say Lotor needed us?”

            At that, Keith froze, guilt crossing his features. Lance paused.

            “Keith?”

            “Yeah, about that…” Keith stood up, took his helmet into his arms, and kept his head down. “He doesn’t…he doesn’t actually need you.” He winced as he said it and finally looked up, and found Lance staring at him, shoulders slumping.

            “Oh. Yeah, that…figures.” He frowned. “But then why—?”

            “I needed an excuse to get Narti to leave us alone, but obviously that didn’t work. I don’t actually know what Lotor wants. I…got up and left the meeting, actually.”

            Keith reached for the handprint scanner on the inside of the room, while Lance stepped closer to him.

            “Why’d you—?”

            “I don’t wanna talk about it,” Keith interrupted. “Diplomacy’s just…not really my thing. They should’ve picked someone else to go to that meeting.” Not a complete lie, and Keith would leave it at that. “I’m sure they’re handling things fine without me. They’ve got Allura and Coran, I’m sure they can do it.”

            And to Keith’s relief, Lance never asked about his disregard for Shiro. Just nodded with a quiet alright as Keith opened the door, and the two of them ducked out and down the hall before Narti could come back for them.


            “Pidge, you need to do something,” Hunk whispered.

            He’d spent the better part of an hour wandering around the archives, and then another half hour with his eyes scanning over the pages of the books and scrolls and tablets he’d deemed the most important, both reading the data and uploading everything to Matt and the castleship. The whole time, he kept a careful eye on the projection of the building, and found that Ezor had indeed stationed herself at the entrance to the other room, and hadn’t moved since.

            “She’s really still there, I can’t believe this,” Pidge muttered. “Alright, what do you want me to do?”

            “Meeting with Lotor’s coming to an end,” Matt chimed in then. “And Lance and Keith are just…roaming, it looks like. I can check in with each of them and see if they’re done. Pidge, you’re done, right?”

            “Yeah?”

            “Good. So if everyone else is done, Pidge, you can trip an alarm. The rest of the base will have to evacuate. Then, Pidge can override that door and get Hunk into that room. You get in, scan as much as you can, and get out.”

            “Yeah, one problem with that,” Hunk said. “We don’t know what’s in there.” He glanced at the building projection again. “Although, it’s not very big…there can’t be much…”

            “There aren’t any security feeds leading back to that room, so either they did that to protect it in the event of a hacker, or it’s not very important and Ezor’s just hyping it up to scare you,” Pidge added.

            Hunk nodded, confidence blooming in his chest, muscles relaxing as he stood up and shelved the latest book he’d been reading. He—they—could do this. Fantastically simple. He watched Ezor’s dot on the projection, watched Pidge’s move back and forth as she likely paced, watched red and blue move side-by-side, watched black and pink and orange begin moving, with two purple accompanying them. Another purple stood stationed outside of the lab Pidge was in, and the final dot marking a general meandered about a mostly-empty section of the base.

            “Allura’s confirmed the meeting’s over with. Lotor still wants to give them a tour of the base, but she sounded pretty exhausted when she said it,” Matt said then. “Keith confirmed he and Lance have nothing going on.”

            “Did Keith say why he’s not in the meeting anymore?” Pidge asked.

            “Nope,” Matt responded. “But anyway, if you wanna trip that alarm, now would be the time.”

            “On it. Hunk, get ready.”

            “Gotcha.”

            Hunk began moving back toward the room, back toward Ezor’s spot, and then purposely took himself off-course, weaving through a series of shelves stocked full of big enough pieces of art to conceal himself. He’d just crouched down when the room plunged into red, and an alarm began wailing. Across the room, Ezor made a noise of surprise.

            Her dot on the map inched away from the door, and then took off through the room. Hunk peered above the art piece he hid behind and watched Ezor flash by. Then he broke sprinting.

            “Door’s open, but you’ve gotta work fast,” Pidge said. “I’m trying to reroute the signal for the alarm trigger before anyone puts together that I set it off. Matt, is everyone evacuating? I don’t have time to look.”

            “Yeah, I warned them all. Shiro, Allura, Coran, Lotor, and whoever else that is are all moving toward an exit in the northeast sector, and Keith and Lance are headed due west—

            “Shit, shit, shit, I’ve gotta go,” Pidge suddenly hissed, and then her comm feed cut off with a pop of static.

            “Well, fuck,” Matt whispered. “Hunk, Ezor’s left the area, you need to go as fast as you can and get out before anyone can figure out what just happened.”

            “I’m going.”

            Hunk cut a hard turn out from a set of one shelves and then tore around another, until he stumbled to a halt, face-to-face with the open door. His mouth fell agape, and he was thankful the camera in his visor was already online, scanning and uploading. He took a few steps closer, and his heart speeding up at the sight of the containment units before him, lining the walls from floor to ceiling, filling islands in the middle of the room. Most glowed yellow, but some glowed vibrant blue, others pink, still others purple or green, all of them registering as the same item.

            Pure quintessence.

            “Matt, tell me you’re seeing this.”

            “Oh, yeah…this is…”

            Dangerous. Incredible. Terrible. Hunk’s mind supplied a number of words, but none of them quite seemed to do the situation justice. Hunk shook his head and backed away from the door. He called up the building projection one more time, and found the area still clear. Pidge and Zethrid were still in the building but on the move for an exit, and Ezor was nearly out. Hunk remained the only one inside.

            “I’m gonna get going now, you got all this?”

            “Mmm. Gonna make for one interesting Coalition meeting.”


            False alarm.

            Acxa carefully read over all of the data in front of her, and then her gaze became more critical as she examined individual strings of code, noticed disparities between what had been there before the Paladins’ visit and after, noticed files opened recently, noticed specks of dust where things had been immaculate before. She supposed the Green Paladin tried their hardest to wipe all evidence of their hacks, but the barest trace of a footprint led to another led to another led to another led to a whole trail.

            They were thorough, Acxa would give them that.

            “The signal originated from the lab,” Acxa said quietly, and didn’t look back at Lotor, undoubtedly watching over her shoulder to see this all for himself. “There was an attempted reroute for one of the hangars for a breach.”

            “Clever,” Lotor remarked, voice clipped. “Enough on the alarm. How much did they pull?”

            Acxa’s frown deepened. Every file had some mark left behind, the more she inspected it. “They…touched everything, in one way or another, although how much they pulled…this could take vargas to sift through. It’s best to assume and prepare for the worst, in which case…all of it. Including our operations…and Operation Kuron.”

            Operation Kuron.

            Not even Acxa had been able to get through the Empire’s defenses on that file.

            “Well, we agreed to an alliance,” Lotor said, and Acxa turned stiffly. “They think it’s best to keep secrets from us, so be it. We won’t tell them we know, of course. Let them carry on in their ignorance, and let them do the work for us. We’ll just have to monitor them more closely.”

            “Speaking of that,” Acxa said, “did Narti ever accomplish what she needed to?”

            “Nearly,” Lotor answered. “We’ll need to come to a conclusion with a few more tests, which means we likely will need one more Paladin, at the very least, but we’ve fixed our hypothesis, and we’re…fairly certain it’s correct.”

            Acxa allowed herself a conspiratorial smile. “So then the quintant was an overall success?”

            Lotor grinned back at her. “I’d say so.”


            The Castle of Lions drifted in unease that night, past bright red and yellow nebulae, brilliant star clusters, interstellar clouds. Deep in the labs, Pidge stared at a screen with dark smudges underneath her eyes, glasses perched on the top of her head, while Matt slumped against a control panel, fast asleep. Several feet away, Hunk sprawled out on the floor with his helmet on, reading over more in-depth all the pages he’d scanned.

            Several floors above them, Lance stared at the ceiling with his headphones blasting. A few doors down, Shiro tossed and turned in his sleep, jagged flashes of memory plaguing him—laughing faces, faces covered in blood, people screaming, people reaching soft hands for him, names escaping his grasp—and a few halls away, Keith tore into the bots of the training deck, as the word forget echoed in hisses around his head.

            Allura paced around the darkened bridge, bathed in starlight as she talked over every point of the meeting with Lotor, while Coran stood at his computer station and listened and logged everything, compiling a list of important items for the next Coalition meeting.

            “We’ll have to tell them everything,” Allura said, and turned, the profile of her face framed in pale white light, hair practically glowing. “We have to tell them about the alliance. Secrets won’t do any of us good. Not at this stage.”

Chapter Text

5.01
Dark Sunrise

            “They’re children, Kolivan.”

            Heavy silence followed Krolia’s statement as the elevator drew slowly toward the hangar bays with a hum. Light from the floors they passed flashed through the slits near the elevator doors every few seconds, and each sliver cast Kolivan’s face at a severe angle as he tipped his chin and didn’t immediately respond to Krolia. He kept his hands clasped behind his back and his face forward, like they would be greeted with visitors the moment the elevator doors opened—as if anyone other than the Voltron Paladins had the location of the main Marmora base.

            “Let me be clear,” Krolia continued, holding off a sigh as she turned forward again, as the elevator whined to a halt and the doors opened with a hiss. “I’m not asking permission. I’m going to do it regardless. They’re not soldiers—not perfect, not bred from birth the way some of us are. They’re children and they’re humans. Despite human resilience, they’re more fragile than many of the people currently vying for power. If we’re going to put the fate of the universe on their shoulders, they need to be strong enough to carry that burden.”

            Still, Kolivan kept his mouth shut.

            He strode out of the elevator and off toward the two-person cruiser they’d be taking to the Castle of Lions for a meeting with the rest of the Voltron Coalition.

            “And,” Krolia continued, “need I remind you that you allowed our own operatives to manhandle my son?” A heartbeat, a space for Kolivan to respond, but he kept walking, so Krolia kept talking. “There are Galra fighters and warriors out there who are almost as physically capable, and some even more so, than us. Keith was severely injured, and I’m certain none of the other Paladins would have fared any better. If we’re going to place the universe’s survival on their success, then we need to do all that we can to ensure they’ll succeed, don’t we?”

            “Are matters of the heart your primary motivation here, Krolia?”

            Kolivan sounded almost bored with her request.

            “No,” Krolia answered, doing her best to keep from curling her fists at her sides, while Kolivan stopped at the entrance to the cruiser and finally turned to face her. “More like matters of common sense. We’re one of the only rebel groups that has managed to mostly remain undiscovered by the central powers of the Empire, and if we can help Voltron with the same, I think it would be beneficial to us all.

            Kolivan stared for a moment, then shrugged and turned away, began climbing into the cruiser. “I don’t know why you’re still going on. You’ve already said you’re going to do it, and you’ve proven before that I’m unable to stop you.”

            Krolia shut her mouth, fingers twitching at her side before she finally growled, low in the back of her throat, and climbed in on the other side. She strapped into the cruiser, while Kolivan began pushing at buttons on the dash, pulling levers, firing up their ship.

            “When we arrive to the Castle of Lions, I trust you’ll speak of this matter with Princess Allura, and leave the final decision up to her?” Kolivan asked, as the engine rumbled to life.

            “I suppose I would need her permission to use their training deck, rather than going through the hassle of bringing them all here, but I’m hoping she’ll leave it on a Paladin-by-Paladin basis. I think it’s fair to assume some may be a little more interested in training than others,” Krolia responded.

            She ignored the very obvious knowing glance Kolivan shot in her direction before he faced forward again, and took off from the hangar.


            Allura pretended Coran wasn’t staring at the bags under her eyes as she turned to greet him that morning.

            Holoscreens illuminated her face and caught every imperfection, every indicator that she hadn’t slept a wink last night. Regardless, she plastered her most convincing smile on her face, the same one she’d worn in meeting after meeting. Coran frowned at it, but didn’t ask the obvious. Instead, he shook his head at her and immediately headed to his post and began pulling up a few holoscreens of his own.

            “You need rest, Princess,” he said. “Especially with the current dealings, and especially since we’re going to be ramping up the Coalition meetings. You’ve got to be in your best shape!”

            “I know,” Allura admitted, flicking her eyes in his direction once. “I merely got…too far into things last night. I lost track of the varga. I can get rest tonight.” Her words came off detached, floating away along with her mind as she scanned over a screen to her left, and then another to her write, and then dragged her fingertips down to open up another one.

            “You’re aware Krolia and Kolivan will be here shortly, correct?” Coran asked, raising one eyebrow.

            Allura bit down on a yawn. “Yes. Kolivan sent a transmission a few doboshes ago. They’ll be here within the varga; we should awaken the other Paladins.”

            Coran stole another glance at her and narrowed his eyes. “Assuming they slept.”

            Allura pointedly ignored his remark and carried on reading over the screens in front of her; strategies she’d written up during the night, multiple points with notes that needed to come up during the teams’ impending meetings with their allies, all of the information cobbled together by Hunk, Pidge, and Matt in the wake of the mission, transmitted to her from the labs, late in the night, over the castle’s computer system. All the while, Coran triggered the castle alarm system—a new and improved one, at that; a more relaxed alarm the Paladins knew meant wake up and not get moving, we’re under attack.

            “Paladins, please assemble yourselves in the dining room as soon as possible,” Coran announced, voice booming above the alarms. “We’ve got guests arriving!”

            “The dining room? Not the meeting room?” Allura asked, and finally cut her eyes to Coran, one eyebrow quirked.

            “Well, it’s the morning, isn’t it?” Coran countered, turning to face her fully, leaning back on his control panel with his arms crossed. “Shouldn’t we at least treat our guests to breakfast? I’m sure they’ve been busy, and traveling can be quite troublesome, especially for them, coming from their base. It’s only right. And judging by these reports from the lab that were uploaded while the others should have been sleeping…”

            Allura sighed. “Coran.”

            “This is a dangerous precedent you’re setting, Princess,” Coran said. “I’m worried about you and the others; no sleep and high stress? A recipe for disaster. I’ve seen it play out before, and I don’t want you to make those same mistakes.” He paused a moment, then shut his eyes and pushed away from his control panel, let his arms fall down to his sides, started for the door. “You don’t have to listen to my advice, but I hope you’ll at least take it into consideration. Many preventable accidents occurred because of people who weren’t in the right state of mind when they were making them.”

            With that, Coran shut off the alarm and left the bridge, left Allura alone and surrounded by data, surrounded by screens—

            Like the newest, appearing in front of her with a pop of static, followed by faint buzzing. Allura blinked at it, and it took her brain a second to catch up, took her brain a second to register INCOMING TRANSMISSION gently fading in and out in white letters, along with the option to accept or decline. Allura narrowed her eyes, scanned them over the identification number in the corner: Lotor’s identification number.

            Her fingers first hovered over DECLINE, but then she risked the glance over her shoulder; the bridge remained empty, and no footsteps seemed to sound down the hall.

            Biting her lip, Allura tapped ACCEPT.

            It took a moment for Lotor’s face to appear on the screen; the image flickered for a few moments before it stabilized, and when it did, Lotor’s grinning face greeted her. From what she could tell, he was sitting back in some throne or another, hands steepled in front of himself. Allura crossed her arms and tipped her chin in response.

            “Princess Allura,” Lotor said, “I hope you’re well after yesterquintant’s meeting.”

            “What purpose do you have in contacting us, Lotor?” Allura looked back, again, and when she returned her attention to Lotor she found his grin had widened.

            “Short on time, are you?”

            I should’ve declined. Allura rolled her eyes and tucked that thought away. “Yes, actually.”

            “Good. This will be quick, then, and I hope you’ll come up with a quick answer. After the…headway we made, it seems I’d gotten enthusiastic, and overlooked an offer I meant to make. Of course, I never got the chance to talk to you one-on-one either, but just my luck that you appear to be alone now.” Lotor paused after he spoke, gave Allura a space to take his words in. Again, she swept eyes around the room, and then settled them on Lotor once more.

            “And why would you need me alone?”

            Allura uncrossed her arms, reached one out and flicked her wrist; a holoscreen appeared behind and to the right of the one displaying her video call with Lotor, a diagram of the castleship and the skies surrounding it. Clear, as far as she could tell; no ships lying in wait to attack, no scanners or trackers stuck somewhere to the exterior of the castle.

            “I merely wouldn’t want the others to feel…left out, as this offer is for you only. Haggar spoke of you in my brief stint as the reigning emperor. She sounded bitter, and it took a long time to find out why. It’s almost like she didn’t want to admit it.”

            Allura pinched the bridge of her nose, even as unease settled upon her shoulders. “Cut to the chase, Lotor.”

            “Right, of course,” Lotor responded, and spread his palms, raised his hands to either side of his head, closed his eyes and shrugged his shoulders. “My apologies—”

            “I’ve half a mind to end this call here and now,” Allura interrupted. “State your business, otherwise we’re done here.”

            “You possess the same gifts for magic that Haggar possesses, don’t you?” Lotor said, suddenly straightening out, allowing his hands to come to rest on the arms of his throne. He leaned forward as he spoke. “She was shocked, after your team’s fight with my father, that you had the audacity to challenge her like that, head-on, and come out of it alive. And seeing as you possess her gifts, you likely have the same affinity for her alchemical talents. I myself am into alchemy, and I trust you haven’t had much time to study, have you? Or perhaps you’ve never even considered the possibility?”

            No. Allura hadn’t considered the possibility, and hadn’t entertained it. She couldn’t even say it’d once crossed her mind and been brushed off in favor of more pressing issues; at that, she cast her eyes down.

            “So you haven’t,” Lotor said, before she could answer verbally. “And so, this is where my proposal comes in. I know a great deal of alchemy; I possess texts from Old Altea, texts once owned by Honerva herself; you know of Honerva, don’t you?”

            Honerva.

            Allura’s throat went dry at the thought of her, as she remembered everything Coran relayed to the team; Coran, who’d been there for King Alfor and the other Paladins of Old until Altea’s fall, who’d known all of them personally—and by extension, knew their partners, friends, other comrades-in-arms. Knew Honerva, before her corruption.

            …Did Lotor know?

            “Yes, I do,” Allura responded, after a few moments of contemplation. Best not to push the matter now, when she had other business to attend to. “Anyone studying under my father, especially his own daughter, would know of his enthusiasm for his colleague’s work, the same enthusiasm that would push him into creating the Voltron Lions.”

            Lotor pursed his lips, smile disappearing; then a moment later, it flickered back into existence, ends of his mouth tugging up as he studied Allura.

            “Yes, well. I possess texts from Honerva, and I have been training myself in alchemy in secret for many decaphoebs, away from the prying eyes of my father. I’ve noted Haggar’s talk of you; you have untapped potential, and if you’d be willing, I could aid you in unlocking it. This time is as crucial as ever, wouldn’t you think?”

            “I think you would do well to cease talking down to me,” Allura said without a second of hesitation. “I agree, we’re at a dire crossroads, and our next actions are critical. I think it unnecessary for you to tell me these things, considering my Paladins and I have been fighting on the front lines for about a decaphoeb now.” She waited, narrowed eyes locked onto Lotor, whose smile faded again, and this time, didn’t return. He swallowed, and whether an act or genuine embarrassment, Allura couldn’t tell, and didn’t want to waste the brain power trying.

            “I see,” Lotor said. “Well—”

            “I’ll train with you,” Allura interrupted, putting a hand up. “On time that is my own; I will contact you when I’m ready, but for now, there’s much to be done, and I must be going.”

            “I understand,” Lotor said, and his mouth twitched again. “I’ll be seeing you at the Coalition meeting later this quintant, then?”

            Allura would not allow herself to flinch.

            “Well, I must have forgotten to tell you my generals and I are coming,” Lotor went on. “But your Coalition would want to know of a new ally, I’m assuming? I wouldn’t think it fair to keep them in the dark on this.”

            Allura remained still, and she tried to remember when anyone had mentioned when there would be a coalition meeting today; she didn’t think anyone had, unless…

            No time to dwell.

            “Of course not,” she replied. “Yes, I’ll be seeing you today, then.”

            She plastered a pleasant smile on her face; Lotor grinned back at her, this time allowing one end of his lips to part, flashing a fang at her before he cut their transmission off, and left her alone, surrounded by her holoscreens and the echoes of his words, the weight of her agreement settling heavily onto her shoulders. Alchemical training with Lotor; alone, presumably. And he and the generals would be at the meeting—that was the important thing.

            Allura finally yawned and pulled up a few more holoscreens; she had some last-minute adjustments to this meeting to make.


            Hunk was the one who screamed when the alarm went off.

            He tumbled off of the couch he and Matt dragged into the lab sometime in the middle of the night. His helmet—which, he realized now, he must have fallen asleep wearing—protected his head as it smacked against the floor and left him dazed for a few moments, staring up at the ceiling lights on full brightness, which meant day cycle. The lights coming up were accompanied by Coran demanding the Paladins get to the dining room for something or other, which meant Hunk had overslept and hadn’t had time to get to the kitchen, which meant the team would be eating a monstrosity of a meal, because Coran insisted on never following any recipe ever

            “Shit…”

            A groan from across the room drew Hunk out of his thoughts. He glanced over at Pidge’s computer setup, where she was sitting up, peeling her face off of her keyboard. The outlines of the keys creased one cheek, and her glasses fell from their askew perch on her head and clattered loudly on top of the keys. That startled Matt, who shrieked and jerked awake, hand fumbling for a weapon when he realized where he was.

            Hunk and Pidge both stared at him a moment, suddenly less bleary-eyed than they’d been a moment ago.

            “Matt?” Pidge asked quietly, and Matt flicked his eyes between the both of them, cut a glance back to his empty hand, and then found his staff near Pidge, resting against the control panel.

            “Uh,” he said, “g’morning. Breakfast already?”

            He staggered to his feet, stalked over to Pidge’s setup, took up his staff and ruffled his sister’s hair, and then ambled out of the lab, doors hissing open to let him go and clanging shut in his wake. Briefly, Pidge and Hunk merely stared after him. Then Pidge sighed, pushed out of her chair, and took up her glasses. She shoved them on her face while Hunk groaned and got to his feet, took off his helmet and tucked it underneath an arm.

            “Should we…?” Pidge started, and then stopped, frowned, didn’t know where to carry her sentence next.

            Hunk shook his head. “I don’t know. Maybe the alarm just…y’know, if he was deeply sleeping…”

            Pidge nodded, brows furrowed like she wasn’t even sure why she was nodding. “Yeah, that’s…yeah, alright.”

            With that, they, too, started for the dining room. They’d only gotten halfway there when there was a grunt from down the hall behind them, and they stopped, turned, found Lance attempting a poor jog to catch up with them. When he finally did, he draped one arm around Hunk and one arm around Pidge, and practically let himself collapse between them, panting.

            “You okay, buddy?” Hunk asked, and Lance managed a weak thumb’s-up off of Pidge’s shoulder.

            “Yeah,” he wheezed, “peachy. Hunk, buddy, bro, sunshine man—”

            “Sunshine man?” Pidge muttered, shooting a look at Hunk.

            “I’ve gotta talk to you later,” Lance said, and rolled his wrist, waved his hand in a circle. “About uh…lizards, and stuff.”

            “Lizards? Lance, what the—”

            “Old debate we were having in the Garrison, y’know,” Lance interrupted Pidge, this time flapping his hand. “Very intellectual, took me a while to come up with a response, you know. Goofball Lance and whatnot, but anyway, Hunk—” Lance let go of the both of them, and they stopped moving again, while Lance shot finger-guns at the both of them. “—peanut butter to my marshmallow fluff, I will be seeing you later. Lizards, and all that. I’ve got a killer theory for you. Now, I’ll see you all at breakfast, I’m gonna…gonna go hit the little Paladins’ room first.”

            Lance nodded to the both of them, and then took off in the other direction.

            Pidge and Hunk stared after him, Pidge blinking a few times and then groaning. “The day just started, can we hold off on the weirdness for like, an hour? Can at least I have Coran’s poor imitation of coffee before he starts acting like this?”

            But Hunk remained quiet.

            Lizards, Lance had said.

            Hunk swallowed. “Ah…yeah, sure was weird. C’mon Pidge, let’s…let’s get to the dining room.”

            He put a hand on her shoulder and started ushering her off in that direction; he glanced back once, but Lance was already gone, completely in the wrong direction from the closest bathroom, which was just up ahead of them, something Pidge either failed or didn’t care to pick up on as they continued on their way.

            Lizards.

            There was only one lizard he and Lance had ever talked about, and it sure as hell hadn’t been in the Garrison.


            Keith took the widest, most convoluted path to the dining room to avoid running into anyone on his way there, and still managed to not be the last person to arrive.

            He poked his head in the door and found the other members of the team milling about, chatting idly or not at all. Matt stared into his cereal, while Pidge listed off to one side, holding her head up with a hand on her cheek and her elbow propped on the table. Hunk poked at his food, and Shiro seemed perfectly content to eat…whatever was in front of him, probably another experiment of Coran’s, and definitely not the cereal that everyone else had opted for.

            Coran, Allura, and Lance were nowhere to be found.

            Keith slid into an empty seat at the table, a table longer than usual—evidently, it had been extended for one reason or another, and it dawned on him then that they had another meeting scheduled, which meant allies—diplomats—aboard the ship, and surely a few of them would decide to stop by for food and mingling.

            Mingling, which meant Keith had to interact with them, along with the rest of the team. Meeting, which meant strategy, which meant butting heads with Shiro, if their last few meetings were anything to go by.

            Keith stole a glance at him now, head bent over a data tablet as he continued on with breakfast. Where his smile had been placid seconds ago, it’d morphed into a frown, his dark brows knitting in concentration as he dragged a thumb along the tablet, scanning over the information before him. Then Keith let his eyes fall away as he swiped a bowl and the box of cereal closest to him. He didn’t spare a greeting for anyone at the table, except for one exchanged look with Hunk, who merely gave him a nod and continued on eating.

            It was some time before the door opened again. This time, all five heads at the table lifted, turned to the door, and found four figures strolling in—Allura, Coran, Kolivan, and Krolia.

            “Paladins,” Allura greeted, “we’ve a few guests joining us for—where is Lance?”

            “Whoops, sorry I’m late! Wasn’t aware we were having guests today, y’know?”

            The response came from the back of the group as Lance slipped past them with an apologetic nod, a two-fingered salute to Allura and Coran, and then he slowed his motions, sauntered over to the breakfast table like it was nothing, and claimed an empty seat next to Keith.

            Like, directly next to.

            Keith’s eyes swept over the other available spots at the table. They didn’t have names marked off, no reservations, so why—?

            “Right,” Allura said slowly, and then strode forward, and gestured toward the table. “Kolivan, Krolia, thank you for joining us this morning. Please, take a seat wherever you please, and help yourself. And I understand you have an offer to make for us?”

            Keith leaned forward at that. He peered above Lance’s arm, reaching across the table for whatever Coran had conjured up,

            “Yes,” Kolivan rumbled, “it’s actually Krolia’s offer to make, not my own.” He nodded to her, as he pulled up a seat between Shiro and Lance, while Krolia took a seat at the other end of the table, across from Keith and next to Matt. Coran and Allura finally sat at either head of the table—Coran between Krolia and Keith, and Allura between Shiro and Hunk.

            Every eye fell to her, even as she kept a nonchalant manner, took a plate, and then took a few scoops of Coran’s creation. Only then did she finally clear her throat, raise her eyes to the rest of the room, and momentarily study each individual, her focus lingering a heartbeat longer on Keith before she shifted all the way back to Allura.

            “I’d like to offer my services to train the Paladins.” She waited for that to sink in, watched Allura’s face go from passive pleasantness to brief shock to curiosity, as she folded her arms and leaned forward. “It’s no secret the fate of the universe rests on their shoulders, and as capable as they are, or might seem, there’s still work to be done.” Another moment, as a small measure of indignation entered Lance’s expression, as he set his fork down and narrowed his eyes. “I don’t mean to demean them in anyway, as they’ve undertaken a task far greater than any of us can comprehend, but they’re young. Very young to be on the intergalactic battlefield, let alone its front lines. I understand there have been close encounters, some of which can be avoided with the proper training and honing of the skills they already possess.” Another glance around the table, and then a nod to Keith. “Your Black Paladin lasted an impressive amount of time against our operatives, but it wasn’t enough, and there are people more ruthless, cunning, and quick compared to us. You must be prepared to face them and win, if the universe has any hope of survival.”

            With that, she took a bite of her meal, and waited for the others to process. Finally, Pidge leaned over.

            “So…would we be going to the Blade base, or…?”

            Krolia swallowed. “We would remain here, on your training deck. I don’t believe you can afford the time to travel between the castleship and Marmora base for training. As such, I would like to make a request to the princess, that I remain here for some time, until you’re all trained to what I believe is a sufficient level to get the job done. If I were to remain here, I also offer my services on missions, with data…whatever the need be.”

            Krolia looked over the group again, eyes finally coming to rest on Allura. The other Paladins followed her gaze, but Allura glanced at each of them as she folded her hands in front of her. When nobody spoke up in outright objection, Allura smiled, met Krolia’s eyes. “I think the offer will be useful to us. We accept, and are more than grateful.”

            “Excellent,” Kolivan said then, drawing the attention of the group. “When we depart after this afternoon’s meeting, Krolia will be remaining here, then. So, now that that’s settledI believe there are matters of today’s meeting to be discussed. Princess, you wouldn’t mind giving us a brief rundown now, would you? I’d like a bit of information to get my talking points a little more orderly.”

            “Yes,” Allura started, “about that—”

            On the two dining room walls behind Allura and Coran, screens flickered to life, displaying feeds of the area surrounding the castle. Ships of varying sizes, designs, and colors were moving in, though the castle alarm hadn’t kicked in. Coran jumped to his feet at once, and pulled out a panel from the table’s underside and called up holoscreens. The rest of the table sat in tense silence, while Keith’s hand went to his back, fingers wrapping around the hilt of his Marmora knife.

            “Just Coalition allies on their way in,” Coran announced after a couple minutes of concentration. “No hostiles.”

            The group around the table breathed a collective sigh of relief, while Allura pushed back up from her chair, without having had the chance to even touch breakfast.

            “Well, I suppose I’ll have to go greet them.”

            “And I’ll come with you, Princess,” Coran said, and started after her, leaving the other Paladins alone with Krolia and Kolivan.

            “So much for them having time to eat,” Lance muttered, and then took in a mouthful of his breakfast, only to freeze in his seat and slowly set his fork down. The others watched as he forced himself to chew and swallow, and then shuddered. “You know what? Maybe it’s better off that way.”

            “So Krolia,” Shiro said then, rather loudly, while Lance ducked his head and shrank down in his seat, and Keith passed him the box of cereal, “what kind of training did you have in mind? Weapons, hand-to-hand combat…?”

            “All of the above,” Krolia answered, “as well as building up agility and dexterity. While I don’t doubt the skills you already possess—such as your piloting skills, which I feel we have no need to touch, at the moment—every aspect of combat must be fine-tuned, honed to as close to perfection as you can get. We want to find your individual strengths and weaknesses and work on them until you gel as a team.”

            “Weren’t we supposed to have mastered that like, a long time ago? Being a team?” Hunk muttered.

            Lance raised his head and nodded to him. “Paladin code.”

            Pidge narrowed her eyes. “We have an official code?”

            Keith groaned, closed his own eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, while Lance turned in his seat to fully face him. He opened his mouth, a remark on his lips, but he let it die there as he closed his mouth, and then returned to eating. And for a moment after, Keith remained still, and then opened one eye, and glanced at Lance out of its corner.

            “So, the meeting,” Kolivan said.

            “Right,” Shiro said, and suddenly perked up, straightened out. “Lotor—”

            “Shouldn’t we wait till Allura’s back to discuss this?” Lance interrupted.

            Shiro turned to look at him—glare at him, openly. “We have other allies aboard the ship already that we won’t be able to keep waiting for very long, and Allura’s just going to say the same thing.” With that, he looked beyond Lance, apologetically met Kolivan’s eyes, and continued on. “Lotor requested an alliance with us, and then offered a tour of his base in a show of good faith, so we went, and uncovered…well, a lot, but the most pressing thing is a room’s worth of pure quintessence.”

            Hunk swallowed loudly, and drew the group’s attention. “Well, it wasn’t a huge room…it was actually kinda small, but filled wall-to-wall with quintessence. They were like, in all these different containers, with different colors.”

            “I spent a lot of the night scanning over what Hunk saw, but without physically having the quintessence in the lab, we can’t get much out of it,” Pidge added. “I’ve got no idea what the different colors mean, or what the concentration levels are, if they’re really pure, but that’s what we were thinking. That’s what the helmet reading gave us, and it’s usually pretty reliable.”

            Matt stabbed a fork in Pidge’s direction in confirmation. “But aside from the quintessence, we found a lot of history, a lot of artifacts that were probably spoils of war—Hunk was up reading about everything.”

            “Yeah, and now I’m only mildly regretting it,” Hunk said, nodding with a wince.

            “I don’t know how much of that history will truly be relevant,” Kolivan remarked. “But I suppose that information couldn’t hurt to have on hand. As for this quintessence…you said this was Lotor’s base, and you’d previously found quintessence being hauled about on an empty prison base by a druid. You don’t suppose Lotor’s working with the witch’s druids?”

            “It’s certainly possible,” Krolia murmured. “And Lotor made an offer of an alliance, too, which—”

            “We’ve accepted,” Shiro said.

            Krolia pursed her lips, then, “So if you’ve made an alliance, and he’s at the heart of these quintessence operations, you’ve a direct in to find out what he’s up to and put a stop to it, but you must be wary. There must be a reason he wants an alliance, with Voltron out of anyone.”

            “And we’re sure it’s not just for our good looks and roguish demeanors?” Lance quipped, and swept his eyes around the table, hoping to crack a smile out of anyone, but he mostly earned grunting and eye-rolling.

            “Keep telling yourself that,” Pidge muttered.

            Lance sighed and sank back down in his seat. “You’re all heartless. Terrible friends, every last one of you.”

            “Oh no,” Keith deadpanned. “However will I live with myself?”

            But Lance just shook his head and scooped another spoonful of cereal. “You’ve got some nerve.”

            Playful, but not without a note of defeat and finality, as silence reclaimed the table. Krolia and Kolivan asked no more questions, but merely ate what they could before Coran returned, and requested that the group move to the meeting room.

            Shiro lingered as everyone got up, watched them all file out of the dining room, and then—

            “Keith, can I talk to you?”

            Keith, who’d been at the back of the group, froze in place, and listened as Shiro walked up to him, footsteps echoing in the emptiness.

            “Just for a second,” Shiro said, and Keith nearly flinched when his hand came down on his shoulder. “I just want to make sure you’re actually going to stay for this whole meeting.”

            Heat washed over Keith’s cheeks, flared through him like a spark shooting across a fuse. And he stamped this fuse out at the last second, fists clenching and shoulders bunching as he spun around, wrenched his shoulder out from Shiro’s grasp.

            “I’m not—”

            “It’s not becoming of a leader, Keith, and it reflects poorly on the team as a whole.”

            Then Shiro gave him a tight smile and walked out, leaving Keith alone—leaving Keith to be the last one to arrive—leaving Keith—

            “What is your fucking problem?!” Keith shouted, once the door slid shut. “What the hell do you want from me, Shiro?! If I could give Black back to you, I would!

            He spread his hands at his sides and heaved a breath, like he would get some response, but the doors didn’t open again. Shiro didn’t walk back in, didn’t apologize for his behavior the last few months, and especially the last few weeks. Instead, Keith remained by himself, until he finally let a growl rip from the back of his throat and stalked toward the door. Just before it opened, he unclenched his fists and rolled his shoulders, set his jaw and raised his eyes from the floor.

            Reluctance to take up the position of Black Paladin before had cost the team time and allies, and if Shiro made one more comment about his seeming lack of competence, Keith would snap.

            So he wouldn’t give Shiro a reason to comment.


            Members of the Voltron Coalition crowded the meeting room as Allura peered around the entrance. There wasn’t a single empty seat at the table, save for her own, as she prepared to enter.

            She wrung her hands and drew back, took in a deep breath, let her arms fall to her sides and her fingers brush over her skirt. Luckily, all of their allies had been able to arrive a varga earlier than previously scheduled, and responded to her request with minimal complaint. Good—she needed them in higher spirits before the bomb she was going to drop on all of them.

            Chin up, Allura thought, her mother’s voice echoing tenderly in her head. You mustn’t let your circlet slip.

            As if it could, with how snugly it rested around her head. Still, Allura reached up a hand, touched it, touched the gemstone in the center of her forehead and let her fingers remain for a moment, before her hand fell back in front of her, twined with her other one as she clasped them.

            Then she strode into the room.

            Idle chatter fell silent, chairs scraped the floor as they pulled closer to the table, holoscreens and datapads flickered to life.

            “Friends, allies,” Allura greeted as soon as she reached her chair, setting her hands on the back of it, “thank you for joining us, and thank you for arriving on time, even on such short notice.” She nodded to a few people as her eyes swept up and down the table. The Paladins, Coran, Kolivan, Krolia, an Olkari representative in place of Ryner, a Taujeerian, two dozen or so other diplomats from various corners of the universe—some in person, and some by transmission, static popping along holoscreens, hovering around the table. “We’ve no time to waste, we may as well get certain things out of the way.”

            Her own holoscreens already waited for her. With a few taps of her fingers, she brought up a projection, beaming out from the center of the table: five figures—Lotor’s generals.

            “News broke not long ago of Voltron making an alliance with Prince Lotor,” Allura said. “While the news wasn’t truthful at first, it is now.” A heartbeat, and a few scandalized gasps, mostly from those not personally in attendance, those who had the safety of not being in the same room with Allura and the rest of the team. “Lotor offered an alliance shortly after this announcement went public. If you recall, that announcement went public because Lotor saved us from an attack during a Coalition Show, an attack by Sendak and the Fire of Purification. When we didn’t come to an immediate agreement, he saved us from an attack for a second time.” A flick of her wrist, and the projection changed—shifted into the feed from the castleship of that fight, of Lotor and his generals’ ships, of the Voltron Lions surrounded by debris from the cruisers that’d meant to take them down.

            “Afterward, we agreed to an alliance, and a meeting in his base,” Allura said, and again, the projection changed—various shots of the interior of Lotor’s base from the team’s visit. “He offered this meeting in a show of good faith, and as you can see, we’ve all come back alive and in one piece. But some of you may be wondering why we agreed to the alliance in the first place.”

            “Yes.” The remark came from a tall, three-armed, nine-eyed alien, queen of a planet called Nivon. “How do you know for certain the Prince himself isn’t working with Sendak’s faction, or that he didn’t orchestrate the attack that pushed you into acceptance?”

            “We don’t for sure,” Allura admitted. “This is a heavily-calculated risk, and one that was not decided upon lightly. Our ultimate conclusion was that so long as we have an alliance with Lotor and his forces, we have a direct in to his operations, and a possible link from there to the operations of the Empire itself. We used his meeting as a means of collection intelligence, although that was…unknown to him.”

            Another tap on her holoscreen, and several different projections materialized over the table. One was the meeting with Lotor himself; another, feeds no doubt pulled from Hunk’s recordings, of the various artifacts, books, and the room full of quintessence; finally, data yanked from the labs by Pidge.

            “Impressive,” remarked another of the diplomats, a vaguely-humanoid lizard from a planetary chain called Tarvin.

            Allura smiled in their direction. “All of this data is being sent out and dispersed among the Coalition, and Prince Lotor must not hear a word of it.”

            She paused again, after that, smile thinning out as she waited, studied the reactions of everyone in the room.

            “So that’s why you called the meeting early,” Shiro finally said, raising his head. “We’re going behind his back.”

            “Precisely,” Allura answered, meeting his gaze, and then looking out at the group as a whole. “We don’t know in full what Lotor’s been up to in his time in exile, and whether or not he’s trying to use us. He’s dangerous, and not to be underestimated—and neither are we. He’ll be arriving to the meeting within the next half a varga, approximately, and that’s when we begin outlining our next moves against the Empire. But while he’s not here, I feel it important to bring up one other thing.”

            She bit her lip and dropped her eyes down to her holoscreens, and didn’t watch as the projection changed once more, accompanied by sound this time; didn’t watch as murmurs began, as Lotor offered for Allura to train with him; didn’t watch as the team shifted to look at her, wide-eyed and slack-jawed as she agreed to his terms.

            Coran’s worried gaze burned the worst.

            “Princess—”

            “I don’t know where this training will take place,” Allura interrupted. “Presumably on his base, but for all we know, he could have another location specifically dedicated to his studies.”

            “And you’re just gonna go alone? With Lotor?!” Lance asked, exasperation edging his voice.

            “Yes.” Allura folded her arms and raised her eyebrows, daring Lance to challenge her, but he merely stared at her for a few seconds before dropping his eyes to the other Paladins, silently begging for backup.

            “I mean, if Allura levels up with her alchemy, better for us, right? She said herself, that’s how Voltron was made, and, y’know…it could be helpful. We can better understand the Lions, maybe,” Pidge offered with a shrug, and Allura smiled gratefully at her.

            “Thank you, Pidge.” And then, to the rest of the group gathered: “I understand it’s dangerous, and though physically I’ll be alone, I don’t intend to walk in there without someone watching. As we did on his base, I’ll be recording as much as I can and feeding everything directly to the castle. If faced with a threat, the rest of the team will know immediately.”

            Matt leaned forward. “Even if the others are busy training, Olia gave me leave to hang out and help around here. I can monitor things.”

            Allura nodded to him. “We’ve multiple hands on deck at all times. Do not think we’re taking this matter lightly—we strive to be several steps ahead as best we can.”

            “Princess Allura’s risking herself for valuable intelligence,” someone toward the other end of the table remarked, after a beat of silence. “While I’m certain we’re concerned for her safety, I don’t see the harm in her pursuits. It’s not as though she’s asking any of us to send soldiers to the front lines, as of yet. The people of Denika support you in this endeavor.”

            One-by-one, other diplomats around the table voiced their agreement, until they’d all come to consensus—and just in time, because a new screen pulled up at Allura’s left with a beep, a red dot flashing in the corner. A video feed from the hangar, indicating another ship’s arrival. Allura’s eyes darkened at it, at the five figures that deboarded shortly after the engines cut out.

            “Paladins,” she said without looking up, “perhaps you should greet our guests and lead them here.”

            The sudden hardness in her voice had all five of the other Paladins on their feet almost instantly, and they tried not to trip over themselves as they held back from breaking into runs for the door. Shiro fell into line at the front of the group, the other Paladins shuffling into place behind him as they filed out. They didn’t let their tensed shoulders unbunch until they were several hallways away. Their steps slowed, movements mellowed.

            “I still don’t like this,” Pidge hissed to the group. “I was better off being on his base and doing things over transmission, but I don’t know how I feel about having him inside the fucking castle!

            “Yeah, I’m with Pidge on this,” Lance agreed. “Was kinda hoping to keep our alliance away from the place where we, oh, I dunno, live.”

            Hunk shot a wary glance in Lance’s direction, but said nothing as he shifted his attention to Shiro and Keith. Shiro’d stopped walking, turn to outright frown at Pidge and Lance, but Keith…he wore some kind of expression Hunk had trouble placing. Guilt, maybe—maybe that he’d agreed to this in the first place, maybe—

            No, no way.

            It made a sick kind of sense, though, and Hunk almost asked about it right then and there, but kept his mouth shut while Shiro reprimanded them, something or other about respecting allies or being discreet or some nonsense Hunk wasn’t totally on board with, though he didn’t argue. He merely let out a quiet sigh when Shiro turned back around, and the group continued on to the hangars—Pidge now with clenched fists, and Lance with crossed arms.

            “We should’ve suited up before this, or at least grabbed our bayards, or something,” Lance muttered. “They’ve probably got weapons, right? And armor! I’ve never seen them without their armor. If they wanted to stage a coop—”

            “Coup,” Keith corrected.

            Lance paused long enough to glare.

            “—Coup,” he mimicked, and then continued, “they’d have no problem! They could just waltz on up and shoot us and then get into the castle, no biggie!”

            “We have more than twenty allies on board, not to mention that Allura’s got a video feed directly to the hangar. We’re fine,” Shiro responded, voice sharp. “No more on this, alright? We’re coming up on the hangar, and we need this alliance to work, so we probably shouldn’t give them a reason to shoot us.”
            He turned back around with an air of finality, and sped up his walk, striding far ahead of the other Paladins.

            “What’s his problem?” Lance asked to no one in particular, dropping his voice to a whisper. “He hasn’t been himself since Keith found him.”

            “He was a Galra prisoner again,” Hunk pointed out. “Not an easy thing to recover from.”

            Lance sighed. “I know, but…this seems weird to me, y’know? It’s been months, Black hasn’t responded, and he hasn’t…” Lance suddenly quieted, and glanced at Keith. “He hasn’t tried talking to you, has he?”

            At first, Keith’s eyebrows rose, slightly disconcerted, taken aback by his question. Then, though, he shook his head. “No. I wish he would. He…” For a moment, Keith hesitated, then bit his lip and shook his head again. “Never mind. I’ll…I’ll try and see what I can get out of him later. Come on.” With that, he started after Shiro, and left Hunk, Lance, and Pidge standing, staring, until Lance scowled and followed suit, and muttered something about the Black Lion has terrible taste in Paladins.

            “That was…sure something,” Pidge said.

            “Maybe we should talk to Allura about hosting a team meeting, just us,” Hunk suggested.

            Pidge rolled her eyes. “Yeah, like that worked out last time.”

            Hunk winced and opened his mouth to respond, but Pidge beat him to the punch. “Never mind. Let’s just catch up before Shiro decides he needs another excuse to get snippy with us.”

            She started jogging down the halls, Hunk on her tail, until they caught back up to Lance, at the very least, because Shiro was still way ahead of them, already to the hangar door. The four youngest Paladins slowed, followed carefully, until they fell into formation beside each other—Hunk watched Keith’s hand drift behind his back, fingers close around the hilt of his knife. He considered reaching out, wrapping a hand around Keith’s wrist, but decided against it as the group finally entered the hangar after Shiro.

            “Prince Lotor,” Hunk heard the greeting, “and generals. Glad to have you aboard.”

            “Glad, sure,” Lance whispered.

            “The pleasure is ours,” Lotor said, tipping his chin, eyes roving over the group behind Shiro. “Paladins, it’s been so long.”

            “It was yesterday,” Keith deadpanned.

            Lotor blinked at him for a few moments, set his jaw. “It was a joke, but I see it wasn’t very well-received. No matter, we’re grateful to be aboard anyway. I trust the meeting hasn’t yet begun? We’re on time?”

            “Right on time,” Shiro lied with a smile. “Come with us.”

            Lotor walked right alongside Shiro as they led the way back to the meeting room, and the generals closely trailed the Paladins.

            “So,” Ezor said, putting a hand on her hip as she walked along, sweeping her other arm out in gesture. “When do we get to run around your place? Looks awfully nice.”

            “Uh, you don’t?” Pidge replied, eyes narrowing. “You’re here for a meeting.”

            Ezor frowned, and then decided to study her nails, instead. “Hmm. Shame.”

            The group fell back into silence after that, positions shifting. Hunk slowed his steps until he was bringing up the rear of the group, subtly ushering Lotor’s generals in front of him, especially Narti, whom Lance made a point to stay as far away from as possible, walking on the far left while Narti stuck to the right. Her cat perched on her shoulder, tail flicking back and forth, head turning and eyes roaming.

            Strangely enough, they kept landing on Lance and Keith.


            Lotor’s welcome to the meeting was…chilly, to say the least.

            Not frigid, not downright frozen—their allies at least made an attempt at seeming friendly, stiffly polite. They pretended like they weren’t a little miffed that Allura had Lotor and his generals take the seats the Paladins had previously been occupying, leaving the Paladins standing in a semicircle around the head of the table, flanking Allura.

            “Everyone, our newest members of the Voltron Coalition,” Allura said.

            She spoke primly, properly, pleasantly smiling. She hoped those sitting around her wouldn’t take notice to the slight shift in her attitude from earlier, or at the very least, wouldn’t mention it—not in front of Lotor and the generals.

            “Voltron Coalition,” Lotor addressed with a nod. “A pleasure to meet you, and an honor to be seated among you.”

            His generals raised their hands in greeting, and then Allura cleared her throat, and launched into a rundown of the meeting’s agenda: figure out the Empire’s next moves, and take down the other factions vying for power—Sendak’s, especially.

            “The Empire’s been gathering quintessence,” Lotor spoke up almost immediately, bluntly.

            Allura stared at him for a moment, and someone at the other end of the table coughed.

            “Uh, can we get an explanation on that, or?” Matt spoke up.

            Lotor folded his hands in front of him, either unaware or uncaring that he’d drawn the eyes of everyone in the room. “Admittedly, I don’t know much, seeing as I was exiled and had a bounty placed upon my head the moment my father was exiled.” A pause, a moment to let it sink in, then he continued. “But I will say that what I’ve uncovered is disconcerting. It seems my father’s forces are working in tandem with his witch’s druids to gather the purest quintessence they can—everything I’ve found that they’ve commandeered is extremely concentrated, if not one-hundred percent pure. For what reasons, I’m not entirely sure, which is why I’ve been making an effort to rob them of what I can.”

            Hunk choked.

            He hadn’t meant to, and ignored the sudden look of alarm from Pidge as he masked it with a coughing fit. She thunked him on the back, while the other diplomats looked on, and Lance raised his eyebrows.

            “Looks like we should start bringing water to these meetings or something, huh?” he remarked. “Dry throats, man. Not good.”

            Lotor narrowed his eyes but ultimately didn’t comment on it, and instead focused back on the task at hand. “As for Sendak’s faction, I say as long as he doesn’t come back, we let him continue on his way without intervention. He’s been destroying opposing factions for a few phoebs now, and allowing him to continue doing so is less work for us, so that we focus directly on my father without distraction.”

            “But what of the planets Sendak and the Fire have taken over or destroyed? And what of the potential allies we could make out of those factions Sendak takes down? Leaving Sendak unchecked could lead to catastrophe,” one of the diplomats somewhere in the middle of the table called out, while another nodded in agreement.

            “They’re right. The Fire’s ranks have been growing, enough to rival the smaller of Zarkon’s troops, and possibly enough to rival the Coalition itself.”

            “The Blades can begin gathering more intel on them and start running bigger coordinated attacks as we see fit,” Kolivan jumped in. “As we progress, we’ll determine whether we can handle it, or whether we’ll need reinforcements. But direct action must be taken on the Empire, both in terms of stealth and strike.”

            “We’ll need to discover what they’re using the quintessence for, first and foremost,” Allura said, and tapped at her holoscreens. New images appeared, taken from the team’s helmets on older missions. “They’ve been collecting and experimenting with quintessence before, but the concentrations were never as high as they apparently are now.”

            “Likely, the witch is running experiments,” Lotor replied. “It’s what she’s been doing for decaphoebs. Often she runs them on my father’s prisoners.”

            Shiro stiffened. Keith grit his teeth and let his fists clench at his sides. Pidge outright flinched. Matt cast his gaze at the table.

            “Yeah, I think we already knew that,” Lance muttered under his breath. “Okay, so she’s running experiments. Isn’t that reason enough to go in there? Shouldn’t the prisoners already have been enough reason?”

            “He’s got a point,” someone on one of the screens around the table said. “Those prisoners have been ripped away from their homes, and most likely had at least one loved one they left behind.”

            Coran’s fingers flew over his holoscreens; on the largest screen in the room, located off to the left of the dining table, an identical image appeared, letters rapidly blinking into existence as Coran typed out what must have been a list, every word in Altean. Still, he narrated what he wrote.

            “So the Blades are going to gather intelligence on Sendak’s faction. That’s one of our objectives. Objective two is find out what, exactly—no guessing—the Empire wants with its quintessence. Objective three is to rescue and bring home the Empire’s prisoners, which is a…staggering feat, to say the least. And then there’s a matter of taking down the other factions, on top of Zarkon himself.”

            “The witch goes with him,” Lotor said, voice hard. “They’re a pair, yes, but apart, she’s incredibly lethal all on her own.”

            Coran nodded and wrote that down, while Shiro crossed his arms and tipped his chin. “She’s cunning. Zarkon is blunt. He’s the brawn of the operation, but she’s the brain. And she doesn’t stop until she gets what she wants. If we underestimate her, this whole thing falls apart.”

            Lotor glared in his direction. “My father may indeed be their brawn, when together, but his thinking isn’t to be taken lightly. There’s a reason he’s maintained his status as emperor for the last ten thousand or so decaphoebs.”

            His jaw tightened; he appeared like he wanted to say more, but bit his tongue, fingers digging into the backs of his hands, harsh even through his gloves.

            “So,” Coran said with a slight wince, trying to bring a little levity back to the room, “that’s take out the other factions, Zarkon, and Haggar. Once that’s accomplished, the next step would be to figure out what to do about the power structure—”

            “We can save that objective for when we get there,” another diplomat interrupted. “I feel as though this list is ambitious enough, and we’ll likely need more allies to accomplish all of it swiftly, and in one piece.”

            “Yeah, and wouldn’t power go to Lotor anyway?” The room went silent as Ezor crossed her arms and leaned back in her seat, completely nonchalant. For a moment, she didn’t notice the attention on her, the first of Lotor’s generals to speak up, until finally she threw her hands up. “What? He’s Zarkon’s son! Zarkon’s out, he’s in, right?”

            “And then he would have choices to make,” Allura said, “over what to do with that power. Choices that can be made when the time comes. If the time comes.”

            Her voice sharpened, pointed, and she narrowed her eyes as she flicked them to Lotor, and then back out at the rest of the table. “President Arvu’undera has a point. We have a long list, and we’re going to need more allies. And while I’m sure the Paladins would enjoy continuing our Coalition Tour with more productions of the Voltron musical,” a pause, a cut of her eyes to the others, as Keith slowly shook his head, Pidge dragged a hand down her face, Hunk drew a line across his throat, Shiro shrugged, and Lance tried not to grin, “there isn’t time.” Allura ignored the few sighs of relief and one single groan from her sides. “All of you sitting here are tasked with public outreach—to other allies who haven’t joined the Coalition, to other planets and systems nearby, anyone and everyone you can. The Blades are going to begin intel on the Fire of Purification. Lotor is going to help us find out what, exactly, the Empire wants with this pure quintessence, and we’ll figure out what to do with the quintessence he’s already gathered. As for the rest of you—Matt, if you could, upload all the data we’ve got on the Empire’s known prison bases? The rest of you are tasked with either gathering intel on these bases, or striking and rescuing prisoners, if you can manage. Is everyone clear? Questions?”

            A minute or two of silence, and then: “Then this meeting is dismissed.”


            By virtue of being a Paladin, Lance couldn’t slip out until every last ally had either gone back to their ship or had been given a room to stay in for the rest of the day and night. When at last, the Paladins were free to go, Lance grabbed Hunk by the arm and yanked him out of the room, Hunk yelping and practically tripping over himself before he found his footing, while Lance called over his shoulder that they’d be hitting the training deck.

            They didn’t notice until four hallways later that Keith had followed.

            “Okay, what’s going on?” Hunk hissed, whipping around to make sure no one else was with them, as Lance ushered them into the first room he found—a library of sorts, full of old, busted-looking datapads coated in thick layers of dust, very little light filtering in from a window that took up the entire wall opposite the door, slipping through the cracks between shelves pushed in front of it. “Lance?”

            “Okay, so,” Lance said, and wrung his hands while Hunk sat down at one of the two square tables that took up the room, each one lined with benches on two of their four sides, and Keith took up a spot on top of the table, feet resting on the bench, “you remember how I went off by myself on Lotor’s base?”

            “Yeah?” Hunk’s brow pinched. “Is this about—?”

            “Yes, it’s about Narti.” The words came out of Lance as an exhale, and he deflated, leaning back against the bookshelves while Keith shifted more in his direction, bracing his forearms against his thighs and folding his hands, and letting them dangle in the space between his legs. “I was alone, and she found me, and she was about to do something to me when Keith showed up.” He lazily threw up one arm in gesture.

            “Yeah, I saw that,” Hunk said. “Matt was keeping me and Pidge posted on you guys while we snooped around, and next thing you know, oop, Keith’s left the meeting, don’t know where he’s off to.”

            Keith frowned and hung his head a bit lower as he studied his hands. “It was just better that I wasn’t there.”

            For a moment, Lance and Hunk were quiet, and then Lance sighed. “Think what you want, but having you there probably would’ve been better than having Shiro there, all things considered. I don’t think—”

            “Can we just not talk about it?” Keith interrupted, head snapping up, and Lance’s mouth shut, hard enough for teeth to clack, and he brought his hands up to either side of his head.

            “Alright, alright. We don’t have to talk about it—now, anyway. I just wanted you to know that you’re not like, as terrible at these things as you think. But, yeah—where was I…oh, right, Narti, Keith showed up, right, okay. He said Lotor needed me, so we had to go, so we were going when she started chasing after us and straight-up attacked us, and she went after Keith this time.”

            By all means, he should’ve been looking at Hunk. He was speaking to him, after all. But Keith’s expression had softened, and Lance stared at him now, stared as he recalled Keith’s cry of pain as he went down, the way he’d tried to fight when Narti yanked his head back, the zombielike look in his eyes and set to his stance as she took control…

            Keith dropped his eyes and pushed a hand roughly through his bangs, and then turned to Hunk. “She knocked me down and ripped my helmet off, and then pulled me back up to my feet, and she had her hand on my head. And she was—she was digging her claws in!” Keith pushed at his hair, again, as it fell back into his face. “So she was holding me, and Lance had his rifle up but he wouldn’t shoot—”

            “I didn’t want to accidentally shoot you!” Lance interrupted.

            Keith rolled his eyes. “As if you would’ve, Sharpshooter.”

            Lance’s mouth was already open, halfway to a response, but he drew up short, eyes widening fractionally, and something funny fluttered in his chest while uninvited heat seared across his cheeks, there and gone so fast Lance didn’t have the time to identify it, not with the issue at hand—

            “And then all of a sudden, she was in my head. It’s…it’s a weird feeling, like…my body fell out from under me, for a second, and then her voice was in my head, and I felt everything, I saw everything, but I had zero control.”

            Hunk pursed his lips at the admittance, while Lance crossed his arms. “I didn’t see it. Her cat decided to attack my face as a distraction, and then stopped when Keith was under her control. After that, she like, used Keith as a vessel to speak to me, I guess? It was his voice, but definitely not his words.”

            “It was Lotor won’t hear a word of this. Surrender now, do as I ask, and I won’t hurt either of you,” Keith said, and flicked his eyes to Lance as Lance’s jaw dropped.

            “How—?”

            “I wasn’t able to sleep at all last night. I kept hearing it.” His voice went quiet, far more feeble than it was moments ago, and Hunk reached a hand for him, rested it on his knee and squeezed while Keith shot him a grateful half-smile, before it faded and he returned his gaze to the ground.

            “Lotor won’t hear a word of this,” Hunk repeated as though tasting the words. “What, does that mean she’s going behind his back, or…?”

            “I have no idea,” Keith said. “I’m not even sure I want the answer to that.”

            “I’m pretty sure we’re gonna need the answer if we wanna figure out what’s going on,” Hunk said, “but go on. What happened after?”

            “Keith started to like, take back control in the middle of her mini-speech,” Lance said. “Next thing you know, he’s hunching over, Narti’s alarmed, I try and shoot Narti because now she’s fully in my range and can’t use Keith as a body shield, and I hit her and she fell and Keith looked up and…”  Lance swallowed thickly, eyes meeting Keith’s again. Keith hesitated, chewing on his lower lip, and then nodded, and Lance blew out another breath. “His eyes were glowing, but they were yellow this time, and we’ve got no idea what it means.”

            “Yellow,” Hunk repeated slowly.

            Lance nodded.

            Keith dropped his head.

            “But yours were blue.”

            Another nod from Lance, and Keith’s shoulders bunched.

            “So it probably wasn’t the Lions or the Voltron connection,” Hunk murmured. He steepled his hands in front of his face and leaned into them, face pinching in concentration. After a minute or two of silence, and of Keith and Lance staring, Hunk’s face went slack. “Oh, no, no way.”

            “Hunk, don’t do this,” Lance said, while at the same time Keith whirled on him. “Hunk.”

            Hunk put his hands up. “Okay, so like, I have a theory, but it’s kinda far out there and I’d really like to find some way to test this before I say it, because Lance, I know how you get—”

            “Just spit it out!” Lance shouted, throwing his arms out at his sides.

            Hunk opened his mouth at the same time a beep sounded, drawn-out. Keith jumped at the sound, hand automatically ripping his knife from his sheath as he jumped to his feet, still standing on the bench, while Lance and Hunk traded glances—Lance exasperated, and Hunk caught somewhere between relieved and confused.

            “Paladins!” Coran’s voice called cheerfully. “You’re needed on the training deck!”

            “Cheese and rice, do you think they know we lied now?” Lance whispered, while Hunk shoved past the both of them and sprinted out the door.

            “Probably! Let’s go!”

            Lance sighed, and then his spine went rod-straight, head whipping up. “Hey! Wait a minute, come back here! HUNK!

            His feet shifted, about to break into a run after him, when Keith grabbed his shoulder and pulled him back. “Just let him go. We can talk about it later, maybe when we’ve gathered more information on what’s going on.”

            Lance pouted, and pointed at the now-open door. “But he just—!”

            “I know, Coran has terrible timing,” Keith said. “I have a question for you, though.”

            “Fine.” Lance jammed his hands into his pockets and resumed his position against the bookshelves, leveling slightly calmer eyes at Keith—Keith, who fiddled with his knife, turned it over and twirled it in his hand. “Well, hit me with it.”

            “You really think something’s up with Shiro?”

            Keith’s eyes shone with a kind of vulnerable earnestness Lance wasn’t used to, a strange softness in his voice that unsettled him, even though it appeared more and more lately, especially when they were—

            Alone. Like this.

            So I guess this is just a thing that’s happening now. And Lance supposed it made sense—he opened up to Keith, Keith opened up to him, right hand and leader, that sort of stuff.

            “Well, duh, he came back from being a prisoner of war—”

            “No, something…well, yes, but something weirder. Like he’s so far from himself that this behavior…even if something terrible…” Keith grit his teeth, the longer he fumbled for words, and then huffed out a breath. “I can’t explain it, but it’s like—like you said in the musical!” Keith snapped his fingers and very nearly poked Lance in the chest.

            “…I’m not exactly following, I haven’t been getting the best sleeps either,” Lance said, gently pushing his hand down.

            Keith carded another hand through his hair. “The whole thing with Shiro being corrupted, and someone said something about another Shiro being in his place. It’s…it’s like he’s not himself because it’s not him, or something.”

            Lance blinked at him, and then set a hand on Keith’s shoulder. “Okay, Keith, listen, while that would be really weird but oddly cool, I don’t think I can predict the future, even though obviously…something’s not right with me, you, or Shiro. And we’re gonna have to figure it out later, because right now, we need to get to the training deck before Coran kicks our butts.”

            Even still, Lance watched him for a moment more, squeezed his shoulder while the enthusiasm slid right off of him.

            “Hey,” Lance said then, and cocked his head, tried to draw Keith’s wandering attention. “We’ll look into it. You’re right, something’s definitely up with him, and I know you guys are really close. Remember what else I told you during the musical?”

            Keith’s brow furrowed, and—and that funny thing came back, that hot and fuzzy and tickling—

            “You back me,” Lance said, “and I back you. We’ve got each other, y’know? Now c’mon, we’ve really gotta go.”

            He let go of Keith’s shoulder and let his arm drop down to his side, turned toward the door, paused just in the frame and then waited as Keith sheathed his knife, waited until Keith was at his side, and only then started out, never a foot ahead or behind.

Chapter Text

5.02
Silent but Deadly

            Training with Krolia started well.

            The key word there being started.

            The first couple days were standard assessments, exercise drills to get them prepared. Running laps, stretching, jumping jacks—the same physical drills a few of the Paladins had liked to think of as tedious in elementary phys ed, and annoying back in the Garrison. Those were followed up in the next days with individual assessments: one Paladin on the training deck alone at a time, with only Krolia and Coran watching from the viewing deck. The others remained in the hallway just outside of the deck, able to do nothing but listen and wait.

            When the group walked into the training deck on their fourth day of Blade training, Krolia paired the Paladins off.

            She wouldn’t give the reasoning for her choices; she merely smirked as she ordered them to different areas of the deck: Shiro and Hunk, Pidge and Lance, and Keith and Allura. Keith narrowed his eyes as Krolia set them up, tried to figure things out for himself—based on height? Based on weapon range? Based on armor color?

            He came up with nothing.

            “So,” Krolia said, looking over the group, once they’d gotten into position, “this exercise will be run in two parts. For the first part, you’ll be working together to fight the training bots.” She folded her hands in front of herself and turned in a slow circle, appraising, assessing each of the Paladins who stood around the room with bayards at the ready. She seemed to be waiting for something, and across the room, the Paladins traded glances with each other, carefully-concealed confusion simmering under the surface of passivity.

            “Just…fighting the bots? Together? That’s it?” Lance finally ventured, turning over his bayard in his hands.

            At that, Krolia smiled.

            “Not quite,” she said. Again, she took her time looking at everyone, smile growing wider as they finally allowed their confusion to emerge in their expressions. “You’ll be doing this task without saying a word. Breathe a word, you’re out of the game.”

            “Come again?” Hunk asked.

            But Shiro seemed to understand. “So the task is essentially one part combat and dexterity, and another part stealth.”

            “Precisely,” Krolia responded. “You don’t want the enemy knowing your next moves, and if you manage to hide yourself, you don’t want to give away your location by having them hear you.”

            “But we have our comms,” Pidge pointed out. “All we’ve gotta do is whisper, and it should pick up on them, right?”

            “And say the Galra are jacked into your comm system, somehow,” Krolia said. “You’ve been able to get into their feeds, haven’t you? Imagine them hearing all of you when you think you’re safe, the kind of devastation that could befall you if they were to get wind of your plans and be able to orchestrate a counterattack.” She paused, to let that sink in, while Pidge paled and sank back. “The best defense against being overheard is not to say anything at all, and you should know your team inside and out to be able to coordinate a plan of attack without having to speak. Besides—not everyone can hear to begin with. It makes them no less of a fighter.”

            “So then why aren’t we working as a whole unit, instead of in pairs?” Keith asked, crossing his arms.

            Krolia matched his pose, eyes narrowing. “Instead of trying to learn the fighting styles of five other people at once, I find it more effective to train you one-on-one and know another person inside and out. We’ll be rotating partners until each of you have paired at least once with all of the others. Now.”

            She tipped her chin up, toward the viewing deck where Coran waited, and he nodded back to her, as she moved away from the center of the room, while a massive obstacle course erected itself—climbing walls, pits, risers with plenty of room to duck and weave underneath and hide, whole columns that ran from floor to ceiling, scaffolding, a labyrinthine mess.

            “We’ll be keeping track of who takes down which training bot,” Krolia remarked, as she started for the door that led to the elevator back up to the viewing deck. “The team with the most bots down, or the only team with a player still standing at the end of ten doboshes, wins. You speak, or a bot knocks you down for more than three ticks, you’re out. Good luck.”

            Keith understood, suddenly, what all of the training earlier in the week had been for, as he took in the training deck now.

            Coran’s voice boomed out over the deck’s speakers as he began a countdown, and Keith shifted his weight between his legs while Allura rolled her shoulders. She raised her eyes to his and then nodded to the rest of the deck, while Keith shrugged. There were no training bots yet, as far as he could tell—unless they were hidden from sight, in which case, they had to be ready.

            He let his bayard elongate into a sword while his shield appeared in his free hand, in a flash of blue light. Meanwhile, Allura’s whip unfurled, and she chose not to call upon her shield. Better for her, probably—her whip allowed for a greater distance between herself and any enemies than Keith’s sword did. Still, Keith would have liked to have someone with a gun on his side, someone with larger long-range capabilities…

            “Three!”

            Lance aimed the muzzle of his rifle at the ground as he scanned over the playing field before himself and Pidge, immediately picking out the highest vantage points, which ones he could reach easily and which would take some effort. Beside him, Pidge twirled around the rope of her bayard, set to grappling hook mode. She, too, scoured the deck, and nudged Lance in the side, pointing to different places where bots were shimmering into existence.

            Lance nodded to her with a smile pulling up the corner of his mouth. Take down the most bots, avoid getting knocked out. Simple enough.

            “Two!”

            Hunk’s fingers curled tighter around the handles of his laser cannon, and he cut his eyes to Shiro. His GalraTech hand glowed purple, and he angled his other arm in front of himself, shield activated. He itched for a fight, that much was clear by the way he crouched slightly, fingers flexing. Hunk opened his mouth to ask him about strategy, and promptly shut it again.

            Read his teammates, work silently. Right.

            “One!”

            A siren blared immediately after that, and they were off.

            The training bots broke into action, leaping down from their platforms, climbing onto others, weaving around columns as they sought out their targets. They moved with the same slightly-disjointed actions they always did, as one made the far jump from one of the highest platforms and landed squarely in front of Hunk and Shiro. Hunk raised his cannon to shoot it at the same time that Shiro lunged with his hand, and sliced the bot clean in two.

            Then he bolted.

            Hunk gaped, momentarily, and then remembered the fact that this was supposed to be a team training exercise, and took off after him.

            From another corner of the arena, Pidge and Lance both took off at once, Lance firing at the bots closest to them while Pidge shot out her grappling hook and wrapped it around the metal supports criss-crossing underneath one of the platforms. It cut right into the path of one of the bots, and she cranked up the voltage as it ran into it, making another bot sawed directly in half.

            Across the room, Keith and Allura both sprinted for a cluster of bots, poised and ready. The bots rushed them once they caught sight of them, and Allura slashed out with her whip, catching it around one of the bots’ wrists. Keith cut it down while it was stuck in place and then ducked underneath a swing from another bot and dropped into a slide, and sliced through the legs of another two.

            With the path clear, Allura sprinted for scaffolding and launched herself at it, fingers catching around the metal supports. She yanked herself up, and Keith followed suit. Higher ground, less area, less bots to fight, better vantage point. Keith looked over his shoulder at the rest of the training deck, and tried to pick out the other Paladins.

            A flash of Green—that had to be Pidge, and Keith had his thought confirmed when a streak of blue raced by afterward. Nearby, several cannon blasts fired off, followed by clanging as multiple bots went down and then disappeared. Hunk.

            Keith motioned in their directions as he turned to Allura, and she nodded—what she was nodding at though, Keith wasn’t sure. Confirmation she knew they were there? Confirmation she understood that Keith was saying yes, those are indeed our teammates? Just nodding as a reflex?

            Keith ignored the little voice in his head, musing that no wonder you all need this exercise, if you can’t understand what she means after over a year fighting together in space on the front lines of a war, and started searching for bots. A cluster of them moved down below in a sort of tandem he’d never seen. Allura’d already caught sight of them and peered over the platform.

            By the time she got to shaking her head, Keith had already leaped.

            He bore down on them with his bayard swinging in a wide arc, while Allura bit down on a shout of frustration and jumped down after him, before he could get himself into a fight he couldn’t win. He brought down two bots with his first swing, and then another one on a backswing. The third body collided with a fourth bot that Allura lashed out at with her whip, severing its head from the rest of the body.

            Neither she nor Keith saw the fifth bot creeping up behind them until a blast zipped by their heads.

            Keith’s head snapped in the direction the blast had come from, and saw Lance’s face peeking through spaces between scaffolding. He winked, and then ducked away, while Keith groaned.

            “Lan—fuck!

            “And that’ll be an out for Keith.”

            Krolia’s voice sounded almost amused over the comm system, as the floor opened up underneath Keith. He yelped, as darkness closed in over his head, and he hit mat.

            “I hate this room,” he breathed out, as soon as the ceiling sealed up over him, and weak lights flickered on.

            He tried sitting up, and then decided against it, and let his head thunk against the floor as he starfished out.


            Lance snickered quietly but held back from making a remark as Keith screeched and disappeared. Beside him, Pidge smothered her own laughter, and then nudged Lance in the ribs and nodded her head toward another group of bots marching by their hiding spot. Lance nodded back to her and then let his bayard shrink back to standard form and disappear into his suit. Then he started climbing, concealed by the density of the other platforms around them. He squeezed in-between other rungs, metal bars of the scaffolding, carefully sliding his limbs between them.

            Every so often, he glanced down, just to keep a visual on Pidge, who kept to the ground as she snuck by everyone else. So far, so good. No need to yank his bayard yet, as he squeezed himself into a sitting position on a few of the rungs—not quite to the top of the platform yet, but in a place where he could shoot and the others couldn’t reach him, and he could see…mostly.

            Honestly, for his team to win, he just had to be the last person standing, and out of the way of the bots.

            His bayard reappeared in his hand. Lance allowed it to transform back into his rifle, and he took it into his lap and aimed the muzzle for the floor, as he searched for targets. From this vantage point, he could see most of his teammates. He had to turn around and crane his neck to see where Allura’d run off to, not pleased that her partner had already been eliminated so soon.

            Now, see, Lanceylance wouldn’t do that to you, Lance thought, grinning to himself as he took aim for one of the bots approaching her. He lined up his shot just in time for Allura to completely take care of the situation, serrated edges of her whip ripping into the bot and tearing its chest to shreds as it went down in a heap of metal limbs.

            “Shit!”

            Lance snapped out of his stupor at the same time he watched Pidge yell out, as a bot hit her from behind. She collapsed to the floor, groaning.

            “And for speaking, that’ll be an out for Pidge.”

            As it did for Keith, Lance watched the floor open up and swallow Pidge before returning to normal, leaving Lance the only member of his team standing, and leaving Hunk and Shiro the only team still standing in full. And speaking of them, where—?

            Lance swept his eyes around the room again and found Shiro and Hunk moving closely together, Shiro taking the lead and Hunk taking up the rear; he shot anything on their six, while Shiro cut down their path with his hand. For the most part, a well-oiled machine, one long-range and one short-range. Lance considered what it would be like for himself to team up with Hunk, both of them with long-range but no short-range—

            The scaffolding Lance was sitting on shuddered.

            He glanced down, eyes widening in alarm, and found several bots going at it. Some of them were shaking it, while two others with swords were trying to hack at the metal to cut him down—they’re really trying to destroy the actual training setup, great. They have that capability. Lance aimed his rifle down and shot, once, twice, three, four—five times, and all five bots collapsed without heads. Shrapnel flew from the blasts, right into the paths of Hunk and Shiro, racing for the source of the noise.

            Shiro held his arm up to block Hunk, but Hunk didn’t stop in time, and sent them both stumbling and falling. Other bots that’d been tailing them closed in, and Lance grit his teeth. Shot a glance at the scaffolding across from his, while the scaffolding he was on now creaked and groaned as he moved.

            Then he jumped.

            He caught the scaffolding across from him one-handed and scrabbled for purchase, feet slipping on the rungs as they failed to get a hold. He screwed his eyes shut and grimaced as he fell, and landed on top of Hunk and Shiro, who both grunted underneath him. Meanwhile, more bots approached, drawn to the chaos. Lance shot a couple of them as he got back to his feet, but then the loudspeakers activated.

            “Hunk and Shiro have been down for more than three seconds, that’s an out for both of them. Their team has been eliminated.”

            “Oh, come on! Lance landed on—oh no.”

            Hunk cut himself off as the floor opened up, and he and Shiro disappeared. Lance darted away from them and the hole in the floor and kept running.


            Allura kept herself as far from Lance as she could.

            She interfaced with one of the overlays in her visor, allowing her to pick out the locations of each of her teammates with respect to her own location, and moved in the opposite of whatever direction Lance chose. His shots were loud, without a silencer, and would undoubtedly draw more bots to him than her whip would to her.

            Better for her.

            She ducked underneath a few of the lower platforms and then dropped onto her stomach, crawling underneath a few more as she scanned the area, both with her visor and her own eyes. Several pairs of feet moved by her without detection; once they were gone, she crawled out from her spot and sprinted. She slid underneath a low-hanging bar and then shot to her feet and jumped over another, as a shot rang out from the other side of the training deck.

            She flicked her eyes to her visor; sure enough, Lance was on the move and engaging bots, and others were drawing closer to her.

            Alright then.

            Allura’s bayard elongated again, blue whip unfurling, spilling out like a waterfall. She stopped and spun in time for the first of the bots to leap down from a platform just taller than her, swinging a bo staff for her head. She ducked underneath it and slashed up with her whip—she caught the bot, barely. The end of her whip opened a gash in the bot’s torso, but not enough to slice it in two. Certainly not enough to keep it down as two of its friends appeared from the left and right to join in.

            Quiznak.

            Allura bit down on her lip to keep from talking out loud, as the three bots approached, and she backed up, until she hit the support beams holding up the platform the first one had jumped off from.

            A whip is not going to cut it, Allura thought, wide-eyed, glancing down at her bayard, but that was all she had

            Well.

            Better make do.

            As the bots closed in, Allura rushed the center one.

            She tackled it to the ground, and then slashed backwards with her other arm. Metal tore as her whip ripped through the second bot, and then she got back to her feet and ran, just as the third jumped onto the first one, where she’d been moments before. Across the training deck, another shot rang out, and then a second, third, followed up by a surprised yelp and a grunt.

            “And Lance is down with two doboshes and thirty-seven ticks to go, making Allura and her partner our winners!” Krolia’s voice rang out after three ticks. Allura halted, spent a few seconds to breathe as she leaned up against a support beam. “Alright, Paladins. You’ve got a varga to rest and recharge before we continue. Spend it wisely.”

            Allura pushed off of the support beam as the arena disappeared, and left nothing but the normal deck, void of bots, behind. For a moment, she stared at it, at the chaos there and then gone, and then shook her head as she let her bayard dematerialize, back into her suit, and took off her helmet. She dragged a hand over her forehead and started for the exit; when she emerged into the hall, the others were all already there.

            “Great job out there,” Lance panted, doubled over against a wall.

            He lifted his head long enough to flash Allura a smile—pained, but genuine anyway—while the others echoed his sentiment with various grunts and nods.

            Allura smiled back at them, and then approached Keith with her arms crossed. He gave her a pointed look in return, arms crossed tightly over his chest. Then he looked away.

            “Good job,” he muttered.

            “No thanks to you,” Allura muttered back.

            A muscle in Keith’s jaw feathered, and for a moment he appeared like he might’ve made another remark. But then he dropped his head and stared down at the floor, and Allura moved past him, past the others, and leaned up against a more secluded space along the wall to finally catch her breath.

            A few minutes later—a few minutes of the Paladins trading silent looks and gasps—Krolia emerged from the training deck, this time with Matt in tow, grinning smugly at the others’ exhaustion.

            “Did you let him watch?” Pidge asked, eyes narrowing at Krolia.

            “And does it matter if I let an experienced rebel officer watch?” Krolia countered, arching an eyebrow.

            Pidge scowled and let her gaze drop, while Matt chuckled and leaned against the wall next to her, reached over and ruffled her hair.

            “Some of you had some interesting techniques,” Matt remarked, and then stole a glance at Keith. “And some of you didn’t really get a chance to show it off. Y’know, for a guy who was so quiet in the Garrison—”

            “Shut it, Matt,” Keith interrupted. “I already know I screwed up.”

            That left Matt at a loss. His mouth snapped shut, and the others all traded more looks, weary, wary, and then finally they turned to Krolia. She stared at Keith for a heartbeat longer before finally sighing. “Anyway. You all did well enough for your first round. I suppose this will get easier as we progress. For now, you’ve got an hour to rest up before phase two. Make sure you don’t get too caught up in anything in that time.”

            With that, she spun on her heel and retreated back into the training deck, while Matt peeled away from the wall.

            “If anyone’s willing to spend their resting time on the training deck, I’d be willing to point out where I think things went wrong for some of you, aside from the…” He flicked his eyes to Keith again, and then looked away before Keith could catch him. “Well, I think you got that part. Anyway. If not, I’ll just be chillin’ out, I guess.” Then Matt followed where Krolia had gone, disappearing behind the training deck doors.

            For a few seconds, no one said anything, and then Shiro stretched his arms. “Well, I’m gonna go hit the lounge before we get back into things.”

            He started off, and as soon as he was a little ways down the hall, Keith glared at his back, and then started in the opposite direction without so much as a word.

            “Okay,” Pidge said, once he, too, was gone, out of sight and out of earshot, “we all know there’s something going on between them, right? Like I’m not just imagining things? Like he’s actually mad at Shiro?”

            “Is there a day Keith isn’t mad at something?” Allura retorted.

            Lance frowned. “Maybe he’s just stressed, y’know?”

            “That doesn’t mean he needs to take it out on everyone,” Pidge said, voice biting this time. “Pretty sure we’re all stressed,” she made air quotes around that last word, “but I would think fighting in a war does that to you.”

            “Alright, alright, everyone’s stressed,” Hunk said, raising his hands defensively, stepping in the center of the remaining group of Paladins. “But we’re a team, right? And we’re supposed to be bonding! I really don’t think bonding is supposed to mean talking badly about your other teammates when they’re not around to hear it. Now, why don’t we all take the time to rest like Krolia said, and get ready for the next part of training? We can try talking to Keith or Shiro and seeing what’s up later.”

            He waited, a hopeful smile on his face, and Pidge finally blew out a harsh breath and marched off in the direction of her room. “I’m gonna go rest by myself. You all can have fun in the lounge.”

            “And I have other matters to attend to,” Allura replied, and headed toward the hangars.

            That left Hunk and Lance standing in the hallway outside of the training deck.

            “Should we go try and talk to one of them now?” Hunk asked, but Lance shook his head.

            “I think we need to let Keith cool off, and I’m really not keen on talking to Shiro right now, either. If you wanna try talking to him, be my guest, but he doesn’t listen to me very often. I mean, he barely listened to me as it was, but ever since he’s come back…” Lance didn’t finish that thought, as he pushed up and away from the wall. “I’m gonna go ask Matt for a few pointers. Y’know, make myself useful.”

            He didn’t wait for a response from Hunk before he turned his back and walked into the training deck, leaving Hunk alone in the hall.

            “Alright,” Hunk sighed, “fine, I’ll talk to Shiro.”

            Maybe Shiro would listen to him, especially given that they were partners for this exercise. No matter how…difficult he might’ve been acting the last few months.


            Allura liked to think that allowing Lotor and his generals to remain aboard the Castle of Lions for the time being wasn’t the worst idea she’d had in the last decaphoeb or so. Their ship residing in one of the castle’s biggest hangars meant they remained on the Paladins’ turf, and they could keep tabs on their activity as much as possible, rather than letting them loose back out in the universe.

            She made her way down to the hangar before the adrenaline of winning the competition on the training deck could wear off; when she arrived, she found the gangway down, just as it was supposed to be. She approached carefully and stopped at the end of it, reached out a hand and knocked on one of the metal beams connecting the gangway to the ship.

            “Lotor?” she called out.

            A dobosh or so later, and she heard footsteps, heavy boots against metal. Then a shadow fell over the gangway as Lotor appeared at the top of it, carrying a datapad. He flicked his eyes down to the bottom of the gangway, and then stiffened, let the datapad fall to his side, straightened his back.

            “Princess Allura,” he greeted. “Have you come to—”

            “Yes,” Allura cut him off. “This afternoon. Immediately once training finishes.”

            “I see,” Lotor said. “I assume training’s going well so far?” He tipped his chin at the sweat still beaded along Allura’s forehead, a crown for her frizzy hair, and smiled, while Allura rolled her eyes.

            “Yes,” she responded. “Back to the matter at hand, would you prefer to be in my labs or yours?”

            “That depends on whether or not you’d prefer to remain here, although I wouldn’t advise it.” Lotor started down the gangway and pulled his datapad back up, and held it between himself and Allura. “I’m aware your labs have only seen renewed use in the last decaphoeb; mine have been functional for far longer. However, my biggest lab is not aboard my ship, but back aboard my base—a private room, that not even my generals have access to.”

            Allura narrowed her eyes at that, looked up and studied Lotor’s face as his eyes scanned over his datapad; and then suddenly, his eyes were on hers.

            “Something wrong, Princess? Am I not allowed to have my private spaces?”

            “No,” Allura answered sharply. “I’m just surprised, is all. I assumed you told your generals everything.”

            “The same way you tell your Paladins everything?”

            Allura opened her mouth to respond that they knew of this, that she tried to be as open with them as possible, but then shut it. Pursed her lips. Pretended not to notice the smug grin slowly overtaking Lotor’s mouth as she finally sighed.

            “Anyway.” Let him believe whatever he wants to believe.

            “Anyway,” Lotor echoed, and continued on, “my private lab is my best-equipped for alchemical pursuits. It houses the bulk of my work, all of my notes and observations from my studies, and gives us more room to work. However, getting there would clearly require us departing from the castle, and you’ve made it clear that it’s your call to make. I’m merely laying out your options.”

            He pulled up a schematic from his datapad, comparing the size of the alchemy lab on his current ship to his alchemy lab back on his main base—the same main base containing all of his quintessence, all of his other data from the other labs…and perhaps they would offer some kind of explanation for the things that Paladins had pulled during their last visit.

            “Swear to me that neither I nor the rest of my team will come to any harm should I agree to visit your base for these lessons, and we have a deal,” Allura said. “Go back on your word, and this alliance is broken.”

            Lotor looked at her for a long moment.

            “I think you underestimate me,” he finally said, “but very well. As if I would have even had reason to bring you to any harm in the first place—the last I was aware, the fate of the universe rested with Voltron, and I think it would be foolish to destroy the universe by destroying the Paladins.”

            “Glad to see you’ve had a change of heart, since the last time you sent your generals after us,” Allura responded.

            Another hard look from Lotor, taken aback this time, as Allura turned on her heel and started out of the hangar.

            “Of course,” Lotor called after her, and she paused halfway to the door, only turned her head slightly, the barest indication she was listening. “People can change, Princess. An enemy becomes an ally, just as much as an ally becomes an enemy.”

            “Of course,” Allura echoed after a moment, and then walked again, didn’t dare turn around. She kept her shoulders pulled back and head high until the hangar doors hissed shut, and sealed her off from Lotor. Then her posture relaxed, and she walked faster, all the way back to the training deck.


            Shiro was the only soul in the lounge when Hunk tentatively poked his head in the door, sitting on the couch with legs spread, feet planted firmly against the floor, arms crossed over his chest, head tipped back. He seemed to be snoring, that much Hunk could gather as he approached, and he thought about leaving, abandoning this and trying again another day, when suddenly his head lifted and snoring ceased.

            “Hunk?” he asked with a yawn.

            “Oh, hey,” Hunk greeted. “Thought you were, uh—”

            “I was just resting my eyes,” Shiro said. “Anything I can help you with?”

            “Uh, actually, I was wondering if I could help you,” Hunk responded, and slowly walked to the couch, plopped himself down a few feet away from Shiro. “I just wanted to make sure you were alright, man. You’ve been kinda…out of it, lately.”

            Shiro furrowed his brow while Hunk pursed his lips and folded his hands.

            “Out of it?” he questioned. “I feel fine.”

            Hunk sighed. “Well, I mean, like…it seems like you’re not…yourself. We’re just worried about you. We know you just went through hell again, but we’re here, you know? We’re your team. Keith said you haven’t even really talked to him, and it’s…”

            Hunk missed the way Shiro’s eyes darkened, for a fraction of a second, before their gaze returned to normal.

            “I just haven’t wanted to burden Keith or anyone else any further,” Shiro said, running a hand through his hair before he let his hand fall back into his lap. “I’ve been coping as best I can, but thank you, Hunk. If things get really bad, I’ll talk to you all.”

            Hunk bit his lip. “I…you’re welcome, but—”

            “Trust me, Hunk.” Shiro scooted over until he was close enough to Hunk to reach his hand out, rest it on Hunk’s shoulder like a dad comforting his son. “I’ll be okay. I don’t think it’s me you need to be worrying about.”

            I can multitask! Hunk thought but didn’t voice, because he knew he had several other pressing issues to take care of, several other Paladins who liked to keep their mouths shut when they shouldn’t have and ran them at every other opportunity.

            With that, before Hunk could muster up a proper response, Shiro rose to his feet and stretched, and headed out of the lounge. Hunk watched him go, listened to the door slide shut, and then spent a few minutes sitting in the silence, mulling over what Shiro had just told him. He didn’t want to burden them? If anything, unspoken emotional issues were more of a burden than those that got talked about, resolved.

            “You’re not talking to anyone,” Hunk murmured at the door. “Keith and Lance are keeping secrets. Pidge mostly talks to Matt.” He shook his head. “How the heck do you all keep forgetting rule number one of being a Paladin?” Another beat, and then: “I need to stage a quiznaking intervention.”


            “Hey, Matt?”

            Lance walked onto the training deck with his rifle hoisted over one shoulder and found it empty, as though they hadn’t trained at all. Matt milled about, swinging at the odd bot—set to level zero, Lance assumed, if it stood still while Matt smacked it around half-heartedly with his staff—while Krolia, arms crossed, spoke to Coran at the far side of the deck.

            Matt turned at the sound of Lance’s voice.

            “Hey! You here to take me up on my offer?”

            Lance nodded, and a disbelieving grin broke Matt’s face.

            “Wow, I didn’t actually think anyone would take me up on it, but alright! So, pointers on where you went wrong, aside from the screaming and making noise. Let’s see, you…” Matt studied him for a moment, and then glanced thoughtfully at the ceiling. “Lance…Lance…let’s see…alright. So you fight long-range.” Matt reached out with his staff and tapped Lance’s rifle. “That’s an advantage especially when you’re with a full team, or at least a partner to cover your short-range. And you kept finding hiding spots off of the ground and away from the bots. That’s another advantage—get up high and pick them off before they get you. Lemme tell you, we value our sharpshooters in the field, especially when they take down the enemies you didn’t see sneaking up behind you. But that’s where you fall short.”

            Lance frowned. “Fall short? There was a bot near Keith—”

            “That you nailed. That’s not what I’m talking about,” Matt said. “What I mean is you fail in short-range, and fail to completely look out for yourself. Once you find a place you deem safe, you switch to look out for others and checking your long-range, but you don’t switch back.” Matt waved a hand around. “When you were up on the scaffolding, you didn’t notice the bots gathering underneath you until they started breaking down your little hiding spot, and when you went down, it was because the bots found you and there were too many in your short-range for you to shoot.”

            Lance’s eyes drifted to the floor.

            “It’s not a bad thing, that you spend a lot of time prioritizing your teammates. But you get so focused on them, and eliminating the threats far away from you that you don’t notice the ones already nearby. You’re a great team fighter, but your solo fighting needs improvement. Yes, this was a team exercise, but once your teammate went down, it became a solo exercise, and that’s where you fell.”

            “So how do I improve that?” Lance asked, finally raising his head. “My bayard only ever takes long-range weapon forms.”

            Matt shrugged. “Figure out how to unlock a new form, or figure out how to make it work in your short-range. The castle’s probably got an armory, right? I’m sure you could use a short-range weapon from the castle to train with, if you really wanted to.”

            Lance lowered his rifle from his shoulder, turned it over, ran a hand along the barrel. “Unlocking a new form’s not easy, but…alright, I guess.”

            “Hey,” Matt said, and pushed Lance’s rifle down, drew Lance’s attention as he smiled, “you still kicked some ass out there. You came in second! And the team player part’s the one that matters the most. Protecting yourself is important, too, but the team thing is what we’re really going for. Now, c’mon—I bet I can get you started on short-range fighting with some of the bots right now.”

            “Thanks, Matt, but I’ll hold off for now,” Lance said. “I appreciate this, I really do, but I’m gonna go…think on it, before I actually get into action. Plus, I still want some time to rest, y’know? Can’t slip for the next part of whatever Krolia has planned.”

            He and Matt both turned, to glance at Krolia and Coran, still deep in conversation.

            “Yeah, probably,” Matt agreed, and then clapped Lance on the back. “Go rest, you wild…son of a gun.

            Matt snickered and winked while Lance chuckled. “Alright, alright, everyone wants to be a comedian. But for real, thank you.”

            “Any time, dude,” Matt said. “Seriously. Any time. I can only look at so much data in the labs with Pidge and Hunk before I lose my mind. I need someone to spar with.”

            “Try Keith, then,” Lance offered, and when Matt’s eyebrows shot up, Lance laughed again. “Seriously. He only ever fights the bots, and I think deep down he wants a sparring partner, too. And I swear, he’s not as scary as he makes himself seem. You two even have matching mullets.”

            Matt touched the back of his head, eyes widening. “Oh my God, I have a mullet.”

            Lance nodded, grinning as his bayard shrank back to standard form. “It’s a match made in hair hell.”

            Matt sighed. “You’re right, and I hate it. But yeah, alright, I’ll think about it.”

            “Good, you should,” Lance said, and then left the deck and returned to an empty hallway, where he slid back down against the wall and drew his knees up. He held his bayard out in front of him, as if it could tell Lance all of its secrets—like how to get good at short-range fighting, how to unlock a new form, how to make himself less burdensome by learning how to protect himself.

            I’ll figure you out.


            “You’ll be fighting your fellow Paladins, this time.”

            Krolia sounded amused over the training deck’s speaker system, as the Paladins stood in six separate areas of the room. Keith narrowed his eyes at the ceiling, and wondered just what Krolia meant. Over the comms, confused muttering started up, and ceased when the speakers crackled again.

            “You’re each assigned one target: your partner from earlier. Your objective is to hit them three times, or knock them out once for more than three ticks. Set your weapons to their safest settings.”

            Keith’s lips pursed as he looked down at his bayard, tried to feel the connection to it as a blue casing shimmered on around his blade. He could hit, but he couldn’t slice, couldn’t stab.

            “There’s still no talking,” Krolia went on, after a moment, “and the training bots will still be in action. Your only rules, aside from silence, are not to bring true harm to your fellow Paladins, and to be the last one standing at the end of ten doboshes. How you go about these things is entirely up to you. Think. Good luck.”

            Don’t talk. Don’t bring harm to Allura or any of the others. Be the last one standing.

            Maybe it would be easier this time, Keith mused as he shifted his weight from foot to foot. No one’s back to watch except for his own. A strategy entirely up to him.

            “Three!” Coran’s voice rang out.

            Allura had to take the serrated edges from her whip, and stared at it now, far less dangerous than it had been moments ago, but still dangerous nonetheless, if she caught Keith with it the wrong way. She’d have to make a more rope-like use of it—tangle Keith’s limbs, rather than lashing out and going for his torso.

            Setting her jaw, she curled her hands tighter around the handle of her bayard.

            “Two!”

            I’m up against the team’s fucking marksman.

            Being paired with Lance had been a good idea, up until now. Pidge swept her eyes around the training deck, searching for him, and then searching for the smallest nooks and crannies in the reconstructed arena. Same aesthetic, same materials, entirely different layout than before. If she could just find a spot to squeeze into—figure out how to turn off the tracking device in her suit that linked her to the other Paladins…

            “One!”

            Hunk didn’t move right away.

            He remained rooted to his spot as the rest of the arena came to life around him, as footsteps echoed from elsewhere, and about a dozen bots materialized just within Hunk’s line of sight. He tried to ignore them, tried to tune them out—maybe they wouldn’t notice him, if he kept still, as his eyes swept the room and looked for familiar black armor. He just needed the jump on Shiro, just needed to fire three stunning shots.

            They wouldn’t stun Shiro so as to immobilize him—the safest setting on his bayard meant the suits absorbed everything. Either that, or he could kick it up just the one notch. That one would certainly have Shiro down for more than three seconds, and then Hunk would just have to outlast the bots and outlast the other Paladins.

            Where are you?

            One of the disadvantages of this twisting metal wonderland was that Shiro’s armor was dark, helped him better blend in, versus Hunk’s, a spot of sunshine against a dreary backdrop.

            Hunk allowed himself just one moment to wonder whether or not Shiro’d found him yet when the sound of furious footsteps snapped him out of it, and he looked up just in time to find one of the training bots charging at him.

            He bit down on his yelp as it lunged for him, activated his shield and ducked out of the way as a training sword came at his face. It clanged against his shield, and Hunk broke into a run, tried to separate himself from the bot as several other steps joined the chorus behind him.

            Quiznak, quiznak, quiznak

            He didn’t even see Shiro until it was too late.


            “And Hunk is our first out of the round!”

            Of course he is. He’s up against the fucking Champion.

            It was a wonder Shiro hadn’t voiced any complaints. Of course, all of them knew this was training, was a game more than life or death, but Keith knew there was always that possibility, that anything here could send Shiro into a flashback, or even a full-blown panic attack, especially if he saw someone coming at him with a weapon. He wondered if that’d been the case with Hunk as he swung around a corner, grabbed a pole to steady himself, and then kept going, eyes scanning for Allura.

            There was some consolation in Hunk being first out this time, because that meant Keith wasn’t. But second out wasn’t any better, especially when Keith had already fucked up the first time.

            So he couldn’t be the second out.

            He slowed himself down as he came to what looked like an area free of the other Paladins and of the training bots, took his time weaving in and out of a convoluted mess of crossbeams and support columns, ducking, sometimes dropping onto his knees and into a crawl. Other times, he climbed them like one might climb across monkey bars—those showoff kids on the playground.

            Keith allowed himself one moment to smile triumphantly at his own memories as he pressed on, dropped to the ground and ducked underneath a few more bars, and then stifled a scream as he came almost nose-to-nose with Pidge.

            Pidge’s eyes widened in alarm, and she pressed a finger to her lips and then jerked her thumb up, then tapped her suit and her helmet. Keith stared for a long moment, and then furrowed his brow. Pidge repeated the motion, and then threw her hands up as much as the space would allow when Keith’s staring persisted. She thought for a minute, and then pointed above their heads, and then smirked at nothing, quirked a brow, and pretended to shoot a rifle.

            Ah. Lance is up there.

            Keith briefly contemplated why Pidge hadn’t gone after him, if she knew where he was; then again, she didn’t need to be very close for Lance to knock her down.

            He finally gave her a nod; when she drew her pinched fingers across her mouth, turned her hand, and then pretended to throw a key over her shoulder, Keith nodded again, and then began moving past her with a pat on her head.

            Where are you?

            He hadn’t spotted pink still, and he’d moved halfway through the arena, at the very least. Maybe almost all the way through. And yet, no sign of Allura anywhere. Maybe she’d also picked the defensive, maybe she was also hiding. Maybe she had a visual on Keith and was waiting for the right moment to spring into action.

            At that, Keith stopped again and slowly stepped in a circle, eyes carefully inspecting the area. He could still see Pidge, looking directly up like she was trying to figure out how to get the jump on Lance, who was evidently still on the platform overhead. Shiro had to be lurking somewhere, with not much else to do besides dodge the bots now that Hunk was down. And then Allura, roaming…hopefully. Not watching him. Hopefully.

            Keith turned at the sound of sudden shrieking, and was greeted by a lightshow, one of the tall platforms lighting up with electricity. Keith whipped his head in Pidge’s direction and found she’d turned the voltage on her bayard up just enough to send a message to Lance, who stumbled back and toppled onto one of the lower platforms with a hard thud.

            “Unfortunately, Lance, for making a noise that loud—that’ll be an out.”

            “Oh, come on!”

            Lance’s feet moved and stomped overhead while Keith crouched lower.

            So he’d gotten up—Pidge had landed a hit, but he’d been disqualified for screaming, which Keith didn’t find entirely right, but he wasn’t going to voice his complaints. Not if that meant getting disqualified, too.

            He remained in place for a moment longer, a window just long enough to give him an audience to several bots moving in, moving past him—converging on Pidge, either completely unaware of Keith’s location or simply ignoring it. Keith decided not to question it, and started moving backwards, when something clacked against the back of his suit.

            He spun and lunged with his sword, searching for his target, but Allura dropped to the ground, and gave Keith a returning swing, bayard transforming into her whip. It caught around Keith’s leg, and she yanked. Keith went crashing to the floor, and nearby, Keith heard the shifting of metal as a few of the training bots turned, and then completely changed course, ignoring an overwhelmed Pidge and moving for Keith and Allura.

            Keith swallowed down his grunt as he swung up with his sword and managed a blow to Allura’s leg; she stumbled back, and gave Keith a wide enough berth to kick his leg free and scramble back to his feet, and then branch off.

            “And Pidge is down for more than three ticks! Out!”

            Out because of the bots. That meant either Shiro’d managed to evade them this long, or he’d managed to hold them off. Keith and Allura were the only pair still standing. The thought crossed Keith’s mind to team up with Allura, briefly, and sabotage Shiro, because they’d win as a team either way, right? But he decided against it, as footsteps pounded on the platforms overhead, and suddenly, Allura dropped back down in front of Keith and swung.

            Keith parried, and Allura’s whip caught around his blade. He tugged sharply, and Allura stumbled forward a few feet; Keith elbowed her hard in the chestplate and sent her reeling back. He let his bayard return to standard form, and her whip fell free just in time for Keith to kick up with his leg.

            Allura moved back in time to a kick to the torso, and in time to avoid a training bot crashing onto the scene and tackling Keith.

            Keith tried not to grunt. Struggled underneath it, as he wrestled with it, seconds counting off in his head. In his humble opinion, three seconds in training was too short a time to count as being knocked down; then again, three seconds on the battlefield could very well cost him his life.

            Like it cost him his training life now.

            He sighed and stopped struggling as Krolia’s voice came on over the speakers: “And Keith’s down for more than three ticks, out!”

            The floor opened up underneath him, as always, and Keith let it take him this time, training bot above him dissolving as he fell down and landed hard on his back.


            In the end, it came down to who’d taken down their partner versus the most bots, because Shiro and Allura both made it to the end of ten doboshes still on their feet. Shiro got more points for actually taking down Hunk, against Allura with fewer, for Keith losing to the training bots. Shiro also took down more bots, quickly and quietly, so sneakily some of the bots couldn’t even detect him before he ripped them apart.

            “Great job,” Shiro said to Allura, offering a hand to her as they emerged from the training deck. Allura took it and shook it weakly, as they linked back up with the other Paladins, all in varying states of exhaustion.

            “So,” Lance breathed out, “who’s out for some resting in the lounge?”

            “Can’t,” Allura answered almost immediately, with a shake of her head. “As wonderful as rest sounds, I’ve other matters to attend to. Namely, Lotor.”

            The hall went quiet as the others shifted to look at Allura.

            “You’re starting training?” Pidge finally asked.

            Allura nodded. “We’ll be heading back to his base, as he believes that’s where he’s best-equipped to assist me. He’s given his word that he won’t be trying anything, although I don’t know how much I can trust that word.”

            She didn’t catch Lance’s eyes leaving her and flicking over to Keith, didn’t catch Keith meeting them for a fraction of a second before looking away, didn’t catch Hunk glancing between the both of them with an expression knitted in concern.

            “And you’re sure it’s the best move to do that when half of us would rather be passed out on a couch?” Lance asked, finally, returning his gaze to Allura. “Like, we’re all exhausted, and if something happens—”

            “Matt and Coran are still on their feet,” Shiro interrupted.

            Lance pushed away from the wall and took a step closer, and that got Hunk straightening out, making a move in Lance’s direction.

            “If it’s an issue that ends up needing Voltron—”

            “Need I remind you that we’d be down a pilot?” Shiro asked, and his voice went hard, arms crossed over his chest as he stared Lance down, dared to take a step forward just to make a point and tower over him. Lance’s mouth opened and closed for a few moments as he stared up at Shiro, eyes narrowed, until finally Hunk’s hand landed on Lance’s shoulder, and he pulled Lance back.

            “Okay, obviously it’s a dangerous scenario, but Lotor would have to be pretty gutsy to directly attack Allura or endanger her,” he said. “But Allura’s more than capable! Let’s have some faith in her, right? The rest of us can go take a rest while she gets to work, and Shiro’s got a point. Matt and Coran’ll definitely be keeping tabs on her. If it’s an issue we end up being needed for, then they’ll let us know. C’mon.”

            Hunk tugged on Lance’s shoulder, carefully so that the others wouldn’t get the sense that he was, in fact, tugging. Lance backed down with a huff of resignation, and let Hunk usher him down the hall, off in the direction of the lounge. Keith and Pidge lingered in silence with Shiro and Allura, watching them go, before Shiro sighed.

            “I’ll be on the bridge. I can help Matt and Coran keep tabs on things. Be safe, Allura,” he said, and gave her a nod, warmth replacing the chill that’d been there moments ago as he started down the hall. The others waited to move again until he was gone; when they did, Allura arched an eyebrow.

            “That was…strange.”

            “No kidding,” Keith muttered under his breath, and then gave a resigned sigh. “I’ll talk to him.”

            With that, Keith started into a jog down the hall, in the hopes of catching Shiro before he could reach the bridge. He left Pidge and Allura behind, and Pidge turned to the princess.

            “Are you sure it’s really a good idea?” She threw her hands up as Allura’s expression shifted from one of confusion to one of annoyance. “It’s just a question! Obviously I can’t stop you, I mean, you’re the princess, but like, it’s a little shady that it just so happens that Lotor needs to take you back to his base, the place he probably knows like the back of his hand, alone. …You’ll be alone, right? His generals aren’t coming too?”

            “His generals don’t even have access to the room where we’d be holding our sessions,” Allura responded. “I believe it’s safe to say we’d be completely alone, although bringing his generals along as guards…that isn’t completely out of the realm of possibility.”

            Pidge frowned. “Just…be careful. Maybe consider taking someone with you.” Then her face brightened, pinching mischievously. “Besides, more eyes in there means more data for us.” She tapped the side of her helmet, and then walked off before her shoulders could slump again, before worry could crash in again, and left Allura by herself, one hand rubbing along the bottom of her chin, elbow balanced on her other hand, contemplating Pidge’s words.


            “Shiro!”

            Keith caught him just down the hall from the bridge, and at the sound of his name, Shiro stopped and turned, and gave enough time for Keith to catch up to him.

            Shiro expected words out of Keith’s mouth almost immediately, but Keith took a moment to gather himself after running, to gather himself as he squared his shoulders and looked up.

            “Shiro, what’s wrong?” His voice dropped, lower than it had been moments ago, any trace of enthusiasm gone.

            “What do you mean?”

            Wrong answer. Keith’s face screwed up into some cross between confusion and exasperation, and he spread his palms slightly, as his arms dangled at his sides.

            “What—don’t what do you mean me!” Keith said, voice rising, before he realized and winced, closed his eyes and took in another breath while Shiro crossed his arms. Then he opened his eyes, let his shoulders fall from their bunching state. “Shiro, please. I know something’s wrong. You can talk to me.”

            “I feel fine, Keith,” Shiro responded, brows drawing in concern. “Why do you think something’s wrong?”

            “Because?” Keith said, like the answer was obvious. “You’re—you’re not yourself! You’ve been snapping at everyone, and I know sometimes they can be annoying but you’ve never snapped at them like that in the past, and—and you keep doing it! You don’t talk to any of us, and you’re getting mad at us for offering input on anything…”

            He stared insistently at Shiro. Shiro blinked at him a few times, and then sighed. Shut his eyes and uncrossed his arms. Put his hands on Keith’s shoulders—heavy, so heavy—is he digging his fingers in or am I making that up? Opened his eyes and looked Keith directly in his.

            “Keith,” he started, “I promise, I’m fine. If something’s wrong, I’ll tell you.”

            “And you mean it this time?”

            Keith couldn’t ward the hurt away from his wobbling voice, as he took a step back, freed himself of Shiro’s grasp. Shiro let his arms fall away, as Keith crossed his this time.

            “What?” Shiro asked, tilting his head slightly.

            Keith narrowed his eyes, blinked back the growing wetness in them. “Don’t act like you don’t remember. The Garrison?” A heartbeat. Shiro stared, face blank, and Keith practically growled in the back of his throat as he finally threw his hands up. “The Garrison! Kerberos! And the fact that you had a terminal illness and decided not to fucking tell anyone, and that’s why you decided to just—to just abandon me and Adam!

            He flinched back at his own words, hands flying to his mouth.

            Shiro’s expression shifted, just slightly. A muscle feathered in his jaw as it tightened, and his eyebrows pulled together.

            And for a moment, it stayed that way, Keith and Shiro staring at each other, until Keith slowly lowered his hands. His mouth opened and closed a few times.

            “I…”

            He pursed his lips.

            Shiro’s fingers flexed at his side, and one hand fisted.

            “You promised,” Keith finally managed, voice lower, more even than before. “You promised after Kerberos you wouldn’t do that again. You’d be open with me. You’d fucking be there. And then you weren’t. And you still aren’t. Because this isn’t you. It’s like—it’s like you left your old self behind when you disappeared again, and this new you?” Keith swallowed hard, as cold clawed up his insides. “That’s not my fucking brother. I want him back.”

            Shiro took a step forward, but Keith stepped back, head shaking.

            “No. Don’t.”

            Shiro stopped. He held Keith’s gaze, eyes calculating, and finally allowed himself to glare right back at him. “It’s bold of you to ask me to open up when you won’t do the same.”

            “Oh, yeah?” Keith spat back, before he could stop himself. “Where do you think I got that trait?”

            And he smiled. Smiled. Bitterly, as he turned on his heel and walked away, thumbs hooked into his belt loops, shoulders pulled back, chin tipped up.

            At least with his back turned, Shiro couldn’t see him finally failing to hold back tears.


            Allura did not approach Lotor’s ship alone that afternoon.

            “Okay, listen,” Hunk was rambling, “I’m glad you decided to take like, a bodyguard along, but I really don’t think I’m the best guy for the job, number one—just putting that out there—and number two, I still don’t really like this whole thing to begin with.”

            “Whose side are you even on?” Allura asked. “If I recall—”

            “Yes, I backed you with all the others, and yes, I think you’re more capable than all of us, and yes, you’re scary when you’re mad, so Lotor would have to be really dumb to try anything, but I still have my concerns,” Hunk said. “I’m just looking out for a friend, which is why I’m going with you.”

            “And I’m more than grateful,” Allura responded, and then quieted, turning forward as they came upon Lotor’s ship.

            Like the last time, the gangway was down. This time, though, Lotor already waited outside, leaning up against one of the ramp’s support beams, the other generals lounging around. Ezor sat cross-legged about halfway up the ramp, turned sideways to talk to Zethrid, who sat at the very top. Acxa, meanwhile, stood next to Lotor, datapad in hand, while Narti waited at Lotor’s other side.

            Lotor looked up at the sound of footsteps, grin breaking his face, faltering quickly when he spotted Hunk.

            “Princess and Yellow Paladin,” he addressed as a means of greeting, nodding to them.

            “Lotor,” Allura responded, and then lifted one hand in gesture to Hunk. “I hope you don’t mind that I’ve decided to take one of my Paladins along for our short journey.”

            Lotor’s eyes flicked between them, smile turning strained. “Of course not.”

            Hunk didn’t miss the glance he stole, then, at Narti.

            “I’m bringing one of my generals along, as well,” Lotor said. “Security measures, of course. Same as you.”

            “Wow, I really didn’t think that would work,” Lance’s voice breathed into Hunk’s ear, quiet over their private comm link. “Do you think he knows?” A beat, and then: “Oh, yeah, you can’t answer me, the others don’t know about this. A-Alright, I’m gonna…gonna be quiet now.”

            Hunk almost had half a mind to ask Lance where he was, to double-check that he’d kept away from the bridge, where Coran, Matt, and Shiro all should’ve been monitoring things from Allura’s end, but he didn’t. Instead, he kept his mouth shut as Lotor bid goodbyes to the rest of his generals, and motioned Narti to follow him, as Allura led the group down to the castleship’s shuttles.

Chapter Text

5.03
Event Horizon

            Hunk spent the tense, mostly-silent ride to Lotor’s base in one of the back two seats of the shuttle, behind Allura and to Narti’s left, practically pressed up against the door as he kept a careful gap between himself and the one of Lotor’s generals. Allura piloted the shuttle as Lotor directed her, and even though his guidance was a necessary annoyance, Hunk still watched Allura’s shoulders draw further and further together each time he so much as opened his mouth.

            “Does he ever get sick of hearing himself talk?” Lance muttered, irritated, over his private comm channel to Hunk. “I swear, he’s worse than Iverson.”

            Truth be told, Lance’s commentary wasn’t helping ease Hunk’s nerves very much, as they drew closer to the base they’d been upon not too long ago, but Hunk couldn’t tell him that—not when Allura had no clue Lance was monitoring their mission, separately from Shiro, Matt, and Coran. Not when Narti was sitting within earshot. Certainly not with Lotor within earshot.

            So Hunk kept his mouth shut as they flew on, until the base came into view, dust storms still raging, a thick layer of dirt and sand blanketing the base and the surrounding airstrip.

            The dust kicked up further when Allura finally brought the shuttle down for a landing, swirling violently all around them, only settling once the engines cut, and everything fell silent once more. For a moment, no one moved—not until Lotor sighed and opened the hatch to the pod, helmet activating and sealing him off from the environment. Hunk, Allura, and Narti’s suits followed in quick succession, and the group got moving. Lotor led, and they followed.

            “Did the storms intensify since last time?” Hunk asked, as they started the short walk to the entry doors, and raised one hand to shield his visor. “I feel like I’m gonna get blown over.”

            “Yes,” Lotor answered, with only a half-glance back. “Like I said, it’s the height of the season. They’ll get worse before they get better.” And with that, he continued on inside, led the group past the heavy blast doors. They clanged shut behind the group, as they stopped to gather themselves in the entry hall, still just as intimidating as the last time Hunk had been here.

            “Yellow Paladin, my sincerest apologies,” Lotor said suddenly, turning and clasping his hands behind his back, while Hunk’s stomach knotted as he turned to face Lotor, “but this is a rather private endeavor. As before, you’re free to walk around my base if you wish, but as I’m certain Princess Allura mentioned…where we’re going requires a level of clearance I’m afraid you don’t possess.”

            Hunk raised his empty hands to either side of his head.

            “No big deal, man,” he said. “I’m just here for moral support, and, uh, security. Like we said before.”

            Lotor scrutinized him a moment more, then turned to Allura, and gestured down one of the branching hallways. “Princess?”

            “Lead the way,” Allura said, gesturing to the halls in front of them, and then fell into step behind Lotor as he walked. Soon, the pair disappeared from sight, into the dark, and left Hunk alone with Narti.

            “Alright, now’s your chance,” Lance whispered. “I’ll be here the whole time.”

            Great sentiment. Now if only Hunk could go about this in a more direct manner.

            He couldn’t just turn to Narti and ask her to take control of him. She’d immediately know what was up—if she hadn’t already put things together, which was a possibility that frightened Hunk to think about—and probably report back to Lotor. Whether or not she’d actually take Hunk up on his offer, in that case, was also up in the air, but Hunk severely doubted it. Which meant that he needed to be subtle, and lure her in.

            Cool. No big deal.

            Except for at that moment, Narti cocked her head and seemed to study Hunk a moment. Or would’ve been studying him, if she had eyes. The cat on her shoulder swished its tail back and forth, eyes narrowing slightly, and Hunk swallowed as he looked at it. He didn’t dare move, hardly breathed as Narti straightened her shoulders, and then walked down a hallway at random, leaving Hunk alone.

            “Oh, I don’t like that,” Lance remarked.

            “Nope,” Hunk agreed quietly, once Narti was out of earshot. “So now what?”

            “Uh, go after her? Hunk, this isn’t rocket science.”

            “No, duh, you barely passed rocket science,” Hunk said. “And it was easier for me than this. Rocket science didn’t require having a lizard take total control of you!”

            Lance sucked in a breath through his teeth. “Alright, fine, that’s fair, just—keep it down. You don’t want her to hear you. Or any of Lotor’s security cameras to pick up on it. If our cover gets blown…”

            Another card into Lotor’s hand, along with however many he already had.

            “I got that,” Hunk said. “So…guess I’m following her?”

            “Pretty sure that’s what I meant when I said go after her, yeah.

            “Okay, listen, not all of us have your reckless streak.”

            “Excuse me, I do not have a reckless streak, Keith has the reckless streak. I have the fun streak.

            “Those two are synonymous in my head, but whatever you say.”

            Hunk got moving, bayard materializing in his right hand. He was supposed to let Narti win, yes, but he had to make a show of putting up a fight. And then might’ve actually had to put up a fight, if she didn’t seem inclined to let go. If he could manage it.

            He’d gone down the same hallway Narti started down, turned corner after corner, but found each one as empty as the last. Biting down on his lip, he pulled up the building projection, and found Lotor and Allura’s markers had completely disappeared.

            “Uh, Lance…you seeing this?”

            “Nobody on the bridge has raised the alarm yet,” Lance replied, voice low. “Lotor said the place required a lot of clearance, right? And he was being real secretive about it? Maybe he’s got it rigged to jam signals. We’re not the only people he’s got targeting him. Well, I mean, we’re not anymore, but now Zarkon’s back and there’s a bounty on his head, and there’s Sendak, and there’s…well, I guess not the Blade anymore either, but—”

            “Alright, yeah, I got it,” Hunk said. “It’s just unnerving.”

            He came here to protect Allura, and he’d already lost the visual on her. He hadn’t been watching her route, either, which meant he couldn’t even pinpoint the moment at which the markers disappeared, which meant he had no freaking clue where this room was.

            Well, that leaves just one thing to focus on.

            Narti.

            Her marker had moved deep into the base, winding through the halls at a speed that unsettled Hunk as he watched.

            “Hey, Lance, how did Narti get at Keith again?” he whispered, drawing to a halt as he leaned up against the wall, and let his bayard transform into a cannon.

            “She attacked him from the ceiling. Y’know, kind of like when Pidge finds her way into the vents? Which, y’know, that’s seriously creepy, but anyway, nah, she wasn’t like, in the vents or anything. She was just…climbing on the ceiling. Like…kinda like Spider-Man. And then she just went at Keith.” Lance went quiet on his end of the comms, and then let out a shuddering breath. “Just make sure you watch your back, dude. We ran from her, and lost track of her, and she attacked us from behind.”

            “As far as I was concerned, I was supposed to watch my everything. I’m pretty sure my back is included in my everything,” Hunk responded.

            “Hunk, I’m serious.”

            Lance’s voice lacked the usual indignation that statement carried, and something knotted in the pit of Hunk’s stomach.

            “Alright, alright.”

            Hunk looked at the projection again; Narti’s marker had moved in a wide circle around a block of the building, and she was slowing down, as she drew nearer to the hall where he stood. He opened his mouth again to tell Lance as much, as if Lance wasn’t already seeing the projection through the camera in Hunk’s helmet, streaming everything back to him, when there was a quiet swear from Lance’s end of the comms.

            “Shit—Hunk, I’ll—IT’S OPEN—Hunk, I’ll be right back, I swear, I’m sorry—”

            “Lance, what are—?”

            He got a pop of static, and couldn’t immediately tell whether Lance had muted his end or Hunk’s end or both, or straight-up cut him off; all he knew was the feeling of dread suddenly washing over him, as he came to grips with the fact that he was suddenly very, very alone.


            “Shit—” Lance tripped over his feet as he shot out of his chair at the sound of the knock at his door, and then leaned back into his computer console with a wince, “—Hunk, I’ll—” Another knock, and Lance almost didn’t answer, until he heard a sniffle and a frustrated grunt immediately after, and a voice muttering about how this is stupid, why am I even doing this, maybe I should leave, and he called out, “—IT’S OPEN—” and then dropped his voice again, “—Hunk, I’ll be right back, I swear, I’m sorry.” And then he cut off the mic and cut off his sound system, dashed over to his bed, and flung a blanket over the console in those precious few seconds before the door slid open.

            Keith stood just outside of Lance’s room, arm suspiciously shiny and face splotchy.

            “Keith?” Lance asked, voice softer than before, and he made himself cross the room, stop just inside of the door frame, hardly two feet away from Keith. “Everything okay?”

            He’d changed out of his training suit of armor and back into his casual clothes, and evidently hadn’t bothered to bring his jacket with him, even though he shivered slightly…although the more Lance studied him, the more he had a sinking feeling this shivering wasn’t due to any cold.

            “Can I talk to you?” Keith finally managed, after a moment of intense staring, a moment with his face screwed up so much like he might cry that Lance actually let a quiet breath of relief go when that was the question tumbling out of Keith.

            “Um,” came Lance’s immediate, ever-so-eloquent response, and he cut a quick glance over his shoulder at the monitor setup currently hiding underneath his blanket, and then back at Keith, whose eyes averted to the floor.

            “Listen, if you’re busy, I can just…” Keith trailed off, as he rubbed his arm, and then the hand still dangling at his side clenched into a fist, tightened for a moment, then slowly unfurled, as Keith’s shoulders slumped. “You can just forget I asked, it’s not that big of a deal, anyway.”

            He started to turn away when Lance lunged, one hand shooting out and wrapping around Keith’s wrist, holding him in place as his head snapped back up.

            “Hey, hey, don’t do that,” Lance said, and began moving backwards, pulling Keith into his room, letting the door slide shut again behind the both of them. “Don’t—don’t say it’s not a big deal, alright? You look like—” And he caught himself, stopped himself, stared at Keith and his red-rimmed eyes a moment more, and then amended, “It seems like it’s a big deal to you, don’t downplay it. I mean, yeah, I was a little bit…busy. With Hunk. But I can multitask, and you can…” Lance cut his eyes to the door, swept them around the room and found the place void of security cameras. “You can stay, if you want. We’re, uh…okay, it’s gonna take explanation—”

            “Is it about Narti?” Keith asked in a voice still hoarse, but a lot lighter than it had been moments ago.

            Lance glanced at the computer setup. “Uh, yeah.”

            Keith also looked at the computer setup, and then back at Lance, the guilt and shame in his expression melting away with the one wall he allowed to come down, replaced by curiosity and suspicion as he narrowed his eyes.

            “Is that the reason he went with Allura?”

            Lance sighed and tilted his head. “Well, yes and no.” He started the walk over to the computer station, and gripped the sheet, “He did go to watch out for her, but,” and he hauled the sheet aside, and found the computer had fallen asleep, “he also went to try and lure Narti into…ah…into getting into his head. Something about the hypothesis he had that he wouldn’t tell us about. Which he still didn’t tell me about, mostly just told me to…” Lance trailed off, eyes widening. “Quiznak.”

            He kicked the blanket into a corner and dropped to the floor in front of the computer, cross-legged, hardly paying Keith mind as he lowered himself to his knees, bracing a hand on Lance’s shoulder to balance himself.

            Lance scowled as the computer took a few seconds to wake itself back up, as the microphone and sound system took a moment after he switched them back on to become operational again. The screen flickered a few times, and the sound system gave a burst of static, before everything finally stabilized, giving Keith and Lance the same view of the hallway that Hunk was seeing—which was to say, an empty stretch of nothing but dark metal walls and purple lights running through them. Standard Galra setup.

            “Hunk?” Lance asked. “You there?”

            “Yes,” Hunk answered, after a moment, sounding a little more than put-off.

            Lance winced, and glanced at Keith, once, and then returned his attention to the computer. “Sorry about that…again. Um, also, Keith’s here. But Keith already swore to secrecy.”

            Another look back, and Lance drew his finger across his throat and hissed, “No one else on the team knows about this.”

            Keith nodded, and Lance dropped his eyes back to the computer screen, where Hunk was slowly looking around the halls.

            “Did we miss anything?” Lance asked.

            “No,” Hunk answered.

            Then the camera feed blinked out, and the comms went to static.

            “Hunk?” Lance asked, and smacked the side of the computer a few times. “Hunk!”

            “Sor—dust—’torms—ting worse—”

            Lance couldn’t tell whether or not it was the static making Hunk’s voice sound strained as it came through, garbled enough to the point where he almost couldn’t make anything out.

            “Hunk? Buddy? Hunk, can you hear me?”

            “Hunk, do you copy?” Keith jumped in, leaning forward until he and Lance were both bent over the computer screen and microphone.

            Lance bit his lip as the static persisted, turned louder and more grating, and then suddenly vanished altogether, and Hunk’s voice came through, loud and clear: “What did you say?”

            The camera came back to life in a flash of color, and Keith and Lance both flinched back at its sudden reappearance, still showing the same empty halls.

            “We asked if you could hear us,” Lance answered, finally sinking back, relaxing. “You alright? What happened there?”

            The camera feed moved rapidly back and forth—Hunk shaking his head. “Dust storms. This is the bad season, and they’re only getting worse. Probably causing some kind of interference.”

            “Alright…” Lance bit his bottom lip. “That’s not…that’s not great, but I guess we’ll have to deal. Where’s Narti?”

            Hunk pulled the building projection back up; it flared to life in the feed Lance was watching, and sure enough, Narti was still roving the halls. She wasn’t in the same spot she’d been when Lance had shut everything down; she’d moved down the hall and taken a right turn, evidently, just missing Hunk.

            “She had her chance right there,” Lance muttered.

            “Listen, we all know—”

            “You can’t just waltz up to her and ask her to possess you, I know,” Lance interrupted. “It’s just…it’s weird, you’d think she’d have taken it. You’re all alone, and if she did it, there’d be no witnesses that she’d know of—”

            “Is reminding me of how alone I am supposed to be comforting?” Hunk interrupted. “Because it’s just creeping me out more and more and making me realize this was probably a bad idea to begin with. Listen, I really…I really think we need to tell the rest of the team—”

            “Hunk.”

            Lance’s voice went hard as he cut him off, and he let the name hang in the air a moment, as Hunk went quiet, and Keith stilled behind him, hand falling away from Lance’s shoulder—a hand Lance hadn’t even realized Keith had kept there this whole time, as Keith sank back on his knees and watched him carefully. Lance turned his head and almost snapped, almost asked what Keith was staring at, but Keith beat him to the punch.

            “What if we don’t tell the team about Lance?”

            “Keith, that’s literally been our mindset this whole time. I thought we caught you up on this.”

            “No, I mean…” Keith let out an exasperated breath. “We tell the team, or at least…at least Pidge, maybe Matt, about me. We tell them I got possessed while we were on the base, and we just don’t mention Lance. They already know I left the meeting and met back up with Lance, and they can help us. Shiro’s…”

            “Shiro’s been stressed,” Lance supplied, starting to nod along. “And now Allura’s busy with this whole Lotor thing, which…” Lance shook his head and rolled his eyes. “Freaking grape man, whatever. And Coran’ll go off the deep end if we tell him, and that’s the last thing either of us need. But…Matt and Pidge, yeah, they’ll…they’ll work.” He hesitated a moment, and then added, “Keith, you don’t have to do this.”

            Keith crossed his arms. “We need to figure out what this is, and we can’t do it if you won’t speak up. One of us has to do it.”

            Lance didn’t answer right away. He was the one staring this time, and he held Keith’s gaze probably for longer than he should’ve, because Hunk cleared his throat over the comms.

            “Okay, so I understand you two are probably having a moment, but let’s bring it back to the task at hand,” he said, and Lance flushed and turned abruptly back to the screen. “How do we wanna do this? When are we gonna do this?”

            Keith coughed. “Not for a couple days, at least. I…I don’t know how I want to approach that subject yet, and we’ve still got a lot going on, with Krolia’s training, and…and like Lance said, this whole thing with Lotor, and…it’s a lot, right now. The three of us can take care of this for the next few days. I’ll think about how to approach it, and when the time is right, we can tell them.”

            “Okay, cool, good, that sounds like a solid plan, glad we finally have one of those. Now, if Narti’s not gonna come to me, I guess I’m just waiting on Allura and Lotor. I still have no idea where they went, because they’re not on my map.”

            “They’re not on his map?” Keith asked, eyebrows shooting up, and Lance and Hunk sighed.

            “We think wherever Lotor’s training her, whatever room, it’s jamming the suit signals. Top secret, and all that.”

            Keith nodded, though there were still distress lines around his eyes when Lance stole another glance at him. He turned away, stomach twisting, at the look in his eyes, almost the same look he’d had underneath all of the exasperation when he knocked—oh.

            When he’d knocked on Lance’s door, asking to talk.

            “Allura’s Allura,” he said. “Lotor would have to be really stupid to try and mess with her. Now, uh…I’m gonna shut my mic off but leave you on, and the screen on, Hunk, so if you need me, just shout. I won’t be leaving the room, but I’ve gotta do something.”

            “As long as you don’t totally disappear on me again.

            Lance huffed. “I won’t, I didn’t know it was Keith at the door, I thought it might’ve been…” Lance quickly ran through his list of candidates, and came up with bridge, bridge, bridge, labs probably, definitely not even authorized to be in the bedroom wing… “Never mind. I just didn’t know whether or not I could trust whoever was at the door, but it was Keith, so it’s fine.” And with that, he turned off the mic and finally turned to face Keith fully. “What’s up?”

            Keith blinked at the abrupt change in topic, face blank, mind blank on why he’d come in here in the first place.

            “Keith?” Lance asked, and then it all came rushing back, and Keith sank on the floor, down off of his knees, and instead drew one up to his chest and let the other sprawl out. Lance drew up his crossed legs into his arms, kept them crossed at the ankle as he gripped one of his arms at the wrist.

            “I, uh,” Keith started, and then frowned. “I…guess I talked to Shiro, but I don’t think talked is really the word for it.” He kept his eyes on the floor as he recalled the confusion, the dodging, the anger—both his and Shiro’s, and his frown twisted into something uglier, angrier. “I know something’s wrong with him, Lance. He won’t own up to it. He keeps telling me he’s fine, but he’s not! He—he has this habit of just not telling me when something’s wrong, and he did the same thing to Ad—”

            Keith snapped his mouth shut almost automatically, eyes widening as he flinched back.

            “Did the same thing to who?” Lance asked slowly. “Ad…?”

            Keith shook his head, fists clenching. “That’s…it’s not my place to bring that up,” and he was grateful for the quiet nod Lance gave him, followed by the motion to continue on, “but he’s…he’s got this history of just covering up and carrying on, but it’s not working because his cover’s not working, and then…and then he just…” Keith groaned, drew it out almost to a growl, and buried his face in his hands.

            He stiffened at the feeling of a hand suddenly coming down on his shin; when he raised his head, he found Lance’s leg running parallel to his own, Lance’s hand on his shin, Lance’s other arm draped across his one still-bent knee.

            “He just…?” Lance asked, turning his hand in a small circle.

            Keith noted the thick swallow immediately afterward, the way Lance’s jaw tensed slightly and eyebrows drew further up when he studied Keith’s face, and saw the unmistakable wetness of shoddily-dried tears.

            Keith also noted the way Lance didn’t dare mention it.

            “He turned it around on me,” Keith admitted in one exhale. “And like, I know—I know, I…I have issues. O-Opening up to people.” And then he kept going, before Lance could ask questions. “But I could open up to him, and I thought…I thought he could open up to me, too. He used to! It’s like, I’d tell him about the shit that was going on at the Garrison or stuff that happened in class, and he’d tell me about whatever class he was teaching or something he and Adam did that day, but he…he never gave the truth in full, and now he’s closed off more than ever. Now I can’t get anything out of him, and…why? Why now? What happened that was so bad he’s shutting me out—?”

            Keith’s breath caught, and his voice tripped, shattered.

            He stared at the floor, wide-eyed, breathing shallow. Across from him, across that tiny distance, Lance remained carefully still, save for his hand, gently squeezing Keith’s shin.

            “If it’s any consolation,” Lance said, after a few minutes of silence, of Keith trying and failing to properly gather himself, of Lance pointedly not acknowledging it out loud, “it’s not you, Keith. He’s snapping at everyone. And…and if you are having problems opening up to people, I just want you to know that I’m here, alright? Not—not just as like, your right hand man or whatever. I’m here for you whenever, as your friend.” He went on when Keith didn’t answer. “I know…alright, yeah, I know, I wasn’t…Little Lance wasn’t the nicest to you. And neither was Big Lance, to be honest. And for that, I’m sorry.”

            Keith dragged a sleeve over his face and coughed out something close to a laugh. “Y’know, you’ve saved my life a couple times now, I think I got that.”

            A tentative smile broke over Lance’s face. “Well, yeah, I mean, someone’s gotta keep your impulsive butt alive and kicking. But—but I do mean it, Keith. I’m sorry. I wanted to actually say it instead of just pretending the past never happened. Just so it’s out there. I don’t hate you, and I’m here for you if you need someone to talk to, or even to like, hang out with or something.”

            Keith finally raised his eyes to meet Lance’s, and could’ve sworn his smile grew wider, sunnier.

            “Thank you, Lance.”

            “Nah, no need to thank me,” Lance said, waving him off. “It’s what friends are for.”


            Allura emerged from her first training session alive.

            Shaken, though she wouldn’t admit it, and with more information than she knew how to immediately process or what to do with, but alive. She and Lotor linked back up with Hunk and Narti in the same entry hall they’d come in, and wordlessly strode out to the shuttle, waiting for them on the airstrip, half-buried in sand in just a few short hours.

            Hunk traded nervous looks with Allura, anxious looks, looks that indicated a lot more simmering beneath a barely-sealed lid. But nothing spilled out of either of them until they returned to the Castle of Lions and touched down in the shuttle bay, until Lotor and Narti had been led back to Lotor’s ship, until they were both headed back to the bridge, far out of earshot and out of sight.

            “Okay, so,” Hunk said, at the same time that Allura groaned and deflated, posture slouching as she practically slumped over into Hunk’s side. Hunk didn’t bother bringing it up, but merely brought an arm around Allura’s waist to support her, and threw her other arm over his shoulder, as much as he could manage with their height difference.

            “So,” Allura repeated as she let out a breath. “That was exhausting, and Lotor has a wealth of information that we need.”

            “Sounds about right for a room right off of the archives,” Hunk said, nodding. “Your suit’s energy signature disappeared from the building projection, and I didn’t catch where. It took forever for you guys to come back out into the archives. You were right next to that room with all the quintessence.”

            “We left through there,” Allura admitted. “There’s a door hidden by one of the shelves. One of the containers is a lever, and the entire shelf spins around—”

            “Wait, really?” Hunk asked, pausing in his footsteps, bringing Allura to a halt along with him. “No way.”

            “Yes?” Allura said, furrowing a brow at the sudden spike in Hunk’s excitement.

            “No, no, it’s like—wow, Lance is gonna have a field day with this one—it’s like, this trope in really old Earth movies in shows, and like—it’s better if we just show you. Man, we need to find the time to have a team movie night. I know there’s, like, a war happening, but also, we could probably all use a de-stresser, right?”

            Allura blinked at him. “I suppose…?”

            Hunk nodded. “Alright, yeah, then that’s happening.” Add it to the list of things I can do to stage an intervention and get everyone talking. “Now, you said Lotor had a bunch of information. You were supposed to be transmitting everything to the castle, but if the room was jamming your energy signature on the building map—”

            “Then I highly doubt anything got back to the castle,” Allura finished for him. “And unfortunately, the helmet wouldn’t have saved the recordings, not unless I manually did that. Which, I didn’t.” She sighed. “An unfortunate oversight.”

            “Well, if you were trying to transmit them, and they didn’t go through, maybe your helmet did save them?” Hunk offered with a hopeful half-smile. “Like, back on Earth, sometimes I’d send an email and it wouldn’t go through, and it would just save to my draft folder and I’d get an error message.”

            Allura stared a long moment.

            Hunk stared back.

            “What is an email?” Allura finally asked.

            Despite the situation, and the multiple pressing issues Hunk would have to deal with later on, he let himself laugh.

            “It’s basically a transmission, but it’s all text, but you can include pictures, and videos, and…okay, you know what? We’re going to find a free day to catch you and Coran up on Earth culture, and you guys can tell us all about Altean culture, and then maybe we can finish it off by digging deeper into the stuff we got the first time we visited Lotor’s base, just so everyone’s on the same page.”

            A day to relax, but a productive day nonetheless, and Allura seemed to catch the gist of it.

            “Yes, that sounds doable, and useful,” she said, and allowed a conspiratorial grin of her own. “Perhaps we get Krolia in on it as part of our training, and see if we can get more on the Blades out of her?”

            Hunk’s eyes lit up, and at that, Allura’s grin split her face, exhaustion seeming to ebb as she got her feet better underneath her, suddenly re-energized. Her arm fell away from Hunk’s shoulder, and Hunk let go of her waist, and they carried on the rest of the walk back to the bridge rather animatedly, full of an excitement that vanished the moment they entered and found Coran, Matt, and Shiro all waiting expectantly, in varying states of distress. Of all of them, Shiro seemed the most relaxed, Matt the most exhausted, and Coran the most tense.

            “Told you she’d be fine,” Shiro muttered under his breath, and Coran shot an exasperated look his way.

            “Yes, I am fine,” Allura said. “Hunk’s already informed me of the fact that that room was jamming the suit’s signals.”

            “Judging by how tense Coran is, I’m gonna guess none of the video feeds got back to the castle?” Hunk said, and Matt nodded grimly, while Coran threw his hands up.

            “None of it! It’s like he was planning for that! And I still don’t like that Allura was alone with him for vargas!

            “I’ve dealt with my fair share of unsavory diplomats, Coran,” Allura said, as she strode further into the bridge, set her helmet down on the chair lit up in blue, closest to the elevator leading down to the Lion. “Not to mention some of the suitors who came to the castle. Lotor’s not much different. Maybe a little more intelligent…the same game, just another level up.”

            Matt nodded again, where he sat in Pidge’s chair, slumped over on one of the arms. “As long as Allura’s alright with this, and I’m not the one going headfirst into danger, I don’t see an issue with her going. And yeah, if we could get back on track here—we got nothing from you. Feeds cut off the minute you set foot into that room, so all I have are a few seconds of footage of the interior right when you were entering, and then they didn’t come back online until you walked out into the archives, and we’ve already got way too much data to sift through on the archives from last time.”

            “And unfortunately, my suit saved none of it,” Allura said.

            Coran groaned again and buried his face in his hands, earning a raise of the eyebrows from Allura and a sigh from Shiro, while Matt pointedly ignored him and kept his eyes on Allura.

            “Okay, so we lost a day’s worth of data.”

            “Not entirely,” Allura said, pulling up a few holoscreens around her. “I have notes I can write down off the top of my head, and I have notes riiiiight…here.”

            Blue light flared up from Allura’s left gauntlet—another holoscreen, covered in hurried handwriting, in what appeared to be Altean.

            “Of course, photos would be preferable, but this is everything Lotor told me that I could manage to write down. It’s a history of Altean alchemy, although there’s more on this down in the library…”

            “We have a library?” Hunk asked. “Man, I have not explored this place as much as I should’ve…I wonder if Lance knows about it…”

            “I didn’t take Lance to be one to read in his free time,” Allura remarked without looking up, eyes flicking over the data in front of her as she transferred it from her suit to the castleship’s systems.

            “Oh, he’s not,” Hunk responded, sitting down in his chair. “Back in the Garrison, he…”

            Shiro tipped his chin at a mention of the Garrison, and Hunk faltered, suddenly remembering that Shiro could very well have been someone Lance would’ve had to answer to for his antics. Then Hunk remembered that he, Lance, and the others had already spirited Shiro away from a Garrison hospital in the dark of the night, so they really didn’t have much left to lose.

            “He just liked to explore a lot. He got into a lot of places he probably shouldn’t have, but he never got caught, so he kept going. But nah, he’s more of a learn by doing type.”

            “Learn by doing, huh?” Matt said. “Interesting. Noted.”

            Hunk glared. “Do not make Krolia ramp up the difficulty on our training games, I am tired enough.

            Matt wiggled his eyebrows. “No promises!”

            “Matt, Hunk,” Allura interrupted, “I need you two to go find the library and find these texts for me.”

            A yellow light appeared in the top left corner of Hunk’s visor. He interfaced with it, and found a few titles in Altean waiting for him.

            “Hmm, gotcha,” Matt said, scanning over his own holoscreens and then rising to his feet. “C’mon, Hunk. We’re gonna make a pit stop in the labs and grab Pidge, and then we’re book hunting.”


            “Have you gotten the information I asked for?”

            Yes.

            The word was a whisper in Lotor’s head, and he turned slightly, just enough to catch Kova in his periphery, padding into the lab—communal, not personal, never his personal—and making a home for herself on top of one of the tables, in the pile of rags Lotor couldn’t bring himself to set aside, after the first time Kova claimed the spot. Narti remained a few steps behind, and lingered in the doorway.

            “Well?” Lotor asked, and turned back to the work in front of him—a mess of dusty tomes and scrolls, written in a variety of languages; half, Lotor knew enough to read; a chunk of the other half, enough to get an idea of what he was reading; a last bit, lost to him entirely, frustrating him to no end.

            Full control. Mild resistance, but nothing successful on his part.

            “Interesting…” Lotor flipped another page and bit down on his tongue, hesitated a moment more, and then asked, “Should we do one more test, just to confirm, or do you think this information is enough?”

            They’re getting suspicious. He was on the comms with another. I believe the setup was intentional.

            Lotor stilled.

            Narti, too, remained motionless, save for her tail, flicking in time with Kova’s. She waited patiently, as Lotor’s eyes unfocused on the words in front of him.

            “So another test is out of the question,” Lotor said, slowly, carefully. “We’re moving to phase two.”

            We’ll have to be more cautious, Narti warned. I don’t believe all of the Paladins know, but the Yellow, Red, and Blue ones have become aware, at the very least.

            “More cautious,” Lotor repeated, and slowly dragged a hand down his face, let it linger at his jaw. “Right. Of course. And it’s just the three of them, as far as we’re aware.” A breath. “We knew it was only a matter of time before the Red and Blue ones told someone, and as far as we know, they’ve only told the Yellow one. We have more time than we anticipated, if it’s only them, but we’ll still have to work rather quickly on confirming. Has Acxa made any progress on the Operation Kuron file?”

            Uncrackable.

            “Great,” Lotor bit out, under his breath. “At this rate, we may as well let the Paladins figure it out for us.”

            A pause.

            Lotor’s shoulders slowly unbunched.

            “Change in plans,” he decided. “Gather the others on the bridge in ten doboshes.”

            If I must.

            Kova leapt down from her pile of rags and joined Narti, and together, they strode out of Lotor’s lab, and left him alone, shutting textbook after textbook and setting them all aside until he was left with one.

            A History of Altea, Volume 9: The Aftermath.


            The team fell into a new routine, as welcoming and structuring as it was exhausting.

            They trained six days a week and rested on the seventh, and training moved in a three-day cycle.

            The first day consisted of individual drills, typical warm-up exercises, running drills, anything and everything to keep their bodies in top shape. Mornings of the first day were spent all working on the same tasks, albeit apart. The afternoons were when the training deck was divvied up among the Paladins, each set to work honing their skills with their bayards.

            The second day was when the team came together on lower-stakes, lower-sweat drills. Problem-solving, fighting against the bots as one unit, escape room-style tasks.

            The third day was the absolute chaos of silent partner training in an arena that changed format with every new set of pairs.

            On the second cycle, the arena flooded out, and was filled with massive coral reefs and rock formations, and the Paladins took the plunge and had to work around their bayard use becoming hindered, for the water dragged against Keith and Shiro’s blades, as well as Allura’s whip, and made the electric setting on Pidge’s katar downright dangerous to use. Hunk and Lance, both with projectile weapons, ended up paired in a familiar environment.

            They took the first half of the day easily, downing the most bots. During the second half, Lance knocked out Hunk within two minutes of the event kicking off, and manged to evade Keith going at Pidge, and Shiro and Allura hunting each other, swimming with the grace of a mermaid away from the rest of his teammates and striking down a mass of bots with a precision unlike any other.

            The third cycle saw the gravity stabilizers on the training deck disengaged, and the Paladins floated through an obstacle course that changed along with their motions, for every nudge of a barrier sent it drifting in another direction, and would alert the bots and the other Paladins to their location the moment something shifted out of place.

            Pidge and Allura’s team lasted the longest in the first half of the session, and Pidge emerged with a narrow victory over Lance, bouncing from platforms and barriers to another, and using her small size to weave in and out of spaces and away from the rest of the team before they could catch her. Pidge also snagged victory in the afternoon round—Lance took down Shiro, and then fell against a bot; Keith managed a knockout on Hunk, but a floating chunk of the course caught him in the back and sent him sprawling. Pidge and Allura went at it with Pidge’s length of rope and her grappling hook against Allura’s razor-edged whip; in the end, Pidge managed to get Allura tangled up and pinned down long enough to win.

            The fourth cycle brought with it some cross between forest and jungle, hot and humid to the point the Paladins’ visors were fogging up. Fallen tree limbs and gnarled branches made up a large portion of the course, along with tall grasses that gave way to sections of swamp and mud, while vines dangled from the trees, both a help and a hindrance, depending on how the Paladins used them.

            Hunk and Pidge won the first half of the drill—combined, they’d worked with the rest of the team at that point, and Pidge mentally compiled a list of their natural attack and defensive strategies…just in case the process needed a bit of speeding up, as Pidge took down a slew of bots with an electrified trip wire in the grasses, and Hunk shot down another group of them from behind a particularly thick copse of trees—and then shot down Lance, off of his perch far above them, while Pidge accidentally caught Shiro in her trip wire. Keith was bested by a bot who took advantage of his fogged visor, but Allura lasted nearly to the end of the drill—she and Pidge went out simultaneously, trying to take the other down, leaving Hunk to claim victory for the team.

            The second half saw Hunk using Pidge’s own tactic against her, and getting her caught in her own bayard. He pointedly avoided Shiro going at Keith, and Keith playing alarming levels of defense as he evaded and attempted to disengage entirely, while Lance climbed higher in the trees until he was completely out of sight, and then took down Allura. In the end, it came down to Hunk holding his own against the bots the longest, and he secured victory again that afternoon.

            Each day, most of the Paladins headed somewhere in the castle to relax and unwind after a grueling training session, but Allura’s days weren’t over—she still had more training to go through with Lotor, and all of her free time was eaten studying on her own, in the libraries or in the labs on the castleship.

            Hunk accompanied her on a few more trips back to Lotor’s base, after that first journey. But as time wore on and Allura came back unharmed, and with the videos to prove it, he eventually stopped accompanying her, and Lotor ceased bringing any of his generals.

            The first few training sessions were more history lessons than anything—a history of Altean alchemy, some notes on her father’s experiments, a large focus on the experiments of Honerva, and with each passing lesson on her, Allura paused to wonder whether or not Lotor had any idea.

            If he did, he was a master at covering it up.

            After history, they progressed to actual lab work—making concoctions, finding and testing substances, the studying the various uses of quintessence.

            The incident began on the first day of the fifth cycle.

            Lotor’s lab space was taken up by a projection of the skies, not unlike the one on the castleship’s bridge. Planets, stars, galaxies—every odd and end of the universe, glowing fuchsia around them, spreading out over beakers, test tubes, worktables stacked high with books and scrolls, vials of quintessence, full-sized containers of quintessence.

            Lotor swiped one of the vials and brought it over to the beaker swirling with some liquid, a brew they’d been working on for the past week or so. Well, Lotor had been working on it, and narrating and explaining his every step as Allura watched, took note, occasionally tried to replicate.

            “Back when the fallout was still fresh,” Lotor said, as he held the beaker at eye level and studied it, then nodded and set it back down, “survivors of Altea needed a covert way to talk to each other, a way that wouldn’t appear to an untrained eye or show up on an uncalibrated scanner.” He added a few drops of quintessence into the vial, and then held it out. “Alchemy spread fast and far among surviving colonies, before Haggar started on a so-called cleansing mission to wipe it all out, and steal for herself what she could. So people adapted. What you see here is the culmination of a patchwork of ancient writings by survivors I’ve managed to come across in the ruins of old Altean colonies.”

            His fingers drifted to the holoscreen at his left; with a few taps of his fingers, there was a hiss, and several panels near the edge of the computer system taking up one of the walls pulled back, until there was a hole, from which rose a clear tube of what might’ve been glass. Lotor poured the mixture in the vial down the tube, and Allura watched as the computer lit up with new strings of data. Then a thin beam of red light shot out, spanning the length of the room, the length of the projection.

            “What’s really happening,” Lotor explained, voice low, almost reverent, “is this base is scanning the skies for distress signals, much in the way your castleship might. However, the base is looking to pick up on any signal containing this specific mixture of quintessence and other raw materials, filtered into radio waves. However…any efforts made in the last…” Lotor trailed off, frowning, chin dipping, brow furrowing. “It’s been a rather long time since I’ve begun running these experiments, and not once have they been successful.” Then he raised his head, eyes harder than before. “I expected as much, with most, if not all the surviving colonies wiped out, and with possible variations between the mixtures, but…”

            He paused again, and for a different reason, this time.

            Because instead of ducking his head again, instead of growing somber, his muscles tensed, and Allura followed his line of sight to a tiny speck on the map. Where every other image that the scanner swept over remained its same fuchsia, this one spot lit up bright red and began blinking, incessantly. Lotor directed the map to zoom in on the spot, far from his base, impossibly far out—multiple galaxy clusters, at the very least.

            A tiny, unassuming planet greeted Allura when Lotor stopped zooming in, and let it hover in the air in front of them. Coordinates, strings of numbers and letters in Altean, just like every other location around them.

            Blinking.

            “There’s no chance there’s a glitch?” Allura whispered.

            “No glitch,” Lotor answered, voice distant as he turned away, and began typing rapidly at the computer. “I keep my systems as up-to-date as I can. The last upgrade was within the last decaphoeb. Everything should still be running smoothly.”

            “So then…this is an Altean colony.”

            “And the distress signal is recent,” Lotor said, strained. “Within the last quintant.”

            Alteans.

            Live Alteans.

            Allura’s vision swam, and she was unsure whether or not it was the sudden dizziness or the tears in her eyes as she stumbled back, and caught herself on the edge of a worktable, beakers clattering, trays and tools rattling. Lotor turned abruptly, startled, and reached out a hand to steady her, but Allura waved him off, heart pounding, ears ringing.

            “Just bring me back to my Paladins.”


            It only took the words live Alteans to get a fire going underneath Coran.

            An announcement for all of the Paladins to gather in the dining room, now, less than an hour before the castle’s night cycle was due to set in, drew groaning but no protesting, as the team met up in varying states of exhaustion. Lance and Hunk were already in pajamas, Pidge had ditched her sneakers somewhere, and Keith’s jacket was gone. Only Shiro and Coran—and of course, Allura—remained fully dressed for a day of work; this mixture of dress was a stark contrast to the armor Lotor and the rest of his generals strode into the room with.

            “Oh, now I feel underprepared,” Lance muttered under his breath from his seat between Hunk and Keith.

            The Paladins took up a little more than one side of the dining room table—Allura sat at one head, with Coran on her right and Shiro on her left, Keith next to Shiro, then Lance, then Hunk, then Pidge. Lotor sat at the other head, with Acxa on his left, then Ezor, Zethrid, and Narti.

            Pidge tried not to make it too obvious, the way she moved her chair closer to Hunk’s.

            “So,” Coran began things, staring with narrowed eyes at Lotor. “Live Alteans.”

            “Yes,” Lotor responded coolly, calmly. “Though the odds were…astronomically small, they were not impossible. But we might not even know for sure if these are truly Alteans, or merely people who discovered their old ways of alchemy and studied them, learned them as I have, and managed to reproduce the ancient signals.”

            “So you’re telling me you exaggerated what this was to drag us all in here when we should be getting ready for bed?” Lance asked, leaning forward on the table, propping his chin on his hand.

            “Not quite,” Lotor said. “It’s more likely than not that these are Alteans, as Alteans have the largest natural ability to manipulate quintessence of any race or species I’ve studied—and I’ve studied quite a lot of them, Blue Paladin.”

            Lance set his jaw at the title, and wondered whether or not Lotor realized he no longer piloted the Blue Lion.

            “And so,” Lotor went on, either oblivious to or choosing to ignore Lance’s barely-concealed glaring, “although a non-Altean could, with some effort, replicate these procedures, it would be difficult, and it’s much more likely this was an Altean.”

            “So…we’re being told this because…?” Hunk asked.

            “I want to answer the distress call.”

            It wasn’t Lotor who responded, but Allura. Every head at the table swiveled in her direction, and she met Hunk’s gaze head-on.

            “You want to what?” he asked.

            “You heard me,” Allura said. “The distress call is far from here, but with one wormhole jump we could be a little over a quintant’s journey out.”

            “Are we sure this is a decision we should be making right now?” Pidge asked, yawning. “Pretty sure Lance is two seconds away from wiping out.” She nodded in his direction, to where he sat, slumping further and further over on the table, eyelids fluttering.

            “’M awake,” he grunted.

            “Yeah, I’m with Pidge on this. I don’t think right before bed is a good idea to drop a bomb on everyone and then ask for a really big decision to be made,” Hunk said, and patted Lance’s shoulder.

            “We all know how making decisions on a time crunch goes,” Keith deadpanned.

            Shiro turned to look at him out of the corner of his eye, tight-lipped, severe. Keith didn’t particularly have the energy to care and ignored him, leaning back in his chair, crossing his arms, letting his head bob and body list closer to Lance’s side.

            “Well, we can’t waste too much time,” Acxa spoke up before the silence could take over, the first one of Lotor’s generals had spoken the entire brief meeting. “We sleep on it, and we come to a decision by tomorrow?”

            “Tomorrow’s doable,” Coran said, after a moment, eyes sweeping over the other Paladins, who perked up slightly at his voice. “But I’m inclined to say I’m with Allura on this one.”

            Allura’s eyes widened as she turned to face him; Coran met her eyes smiling, something wistful glimmering in them.

            Lotor coughed.

            The moment fractured, as he drew the attention of the room back to himself, rising from his chair.

            “Well, if we’ve settled upon tomorrow, then I suppose we should all retire for the night? I understand you all have training in the morning, and my generals and I all have our work to do. We’ll be headed back to our ship, and Allura, I’ll be seeing you again in the afternoon. We’ve still much to discuss if we’re going to be going to the colony.”

            With that, Lotor’s generals rose from their own chairs, and followed as Lotor left the dining room.

            As soon as he was out of sight, Coran pulled up a holoscreen, a feed of the castle security cameras, and tracked their journey all the way back to the hangars, while the other Paladins let breaths go and slumped over in various directions—Lance faceplanted on the table, Keith slid down until he was barely even sitting in his seat anymore, and Pidge fell sideways into Hunk while he sat back.

            Shiro remained upright, ever the picture of leadership and poise.

            “You really wanna go for this?” Shiro asked, glancing at Allura.

            Allura pursed her lips, and then sighed. “I do. For years, I’ve believed Coran and I were the last of the Alteans…and then I found out about Haggar, and Lotor. And now there’s a whole colony of survivors, and if Lotor’s words earlier are to be believed…if Haggar gets wind of their existence, she’ll wipe them out, just as she’s done with countless others. We must help them before she gets there.”

            The other Paladins traded long looks, before they were dismissed to get to sleep. By morning, they’d all drawn the same conclusion: they’d support Allura in this decision. By that evening, after training, after Lotor and Allura returned from Lotor’s base, and Allura was still riding the high of poring over old manuscripts, manipulating quintessence and the other mixtures Lotor possessed, the castleship made a wormhole jump.

            Just one quintant, Allura thought, gazing out through the windows on the bridge that night, at the relatively empty skies they’d entered. One quintant.


            The final day of training in the fifth cycle brought with it five Paladins nervously buzzing, and one too calm for comfort.

            “Three!”

            This was the final match-up, the last round of partner training before Krolia would either change up the training procedure or start the cycles over again, and Keith stood next to Lance as Lance activated his bayard and kept it pointed at the ground, as they took in the arena around them, while across the deck, Shiro and Pidge, and Hunk and Allura, did the same.

            The usual fluorescents from the training deck ceiling were extinguished, giving way to neon lights from what appeared to be a cityscape. Columns that appeared like the sides of buildings were lit up in every color of the rainbow, harsh and near-blinding at times. Some of the columns were dark, and Keith made out indentations and grooves like brick. High above were wires, tightrope-like. Windowsills and ledges. On the ground level, alleys. Tunnels. Narrow passages between fake buildings.

            “Two!”

            Lance nudged Keith with his elbow; Keith turned, eyebrows raised, and found Lance nodding up toward one of the darker areas, drowning in shadow. Keith squinted, and tried to follow his line of sight, and found a ledge.

            When Lance raised his bayard and nodded toward it again, Keith understood.

            When Lance pointed at him, and then pointed at the ledge, Keith did not understand.

            “One!”

            No, he didn’t understand until Lance grabbed his arm at the sound of the starting siren and started tugging him off toward the building, and didn’t let go until Keith fell into step behind him.

            The both of them up on the ledge would give them an advantage above everyone else—Lance sharpshooting, picking off bots from high up, and Keith covering his short range in an area very few bots could even get to in the first place.

            Lance led the pair of them down into one of the alleys, bayard dematerializing, and made some motions with his hands, pointing at his back, gesturing for—

            Oh.

            Oh, not this shit again.

            Still, Lance was staring at him insistently, and the clanging of bots was already echoing from elsewhere in the arena, so Keith didn’t have much of a choice. He got into place behind Lance as they hooked their arms, jetpacks scraping up against the other’s as they began their ascent, a little wonkier, a little less steady than it’d been in the broken elevator, with nothing between them and more space to stretch out.

            Here, several times, one or the other slipped, but they killed their grunts of frustration in their throats and kept at it, until finally, Lance squeezed Keith’s arms, leaned his head back to purposely, gently, bump his helmet and get his attention.

            Keith turned and craned his neck, and found they were level with one of the ledges, running around the edge of the building.

            Keith would have to push off and hope Lance held him tight enough to get them both on.

            Lance nudged him in the arm this time, and Keith looked down, to where Lance held up three fingers.

            Then two.

            Then one.

            And Keith shoved and Lance lunged forward, both of them activating their jetpacks for one moment, one singular boost. Lance found his footing fast, the ledge wide enough, and then spun, arms releasing their grip on Keith mid-spin, and Keith stumbled and nearly smacked his face into false brick.

            But he made it.

            Lance’s arms shot back out automatically, hands reaching to steady Keith. He didn’t let go until he was sure Keith had found his footing, until Keith was upright. Then he let his bayard return to his hand, let it return to the form of his rifle, and he dropped onto one knee. Keith stood over him, one steadying hand on his back as he peered down into the alley below, bayard materializing in a flash of light in his free hand.

            Last ten minutes. Take down the most bots.

            Lance began firing, and Keith listened to metal clanking, falling apart. He cut a glance down into the dark and found the bots fading away, back into threads of blue code. Then the clanging from elsewhere got louder, and Keith relinquished his grip on Lance’s shoulder and quieted, head cocking slightly, trying to pinpoint the origin of the sounds.

            He almost missed the bot dropping down from a ledge above them, slashing out with their sword.

            He gasped, loud enough to alert Lance but quietly enough that Krolia couldn’t hear him and call him out. He raised his sword and stabbed up, and moved in, body hitting the wall as the blade embedded itself in the bot’s gut and nearly took him down.

            The second one was the one that got him.

            He’d learned to hold back from crying out, and the two bots and one Paladin falling to the ground was more than enough to alert Lance. Keith watched him swing his rifle in their direction and shoot without an ounce of hesitation, taking the head of the bot that’d tackled Keith clean off, while Keith turned and used the body as a rather uncomfortable cushion to break his fall.

            The jolt of hitting the ground still ran through him, as he staggered to his feet and wrenched his blade free of the other bot.

            A shot flying just over his head alerted him to the other bots coming down into the cramped alley, single sensors in the middle of their heads glowing. He backed up, glancing over his shoulder once to confirm that there was nothing but a dead end behind him—even though he was certain that if Krolia, Coran, and Matt got bored, they could just send another bot to tackle him again.

            Tackle…tackle…

            Keith raised his head, and switched his visor’s overlay to thermals, while Lance shot at the advancing bots on the ground. Sure enough, he picked up on several forms on what must’ve been a platform above the ledge Lance picked out.

            He waved his sword around, until he got Lance’s attention, and then shifted its point up, at the bots. Lance turned, tensed, and then looked back down at the ground. Looked at Keith.

            Threw himself down from the ledge.


            This is Matt’s fault.

            Had to be.

            Matt probably didn’t want him relying on the same tactics—Lance could think of no other reason that his usual safe spots, high above the rest of the arena, were suddenly compromised by hordes of bots.

            He used his jetpack to steady himself as he leapt to the ground, and Keith rushed to meet him anyway, hands reaching out to steady him.

            Lance waved him off and raised his rifle, and behind him, Keith shifted back into fight mode, raising his sword. And while Lance planted his feet and fired, Keith charged forward, straight into the melee. Lance carefully shot around him as best he could, as Keith dropped underneath slashes that went for his head, and cut the bots down near their knees, their shins. Then he surged back up, stabbed a few bots in the abdomen, the chest, while Lance knocked off head after head.

            We need out of this alley.

            Yeah, their kill count was definitely rising, but Lance didn’t particularly like being crowded in, further and further back, away from the light, relying on thermals and relying on his scope.

            Not to mention, the walls pressing in on either side of him.

            Lance hadn’t realized he’d zoned out until he hit the ground, a bot bearing down on him with its sword. Lance scrabbled underneath it, tried to use his gun as a barrier between the two of them to shove the bot off, when the bot’s head flew across the rest of the alley, and suddenly Keith stood over Lance, extending a hand to help him up.

            And Lance had no time to gape, because the seconds were winding down.

            He took Keith’s hand, let Keith pull him back to his feet, and then let Keith stare a moment, brain still trying to catch up to the last few seconds.

            It still hadn’t caught up by the time Keith pulled him out of the alley and out into the open, into neon lights and the sound of distant cannon-fire. Keith still didn’t let go—not until he’d done a quick scan of the area, and found more bots charging in their direction. He pushed Lance behind him, let go of his hand and raised his sword, while Lance angled his rifle in the gap between Keith’s neck and shoulder and shot, four times.

            Four bots down.

            Then he spun, while Keith steeled himself for the remaining bots, and started shooting at the ones trying to sneak up behind them.

            Five down in one go.

            Another spin, as two of the advancing bots finally bore down on Keith. Keith stepped back, and Lance stepped back—

            “And Shiro’s out!”

            One of the bots slammed Keith to the ground.

            Keith gasped, air rushing from his lungs, the sound covered by Lance shooting the bot clean in the head, and then taking down the other one, and then another of the ones coming up on them. Keith got back to his feet before Lance could offer him a hand, panting slightly, as silently as he could manage, and then moved in close to Lance’s side and stabbed, and skewered a bot that’d been aiming for Lance while his back was turned.

            Front clear.

            Back clear.

            Lance began leading them this time, and didn’t have to reach back to know Keith was following him. He led them through alleys slightly wider than the ones they’d been in before, and felt Keith inching closer to him, closer to his heels, until they dropped down into a tunnel.

            No bots, and barely any light.

            Gentle hands pushed at Lance’s back, and then one found its way into his, and then—a presence at his side, Keith, had to be Keith—

            “Hunk is out!”

            Hunk and Shiro.

            They were the team’s tanks, what could they possibly have been dealing with—?

            Keith drew to an abrupt halt, and then started backtracking, stealing glances over his shoulder. He pulled Lance back with him, pressed up against the tunnel walls, and then motioned back toward the exit of the tunnel they’d been nearing. Lance followed his finger, and found a mass of bots dropping down from the ceiling, emerging from corners.

            Krolia, Matt, and Coran really weren’t taking prisoners on this one.

            Lance would’ve loved to stay in the tunnel, but a sound from behind them drew his attention; he looked over his shoulder, wrenched his hand from Keith’s, aimed, and shot.

            One bot down, giving way to six more.

            Keith’s eyes widened, and he shifted gazes, between the bots behind them, Lance, and the bots in front of them, then swept his eyes over the tunnel around them, scowled, and charged forward, charged for the exit, leaving Lance no choice but to follow him, rifle up, shooting down a few of the bots in front of them before they were spotted.

            As soon as the first one saw Keith, Keith lunged.

            “Pidge is out!”

            Keith stabbed straight through the bot’s chest and then kicked, yanking his blade free while Lance shot down a few of the bots approaching Keith’s range, giving him a wide enough berth to gather himself and go at another target. Then Lance swung around, just in time to come face-to-face with a bot slashing down with a bo staff.

            Lance hunched over himself and brought his rifle over his head, the barrel taking the brunt of it before he finally summoned his shield and brought it up while he lowered his rifle, tried to angle around the bot to shoot, only for another bot to come careening into him and the first bot both.

            Lance hit the ground.

            Get up get up get up—

            Lance grunted under the weight of the two bots and tried to surge up, surge forward, using his shield as a battering ram, until a third bot jumped into the melee, bearing down with a sword—

            “Lance is out!”

            The floor opened up underneath Lance, and he barely caught sight of Keith going after the other bots who’d been aiming for Lance up until that moment, barely caught Krolia announcing that Allura’d just gone down, too, and Keith was the only Paladin left standing at nine doboshes, forty-eight ticks.


            It was a turnaround from that first training session, Keith knew that much as he walked off of the training deck with his helmet tucked under his arm and hair stuck to the back of his neck with sweat. The others, save for Lance and Allura, were already out in the hallway, with weak calls of support and congratulations on taking the challenge.

            Nobody began moving for the lounge or elsewhere until Lance and Allura emerged from the deck, both wheezing.

            “Good work out there, Keith,” Allura managed. “Where was that fire when we were partners?”

            “It’s because he and Lance had a bonding moment,” Pidge muttered, rolling her eyes.

            Keith was grateful his face was already hot, flushed from training. “Well, Lance says it never happened, number one, and number two, it’s just gotten easier, I guess. I know what Krolia wants from us. It’s not our first time.”

            “Easier for you, maybe,” Hunk groaned. “I swear to Quiznak, Matt told her to go ham on us after I specifically told him not to.”

            “He’s a Holt,” Pidge replied. “You tell us not to do something, we do the opposite.”

            “No kidding,” Lance said.

            Meanwhile, Allura furrowed her brow. “Did he just say I swear to Quiznak?

            Keith sighed. “No one knows how to use that word correctly.”

            “Oh, come on, it’s the Altean equivalent of—”

            “Okay, so I’m gonna go hit the kitchen and do some relaxation baking, if anyone wants to join me!” Hunk cut off Lance, while Lance gave him a half-hearted glare, as he started down the hall, muttering about needing to change out of his armor for a little bit.

            “I’m heading back to the labs, I need to keep looking at everything Allura uploaded to the castle,” Pidge announced, pushing away from the wall she leaned against.

            “Can I join you?” Shiro asked at that moment, raising a hand. “I think it’ll be helpful, especially since by tomorrow afternoon, we should be at that colony…if it is a colony. I wanna be prepared.”

            Pidge hesitated, trying not to make it seem obvious the way in which she glanced at the others over Shiro’s shoulder, and then slowly nodded.

            “Uh, yeah. Sure.”

            With that, she walked off, Shiro in tow, leaving Lance, Keith, and Allura remaining outside the training deck.

            “Well, what are you two up to?” Lance asked, and then glanced at Allura. “Back to training with wannabe Legolas?”

            Allura blinked. “Who’s—?”

            “Fantasy character from some really old book series,” Keith interrupted. “He means Lotor.”

            “Oh,” Allura said, and then frowned, eyes narrowed, and Keith could almost picture the gears turning in her head, trying to piece together what Lance might’ve meant, “no, I’m not. He’s decided today should be a day for rest, seeing as I already have—” she waved a hand at the training deck, “—this going on. We need to be ready for tomorrow…whatever might happen. So I’ll be off to the lounge…although if Hunk’s cooking…”

            “Hunk’s cooking, good idea,” Keith said, the moment he saw Lance’s eyes light up and mouth open, and Lance’s mouth snapped shut, as he narrowed his eyes. “You head down, we’ll meet you there.”

            Allura looked at Keith a long moment, glanced in Lance’s direction, and then nodded slowly.

            “I’ll meet you there,” she agreed, stole another look at the two of them, and then walked off.

            Keith and Lance watched her go; as soon as they were sure she was out of earshot, Lance whirled on Keith.

            “What was that?” he demanded, throwing his arms up, but Keith just watched him a moment.

            “Are you claustrophobic?” he finally asked.

            Lance stared. Blinked a few times, for good, dramatic measure.

            “What?”

            “I asked if you’re—”

            “No, no, I heard you. What—why would you think I’m claustrophobic?” Lance coughed out a laugh. “I’m not—no! What, is it because I froze up in the alley back there?”

            “Uh…kinda, yeah,” Keith said. “You…you got this really faraway look in your eye, and…I’ve never seen you look like that. I’ve seen…” Keith trailed off, cast his eyes to the ground, frowned and crossed his arms. “I’ve seen Shiro look like that a couple times. Mostly when he’s about to have an episode or a panic attack. I just thought…y’know, if you are, it would be worth knowing, but if I’m wrong, then fine. I just wanted to check in. …I’ll be in the kitchen.”

            Keith turned on his heel, started walking. He didn’t notice his shoulders bunching until he heard Lance call out behind him and drew them back, as he slowed to a halt.

            “Are you asking as Friend Keith or Leader Keith?”

            The question hung in the air between them, as Keith slowly made himself relax, made himself drop his arms back down to his sides, made himself raise his head. He gazed down the empty hall; it would’ve been easy to drop the question entirely. Easy to apologize for ever asking.

            Keith had never really been familiar with easy.

            “I don’t like Leader Keith,” he said, voice a little harder than he meant it, “so Friend Keith.”

            More steps, and Keith finally turned to face Lance, as Lance stopped a short distance in front of him. A shorter distance than they’d been apart before Keith had started to walk. He held one arm cross his chest, clutched his other arm and rubbed the armor over his bicep like he could get at his skin.

            “I mean,” Lance said, “I…I haven’t really liked…cramped spaces like that, especially with imminent danger. I mean, I think that’d be—that’d be scary for anyone, right?” He laughed again, nervous, but it faded, when he noticed Keith hadn’t begun laughing along with him. “It…it wasn’t always like that, I don’t think. I dunno. Being faced down with killer robots and stuff never really came up in my childhood or in the Garrison. Maybe…I don’t know. All I know is, after the incident with the crystal and the castle freaking out and Alfor’s AI…after I got stuck in the pod, and then in the airlock…tight spaces like that…have…freaked me out…” He kept his eyes on the floor. “I guess I am claustrophobic. I just never really stopped and thought about it long enough to put a term to it.”

            He kept staring at the floor, brow furrowing, tongue poking out between his lips, until Keith reached over and placed a hand over Lance’s.

            Lance’s head snapped up, but Keith remained in place, met his eyes, even as something squeezed around his lungs, some primal urge to turn and run.

            “It’s alright,” Keith said, and tried for a smile—this is so unnatural, what the hell are you doing. “It doesn’t make you lesser, or anything. So…so don’t…don’t think that, okay? I-If you are. Thinking that. If you’re thinking that.” Get a grip, Keith.

            Keith wasn’t sure if he could still get away with blaming his flaming cheeks on training.

            “I…,” Lance started. Stopped. Returned whatever strained thing that passed for a smile Keith was giving him. “Thank you, Keith. But—” He let his arm drop back down, and Keith’s fell away, too. “—that doesn’t mean you can go any easier on me this afternoon. When I kick your ass, I want it to be because I kicked your ass, and not because you bent over—”

            “Okay, off to the kitchen!” Keith interrupted, spinning on his heel. That earned loud laughter from Lance, who Keith waited for before walking away anyway, who slung an arm over his shoulder like it was the most casual thing in the world.

            Who was entirely oblivious to Keith’s internal combustion and subsequent death right then and there.


            “Three!”

            Lance, in his own personal opinion, was a dumbass. A certified dumbass.

            “Two!”

            He’d made a poor oversight in opening up to Keith about his apparent claustrophobia, which, he still wasn’t sure how Keith had managed to peg it so cleanly on the first shot in the first place, but now it was out in the open between the two of them. Just in time for their second training match of the day. Against each other.

            “One!”

            And the siren.

            Lance gnawed on his lower lip as he slowly stalked forward, thermals on his visor switched on.

            See, he’d asked Keith not to go easy on him, after just revealing a fear that was apparently debilitating.

            A fear that Keith could so easily play against him.

            Lure me into a corner, strike me down. It would be so. Damn. Easy.

            Which was why Lance had to get the jump on him first.

            Where are you?

            Clanging from nearby got Lance’s attention—a flash of yellow light and loud banging right after indicated Hunk tangoing with a bunch of bots, and Lance sprinted in the opposite direction, tried to make his footfalls as light and soundless as possible as he swung around a corner and ran into Keith.

            Literally.

            “And Hunk’s down for more than three ticks! Out!”

            He ignored Krolia’s voice over the speakers, stumbled back a few feet and shook off the impact, eyes widening when he saw Keith with his bayard already raised, shifting his weight back and forth on his feet as he realized he was standing right in front of Lance.

            Then he lunged.

            Lance bit down on his own scream as he turned tail and bolted, summoning his shield and hoping that stamina would outmatch speed in this instance, but such was not the case. Keith tackled him from behind and made to slash down with the blunted end of his sword when Lance managed to bring up his shield up and did properly what he failed to do before, which was get out from underneath him and fucking run.

            Keith was, at least, lighter than a bot. That much became apparent when Lance gave him the slip, turning the first corner he saw, deactivating his shield, and throwing himself at the side of the wall pretending to be a building. This one was easier than before—this one had a ladder, a fucking fire escape, and Lance climbed up as fast as he could, vaulted the railing and landed on the platform running along the wall. He whipped around when he didn’t hear Keith following, and peered down.

            Keith was gone.

            Quiznak.

            Well, not quite quiznak.

            Keith being gone meant Lance couldn’t activate his bayard and shoot at him, yes. But Keith being gone also meant he couldn’t get at Lance, unless—

            Oh no.

            Lance whipped around, searching for an exit, other than throwing himself over the side and hoping his armor would take the brunt of the impact, and found nothing.

            So he dropped into a roll and just narrowly avoided being tackled by Keith, jumping down from a platform almost twenty feet above.

            How did you even climb that fast?! And where?!

            Lance got to his feet at the same time Keith did, sword drawn, while Lance’s bayard flared to life.

            Three shots. That’s all it’ll take.

            “That’s an out for Pidge!”

            Three shots, and Lance couldn’t make them, because Keith was bearing down on him with his sword, yet again.

            Lance couldn’t summon his shield in time, and stumbled back into the wall with his rifle horizontal across his body, Keith’s sword clattering against it.

            His only consolation was that he was still standing upright, because if he’d been on the ground, Krolia would’ve already deemed it an out.

            Lance raised his eyes to Keith’s as his muscles strained, as Keith pressed down harder, mouth twitching up—he’s fucking smirking, the little quiznaker.

            Indeed, smirking, all mischief as he met Lance’s gaze and raised his eyebrows. You asked me not to go easy on you, didn’t you? So I’m not going easy on you.

            He was right. Lance had asked that, because Lance needed to defend himself.

            So defend yourself.

            How can you help the team if you can ’t even save your own skin?

            “Allura, for making noise—out!”

            Tune her out.

            Save yourself.

            Save yourself.

            Save yourself.

            Save—

            A flash of light right in front of his face nearly blinded him, and Lance screwed his eyes shut, this is not how you save yourself, what the hell is happening, he squinted, tried to make out something, anything in front of him, and found the weight pressing down on him waning slightly, light clearing—

            And a sword that was not Keith’s was hardly a hair’s breadth from his visor.

            The same place the barrel of his rifle had been moments ago.

            Lance couldn’t move.

            Keith certainly couldn’t move.

            Lance’s arms shook for a slightly different reason this time, as he came to the realization he was the one holding the weapon.

            A sword.

            Not a rifle, but a sword.

            Behind the sword, Keith gaped, lowering his own—although Lance didn’t know whether or not he realized it, and he didn’t take the time to find out as he returned Keith’s favor from earlier and lunged.


            “And Keith is out!”

            Keith couldn’t find himself too mad about it as he lay panting in the tiny room underneath the training deck, limbs aching, lungs heaving.

            Broadsword.

            Lance unlocked a fucking broadsword.

            An Altean broadsword, no less.

            Keith’d seen pictures, diagrams in the castle armory, after going looking for new weapons one day, too exhausted to continue training on the deck but with too many hours left to burn to do nothing. It’d been—it’d been King Alfor’s favored sword, and here…here Lance was. Unlocking it.

            Kicking Keith’s ass with it two seconds later.

            Keith didn’t even know Lance knew how to use a sword.

            “He got lucky,” he grunted sarcastically, even as something strange surged and swelled in his chest, and he finally sat up and got back to his feet, found his way out of the room, back into a corner of the training deck, and then out of the training deck door, where Hunk, Pidge, and Allura were already waiting.

            He wasn’t sure what to make of the shock on all of their faces.

            “Lance beat you?” Pidge asked.

            “He beat Hunk, Allura, and Shiro,” Keith pointed out calmly. “I don’t see what the big deal is.”

            Hunk let go of his surprised expression the quickest. “…Yeah, that makes sense…I guess being the team sharpshooter does have advantages, and I mean, with the whole rivalry, you’d think he’d be like, more driven to beat Keith.”

            Keith’s brow furrowed, even as the answer seemed to placate Allura and Pidge, because there were things to parse out, pick through, argue against, and Keith found the time to do exactly none of that as the training deck door opened again, and Shiro stumbled out looking slightly worse for wear, followed up seconds later by Lance, chest puffed out, rifle hoisted over his shoulder in triumph.

            Rifle.

            Not broadsword.

            Keith pursed his lips as Lance swaggered out to the rest of the gang, past them, and right up to Keith.

            “You sure you didn’t go easy on me?” he teased, poking Keith in the chest.

            Keith stared at his finger for a moment, and then lifted his chin to meet Lance’s eyes. “That was a warm-up.”

            “Oh, okay.” Lance swept an arm back to the training deck door. “So if we went back in there right now—”

            “Can you guys do this somewhere else?” Pidge interrupted.

            “Yes, as…interesting as this is, I think we all could use some rest,” Allura jumped in. “By tomorrow afternoon, we should be descending upon the colony, and we’re still uncertain of what lies ahead. I think it’s best for everyone to turn in early tonight. I’ll see you all bright and early in the morning.”

            She smiled and nodded at the group, and then turned and began walking away, while Lance’s eyebrows knitted in confusion.

            “Wait, interesting? What—what do you…?”

            Hunk reached out and patted Lance’s shoulder. “Your rivalry’s just fascinating, now come on, let’s get changed and then get some sleep, I am exhausted.”

            He ushered Lance away, and Pidge followed them, leaving Keith alone with Shiro in front of the training deck in silence. For a long while, neither one said anything—Keith was too busy trying to gather his thoughts and stay on his feet, and Shiro merely watched him. Any other day, his presence would’ve been welcoming. Reassuring. His big brother had his back.

            But not now.

            Shiro was studying him. Scrutinizing, probably.

            Then he pushed off of the wall and brushed past him. “Get some rest, Keith.”

            So Keith spent a minute watching him go, and then finally sighed and turned in the opposite direction. Made his way to his room. Stripped his suit of armor and told himself he’d put it back in its proper place in the morning. Stumbled into a hot shower and almost fell asleep under the water, the ache getting worse, now that his adrenaline high was wearing off. Barely dried off before slipping back into a clean shirt and pants.

            Crashed headfirst into bed, and into a tumultuous sleep.

Chapter Text

5.04
Killswitch

            “Wake.”

            Nothing he encountered in his nightmares, in his hallucinations, ever compared to that voice. Nothing made him shiver in quite the same way, nothing raised the hair on the back of his neck like this voice did, nothing ever set him so completely on edge and then shoved him over with one last tap like this.

            Wake.

            Once upon a time, he’d been stubborn. Defiant. Never really backed down without a challenge—he thrived in the face of a challenge, and people never failed to call him on it. Stubborn. Glory-chaser. A bit of a hero complex.

            Some remarks were fonder than others.

            But once upon a time, the only person who’d have to answer if he screwed up was himself. He owned up to his actions and kept others out of the aftermath, whatever it might’ve been.

            Such was not the case anymore, whether he liked it or not.

            So he woke.

            “What do you want?”

            His voice scraped his throat. Came out gravelly. Before now, he’d been doing well—his voice hadn’t sounded like that in a long time, but he supposed screaming too much did that to you. But he pretended like he didn’t hear it, as a head lifted across the room, and one singular yellow eye, blazing, unnatural, met his. The light of the purple ceiling panels caught one end of a razor-sharp grin.

            “I thought you might like to be awake for the commencement of phase four.”


            Oh no.

            Oh shit.

            Oh quiznak.

            Lance was very much out of his element.

            He prided himself on being a child of the water. Born and raised in Cuba. Spent his childhood swimming in the ocean water at Varadero Beach, and whichever pools he could find his way into. Fantasized about being a mermaid, because being a mermaid meant a life in the water, flowing locks of hair, fellow mermaids to spend his days with, no pants, a dream come true.

            When he’d been given the role of Paladin of the Blue Lion, Guardian Spirit of Water, it’d made sense. He and Blue clicked.

            The move to Red, Guardian Spirit of Fire, was something he was apparently not grasping very well, even months later.

            Fire roared and blazed around Lance, high walls shooting up in every direction as a breeze fueled the flames, fanned them. His jacket, the ends of his hair whipped in the wind, and he felt exposed without his armor, with only his bayard in hand. And not even that would activate properly—no matter how many times he tried to summon his rifle, it kept coming back.

            That stupid sword.

            “What do you want from me?” he shouted, throwing his hands up to the blackening sky, as if it would answer him—as if the universe would take pity and explain to him why, every time it seemed he was just getting the hang of something, he was shoved back to square one, thrust into a new position with no guidance, thrust in as a filler, as second-best, as the spare.

            “I’m trying!” he cried out, voice cracking. “Can’t you see that?! Is nothing I do ever even good enough?!

            The winds kicked up at his statement, and Lance hunched in on himself, stepped back and closer to the center of the ring of fire around him, as it began swirling over his head, pulling tighter and tighter until it formed a dome over him, a reverse-tornado of sorts. The winds swept up ash, the burnt grass at his feet, and Lance coughed while the ground trembled underneath him.

            “Go to him. Save him.

            Lance hadn’t been expecting a voice to answer him, one distorted but…vaguely familiar.

            He clutched the handle of his bayard—the hilt of his broadsword—and held it out in front of him. Here, it leaned precariously to either side, no matter how much Lance tried to balance it.

            “Who-who are you?” Lance shouted. “Who’s he?

            Something rocked the ground, and Lance stumbled, while his bayard deactivated, and an explosion sounded. The walls of fire pulled tighter around Lance, and Lance whipped around, searching for an exit, searching for somewhere to run—

            “Run to him.”

            A crack of thunder, and Lance couldn’t scream as a bolt of lightning shot through the dome of fire. Struck the ground in front of him. Ripped his eardrums to shreds and sent him flying, sprawling—

            And jolting awake, covered in a sheen of sweat.

            He thought waking might have eliminated the heat searing him, the pounding in his head and his heart, but they seemed to ramp up, fire scorching him from the inside out, and one thought, over and over again as banging thumped through the whole castle, and the alarm system kicked in: go to him.

            Save him.

            The energy in his chest surged, and an image came into his mind, clear as day: Keith.

            Lance didn’t know if this was a memory or if it was some conjuration by his connection to Red, but it was a simple image: Keith, laughing with his head thrown back, slightly younger-looking but still in his Paladin armor. Near the start of this whole mess, maybe.

            Save him.

            Lance moved.

            He kicked the rest of his covers off and neglected his Lion slippers entirely, the alarms finally registering with him in full. Every second his door took to open was too long, and he stumbled out into the hall before it was even all the way up, and booked it for Keith’s room. The journey wasn’t very far—just down the hall, but it seemed to take an eternity to get there, and when Lance did, his door was already open, and Keith was swaying on two feet.

            Pale.

            Hand pressed to his neck.

            Blood spilling over his fingers and running down the sides of his mouth.

            Realistically, Lance knew that they both should’ve been hurrying, and somewhere there was screaming for him to go in the back of his head, but in that one moment he and Keith met gazes and couldn’t help but stare, with panicked, bewildered eyes.

            Then Keith fainted.

            Lance’s ensuing scream reverberated around the rest of the hallway as he swooped in before Keith could hit the ground. His hand fell away from his neck, and Lance’s stomach lurched as it revealed an ugly wound, skin torn, bleeding.

            Badly.

            “HELP!

            He wasn’t even sure if the word tore out of him entirely coherently, and he should’ve cared, but all of his energy was too busy going into getting his legs moving, pumping underneath him as he cradled Keith close to his chest and bolted for the med bay. He couldn’t ignore the strained rattling of Keith’s chest, of his almost non-existent breathing—

            Shouting went up behind Lance, and at that, he only held Keith closer, tried to run faster—away from danger, get him to safety, med bay

            “Lance, what the hell?” Pidge. Pidge was suddenly at his right, and then Hunk was at his left, scarily silent—because normally when Lance got into trouble, Hunk fired off question after question until Lance had had enough, MOM, are you done, but he just sped up, ran past Lance while other footfalls sounded behind him—gasps—Allura, Shiro, Matt, Coran, Krolia—

            Lance hadn’t even realized the doors to the med bay were open until he stumbled into the room, and there were other people setting upon him, other people reaching for Keith, and Lance recoiled, head snapping up, eyes wide, glassy. He hadn’t noticed he was cradling Keith closer until Shiro held him back long enough for Coran and Allura to pry Keith out of his arms—and that was pry in the strongest sense, until he finally registered Shiro urging him to let him go, urging him to let Coran and Allura do what they had to do.

            “Lance, stop fighting.” His voice was calm for the situation as he wrenched Lance’s arms back, and Lance only struggled momentarily before deflating.

            “Give him to me,” Hunk said then.

            Shiro hesitated only for a moment before releasing his grip on Lance, a grip Lance hadn’t even realized had pulled him off the floor until he fell that small gap, and Hunk reached out to steady him.

            “Lance, what happened?” Hunk asked, voice low, but Lance pushed away from him, tried to get closer to Coran and Allura as they dealt with Keith, as Krolia joined them. He caught sight of something hastily tied around Keith’s neck just before Hunk yanked him back. “No, no, stay out of their way—”

            Lance whipped around, and watched Hunk flinch at whatever look he gave him, whatever wild-eyed glare he flashed, and then turned back around in time to see Coran and Allura shove Keith into a pod, in time to watch him be cryogenically frozen as his vital signs, other information Lance couldn’t read because it was all in quiznaking Altean appeared on the sides of the pod. Coran got to work, bloodied fingers flying over the glass, Krolia peering over his shoulder, while Allura stared down at her own palms, and her face screwed up in disgust.

            Then Lance looked down at himself.

            The stains on his shirt were already browning.

            Then he looked up at Keith.

            Covered. His neck, the area around his mouth, his shirt, all soaked, still bright red.

            There’s no time for cleaning when you have to stabilize.

            Right. Because this was no hospital. There were no rooms prepped and ready for emergency surgery. There were just the pods.

            “Whoa, whoa, whoa—Lance!”

            The floor rushed up to meet Lance, until he felt arms underneath his own, and then himself being guided to the ground more gently, instead of straight-up face-planting. Hunk—they were Hunk’s arms, and they let him go as soon as he was sitting upright, albeit a bit dizzy. Then a weight came down behind him, and Lance found Hunk sitting with him, a hand against his back.

            “Is he gonna be okay?”

            Lance hadn’t heard that cross of desperate and feeble come out of his mouth since he was a kid, and tried to ignore it, tried to ignore the fire inside of him, still whipping up, raging, powered by the alarm still shrieking overhead, and flutter of motion still continuing with Coran, with Krolia, with Allura as she got to work on the other side of the pod, with Shiro pacing and Pidge strickenly glancing between everyone and Matt scarily silent by the wall, eyes distant.

            “Is he going to be okay?” Lance repeated when his first question yielded no answer.

            “Pidge, go check the security feeds,” Allura ordered without a look back. “Matt, Shiro, lock down Keith’s room until we can properly look into what happened.”

            Lance opened his mouth to ask a third time when Hunk clamped a hand down over it.

            Let me go. The urge shot through Lance, there and gone in a flash but long enough for Lance to recognize it, to feel it wholly, for it to course through his blood and bones, and he almost lashed out, almost tried fighting Hunk before he remembered that fighting would get them nowhere. That it was the middle of the night for all of them and yet here they were, three scurrying out of the med bay to do whatever they had to do, one trying to keep another from falling apart, and two trying to keep a third alive.

            Lance didn’t relax, but he didn’t move forward, and slowly shut his mouth. Hunk removed his hand after a beat of hesitation, and but kept the other on his back.

            He gave Lance no words of reassurance. Just swallowed thickly as he looked at Keith’s pod, at Allura and Coran and Krolia.

            Finally, after a few minutes, Allura stepped away, shoulders slumping while Coran let out a relaxed-seeming breath and let his arms drop, while Krolia took a few steps back, still staring at the glass.

            Lance didn’t pose his question again, but raised his eyes to Coran as he turned to appraise Lance and Hunk, still sitting on the floor.

            “Well,” Coran started, and let out a breath, “he’ll be okay. Or should be. In a varga or two, once he’s stable, we’ll need to take him out long enough to get him into one of the pod suits, because exposure like this isn’t very good for your human physique! …Or most physiques, for that matter. But we couldn’t waste the time, with that injury of his. Best to get him in there now, get some minimal healing on that, and then take him out, suit him up, and finish off the process!”

            “And how long’s that going to take?” Hunk asked. “Y’know, we’ve kinda got a mission…in the afternoon…”

            “We’ll have to discuss what to do about that in the morning,” Allura answered. She didn’t look at Hunk or Lance, but kept her eyes on some middle distance. Exhaustion weighed heavily on her voice, on her posture. She braced her hands behind her, on the edge of the table. “I don’t like it, but the colony must be put aside, considering that the security of the castle has been compromised, as well as the safety of one of our Paladins…the Black Paladin, no less.”

            The Black Paladin. And what if it had been the Red Paladin, or the Yellow Paladin? Would it have mattered as much? Would they still be descending for the colony in the afternoon if it had been anyone other than Voltron’s head?

            Of course it would matter. Of course we wouldn’t be going down.

            Lance’s rational side knew it somewhere, deep down, and knew it was more we’d postpone because they’re our friends, rather than we’d postpone because we need enough Paladins to form Voltron, but the thought barely made it to the surface.

            So he ignored it altogether.

            “And how long’s Keith supposed to be after the suit switch?” he asked instead.

            Allura bit her lip and shot a look in Coran’s direction, but Coran merely shrugged, and she dropped her head and sighed.

            “He could be anywhere from a half a quintant to a full quintant, barring any more unforeseen complications,” she answered.

            “Whoever attacked him cut close to what you humans would call an artery,” Coran said. “Any closer, and you getting to him any later…well, best not to dwell on what might’ve happened then. Be thankful you got to him when you did.”

            “And how did you get to him?” Allura asked.

            Lance drew his legs up and wrapped his arms around them, as Coran, Krolia, Allura, and Hunk all settled their eyes on him. Lance met none of their gazes; his eyes unfocused, and he saw nothing but the bloody scene from minutes ago, in sharper focus, much slower than before. The way Keith’s eyes rolled back in the split second before his body gave out on him; the simultaneously shocked and relieved look he gave Lance in the seconds before that; the blood, staining his skin, his shirt, Lance’s shirt.

            I am covered in Keith’s blood.

            It only fully sunk in now, and Lance’s stomach roiled.

            Then he leaned over to the side and retched.

            And then he passed out.


            Oh, this isn’t good.

            Pidge stood at Coran’s typical post on the bridge, alarm finally disabled, staring at the screen in front of her. What should’ve been displaying a feed of the hallways of the castleship, specifically the wing with all of the Paladins’ bedrooms, instead showed nothing but static. It took scrubbing backwards several hours to get any kind of feed on any of the cameras, and those she got were unusually grainy, distorted.

            Most of the tech on the ship might’ve been ten thousand years overdue for an upgrade, Pidge knew, but even this was far out of the realm of the ordinary.

            Switching to different feeds didn’t change the outcome.

            Every last one of them, gray grain and white noise.

            Going back several hours: the same distorted audio and video.

            “Great, just great,” she muttered under her breath, and pushed up her glasses, rubbed the heels of her hands into her eyes and groaned. This was not the hour for braining, for sleuthing this out and getting to the bottom of it, but the rest of the team had their own jobs to do, and the same unfortunate luck of being awake at whatever fucking hour this was had befallen all of them, so it could’ve been worse.

            You could be Keith right now.

            Right. She could’ve very well been Keith, the unsuspecting target of an attempted murder in the middle of the night.

            Thought in mind, Pidge called up a holoscreen at her right, started a video call while her other hand began typing out orders, personalized commands she’d programmed into the castleship that hopefully would give her even an inkling of what was scrambling the system—malfunction or sabotage, where and when and how.

            “Allura,” Pidge started at the first soundbyte without so much as a glance in the feed’s direction, “I got to the feeds, and—”

            “One moment Pidge, please.”

            Pidge paused, turned her head slightly. Allura’s feed caught the underside of her chin, and her eyes were up, and she called commands to the others in the room: “Hunk, get him a blanket and something to drink. Coran, go—oh, dear—” Allura gagged, “—please go get something to clean that up with, and Krolia—make sure he doesn’t hurt himself any further—”

            “What happened?” Pidge asked, and the ceiling in Allura’s shot moved—no, Allura was moving, walking, wincing.

            “Lance may have just vomited and then passed out.”

            At least he gets rest, the thought crossed Pidge’s mind, until she remembered the last time she’d been on the verge of passing out, the simultaneous leadenness and lightness in her limbs, the cold on the back of her neck while the rest of her body broke out into a sweat, the excruciating nausea.

            She decided then that she’d take mild sleep deprivation over fainting.

            “That’s…great,” she finally said, wrinkling her nose. “Should I wait, or…?”

            “Please,” Allura responded.

            So Pidge went quiet, eyes returning to the new holoscreens, the new data she’d called up, strings of numbers and letters scrolling by just fast enough to make her eyes hurt—

            Until they stopped.

            Pidge’s holoscreen blinked out and back in as the codes before her eyes broke down—whole chunks of data falling away, numbers and letters broken and warped, the scrolling speeding up.

            “What the hell?” Pidge whispered, brow furrowed. She put in a command to slow it down, to stop it altogether, but the screen merely blinked out again, and the process repeated: more lost data, more warping, faster scrolling.

            All Pidge could do was stare, mind working overtime until it finally latched onto one thing: I need my laptop.

            “Allura, I’m gonna be a little bit,” she said, shutting down several holoscreens, including the one currently trying to give her a headache. “I’ve gotta hit the labs. Something’s wrong.”

            Before Allura could answer, Pidge cut off their feed, and then broke into a jog, out of the bridge, down to the labs.


            Matt had seen some shit. A lot of shit. Too much shit.

            Being a Galra captive-turned-gladiator-turned-rebel-soldier-turned-high-ranking-rebel-officer would do that to you.

            But this was something he still wasn’t prepared for.

            Maybe it was different because this was a human dealing. Before, he’d been the only human he’d known across galaxies, because every lead on his dad was dead and Shiro was gone, spirited away by some traitor to the Empire or other, and as far as he knew, they were the only three humans the Galra had ever come across and managed to capture. But now he had the others, his baby sister and her friends, and he was staring at the blood of one of them, a mess in his room.

            Matt swallowed down the bile climbing up the back of his throat and made himself step further into Keith’s room, just to inspect the place. The worst of it was the bed—stained sheets that would definitely need washing, the largest stains concentrated up near his ruined pillow. Then there was the floor, and the bloody footprints leading out to the door that looked very much like Keith’s bare feet.

            He almost missed the knife.

            It was half-tucked underneath the rumpled blankets near the foot of the bed, gray-purple, and coated in red.

            “What’s that?” he asked, pointing it out to Shiro, who up to this point was glancing around the room over Matt’s shoulder, breathing running more and more ragged the longer he stood there.

            “What?” Shiro asked, and his voice tripped, like he’d been caught off-guard.

            “That,” Matt repeated. “The knife. End of the bed.”

            Shiro followed Matt’s directions, and the direction of his finger. Matt glanced back and watched as Shiro’s eyes narrowed and brows drew closer together, creasing the skin between them.

            “Keith’s Marmora knife.”

            He took a step forward, only for Matt to throw his hand up.

            “Whoa, whoa, nope, we’re not touching that,” Matt said. “This is a crime scene, Allura asked us to lock the place down. We’re not touching anything until we can get the rest of the team down here to see this.”

            To his relief, Shiro didn’t put up a fight—and briefly, Matt contemplated why he’d been afraid Shiro might’ve fought in the first place, before shoving that thought aside in favor of more pressing issues—and Matt carefully pushed him out of the room, shut the door, and then punched in the passcode to lock it.

            “We should get going back to the med bay,” Matt suggested, turning to face Shiro, and found Shiro still staring at the door, GalraTech arm rubbing his flesh one, twisting around his wrist.

            “Yeah,” he said, voice distant.

            Matt took a step closer to him, reached out to touch his shoulder when Shiro flinched away, and then started down the hall without waiting for Matt to follow. So Matt remained in front of Keith’s room a moment longer, watching Shiro go, before sighing and falling into step behind him.


            It took another hour, between bringing Lance back to consciousness and swapping Keith’s suit and getting Lance changed and regrouping in the med bay, for the team—minus Krolia, who’d volunteered to watch Keith’s pod for the time being—to gather in the dining room for an excruciatingly early breakfast, because it looked like no one would be going back to sleep any time soon. Worse yet, Allura hadn’t much of a choice—Lotor and his generals accompanied them, all in varying states of disgruntled. Their only consolation was the food, cobbled together last minute by Hunk and Coran, pulling double duty in the kitchen.

            “Where is the Black Paladin?” Lotor asked, sweeping his eyes around the table, settling them on Matt, who’d taken up Keith’s otherwise vacant seat. “You may have similar haircuts—”

            “Don’t even get me started,” Matt interrupted, holding up a hand.

            “That’s part of what this meeting is about,” Allura said, and closed her eyes, steeled herself for her next sentence: “We may need to delay our journey to the colony.”

            “What?

            Lotor’s hands slammed down on the table as he shot out of his chair and startled most of the others—Lance reared back in his seat and smacked his head, while Pidge choked on the food she’d finally tentatively lifted to her mouth. Ezor and Zethrid each sat back, and Acxa’s hand immediately dipped out of sight, possibly toward a weapon she’d concealed, though the others didn’t feel keen on proving it.

            “Prince Lotor,” Coran warned with a severe look in his direction.

            But Lotor threw his arm back in gesture to what was probably the universe beyond, although here it was merely to the empty walls.

            “We’re closing in on that colony! We’re supposed to be there in a matter of vargas—”

            “Well, our Black Paladin was very nearly murdered in his sleep and is currently recovering in a cryopod, so I think the colony takes a back seat to the issue of a security breach in the castle,” Allura cut in, rising, setting her palms flat against the table in a much calmer manner as she locked eyes with Lotor.

            Lotor’s expression softened.

            Only slightly, but a softening nonetheless.

            “What?”

            “Someone attempted to take Keith’s life tonight,” Allura explained, and Lotor slowly sank back into his seat. “Considering we’re drifting deep in space, and none of the castle scanners picked up on any ships docking…it’s safe to say that the culprit is someone in the room.”

            This, Allura hadn’t brought up to the rest of the team yet. Logically, they each knew it somewhere. It didn’t stop the shock of the announcement from registering on their faces. Hunk’s spork clattered loudly against his plate, while Matt’s head snapped sharply in Allura’s direction, and Shiro stiffened in his seat.

            “Pidge,” Allura said, finally sitting down, and Pidge raised her head, eyes wide, “please explain to the rest of us what you discovered in the labs.”

            Pidge noticeably deflated, a relieved look crossing her face.

            “Right, so, okay,” she started, “someone’s hacked into the castle computer systems and completely screwed up the security system. At least, the cameras. We know alarms are online and the hangars are online because the alarms went off when Red started trying to bust into the castle, but for all we know, the same person who screwed up the security systems could’ve triggered the alarm when Red went berserk as some kind of cover.”

            “I’m sorry,” Acxa said, “but your Lion…tried to get into the castle?”

            “Red does that sometimes,” Hunk muttered between mouthfuls of breakfast.

            Acxa shot confused looks at the other generals, but Lotor merely shook his head and settled his eyes on Pidge. “Continue, Paladin.”

            “So while we were getting Keith in a cryopod, I went to go check the security feeds, but they were scrambled. For hours, including at the time someone went at Keith, there’s nothing but static. Several hours before that, there are video and audio feeds, but the quality’s shot. It’s still viewable, but it’s not great. Not by a longshot. I went deeper into the computer data, to see if I could find whatever did it, but things started breaking down. There’s been some kind of virus implanted into the system, and I can’t trace it back to any one source like I should be able to.”

            The room was quiet for a moment, as Pidge’s words settled in, and then Lotor glanced in Allura’s direction.

            “I hope I’m mistaken,” he said, “but this sounds an awful lot like you called us here to accuse us of doing this.”

            “I said nothing of the sort,” Allura responded tersely. “I called you here because delaying the trip to the colony affects you, and if we’re all living aboard this ship, we all need to be aware of what’s going on.”

            “But we’re not really living aboard the ship,” Ezor pointed out, resting a cheek on her fist and her elbow on the table. “We’re living in our ship inside of your ship, but we’re not really living aboard this ship.”

            Allura’s eye twitched.

            “So now that we’ve figured that out, I suppose there’s no harm in letting us go back to sleep?” Lotor asked, and began rising from his chair again.

            “Whoa, whoa, whoa, your ship being inside this ship is still being aboard this ship!” Lance interrupted, throwing a hand out, sitting up straighter in his seat. “And Pidge just pointed out that the hangars, i.e., where you’re staying, are still vulnerable points! Sit down!”

            “Lance,” Shiro said warningly, but Lance ignored him.

            “You wanted this alliance with us, you wanted to be here, and being here means being stuck in a meeting in the middle of the night because someone tried to kill your friend!” His voice rose to a shout, and for a moment he was frozen, half-out of his chair as he stared insistently at Lotor, jaw set. Then a hand came down on his shoulder—Hunk—and he sank back, crossed his arms and slid down, breakfast abandoned.

            “Lotor,” Shiro said, after a beat of silence, “I apologize—”

            Allura held up a hand and cut Shiro off. “No, no, Lance is right.”

            “I am?” Lance asked, raising his head.

            “He is?” Shiro asked, brows knitting.

            “He is,” Allura confirmed. “You don’t get to pick and choose the parts of an alliance that best suit your agenda, much less when it’s an alliance for which you continually pushed. It’s all or nothing. Furthermore, I did say the culprit could be anyone in this room. You and your generals are in this room, you all are included in that statement. If you don’t like it, we can cut this alliance off here and now, and you can leave immediately. Your choice.”

            She held Lotor’s gaze for a long time, Lotor growing more and more tense as time passed, while his generals traded glances. Finally, Acxa cleared her throat.

            “Princess, you put us in that hangar instead of integrating us directly into life in this castle specifically to keep your Paladins safe, did you not?”

            Allura flicked her eyes in Acxa’s direction, and Lotor finally let go of a breath.

            “Well?” Acxa pressed.

            “Yes,” Allura finally admitted, voice hard.

            “And yet one of your Paladins is still in a cryopod after an attempt on his life.”

            “Let’s not talk so flippantly about that, alright?” Lance cut in, leaning forward again, even as Hunk tried to pull him back. “I don’t think using Keith as a bargaining chip—”

            “I wouldn’t call it a bargaining chip when it’s a fact that proves my point,” Acxa interrupted him right back. “Your security measures have obviously failed. If you insist we be treated as members of this castle, and your reason for keeping us out of the castle has fallen apart, then I don’t see why we’re still being kept in the hangars.”

            Allura opened her mouth to fire back, but Hunk beat her to the punch.

            “Alright, alright, guys? I know it’s tense, I know nobody wants to be awake right now, I know we’ve got a lot going on. Like, an attempted murderer is sitting among us, yeah, and we’re all just talking openly in front of them. And yeah, that should probably be a bigger cause for concern than where everyone is staying, but, anyway. Lotor, generals—” Hunk paused to flash a nervous smile in their direction, “—it’s obvious you don’t want to just drop this alliance, especially after working so hard to get it. And the rest of us, it’s clear we’re not willing to drop it either, or we’d have kicked them out already.”

            “There’s still time,” Pidge muttered under her breath.

            Hunk pursed his lips and willed himself to keep his eyes forward as Pidge pointedly shoveled another sporkful of breakfast into her mouth.

            “Anyway,” he said, “I feel like we can figure out where everyone’s staying at another time, maybe? There are bigger issues at hand, like the colony. AKA the whole reason this meeting was called? We need a game plan. Allura?”

            Nobody piped up to argue when Hunk threw the conversation back in her direction. She nodded to him, grateful, and then turned to the others.

            “As I was saying before, the colony mission must be delayed, at least until Keith is out of the pods. Delaying it until we find the culprit would be ideal, but…” She swallowed, made herself look each member of the meeting in the eyes. “That could take more time than we have to sacrifice, especially considering how close to the colony we already are. We’ll just have to take extra precautions in the meantime…which means nobody’s allowed to be alone, anywhere.”

            “Isn’t Krolia alone with the pods right now?” Pidge asked.

            Allura paused, eyes widening slightly, while Ezor ducked her head and stifled laughter.

            “Coran and I can go get her,” Matt said, pushing up out of his chair. “No going alone, right? Come on, Coran.”

            Coran blinked at Matt’s directions, but Allura just sighed and motioned Coran to follow him.

            Nobody spoke again until they were gone.

            “So what’s this about nobody being alone?” Lance asked.

            Allura pinched the bridge of her nose as she answered. “It’s to make certain nobody else is caught off-guard. We’re grouping up.” She raised her head and swept her eyes around the table, gears turning. “Hunk, you’re with me and Narti. Coran and Krolia will take Ezor and Zethrid. Pidge, you and Matt will take Acxa. Lance, Shiro…you two are with Lotor.”

            “I hardly see how separating myself and my generals while keeping at least two of your own team members together at a time is fair,” Lotor said.

            Allura stared at him a long moment, and then said, “We’re all allies, we’re all on the same team. Besides, Ezor and Zethrid are still together. I don’t see what the complaint is.”

            “I have a complaint, actually,” Pidge spoke up. “Does this mean until we find whoever tried to kill Keith, we’re all gonna be sleeping somewhere aren’t our own bedrooms?”

            “I hadn’t thought that far, but yes, that sounds good,” Allura responded. “Until the culprit is…or culprits are found, we’ll all likely be gathered in the lounge…unless the group would like to sleep elsewhere, which…I don’t understand why, but I suppose that isn’t up to me to judge.”

            When nobody spoke after her, she looked around the table again.

            “Is that settled, then?”

            “We descend upon the colony once the Black Paladin is out of his pod, and for the time being we’re all stuck in groups, at least until we reach the colony or we figure out who attempted to kill the Black Paladin in the first place,” Lotor said, sighing. “Perfectly settled.”

            He leaned forward with an elbow on the table and rested his forehead in his palm, while the rest of the table went quiet and resumed eating as they waited for Krolia, Matt, and Coran to return, as they waited for Allura to fill them in on everything that’d transpired in the time they’d been gone.

            “How’s Keith?” Shiro asked, turning toward Krolia.

            “Still stable,” she answered, voice clipped, far away. “Did we miss anything else, besides the delay of the colony mission and this new…group system?”

            “No,” Shiro said. “There’s no new course of action, either, except to wait.” He glanced down the table, eyes settling on Lance. “We have time, we may as well find out how Lance knew to go to Keith.”

            Lance’s eyes snapped up.

            “Yes, I would like to know,” Allura said, drawing his attention. “You didn’t manage to give us an answer before you passed out.”

            Lance flushed. “It was a stressful situation, but, ah…” He shrugged, folded his hands on the table in front of him and ducked his head. “I dunno, I…mm, no. It wasn’t me. …It was Red.”

            “Red?” Pidge repeated.

            Lance nodded. Still didn’t look up. “Yeah, he…he called out to me while I was dreaming, and then I woke up and he kept calling out. He kept telling me save him, and then I heard the alarm, and the banging, and…I just kinda knew? I-I saw this image of Keith, and then I…I just got up and ran. And…”

            Keith.

            The scene came back to Lance in sharper focus: Keith, pale, trembling; the blood, all over his clothes and skin; the terror in his eyes, clearing when he put together that it was Lance, just before they rolled back, and his body gave out on him.

            The prospect of speaking all of that out loud nauseated Lance.

            So he didn’t.

            “Yeah,” he finished on an exhale. “That’s how I knew to go to Keith.”

            “But why would Red reach out?” Pidge asked almost immediately. “Keith’s not his pilot anymore.”

            “Doesn’t mean there’s not still a connection,” Hunk pointed out.

            “But Keith’s currently Black’s pilot…oh.”

            Pidge pursed her lips as her gaze wandered to Shiro.

            Shiro, whose connection to Black, for one reason or another, no longer existed.

            Lotor followed her eyes. Kept his face carefully blank. Looked away and didn’t speak a word of it.

            “So, now that that’s cleared up,” Hunk said, before silence could take over the room again, “are we done here? Because if this colony mission’s still happening within the next quintant or two, I think we all need to get some more rest. Like Lance said, it’s been a stressful night.”

            “Like sleeping with an attempted murderer is going to be any less stressful,” Ezor remarked.

            “Okay, yeah, it’s not ideal, but staying awake for an extended period of time isn’t going to be any better,” Hunk said. “I think, if we just have some watch shifts, with a couple people awake at a time, and we rotate, we should be fine.”


            Fine was a rather loose term.

            The team had taken to keeping an emergency supply of blankets and pillows in the lounge, some time back, but it was barely enough for the entire group that’d gathered, and none of them seemed particularly keen on sleeping, even when Hunk and Matt each volunteered to take the first watch. It only took fifteen minutes for the pacing to start—for Lance to get antsy and start walking around, trying to calm his raging nerves, before finally he sighed.

            “I’m going to watch Keith’s pod.”

            “And why would you need to do that?” Krolia’s voice cut across the room, from where she stood rod-straight against the wall with her arms crossed, and Lance stopped in his tracks. “He’s perfectly stable, and we’re not supposed to go anywhere alone, least of all near Keith.”

            “I-I don’t know!” Lance replied, raising his hands to the sides of his head, palms out. “I just don’t like the idea of him being all alone in there!”

            “He’s unconscious, I don’t think he’ll notice or care,” Pidge deadpanned, voice muffled by virtue of her face being buried somewhere underneath a blanket and shoved into a pillow.

            “Well, what if there’s a glitch or malfunction? We’re all the way in here! I’d rather be right there, you know?” Lance said, lowering his hands, eyes sweeping around the room.

            Pidge remained face-down somewhere in the middle of her makeshift sleeping bag, half-dangling off of the bench running around the center of the room. Matt sat at the top of the bench, feet resting near Pidge’s head, and he stared curiously at Lance; as did Hunk, leaned up against a wall across the room with his blanket draped over his shoulders. Ezor was already asleep, head resting in Zethrid’s lap, while Zethrid leaned against the bottom of the couch, finally starting to nod off and paying Lance no mind. Narti sat on the bench behind Zethrid’s head, statue-still, while Acxa stretched out with one knee drawn up, the other leg propped up on her knee at the ankle, arms resting behind her head; whether or not the two of them were paying attention was lost on Lance. Allura, meanwhile, sat down near Pidge and Matt, blankets in a pool at her waist, with Shiro perched at the top of the bench behind her, hands folded in his lap, and Lotor hovering near her other side.

            “Lance,” Hunk said, sighing, “I don’t think there’ll be a glitch.”

            Pidge finally raised her head, eyes not totally focused. “…You know what, let him go if it’ll really make him feel better.”

            “And how do we know for certain he’s not the one who tried to kill him?” Acxa called lazily, without so much as a glance in anyone’s direction.

            “Buh—wuh—me? Try and kill Keith? I was the one who quiznaking brought him to safety! He would have died if I wasn’t there! If I wanted him dead—!”

            “Acxa, let him be,” Lotor muttered, interrupting Lance as he rose to his feet. “As Princess Allura has…” He trailed off, cut his eyes once to Lance, and then back to his general, “…So generously placed me in a group with him, I’ll be there to oversee him. You’ve nothing to worry about.” He flicked his eyes to Shiro. “The former Black Paladin will also be there.”

            Shiro grunted as he stood up, and ignored some whispered comment from Matt to Pidge about old man.

            “Let’s go,” he called to Lance and Lotor, starting out of the lounge ahead of them.

            Lance crossed his arms tightly over his chest as he spared a second to glare at Lotor, and then followed Shiro out of the room, muscles tensing as he heard Lotor’s footsteps behind them.

            Of all the people for Allura to place him with: Shiro, who’d been getting on his nerves more and more lately, and Lotor.

            Not the ideal people to watch Keith’s pod with. Lance would’ve much preferred any other member of the team—mostly Hunk or Pidge, but he’d take even Krolia, as much as she scared him the sort of way his mother used to. Anyone but these two.

            Lance’s only consolation was that they probably thought the same about him. Crappy consolation, but a consolation nonetheless.

            Shiro reached the med bay ahead of Lance and Lotor, and didn’t wait for them at the door before slipping inside. His steps slowed as he entered—Lance caught his head tipping back as he approached Keith’s pod, and halted just a few feet in front of it. Lance flanked Shiro’s left, just a step behind him, while Lotor stood on Shiro’s right, arms crossed and gaze critical.

            “So…what?” Lotor asked, after a moment. “We’ve been dragged away from the rest of the group just to stare at a healing pod for the remainder of the night?”

            Any other day, Lance would have snapped back at him. But not now. Not with Keith unconscious in front of him.

            He looked better than he did before, now that his blood-stained clothes had been replaced with the pod suit, and a fresh set of bandages around his neck was concealed by the suit’s turtleneck, and the blood wasn’t coming all the way through anymore.

            His skin was still pale, though. Paler than usual, and the pod’s cryogenic process wasn’t helping very much.

            “We’re just making sure nothing goes wrong,” Shiro answered in Lance’s place, and finally spun around to face both Lance and Lotor. “You two get some sleep. I’ll take the first watch shift.”

            “Nah, it’s alright,” Lance said. “I can’t really get back to sleep now. I’ll get first watch. This was my idea, anyway, and you both would’ve been sleeping if we were back in the lounge. I got it.”

            He didn’t wait for Shiro to respond before he sat down on the floor a few feet away from Keith’s pod, cross-legged, and ignored Shiro and Lotor’s blatant staring, until Lotor finally sighed and sat down as well.

            “Fine. May as well, if neither of you will budge.”

            He stretched his legs out in front of him, and then leaned back, laced his fingers on his stomach, stared up at the ceiling, while Shiro and Lance each turned to watch him.

            “Aren’t you uncomfortable?” Lance asked.

            “I’ve slept in worse places and positions,” Lotor responded almost immediately. “Just—I thought the interrogations were over.”

            “Alright, alright, they are,” Lance said. “Sorry. Just checking in.”

            The room fell back into silence—Lance still sitting, Lotor still lying down, Shiro still standing soldier-like, until he finally sighed and stepped closer to Keith’s pod, interfacing with the system with his GalraTech hand. At that, Lotor sat up slightly, and Lance narrowed his eyes.

            “What are you doing?”

            “Relax, Lance,” Shiro said without turning around. “I’m just getting a reading on his vitals.”

            “I don’t think you need your arm for that, do you?” Lance pressed.

            Shiro sighed. “I’ve got Keith’s past medical records logged in here for safekeeping. I’m just doing a comparison and making sure everything’s fine.”

            “Are you always this nit-picky with everyone?” Lotor interrupted, pushing up further, leaning back on his arms as he finally looked in Lance’s direction. “You seem bent on knowing every little detail of everyone’s actions, and seem excessively skittish when it comes down to this pod. You’re certain you had nothing to do with this? Because you seem awfully afraid of someone finding something wrong, so much so you decided to take it upon yourself to guard this pod to make sure no one tampered with your work.”

            “Are you for real right now?” Lance asked, and then tipped his head in the direction of Keith’s pod. “Are you really asking me if I tried to kill one of my friends? Oh, that’s right, you weren’t there to see me screaming when I got to him because I thought he was going to be a goner! You didn’t see me running for his life down these hallways just to make sure we at least tried to save him! You didn’t see me—you didn’t see anything, because no matter what—”

            “Lance, Lotor, enough.” Shiro spun around, apparently done with whatever he needed to do. “It’s time for sleeping, not a screaming match.”

            “He has the nerve—!”

            “Lance.”

            “No! Nobody goes around accusing someone of murder unless they’re trying to shift the blame from themselves!” Lance jumped to his feet, finger flying in Lotor’s direction. “You had something to do with this! You or one of your generals!”

            “Oh, yes, I had something to do with this, locked away as a prisoner in my own ship in one of your hangars! Yes, the answer is obvious!” Lotor shouted, also rising, stepping forward with fists balled at his side. “How crystal-clear it was! Oh, how foolish you’ve all been! Do you hear yourself, Paladin?”

            “Knock it off!”

            Shiro stepped between Lance and Lotor and shoved—Lance caught the brunt of his GalraTech hand and stumbled back, while Lotor slid out of the way of his flesh hand.

            “This is ridiculous. Lance, I know you’re stressed, we all. Are. Lotor, you have no right to accuse any of us of trying to kill Keith, in the same way none of us have the right to try and accuse you.” Shiro glanced sternly between both of them. “I’m going to sleep, since Lance insists on taking watch. If I hear so much as another peep out of one of you, I’ll drag you both back to the lounge, are we understood?

            Lotor glared at Lance; Lance met his gaze head-on, and after a beat, tore it away.

            “Yeah…”

            “Fine.”

            “Good. Good night.”

            Shiro brushed past the both of them and stationed himself against the wall, next to the door, slid down with his legs in front of him and hands resting in his lap, and within minutes was fast asleep, snoring lightly, body listing to one side as his head tilted. Lance resumed his place and position in front of the pod, while Lotor lay back down.

            It didn’t take very long for Lance’s eyelids to shutter, for the shuttering to become extended blinking, each blink longer and longer than the last. Didn’t take very long for Lance to start rocking slowly back and forth, righting himself each time his body finally started pitching in one definite direction.

            Another long blink.

            Lotor was still on the ground.

            The next long blink.

            Lotor was at the pod’s side, fingers flying over the glass, a holoscreen projecting out of the gauntlet of his armor, illuminating his face.

            Lance didn’t remember moving.

            Didn’t remember thinking I’m going to shriek like a banshee, just doing it.

            Didn’t remember his hands reaching for Lotor’s sword, just suddenly found it in his own possession, poised against Lotor’s throat as he slammed Lotor back against an empty pod, and—thank Altean engineering—was glad that the glass didn’t shatter upon contact, as he rammed his other arm into the area where Lotor’s solar plexus was.

            “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”

            He practically growled it, the way the words tore out of his throat, as Lotor stared at him, wide-eyed, and then realized Lance held his own blade against his throat, in that tiny space where his armor didn’t reach.

            “Unhand me immediately and I can explain—”

            “What, some more bullshit?” Lance interrupted. “I don’t think so. You—I can’t believe you! Using the team for an alliance, and then turning around and trying—trying to kill our leader! I bet—I bet everything with Narti, you know. You’re behind it, and you—you were trying to figure out how to control us just so this could happen—I bet you sent her to kill Keith because he’s a threat!”

            Lotor fell silent, mouth pressing into a thin line, eyes blowing wider at the open talk of Narti, of his experiments. Lance’s blood ran cold in his veins, when Lotor didn’t offer up an explanation for it.

            “I can’t believe it,” he whispered. “I’m—I’m right, aren’t I? And I would’ve been next.”

            Lotor still didn’t speak; he cut eyes over Lance’s shoulder, as Shiro rose to his feet with a yawn.

            “What’s going on?” A beat. A clearer voice: “Lance, what’s going on?

            Lance didn’t look back, narrowed eyes firmly on the stricken look on Lotor’s face.

            “I told you we couldn’t trust Lotor or his generals. Tell the rest of the team I found the culprits.”


            The castleship had jail cells, and the team found that out when Lotor and his generals were thrown into one—Lotor quite literally, bouncing the first time he hit the floor as Allura manhandled him.

            “Princess, please—”

            Lotor rushed up to the door of the cell, palms smashing against glass as it materialized in front of him, sealing himself and his less-than-charmed generals inside. Allura stood not even a foot away, face drawn in fury.

            “You come into this castle, you attack my Paladins, you use me for your own research purposes…we finally decided to trust you, Lotor, and you go and throw it all away for what?

            Allura shook, clenched fists trembling at her sides.

            She could’ve used her shapeshifting abilities, could’ve transformed into some huge, hulking mass of muscle and stared down Lotor and his generals with bared teeth, could’ve scared them into submission that way. But she remained in her natural appearance, short and bright-eyed and bright-haired, and Lotor still flinched back at her and the unbridled rage in her gaze.

            “Allura—”

            “Do not address me like that.”

            She took a step back, and raised an arm in gesture to the rest of the team, thoroughly exhausted, and even more miserable, now that they’d reached the castle’s day cycle in the middle of all the chaos.

            “We’re due to descend upon the colony you aided in discovering in mere vargas, and now I can’t help but fear that it may be a death sentence for us all, and you may have knowingly led us straight into it. And worse yet, I’m torn between carrying on or turning this castleship—”

            Allura didn’t finish her sentence.

            The ship shuddered violently, and group stumbled, as the room tilted momentarily, before righting itself—and then the alarm began blaring.

            “You’ve gotta be kidding me,” Pidge groaned, as Coran began typing furiously on the datapad in his hand, and pulled up a projection of the area surrounding the castle.

            A swarm of dozens of Galra ships, opening fire.

            Innumerable fighters. Five cruisers.

            “Well, looks like we’ve got our answer on whether or not this was a quiznaking trap!” Lance shouted, and if he’d had time maybe he would’ve stopped to throw a dirty look in Lotor’s direction, but his feet were already carrying him back to the elevator leading up to the bridge. “Team, get to the Lions, we’ve got some uninvited guests to take care of!”

            Hunk and Pidge wasted no time following Lance. Allura waited a heartbeat longer, just enough time to cast a tired glare in Lotor’s direction—a glare underlined by something Lotor couldn’t immediately pin, and didn’t have time as she finally tore her eyes away and bolted after the others, followed by Coran, Krolia, and Matt.

            Shiro was the last one to remain, wordless, expression unreadable.

            Then he, too, headed back up to the bridge with the others, and Lotor and the generals were left alone, to flashing red lights and the alarm’s incessant screeching.


            There was a problem with the team getting to the Lions: they only had four.

            And they were getting their asses kicked.

            “He waited until we were—FUCK—down a Black Pal—Hunk, watch out!—Black Paladin! He did this—SHIT—to sabotage—PIDGE!”

            A scream over the comms.

            “I’ve got her!”

            “Allura, keep on her! Hunk, you’re with me, we’ve gotta at least—nonononono—”

            Comms lost to static.

            “Lance!”

            “Lance, buddy—Lance—?”

            “I’m—” More static. “Hunk—cannon—!”

            Shiro listened to it all as he stood in Black’s hangar before her, in front of her particle barrier, fists clenching and unclenching at his sides, shoulders pulling tighter and tighter the more he listened to the team falling apart outside of the castleship, while Krolia and Matt and Coran all worked overtime manning the castle defenses, and Keith remained in his pod, vulnerable. If the castle went down, they were all fucked.

            “They need me,” he spoke, voice close to a growl, scraping against his throat as he lifted his head and dared to meet Black’s eyes. “They’ll die out there if they can’t form Voltron, and you know it. I’m the only option you’ve got.”

            Something glimmered in Black’s eyes, a flash of light there and gone.

            “You’ve already lost two pilots, and almost lost your third,” Shiro went on, when the particle barrier wavered. “You know what that feels like, don’t you? I doubt you’d want to put the other Lions through the same pain, and have the lot of you lose all of your Paladins, permanently?”

            The castleship jolted again, and this time, the hangar lights flickered.

            “You’re running out of time,” Shiro said. “I’m the only one who can save them, and you’ve let me in before. What happened to that bond, huh? What changed?”

            And then he felt it.

            The sensation of a tornado, whirling through his chest, and the particle barrier fell.

            Black’s eyes lit up.


            “Move, move, move!”

            Blood roared in Lance’s ears as Red zipped through a narrowing gap between two of the cruisers. Beyond Red’s window, he could see the cruiser windows, its cannon windows—fire was ripping through the insides, and Lance and Red shot out from between them at the same moment they both went up in fireballs.

            “Lance, you there?”

            “We’re online, but we won’t be for much longer,” he ground out. “We need Voltron!”

            “Don’t know how we can do that when there are only four Lions!” Pidge shouted, agitation clear in her voice, and over the comms, Lance caught the sound of an explosion too close for comfort, followed by Pidge swearing under her breath.

            “I don’t know, Pidge, I think you might have miscounted.”

            Lance’s heart whacked against his chest as Red moved out of the way of several cruisers, a spot clear just long enough for him to get a good look at the Black Lion shooting out of the castle.

            “Shiro!”

            Relieved laughter, shouting and whooping, broke out across the comm system, between Allura, Hunk, and Pidge, but Lance sat in his seat, fingers tightening around the levers at his sides.

            So Shiro had reclaimed control of the Black Lion.

            And this is what we wanted, isn’t it? the thought came to him. We need to form Voltron, and this is the only way.

            Lance swallowed hard, worked with Red and dove back into the battlefield, toward where the other Lions were already converging on Black, weaving around fighters and the remaining three cruisers; shoved down on his nausea, as Shiro called out for the first time in what felt like forever, “FORM VOLTRON!”

            Red’s energy surged, and through the Lion’s eyes, Lance saw it, carving out a glowing path in front of them, leading to the Black Lion, to the other Lions. It wrapped around Red himself, wrapped around Lance, shot through his skin and wound around his bones with the heat and rage of a forest fire.

            Every time, Lance let himself immolate.

            Every time, he expected that he’d be more used to it.

            Every time, he was wrong.

            This time, spectacularly so.

            His nightmare flooded back to him—wearing nothing to protect himself, surrounded by walls of flame, so freaking out of place. And he was out of place here, as Voltron’s right hand. He almost missed Shiro’s command to form the sword, and his bayard clattered against the slot that appeared at his right before he locked it in correctly. The rapidfire movement of Voltron maneuvering, the sword swinging, turned his stomach, even as they cut apart the first of the remaining three cruisers. Skewered the second. Sliced the third right in two.

            If they made easy work of the cruisers, then the fighters never stood a chance.

            When it was all said and done, Voltron floated in the middle of a battlefield littered with debris, and Lance watched it all with his blood turning cold, adrenaline wearing off, high of battle coming quickly down.

            “Shiro, you’re back in Black,” Allura remarked breathlessly, while Pidge wheezed on a laugh.

            “Yeah, I guess I am,” Shiro said, a trace of apprehension in his voice. “You guys needed Voltron. Couldn’t just sit on the sidelines.”

            “We’re glad to have you back, man,” Hunk said. “We’ve missed you.”

            “Yeah, sure have,” Lance echoed, but his voice was quiet, hollow as he leaned back and released Red’s levers, sank deeper into his chair and stared out the windows.

            “Looks like you’re back just in time,” Allura said. “Look.”

            Lance sat up, scanned out the windows, and his breath caught in his throat.

            The fight had pushed them right to their destination—not even five minutes, and they could be on the ground, on a planet swirling with white clouds, an atmosphere appearing not unlike Earth’s.

            “So this is it, we’re going through with this?” Lance asked tentatively.

            Quiet reigned for a few moments, before Allura sucked in a breath and said, “We’re already here. It’s a waste to turn back now.”

            Another beat of silence.

            “Alright then, team,” Shiro said, when no one else spoke up. “Let’s get down there.”