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I'm Still Free

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The guns of 2500 are no quieter than those of 1700. That’s what the soldiers in this war were learning the hard way-- that the deafening boom of cannons and pop of rifles isn’t softened by the use of lasers instead of bullets. The lights are even worse, blinding blasts of white and blue and red that make dots dance across their vision.

The bombs had churned up the ground, making the soil loose and ready to slide out from an unprepared foot, sending the men and women fighting to keep their footing just as much as their lives. One man made his stumbling way down a dune of kicked up dirt, boots catching on exposed half torn roots and throwing off his aim as he shot at the oncoming troops with the laser rifle on his hip. He wasn’t shooting to kill. He just wanted to keep the enemy off of his back for long enough to make it to the fortification on the top of the next hill.

Twenty minutes later he stumbled into the camp-- a mere depression in the dirt lined with sandbags and covered with half-hearted camouflage netting tossed over the top, making the soldiers bend to half their height to make it in. Among the ammo boxes and teetering radio tower were five corpses, and the man was dismayed to see the Commander of their team as one of them. Three living people still remained: a middle-aged man weeping in the corner, a dark-skinned woman trying to calm him down, and the sandy-haired boy barely over twenty struggling desperately to lay down enough cover fire to keep the enemy troops away from them.

The man (who in truth was only a year older than the boy) grabbed him by the shoulder to get his attention and shouted in his ear.

“It’s a slaughter out there! Where’s our air support?”

The boy slumped back against the sandbag wall, panting, with sweat covering his brow. The thick brown coats they all wore were far too hot for the desert of the Golden Valley.

“The Garrison has anti-air guns.” He shouted back. “There’s one barely a hundred yards from here, our ships can’t get in while they’re up.”

The man considered for a moment, shoving his sweaty black bangs out of his eyes. They would be utterly destroyed by the Garrison bombers if they didn’t get air support to scramble them, but if they couldn’t get in due to the anti-aircraft guns, that really only left one option.

Still hunkered down below the netting, he shuffled across the dusty alcove to the other pair of soldiers. The woman had given up on calming the man and now sat crossly against the wall, reloading her rifle. It was her he went to, tagging her roughly on the shoulder.

“Matt and I are going to take down the anti-air gun nearby.” He reported to her, ignoring Matt’s distant squawk of ‘We’re doing what? ’. “I need you to lay down cover fire for us. Can you do that?”

She nodded grimly and cocked her weapon.

Barely a minute later he and Matt were scrambling down the hill, laser blasts filling the air above their heads as they made their way towards the installed Garrison weapon, painted a garish orange and white. The blasts of bombs and a few fires raging over the battlefield lit the night, allowing them to find an easy enough path down to the gun.

Halfway there an orange-clad soldier leaped out from the brush, gun at the ready, and before the man could react Matt had shot him dead. They kept moving with hardly a second glance.

They ducked down into some bushes near the weapon to observe. The gun was manned by three soldiers, each plated and armored in the more advanced Garrison gear. It was better sure, but the orange made them stand out like red thumbs in the desert, and they didn’t notice the enemy in brown stalking them from the dirt.

The man took careful aim, breathed deep, and fired. One of the men dropped. The other two whirled, and he and Matt stood from the bushes. Five rapid shots determined their fate: the Garrison soldiers dead, and the rebels standing.

Matt rushed in to tear the paneling off of the weapon and begin dismantling it. His partner watched his back, picking off several enemy soldiers who attempted to rush their position. Once the damage was done Matt threw the parts into the desert in several different directions, and he and the man fought their way back to the encampment.

When they arrived the crying man was still slumped against the back wall, except this time he was still and silent, blood decorating the wall behind him. The two did their best to ignore him.

“Matt, get on comms and tell them it’s safe to come in.”

Matt wiped sweat from his forehead with a filthy scrap of cloth, breathing hard. “I’ll need the Commanders code to work the radio.”

With a heavy breath, the man moved to the corpse of the Commander and roughly tore the patch off of the shoulder of his coat, revealing the code underneath, and passed it back to Matt. Then he sat for several minutes, trying to make the most of the momentary rest. His leg muscles screamed, his head pounded, he was utterly drenched in sweat and caked in dust. But he was alive and wasn’t bleeding anywhere major, so he’d count it as a win.

“Shiro.” Said Matt, and he picked up his head. He was sitting in front of the radio with the mic in his hand, one headphone pressed over his ear. His expression was twisted into a distraught grimace. “They’re not coming.”

Shiro felt his very soul drop out through his feet. He barely heard himself asking the question.

“What?”

Matt’s voice trembled minutely. “They’re saying it’s too hot. They’re pulling out. We’re to lay down arms.”

Despite the heat of the desert and his burning muscles, his blood ran cold. Numbly he climbed to his feet, pushing the netting aside, and looked out over the battlefield. Already his comrades were emerging from their foxholes, guns discarded and hands held high. Some were shot on sight. Others were being escorted away by Garrison soldiers.

All of this, all of this bloodshed and death, had been for nothing. And he felt sick.

 

Six Years Later

 

The void of space was deathly silent. Sound didn’t travel in a vacuum, and the only sound Shiro could hear was his own breath rasping in his helmet. When his body met the metal hull of the ship they were scavenging, the impact didn’t make a noise, and he couldn’t help but feel disconcerted by the muteness of it all. Four years of working scavenging jobs like this and he still wasn’t used to the vastness of space.

He carefully made his way along the hull, using the lights on his helmet to lead the way, until he came across what he was looking for: an inconspicuous door with a keypad lock.

Static buzzed in his ear before Matt’s voice came through. “This the place?”

“Yeah.” Shiro answered. “Hand me the gun.”

With clumsy suited fingers, Matt passed the piece of heavy grey metal to Shiro. Carefully he began to trace around the door lock, leaving behind a thick line of sealant with a red wire running through it.

“I hate that you call it a gun.” Muttered the third person with them, the radio fuzzing their words. “It’s not a gun. I mean, I guess you could make the argument for a hot glue gun, but even then it’s not entirely accurate. It’s more of an applicator or--”

“Lance!” snapped a fourth voice, the pilot monitoring them from the ship. “Can it. The radio is for orders and emergencies, not chit-chat.”

Blue eyes rolled at the reprimand, but he begrudgingly stopped speaking just as Shiro finished drawing the square of sealant around the lock. With a press of a button the wire within began to glow hot, and a moment later they were watching as it began to eat through the metal around the lock.

Matt gave a pleased hum when the lock shot free of the door with a white plume of air. “The ship’s still pressurized. Means the goods are probably still intact.”

Shiro pulled the door open with a grunt, and the three of them floated in, keeping a sharp eye out for the boxes they were in pursuit of.

“How are things going on the ship, Keith?” He asked into the radio. “Anything on the radar?”

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

“We’re all good here, Shiro. Nothing yet.”

The radio crackled as it went dead, and Keith leaned back in the leather pilot's seat, one foot pushing him slowly side to side. This was one of the less dangerous jobs the crew had taken on recently, but that didn’t mean he could be complacent. He kept a sharp eye on the scanners on the rusted metal dashboard that fit around him in an L shape, watching the dusty screens for anything that could sneak up on them. The ship hummed quietly around him.

Ping .

His eyes darted to the farthest left screen just as a large pale dot appeared at the top. Swearing under his breath, he reached for the radio microphone.

“Shiro, I’ve got something. Looks like a Garrison cruiser.”

Tāmāde.” Shiro spat. “Have they spotted us?”

“I don’t know if--”

“Have they hailed us?”

Keith quickly spun back to the front to check the other screen. “Not yet.”

“If they catch us we’re humped.” Lance commented, completely unnecessarily.

“If they see us at all we’re humped.” Matt growled back at him.

“Bìzuǐ.” Snapped Shiro. “Keith, go to blackout, everything but the air.”

Keith let go of the radio, letting it hang by its spiraling cord, and slammed his hand down on the comm button framed by exposed wires.

“Pidge! Go to blackout, we’re being buzzed.”

A young female voice crackled through the speaker to answer him. “Shōudào, going dark.” A second later the lights went down, followed by the hum of the engine. The entire ship was silent and black, which is exactly what they wanted. If there was less to register it was less likely the Garrison ship would pick them up on their scanners. Everyone waited tensely, the radio static in their ears, Keith staring down one of his monitors.

It flared green.

“Āiyā! Huàile.” He scrambled for his radio. “Captain, we’re humped!”

“Get the ship ready to fly.” Shiro answered, voice stretched taut with tension. “You two, let’s get these on the ship, double time.”

“Pidge, fire her up.” Keith called into the comm, already flipping the series of switches and buttons on his dashboard. The Golden Lion roared to life around him, making his seat judder and the dashboard tremble as the engine revved. With a harsh jerk, he turned the controls upright from their rest position and poised his hand over the button to close the cargo bay door, though he still eyed his other screen with trepidation. The cruiser was getting closer, had probably done a sweep and saw them scavenging.

“Cry baby cry.” Came Shiro’s voice over the radio, and Keith allowed himself a smirk.

“Make your mother sigh.” He answered, pressing his thumb onto the button underneath the controls. Somewhere several miles away, a false distress signal from a dead ship had just been activated, something large and designated as a personnel carrier. The type of ship that Garrison protocol would require the cruiser to respond to rather than chase a bunch of scavengers.

The blip on his radar began to change course, just as Shiro said, “Keith, we’re on.”

He smacked the button to close the door and the airlock, and once the light lit up to indicate they were clear he tugged the ship away from the wreck they’d broken into. Turning the Golden Lion neatly on its axis, he leaned on the throttle, and with a burst of speed propelled them in the opposite direction of the cruiser.

Another job, another clean enough escape. He couldn’t have asked for more.

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

With the ship on autopilot and the retrieval team out of their suits, the whole crew gathered in the cargo bay to get a glimpse at their ill-gotten goods. The grey shipping crates weren’t that exciting on their own, but inside the boxes were filled with copper bars, barely tarnished. The group clustered around where Shiro knelt on the floor to inspect the loot, murmuring to each other.

“Aw, they’re so pretty.” Hunk cooed, a smile splitting his broad, brown face that was perpetually smeared with grease.

“Gonna fetch us a good price, that’s for sure.” Said Lance, leaning his thin frame on his friend's shoulder. His skin was a few shades lighter than Hunks, but still far darker than Pidge, who stood on his other side and barely reached his elbow.

“Yeah.” She chimed in hungrily. She rubbed her hands together eagerly, the tip of her sideways ponytail the same shade as Matt’s swaying and brushing her shoulder. “Can’t wait to get my hands on a new compression coil.”

“I wouldn’t hold my breath.” Shiro said, far too solemnly for the upbeat mood in the room as he placed the bar he’d been considering back in its place.

Keith spoke up from his position at the back of the group. “Something wrong?”

Shiro gave a too careless half shrug and shut the lid on the crate. “Not sure yet. Either way, we’d better get these put away. Wouldn’t want any civilians stumbling across these.”

He and Matt moved to lift one of the crates and Lance bustled over to remove one of the perforated, triangular metal panels that made up the walls of the cargo bay. The panel detached easily, revealing a shadowy alcove that the other two began shoving the crates into.

Hunk was the only one to catch the meaning of Shiro’s words, moving forward to ask, “So we’re taking on passengers at Balmera?”

“That’s the notion.” Grunted Shiro as he shoved a box into the hidden compartment. “Give us a few extra bucks, at least.”

“Great.” Keith huffed, crossing his arms over the black tank top he wore. “Buncha clueless city people stumblin’ all over our ship. Sounds like a grand time.”

“No.” Hunk protested with a distinct whine to his voice. “I think it’s shiny. I love meeting new people, they’ve all got stories and interesting things to talk about.”

“That’s the spirit, Hunk.” Lance said, replacing the metal grate over the last box.

Pidge just scoffed and turned to leave. The others soon followed, Keith taking the left-hand metal staircase to the catwalk that led to the cockpit, while Lance and Hunk disappeared through the ground floor door to the kitchen. Shiro and Matt went up the other staircase, pausing for a moment to talk on the walkway that stretched across the cargo bay.

“Are you sure about taking on passengers?” Matt asked, voice low so it wouldn’t echo around the metal room. “We don’t exactly get up to legal work, it might be risky to have people around we can’t trust.” His amber eyes were on the doorway his sister had taken as he said it, and Shiro understood his meaning perfectly.

“I don’t like it either, Matt. But even with the money from this job, we’ll barely break even.” His right arm twinged, and he suppressed a grimace as he rubbed where metal met flesh. The prosthetic always tended to act up after a spacewalk. “We need enough to pay the crew, keep them fed, keep the ship fueled and flying.”

“I know. Just makes me nervous is all.”

“Yeah, well.” Shiro answered with a wry smile. “What doesn’t?”

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

Balmera loomed large outside the windshield of the Lion, blue and green and white, just like all of the closer planets in the system and only slightly smaller than Earth-that-was. The sun was looming over its eastern side, just dawning as they came in for landing. Keith scowled at it.

He’d always preferred the wide-open freedom of the Black to the dirty, crowded planets. Even the ones in the Core, which were supposed to be nicer, felt constraining and itchy. He knew he was alone in this opinion-- everyone else looked forward to their time planetside rather than dread it the way he did. But as much as he hated all the planets, there was a special place of resentment in his heart for Balmera.

“Better be careful.” Shiro teased as he entered the cockpit. “Your face’ll get stuck like that.”

Keith rolled his eyes and flipped Shiro the bird, which made him chuckle as he sat in the copilot's chair. He was dressed in his usual outfit, the light brown trousers and dark shirt with the rolled up sleeves. Warm gray eyes looked out from between the red scar across the bridge of his nose and the white bangs that flopped over his forehead. Certainly unusual looking, which drew more than a few eyes whenever they went planetside.

“What’s our status?” He asked, looking out the window to admire the sunlight as it broke over the planet.

“It’s about nine am down on the ground,” said Keith, trying to swallow his animosity for the place. “We’ll land in about twenty minutes. Allura’s gonna meet us at the Eavesdown Docks at 10:30.”

Shiro hummed thoughtfully, leaning his chin on his metal hand. “Hopefully Hunk will be able to get us a few passengers by then. Don’t wanna stay too long.”

That, at least, Keith could agree with.

“You’re meetin’ with Kolivan, right?”

“Yup.”

Zhùyì . He’s not the nicest guy.” Keith’s hand found its way to the pendant around his neck as he spoke, recalling the years he’d worked for Kolivan down on Balmera. The memories, much like the man, weren’t nice ones.

“We will be.” Shiro reassured with a warm smile. “Now get us docked, ace pilot.” Shiro stood and ruffled Keith’s overlong black hair as he left the cockpit. Keith ducked his head and batted at his hand, but he couldn’t conceal the smile he wore, even as he guided the ship down to the surface of the dreaded planet.

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

“Use your best judgement, Hunk. I don’t want any whackjobs on my boat, ya hear me?”

“Yes sir, Cap’n, sir.” Hunk said with a cheeky salute. Shiro rolled his eyes at his antics and continued down the gangplank. They’d docked precisely on time, and the Eavesdown Docks bustled around them with dozens of different colors and smells and people. Different languages wove a cloth of babble around the ship just like the clouds of dust being kicked up by so many feet. He was followed by Hunk, Matt, Lance, and a begrudging Keith who already looked like he’d rather be anywhere else. Usually he’d let Hunk handle the resupply, but this time Hunk would be busy enticing passengers and Pidge, though resourceful, was too small and young for Shiro to feel comfortable sending her off on her own.

He, Matt, and Lance split off from Keith once they hit the market. They had a meeting to make, after all.

As usual, when they went planetside, they were all armed. Matt wore his pistols overtly in the holsters on his hips, and Lance had a rifle slung easily over his shoulder, but Shiro preferred to keep his guns concealed beneath his black coat. It disguised how his fingers automatically twitched towards them when he saw the orange and white armor of patrolling Garrison troops.

He actually didn’t like bringing Lance to meetings like this. Not because he was incompetent, but because he was so young: twenty, like Hunk and Keith. Too young to be tangled up in these sorts of things, but Lance had been dealing with them for years already, and often the extra show of force was required.

It definitely seemed that way when they finally reached Kolivan’s lair, a dark purple shipping container building tucked away in an alley not far from the docks. Two armed and mean looking guards awaited them outside the entrance and escorted them down the hallway. The room they stepped into was small, but dark and cool, with three more armed goons inside to protect the man seated at the desk on the far wall.

“Kolivan.” Shiro greeted as politely as he could manage, though his spine was prickling at the dangerous aura in the room. Across the way, Kolivan stood from his chair.

Now, Shiro himself was pretty beefy, pretty tall. But Kolivan stood more than half a foot higher, his shoulders even broader. He must’ve weighed twice what Shiro did, and it was all in muscle. The grey braid wrapping around his shoulder did nothing to belie the pure power emanating from the man, and Shiro had to resist a shudder. He really didn’t like dealing with Kolivan, but he paid well, and was usually consistent. Obnoxious, but consistent.

“Captain Shirogane.” The man responded in his gruff, solemn voice. “You’re late.”

Shiro raised his eyebrows. He was fairly certain Kolivan hadn’t been expecting them for at least another hour-- he was trying to put them on the defensive. Something was up.

“Somethin’ got you in a rush?” He kept his tone even and easy. He wanted to avoid a provocation at all costs; not only would they likely lose, but they’d attract Garrison attention.

Kolivan grumbled an assent. “Maybe if you’d arrived sooner, you would’ve beaten the bulletin.” He gestured a huge hand towards the screen embedded in the wall, the one that was running headlines in Chinese characters at light speed.

“Rogue vessel spotted performing illegal salvage. Classification Firefly.”

Shiro paused for a moment, a bit of cold dripping into his veins. So the cruiser had gotten close enough to ID the ship as a Firefly, and had bothered to put up a bulletin on him. It wasn’t good-- Firefly’s were an old model of ship, one that wasn’t used much anymore and therefore much more recognizable. But he put his shoulders back and feigned ease.

“They didn’t ID us. Can’t be traced back to you.”

“That might’ve been true.” Kolivan hummed, nonchalantly making a stack of coins on his desk. “If not for the government symbol stamped on every molecule of the cargo.”

Shiro’s jaw clenched, and Kolivan smirked. “Ah, so you noticed that?” He took a few steps forward, moving around the desk and crowding into Shiro’s space. He had to crane his neck to look up at the giant of a man, but he refused to move back.

“And what was the plan? Pass it off so that I would get caught by the Garrison?”

“I didn’t pick the cargo.” Shiro said tightly through his teeth.

The dirt under foot crunched as people shifted on their feet: everyone responding to the tension in the air by getting into battle stances. Shiro, personally, was just glad Lance was keeping his mouth shut for once. The last thing he needed was Lance’s “charm” making the situation worse.

“And I didn’t flash my ass at the gorram law!” Kolivan snarled, momentarily losing his composure before forcing himself to settle down again. Smoothing his expression, he took a step back, and when he spoke again he was much more composed. But the words weren’t any better.

“Why don’t you try one of the border planets? I’m sure there’s someone out there desperate enough to take it off your hands.”

“You seem pretty desperate.” Lance began, and Shiro silently began reciting a prayer for patience. “Desperate to kiss up to the Garrison.”

Kolivan was unruffled. “That’s the way of things now. You might be smart to start doing the same.”

Shiro clenched his fists. That may or may not have been a threat, and he didn’t want to stick around long enough to find out.

“Fine.” He ground out, still gritting his teeth. “We’ll be seeing you, Kolivan.”

“Hopefully seeing you dead.” Lance muttered under his breath. One of Kolivan’s guards shot him a look, but Kolivan didn’t seem bothered, so they thankfully made it back out onto the street unscathed.

That’s when Shiro really started to process how screwed they were.

Liú kǒushuǐ de biǎozǐ hé hóuzǐ de bèn érzǐ ,” Lance muttered angrily to himself, startling Shiro out of his reverie. “Fuckin’ coward. It’s not our fault the cargo was imprinted, he’s the one who chose it, shouldn’t he have fuckin’ known--”

“Lance.” Shiro interrupted tiredly. “Enough.”

Lance, with difficulty, swallowed back his angry words.

“We need to think about our next move.” He continued, rubbing a tired hand under his bangs. “If we don’t get paid for this job we won’t have enough to fuel the ship. We’ll be drifting.”

“Thinkin’ about what Kolivan said?” Asked Matt, coming up alongside him as they walked. “The border moons? Maybe Feyiv, we’ve got a reliable buyer there.”

Shiro hummed in consideration. “Feyiv would be crawling with Garrison troops. If we got caught there with government goods we could lose the ship, it’s not a safe bet. I was thinking maybe Taujeer, talk to Sendak.”

Matt stopped dead in the middle of the dusty street, making the throng of people behind them split as they jostled past. Matt was giving Shiro an exasperated, but not exactly surprised look.

“Shiro, we don’t want to deal with Sendak again.”

“Why not?”

“He shot you.”

Lance’s jaw dropped, but Shiro merely shrugged. “Yeah he did, a bit, but--”

“We’ll find someone else.” Matt interrupted, shoving his hands in his pockets and resuming their brisk pace back towards the docks. Shiro followed, and Lance had to jog to keep up. “What about Te’Osh?”

“She couldn’t afford it.” Shiro argued. His mind was already made up, but he’d indulge Matt a little longer.

“Ryner.”

Shiro scoffed at that option. “She wouldn’t touch it. Want me to run a list? The Komars are brain blown, Luxia’s dead--”

“Wait, she’s dead ?” Matt faltered a step as though he wanted to stop again, but he kept walking, though keeping his eyes glued on Shiro the whole time.

“Yeah. Town got hit by Galra.”

Matt blanched, and Lance spoke up. “I ain’t goin’ anywhere near Galra territory.” Shiro chanced a glance back and found him wide eyed and pale. “Those people ain’t human.”

“Taujeer is the safest and the closest.” Said Shiro, bringing them back on topic. “It’s been a long time since Sendak shot me, I don’t hold a grudge and he practically owns half of that moon. He can afford what we’ve got and he just might need it.”

“I don’t think that nutjob’s a good option.” Matt grumbled, kicking at the dirt. They were coming up on the docks now, and although they couldn’t see the smallish Golden Lion nestled between the larger ships, they could see Hunk standing on the gangplank and speaking with someone.

“We haven’t got any sort of choice.” Shiro answered. That put the whole matter to rest, and their conversation came to a tense end as they approached the ship.

Hunk had wrapped up their conversation by the time they made it there, waving the man up the ramp with a diplomatic, “Welcome aboard, Mr. Griffin.”

Shiro paused a moment while Matt continued on into the ship. Lance stopped to exchange greetings with Hunk before following, and by then another passenger had made their way up the gangplank.

This one made Shiro raise his eyebrows. Unlike the last one, who had been fairly inconspicuous with his grey shirt and brown hair, this man stuck out like a primped and pampered pet cat amongst alley toms. He had bright ginger hair curling down the back of his neck, so orange it almost looked unnatural, matched in the curlicue mustache on his upper lip. He was clad in an expensive blue velvet suit jacket and white pants with matching white gloves that had been covered in the dust and turned slightly beige, and he absentmindedly brushed them against his trousers as he stepped up to Hunk.

“Oh, Shiro!” Called the younger man, waving him over to meet the passenger. “This is Coran. Coran, this is our captain.”

“A pleasure to meet you, Captain Shirogane.” Coran responded cheerfully, bouncing on his toes a bit. He spoke in a strange accent that Shiro didn’t recognize, and the words were proper and refined, nothing like the frontier dialect most of them spoke. “This is a lovely ship you’ve got here.”

Hunk beamed. It was no secret that Hunk had a soft spot for anyone who praised the Lion.

Shiro swept another appraising eye over the man. He was carrying several black bags, one in each hand and one over his shoulder. He aimed for nonchalance, but he was clutching his baggage close.

Shiro, deciding to be diplomatic, responded with a polite nod and turned to Hunk.

“Those the only two?”

Hunk seemed apologetic when he nodded. “Most folks wanna ride on the bigger ships, seems like.”

Shiro sighed but did his best to paste on a smile for Hunk. “It’s alright. Stay out here awhile longer and see if you can get anyone else.”

Shōudào, Captain.”

The captain cast one last look over the dusty marketplace before retreating back into the Golden Lion.

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

The man shuffled awkwardly in the entrance to the shuttle, out of place in his grey uniform against the blue curtains hung over the metal walls. He was still young and insecure and it showed in his stance and the way he cleared his throat before speaking.

“Thank you, the experience was more than-- it was very good. Thank you.”

Allura smiled her patented, practiced warm grin. “The time went too quickly.”

The man snorted a bit. “Yes, well. The clocks are probably rigged to speed up and cheat us out of our fun.”

Her smile dropped like a stone, and a silence quivering with tension descended over the room. The man cleared his throat again, apparently noticing his mistake and unsure of how to rectify it, before simply shuffling his feet one last time and taking his leave.

Allura allowed herself a moment to stand still and feel the sting of the insult. She breathed in the scent of her incense, made herself feel the slide of the white silk robe over her skin, then breathed out and rolled her shoulders. She carefully balanced the tray she was carrying, full of tea cups and implements, onto the small side table and proceeded past the beaded curtains into the cockpit of the small shuttle. With the exit of her client, she was free now to return to the ship.

With practiced fingers she entered the launch sequence. A few minutes later she was pulling the shuttle into the buzzing skies above Balmera, navigating between the dozens of other vehicles in the air to head towards the Eavesdown Docks.

That bittersweet feeling she was so familiar with rose in her chest. In another life she could’ve been a pilot like her father. If she focused and cast back her memory she could still feel the warmth of his hands around hers, guiding them around the controls.

The radio crackled when she entered its range, startling her out of reverie.

“Golden Lion, this is Shuttle One, what’s your ETA?”

There was barely a moment of silence before Keith’s expected voice was answering her.

“Hey Allura. We’re already docked over in bay five, land whenever it suits you.”

She tilted the shuttle accordingly. “I’m on my way now.”

“See ya in a few.”

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

Once landed, one of Allura’s first orders of business was to get properly dressed. While she brushed out her long silver hair she heard Keith’s voice echo down the corridor, calling to Shiro that she had arrived. A moment later the ship’s hydraulics groaned, lifting the gangplank and sealing the airlock, and then her stomach was doing the normal drop as the Golden Lion rose into the air.

She waited for the jostling of breaking atmo to subside before getting dressed-- pulling on her favorite gown of flowing white cloth with the blue velvet bodice. Then she emerged from her shuttle, unsurprised to find the cargo bay a flurry of activity and Shiro standing on the catwalk, accompanied by Pidge, who looked up at the sound of the door and grinned at the sight of her.

“Hey, you.” She greeted, a teasing lilt to her voice that made Allura chuckle to herself.

“Hey, you.” Despite their six year age difference, she’d become fast friends with the teenaged engineer, bonding over their shared experience of being the only two girls on a ship full of men. She made her way down the stairs to the catwalk to join the two of them, exchanging warm smiles with the captain.

“Hey there, Princess.” Said Shiro. Allura shook her head in pretend exasperation, but really she didn’t mind the nickname so much.

“Hello there Captain. How has business been?”

“Slow.” Shiro answered, and Allura frowned. Normally he wasn’t so vague, but then she looked out over the cargo hold and realized the reason.

“Have we taken on passengers?”

“Only a couple. Flyin’ them out to Feyiv.”

Allura hides her surprise with a practiced serene expression. Shiro was a good captain, and he portrayed an aura of easy trust to outsiders, but he was fiercely protective of his crew. This was the first time he’d allowed strangers to board the Lion for any extended amount of time.

As usual, Shiro saw right through her Companion trained shields and turned towards her, dropping his voice low.

“Look, it’s a risk. And I don’t plan on makin’ a taxi service out of my ship, but right now we need the coin. We’ll just need to lie low for a few weeks.” Lie low meaning, of course, not overtly discussing crime in front of the civilians.

Allura might’ve taken the time to continue the conversation, but a glance over Shiro’s shoulder revealed one of the passengers approaching, a man with a ludicrous orange mustache. So she slid her Companion smile back on.

“As you say, Captain.”

For a moment Shiro’s brow furrowed, but it cleared when the man’s strange accented voice echoed from behind him. It actually wasn’t too far off from her own accent, only less refined.

“Your platinum, Captain, as promised.”

Shiro straightened, turning to accept the bag of coins the man offered him. “Thank you. Coran, I don’t think you’ve met Allura.” He stepped to the side, allowing Allura to move forward. “She’s a long term passenger.”

“Indeed? And what would compel a lovely young lady such as yourself to travel the galaxy?” Coran stroked his mustache as he spoke, something Allura could tell was a normal movement for this man. His body language was open and friendly, but there was a certain tension to it, a certain force. She would have to warn Shiro to keep an eye on him later, but for now she just kept smiling and extended a hand for Coran to shake.

“I’m a Companion.” She explained, pleased when Coran’s expression didn’t twist in response. “I wanted to expand my client base. I’m far from the only woman in the guild to do so.”

“Ah, I imagine not. A pleasure to meet you, miss.”

“The pleasure was mine. But,” She looked over her shoulder at Pidge, who was waiting next to the stairs rather impatiently. “I learned a new hairstyle on Balmera, and I promised Pidge I’d give her a demonstration.”

Coran smiled ever so softly. “Of course, of course, don’t let me keep you.”

Allura nodded graciously and began to step back before Shiro caught her elbow gently in his metal hand.

“Meeting in the galley in about a half hour.” He said. “So don’t hold Pidge hostage.”

“Don’t worry, Shiro, we won’t be long.”

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

The galley on the Golden Lion was narrow, as it was in most Firefly’s, nestled in the center of the ship between a staircase to the crews quarters and the hall to the engine room. Now the room was crammed full of people standing between the dining room table and the counters that flanked either side of the room. The majority of the crew was there (minus Keith who still had to fly) accompanying the two passengers on their tour of the ship. Allura lingered in the background, making a cup of tea and pretending she wasn’t listening.

“Now, the rules on the ship are pretty simple.” Shiro was saying to the passengers. The two were listening politely, but Coran was too still and Griffin’s eyes skittered all over, never staying in one place for too long.

“You’ve got your pick of the kitchen. We do have normal meals whenever possible. The galley, the common area, and your bunks are open to you, though I have to ask you stay in those areas while we’re in the air. Cargo bay, cockpit, engine room, they’re all off-limits.”

Griffin’s eyes flickered a bit more at that, but neither of the men said anything.

“Aside from that just use your common sense. Don’t touch anything if you don’t know what it does, don’t mess with the crew, all that.” He shifted a bit, leaning his hands on the chair in front of him. “There’s also one other thing, and I apologize in advance for the inconvenience, but we’ve been ordered by the Garrison to drop off some medical supplies on Taujeer. It’ll be a bit of a hassle but we should have you on Feyiv no more than a day off schedule.”

Griffin blinked, once, twice, then his face settled. Coran stroked his mustache, and when neither of them argued Shiro counted it as a win and moved on.

“Dinner is at six. Hope to see you all there.”

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

Dinner started out as a surprisingly calm affair. Hunk worked miracles with their dried and packaged food, and after the usual barrage of compliments, the group settled into easy meal-time small talk. Allura took supper in her room, as usual. Griffin wasn’t too talkative, but contributed when expected, in direct contrast to Coran who was talking enough to give Lance a run for his money. And that was fine, everyone was amicable enough, until he started getting into the more personal questions.

“You all look so young to be sailing a vessel like this.” The tone was light, but all of them seemed to pause for a moment. Coran was still gnawing away on his canned peaches while Griffin scrutinized each face in turn. His eyes lingered at Keith, who had been his normal level of quiet and was focused on eating, hunched over his food a little defensively. It had been just over three years since he shipped out with the Lion, but there were still hints of the street kid he used to be. His protectiveness over his food was only one of them.

“We’re not that young.” Pidge was the first to respond, and her voice was nonchalant enough for the others to marginally relax. “I’m the only one under twenty, after all.”

“Still.” Insisted Coran. “Twenty is incredibly young to be an engineer, and a Captain at only twenty-six? Practically unheard of!”

Shiro tried to brush off the comment with a slightly uneasy chuckle. “Yeah, well. We do what we have to, I suppose.”

“And Keith!” Coran continued, the exclamation making Keith startle in his seat. He looked up from beneath his messy black bangs, the rest of his hair pulled into a tiny ponytail at the base of his neck. “A full blown pilot at only twenty. Not something you see everyday.”

Keith scowled and deepened the hunch of his shoulders. He looked like a dog baring his teeth, and Shiro shot him a quelling look while internally groaning. The last thing he needed was the passengers getting on Keith’s bad side.

“What do you care how old we are?” It wasn’t quite a snap, but it was still too sharp to be friendly. Across the table, Lance groaned to himself and dropped his head.

“Great, here comes Captain Killjoy.” He said none-too-quietly, taking a sip from his glass. Keith shot him a frustrated look.

“What? So long as we do our job, why’s it matter?”

“It doesn’t overmuch.” Coran butted-in, at least trying to relieve the tension. “Just an oddity, is all.”

For a minute or two there’s quiet over the table, everyone eating silently and trying to figure out how to disperse the tension. Coran is the first to try, and of course he talks to Keith, which makes it a disaster right off the bat.

“I must say I’ve never seen a necklace quite like the one you wear.” Keith didn’t even look up, merely picked up the pendant and shoved it under his shirt. Coran continued on, unabashed. “Wherever did you get it?”

In Coran’s defense, the pendant was rather curious. It was a small, smooth red stone with a black center, with only a single streak of purple running diagonally through it. Every single person on the crew had tried asking about it at some point, and all of them had gotten the same response, even Shiro. It was the same response Coran was about to get.

“None of your gorram business.” Keith snarled, closing a hand protectively over his shirt where the pendant lay. His knuckles turned white around the fork he held in his other hand.

Coran blinked, taken aback, while the rest of the crew performed a mixture of exasperated sighs and tired face palms.

“Don’t be like that, Keith.” Hunk said from across the table. “He’s only tryin’ to be nice.”

“There’s no such thing.” Keith snapped back.

Pidge snorted. “Wow, that was mighty jaded of you. Got any more cold-hearted judgements to share with the rest of us?”

Keith sneered at his plate, and Matt bumped Shiro’s shoulder.

“Shiro, control your problem child.”

Shiro swatted at him, but the damage had already been done, and Keith turned bright red. Whether from anger or embarrassment he couldn’t say. Before he could step in and put a stop to things, Lance was speaking up.

“Why do you always gotta be like this?” He asked with a roll of his eyes. “It was just a yúbèn de question, no need to get your panties all in a bunch.”

“Exactly, húndàn, it was a yúbèn de gǒucàode question--”

Alright, that was a step too far. “Keith!”

Keith shut his mouth abruptly with a click of his teeth. For a moment Lance looked victorious, until Shiro turned his scolding look on him as well.

“Both of you, all of you, that’s enough. Dǒng ma?”

Hunk and Pidge had the decency to look contrite. Matt merely rolled his eyes. Lance sulked. Coran and Griffin appeared uncomfortable (and honestly, who wouldn’t have) while Keith shoved the last few bites of his food into his mouth before shoving away from the table.

The rest of the meal was silent and uncomfortable for everyone involved.

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

Keith stared out the windshield of the Lion, turning his chair back and forth, back and forth, while his fingers ran over the smooth surface of his pendant. He never got tired of looking at the Black-- the void with tiny points of light, points of salvation, gases burning in the midst of endless nothingness. But now his thoughts were tangled and angry.

He didn’t understand himself. He couldn’t even remember where he’d gotten the stupid necklace, he had no idea why it meant so much to him, but everytime someone asked about it he couldn’t help but bristle. And it wasn’t just the necklace-- he got angry over a lot of things. Snapped at the others for stupid reasons. He didn’t know why he acted this way, he tried so hard but the anger always got the best of him, and he didn’t know how to make himself better.

Boots clanked against the metal outside, and Shiro stepped into the cockpit, ducking a little to make it through the door. Before he could say anything Keith was speaking, though he still faced out towards the stars.

“I’m sorry.” He blurted out, fingers forming a fist over his necklace. “I shouldn’t have snapped at Coran like that. He didn’t do nothin’ wrong.”

Shiro let out a long suffering sigh and slumped into the pilots seat. He looked exhausted and was rubbing at his arm, and Keith felt the guilt twist like a blade. Shiro had too much to deal with without him screwing up.

“At least you know it.” He said gruffly. He dropped his head back against the seat and looked out at the stars with tired eyes. “I need you to set a course for Taujeer.”

Keith sat up straight. “Taujeer? Why?”

“Kolivan wouldn’t take the goods.” Shiro sat forward and put his head in his hands. He usually didn’t show how tired he was, except with Matt and Keith. “We’re gonna try Sendak, see if he’ll bite.”

“Sendak?” Keith questioned with a raised eyebrow. “Didn’t he shoot you one time?”

Shiro made a vague gesture with his hand. “Everyone’s makin’ a fuss.” It made Keith laugh a little as he turned back to the controls, already inputting coordinates into the ship’s autopilot.

“Alright, Captain, it’s your funeral.”

“Damn right it is.”

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

It’s somewhere around two in the morning when the intercom in Shiro’s bunk crackled, startling him awake even before a voice came through. He jolted half upright, his body trained from months of slamming his head into the metal lip of his bunk everytime he had a nightmare, and he was halfway to the ladder up to the corridor before Keith had the opportunity to say a word.

“Shiro, I need you on the bridge.”

He went fast, taking the stairs to the bridge two at a time, gasping breathlessly, “What is it?” Once he’d reached the top.

Keith was braced over one of the screens, hair falling into his face while he scowled at the display. He was still in his day clothes but they were rumpled, indicating he’d at least tried to go to bed, leaving the bridge unguarded.

“A signal.” He growled. “Someone got on the Cortex and hailed the nearest Garrison cruiser.”

Heat and cold battled for domination: heat for rage, cold for dread.

“Tell me you scrambled it.”

“All to hell,” Snapped Keith in irritation, “But I don’t know how much got through. They got a pin in us for sure.”

Shiro let loose a long stream of curses in frustrated Chinese. Damn it, Matt had been right, he should have never let strangers on his ship.

Keith made a fist, slamming it against his own thigh, knowing better than to hit the dashboard on such an old ship.

“One of them’s a mole.” He muttered to himself, and Shiro’s spine tightened. An image came to mind-- a pampered pet cat in a dark alley where it didn’t belong. Everything in him burned and he whirled to storm from the bridge, Keith hot on his heels.

He made his angry way down to the cargo hold. As he suspected, Coran was there despite Shiro’s rules, rustling through one of the black bags he’d left there. Shiro stalked up behind him, and he straightened up at the sound of his footsteps and turned to face them with a surprised expression.

“Forget your toothpaste?” Shiro snarled before decking him.

Coran hit the floor with a startled yelp as Shiro flexed his human fist, Keith hovering behind and practically humming with fury just as potent as Shiro’s.

“Are you out of your mind?” He cried in that strange accent, that accent which should have told Shiro immediately not to trust him.

“Just about. What’d you tell them?”

Coran turned back toward them, a hand pressed over his swelling cheekbone, beginning to stagger to his feet.

“Tell who?”

Shiro grabbed him by the collar of his fancy nightshirt and shoved him back, digging the man’s spine into the crates lining the walls.

“I’ve got exactly no time for games.” This close he could see the frightened constriction of his pupils, the twitch of his orange mustache. “What do they know?”

Coran just stared at him. “You’re a lunatic.” He murmured, like a half thought, and Shiro sneered and twisted his metal hand into his shirt until the cloth ripped.

“And you’re a gorram fed.”

“Shiro!” Keith smacked his shoulder several times, and Shiro glanced back at him. He was wearing an urgent expression and not looking at him, instead having his eyes fixed on the opposite stairwell. Shiro followed his gaze.

Standing on the stairs, gun in hand and wrist braced, was their other passenger James Griffin.

“Son of a bitch.” He swore to himself. His blood felt like it was filling with lead as he realized he’d had the wrong guy, his grip on Coran’s collar going slack.

“Release that man, Captain Shirogane.” Griffin ordered in a calm, government voice, and Shiro forced his hands away from Coran’s throat, loosely holding them up by his head. Keith was a hard line of tension beside him, eyeing the man with the gun with a wild look.

As soon as he stepped away, Griffin shifted the gun and began down the stairs.

“Coran Hieronymous Wimbleton-Smythe, you are bound by law to stand down.”

Shiro’s jaw dropped. “What? Him? Oh--” He dropped his hands to his sides. “Is there a reward, by chance?”

Griffin ignored him. At the bottom of the stairs now, he continued to speak to Coran.

“Get on the ground.” When Coran didn’t move, his voice leapt up, echoing around the empty metal hold. “Get on the ground!”

“Lawman, you are making a mistake!” Coran tried to argue, making Griffin’s cheeks color. His hands were trembling.

“You’d best get on the ground.” said Shiro in a low voice. Just because the fed wasn’t after them doesn’t mean he was in the clear. “He seems a mite twitchy.”

Coran still didn’t move, and for a tense second the two men just stared each other down. Coran was pale, Griffin had a strange sparkle in his eye, and the longer he had his gun pulled the more Shiro wanted to get the both of them off of his ship.

“Look,” He said, stepped forward and reaching for Coran. “We can just put him in one of the holding cells and--”

“Get the hell back!” Griffin snapped, swinging the pistol to point at him, and Shiro went still. “You think I’m a complete back-birth? You’re carrying a fugitive across interplanetary borders. You think I really believe you’re bringing medical supplies to Taujeer?” He paused to swallow, and Shiro glowered at him.

“As far as I’m concerned, everyone on this ship is culpable.”

Shiro let out a breath. “Well now. That has an effect on the landscape.”

“We don’t need to do this.” Coran said, foolishly trying again to get out of the situation. “No one has to get hurt.”

Griffin glared at him murderously. “I’ve got a cruiser en route for intercept, so talk all you want. You’ve got about twenty minutes.”

Shit .

“You might have less than that.” That was Keith, speaking up for the first time with an expression as dark as the void outside. His fists were clenched at his sides, looking to Shiro for the signal to attack. Griffin snorted and flexed his grip on his weapon.

“Yeah, threaten me.”

Keith began to move forward, and Griffin spun to point the barrel at his chest, sending even more adrenaline snaking through Shiro’s veins.

“You think I won’t shoot a kid?” He snarled at Keith, who had frozen in place. “Back off!”

Shiro grabbed for Coran, snagging the man by the wrists and hauling him close even as he struggled. “Just take him!”

“Get your hands off of me, you brute!” Coran yelled right back, and Griffin turned back to them, brow scrunching up.

“Stand the hell down!” He shouted. The hold was full of noise and shouting, and really none of them should have been surprised when other crew members came to investigate.

“What is--” The new voice started, coming from the center hallway to the galley. Before the person could finish their sentence Griffin had whirled, and a shot went off, deafening.

Pidge hit the wall. Stunned silence dropped over them all as she looked down at her stomach, where the bullet had torn through her shirt and left a perfectly round hole in the skin, red blood just beginning to dribble out. She looked up again, eyes wide.

“What…”

Someone hit the play button again. Above them a voice echoed out. It was Allura from the entrance to her shuttle.

“Katie!”

Shiro released Coran and the two of them simultaneously sprinted for Pidge, who had begun sliding down the metal wall. Keith moved past them in a blur, aiming a jab to a stunned Griffin’s throat. A kick between his legs and a punch to the chin sent him to the floor, Keith seething over him vindictively.

The rest of the crew came flooding out from the other parts of the ship as Shiro and Coran eased Pidge onto her back. Her brother had taken two seconds to evaluate things before running for his first aid kit, but Shiro had a sinking feeling that his field medic training wouldn’t be enough here. Allura was there a moment later, shedding her white robe and kneeling by Pidge’s head.

Hunk looked away from the blood, a green tinge to his face, and went to Keith, who jerked away from his touch with a snarl.

“Get away!” He snapped at the engineer.

“How do you feel?” Coran asked Pidge, who looked at him with clouded eyes.

“A little odd.” She mumbled.

“You can’t kill him!” Hunk was saying to Keith.

“Not right away.” Keith answered. Shiro’s head was spinning.

“You knocked him out, he’s not a threat anymore.”

Pidge’s head lolled, cushioned by Allura’s robe. “Why did he…?”

Coran pushed her shirt up to reveal the wound, and Shiro’s breath caught. Vaguely he was aware of his mouth moving.

“Oh, wow. That ain’t no mosquito bite.”

“Big mosquito.” Pidge slurred.

Matt returned, thundering down on them with his med kit and shoving Coran aside. To their surprise, Coran shoved right back with a snap.

“I’m a doctor!”

“Keith, seriously--”

“He shot Pidge!”

“Keith!” That was Lance, who at some point had joined Hunk. He had his rifle slung over his shoulder, and although he wasn’t aiming it at anyone yet, Shiro just wanted to yell at him to put it away. “Come on, man, just tie him up, we don’t need to hurt anyone else.”

“Katie.” Coran said to Pidge, trying to get her eyes to land on him. “Katie, stay with me. Stay with me. Can you move your feet?”

Pidge’s eyelids fluttered. “But I don’t like dancing.”

“She’s going into shock.” Said Coran, completely unnecessarily. Shiro knew what shock looked like.

Pidge’s head started to roll to the side, and Allura jerked it back into place, making Pidge open her eyes again.

“Katie.” She said urgently. Her voice trembled. “Mei-mei, you have to focus.”

Something beeped over the intercom just as Pidge yelped and let out a pained gasp, and Keith darted back up to the bridge, leaving Lance and Hunk to deal with the unconscious fed.

“Is the infirmary working?” Coran was asking Shiro, jerking him into reality.

“Yeah, we’ve got it stocked.” He and Coran were preparing to lift Pidge when Keith’s voice came through the speakers.

“Shiro, we’re being hailed by a cruiser. They’re orderin’ us to stay on course and prepare for prisoner transfer.”

Shiro’s movements slowed, eyes jumping to meet Coran’s. He too had paused, apparently considering. He glanced down at Pidge, who had a single tear streak running down into her hairline. He stood.

“Change course.” He ordered with a catch in his voice. “Run.”

“Hell with you.” Shiro snarled back without a thought. “You brought this down on us, I’m dropping you with the law.”

Allura said his name admonishingly, but Shiro didn’t hear her. This man was the reason any of this was happening-- he was the reason the youngest of his crew now lay on the ground with a bullet in her. Like hell he’d do anything he said.

“She’s dying.” Coran told him. Shiro shook his head, a cruel smirk on his lips. Coran was a doctor, there was no way…

“You’re not gonna let her.”

“Yes, I am.” He didn’t look too convinced by his own plan, but still there he stood, Pidge bleeding out at his feet.

“No, you can’t!” Matt cried at him, his eyes shiny with tears. This was the first time he’d seen Matt cry since the war. “She’s my sister, you can’t just let her die!”

“No way the feds’ll let us walk.” Lance said from the background, standing guard over the trussed up fed. Shiro stood, not even looking at him, keeping his gaze focused on Coran.

“Then we dump him in a shuttle and leave him.”

“Matt--” Pidge mumbled, raising a hand towards him. He grasped it tightly and looked down at her, the tears splattering to the floor. “Matt, why are you crying? Why is everyone yelling?”

“It’s ok, mei-mei.” Allura whispered to her, though her face was twisted in grief.

“Do you know what a stomach wound does to a person?” Coran asked of Shiro. He seemed to be growing more steadfast in his idea, that cold hearted bastard.

“I most surely do.”

“Then you know how crucial the next few minutes are.”

“You let her die,” Lance jumped in again, blue eyes colder than ice, “You won’t even make it to the feds.”

Coran looked at him with feigned nonchalance. “She’ll still be dead.”

Shiro scoffed. The bitter words were choking him. “You rich folks. You don’t think anyone’s lives matter but your own. What’d you do, kill your family so you wouldn’t have to split your fortune?”

That seemed to strike a note, and Coran shouted in frustration, “I don’t kill people!”

“Then do your job!” Shiro replied.

“Turn this ship around!”

“Enough!” Said Allura, throwing herself to her feet. “Shiro, do it.”

Shiro clenched his fists. He didn’t want to do this, he didn’t want to become an accomplice, it would only put everyone else in more danger, but Pidge--

Pidge let out a sob on the floor, grasping wildly at her brother’s shoulder, and Matt looked up at him. He was more scared than Shiro had ever seen him.

He sucked in a deep breath and pressed the intercom button next to the hallway they stood before.

“Keith. Change course and go for hard burn.”

They all felt the shift in the deck under their feet as Keith obeyed the order, and Coran dropped back to the floor.

“Help me get her up.” He said, and Shiro complied without a word.

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

Allura led the charge to the infirmary that was just off of the lounge area, shoving the doors open for Shiro and Coran. They deposited the small girl onto the steel table and Coran immediately began rummaging through their various supplies. Matt was too beside himself to do much but hang on to his sister, who was only barely conscious.

“Do you have an extractor?” Coran asked.

“Got a laser saw.”

“Not good enough.” He turned to look at Allura. “My room, black bag.”

Allura stuttered for a moment before rushing from the room. Matt looked up, cheeks awash with tears, and gave Coran the scariest look he could muster.

“When this is all over,” He said, “You and I are going to have a personal chat.”

“I look forward to it.” Was the sarcastic answer before the doctor tossed a syringe gun at Shiro. “Dope her.”

Shiro did, and within a second Pidge was sinking off into unconsciousness.

The whole ship was gathered to watch the surgery. Matt assisted Coran while Shiro hovered in the background, just in case, while the others peered through the windows into the infirmary. The only person who wasn’t there was Keith, but he’d set the ship to autopilot as soon as it was safe and was now huddled in the narrow catwalk above the infirmary, peering in through the tiny ceiling windows with one arm wrapped around his knees and the other hand around his pendant.

Three grueling hours later and the surgery is finally complete. Pidge still lies pale and still on the slab, but at least her chest is rising and falling, the bullet is out, and the blood has stopped.

Allura is shrugging her robe back on as the doors to the infirmary open again, and she stands front and center.

“I want to know what’s going on here.”

“So do I.” Says Shiro, and all of the eyes in the room settle on Coran. “Well? One of mine got shot for you, I think we deserve to know why the Garrison wants you so badly.”

“Well,” Coran began, awkwardly clearing his throat and stroking his mustache. “It’s actually quite simple. I was conducting some research that the Garrison didn’t approve of.”

“What research?” Matt demanded. “What did my little sister get shot for?”

Coran tugged at the shredded, blood spattered collar of his nightshirt. “Ahem. I’m sure all of you space travelers are aware of the Galra?”

Everyone in the room paused for a moment. Shiro had to swallow back an inappropriate bubble of laughter, because really? Of course they knew about the Galra. Crazed men and women roaming space in derelict ships, hunting down travelers not for money or loot but for the thrill of it and even to feast on their flesh. Legends abounded of filed down teeth and yellow tinted eyes and razor sharp nails-- except anyone who’d been past the Core knew they weren’t just legends.

“What about them?” Asked Lance. His brown hair was sticking up in every direction, suffering from him running his hands through it over and over. Behind him, still huddled in a corner of the couch, Hunk turned ten shades paler.

“Well, I was researching them. The Galra.”

Dead silence, until Shiro muttered in disbelief, “ Wǒ de mā.”

Yeah, no, they actually had a lunatic aboard right now. An absolute madman.

“You’re fuckin’ crazy.” Came Keith’s voice from the stairway. Coran jumped in surprise, then tried to pretend he hadn’t. “A pampered Core doctor, researchin’ the fuckin’ Galra? Why the fuck would you do somethin’ so stupid?”

Coran looked almost offended, and Shiro just wanted to deck him again, just on principle.

“One or two people catching space madness is not unheard of.” He said, addressing all of them. “But a whole population? Enough to actually have recorded losses? Unheard of. Obviously something must have happened to them to make them what they are, and I intend to find out what.”

“But why?” Argued Lance, sounding frustrated. “I thought most people in the Core didn’t even think they were real.”

“They don’t. But I do.”

“Why would the Garrison hunt you down for that?” Shiro asked. “Garrison ships get taken down by Galra too.”

“Ah, but not according to the official record!” Coran stroked his mustache eagerly. “According to the official record, Galra don’t exist. The Garrison was covering them up, and when they discovered I was researching them, they tried to arrest me.”

“Why do you care?” That was Keith again, descending the stairs to join the group properly. He had that familiar, untrusting look on his face again. “Why does it matter to you? Why didn’t you just give up the research and move on?”

Coran actually looked surprised at the question. “I interviewed many ship captains for this research, my boy.” Keith visibly bristled at the name, but Coran continued without pause. “Anyone who’s gone past the Core is terrified of them. They sound to me like a plague on the universe, and would it not be a service to discover the cause of their behavior and eliminate it?”

“So you’re doin’ this for the greater good?” Keith asked with a toss of his head. “Yeah, right.”

“Maybe he’s telling the truth.” Said Hunk, chiming in for the first time. “I mean, he’s kinda right about the plague on the universe thing.”

“If you think you can actually “cure” the Galra, you’re even dumber than you look.” Keith is still talking to Coran, as though Hunk hadn’t spoken.

“I’m not trying to cure them, just prevent any more from being created!”

Keith opened his mouth to continue, but Shiro cut him off.

“Is that why you shipped out?” When Coran looked at him quizzically, he elaborated. “Is that why you booked passage on a ship? So you could get out to the Black? To study them?”

“Yes, that’s precisely why.”

Shiro shook his head. “If you came out here actually hopin’ to find Galra, you’re the stupidest man alive.”

Coran frowned, but Shiro continued before he could argue back.

“And it doesn’t matter anyway. If Pidge makes it, you’ll be gettin’ off at Taujeer.”

The other man visibly gulped. “And if she doesn’t?”

Shiro kept his voice even. “Then you’ll be gettin’ off a mite sooner.”

Coran turned ashen.

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

The next few hours dragged by. The crew drifted in and out of the infirmary, taking turns sitting up with Pidge while she slept. They’d confined the bound fed in one of the guest bunks, and the only reason Coran was allowed to wander free is because he had to be able to respond if something happened with Pidge. But Keith kept a sharp eye on him, and Lance kept his rifle close, and Shiro never let his guard down.

After his shift with their injured teammate Hunk disappeared into the engine room, eyes still brimming with tears hours later. Keith set them a new course for Taujeer, then hung up his punching bag in the cargo hold and went at it with a ferocity Shiro hadn’t seen in more than a year. Lance sat in the common room and watched the door to the infirmary, methodically taking his rifle apart, cleaning the pieces, and putting it back together.

When it was her turn Allura gently braided Pidge’s hair, and once she’d done it three times she retreated to her shuttle to calm herself. Matt stood guard outside the fed’s room, occasionally going off to locate Coran and make sure he wasn’t up to no good before returning.

Shiro, as it turned out, was the one in the room with her when she woke for the first time. She’d stirred a tiny bit and groaned, blinking up at the light shining down on her. Shiro didn’t bother trying to hide the smile of relief that appeared on his face as he approached the bed.

“Hey, you’re awake.”

She turned her head to look at him, and he could tell by her clouded eyes that she was still under the effects of the anaesthesia even before she opened her mouth.

“Hey Capt’n.” She said with a dopey smile.

“How are you feeling?”

“I’m…” She tilted her head back to the ceiling. “I’m shiny, Capt’n, a-ok.”

Shiro snickered under his breath. “Well you just rest a bit more, ok?” He reached over to the counter and retrieved another blanket, draping it over her legs. “I need you back on your feet sooner rather than later.”

Pidge hummed. “Aw, you’re doin’ the dad thing again.”

“I don’t act like a dad.” Shiro argued, shaking his head in faux exasperation.

“Yes you do.” She teased back, words still slurring. “Always… lookin’ out for everybody…” She was fading back into sleep again, her eyelids fluttering, but just before she passed the precipice she yanked herself back awake.

“You’re a good captain, Shiro.”

His throat closed up, and before he could clear it Pidge was dead asleep again. He took a minute to compose himself, then went to find Coran.

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

Another six hours passed before Pidge was coherent enough to hold a serious conversation. Once she was Shiro and Matt went to explain the situation to her, and at the mention of research she sat up as much as the bandages and stitches would allow, eyes gleaming.

“That’s fascinating.” She muttered to herself once they’d finished their explanation. “I mean, getting shot sucked--” Matt winced, “But what Coran’s doing… If he succeeds he could change the universe forever!”

“Yeah.” Shiro snorted, leaning up against the infirmary counter. “Or he could wind up dead and eaten, and if I was a bettin’ man I’d put my money on the latter.”

Pidge frowned and looked at her brother. “Matt, what do you think?”

To Shiro’s surprise, Matt actually hesitated. “Well, the scientist in me is curious, but the soldier part of me says it’s crazy and he’s gonna get himself killed.”

“We can’t let the Garrison get him.” Pidge insisted, crossing her arms and only wincing slightly when it tugged on her wound. “Guys, this is important! He’s the first person who’s ever thought about stopping the Galra, this is huge!”

Shiro had about a million reasons why choosing Coran’s side was a horrible idea, and they were all poised on the tip of his tongue when the intercom beeped to life.

“Shiro, we’ve got a situation up here.”

He immediately hurried from the room, only pausing long enough to toss an order over his shoulder for Matt to stay with his sister.

One minute and twenty four seconds later he was surging into the cockpit, questions and orders already running from his mouth.

“How’d they find us already?”

“It’s not Garrison.” Was Keith’s answer. He’d spent the last few hours on the bridge, monitoring their progress, and had been able to catch the blip on their radar. The news made Shiro pause in the center of the bridge.

“It’s not?”

“Nah, looks like a smaller vessel.”

“Commercial?”

Keith turned his head to peer at another screen broadcasting the results of the sweep he’d done.

“Yeah. I read it as an older model…” He squinted at the screen and tilted his head, his usual indication that he was puzzled. “Trans-U.” He looked up at Shiro through his bangs. “I didn’t think Trans-U’s still operated.”

Shiro’s stomach is in knots. “They don’t.”

For a second they just stare at each other, then Shiro takes a step closer to the dash.

“Get me a visual.”

Keith shook his head. “They’re still too far out.”

“Well get me somethin’.”

Keith swiveled his chair to face the panel affixed to the wall, flipped a dial and looked at yet another screen.

“Hm, pickin’ up a lot of radiation…”

Shiro crossed the gap in two strides and stood alongside Keith’s chair, looking down at the readings himself. Sure enough the entire graph was lit up green in a distressing hill of pixels. Suddenly Keith’s breath caught, and Shiro met his eyes.

“They’re operating without core containment.” He explained, brow furrowed. “That’s…”

He doesn’t have to finish the sentence. Shiro knows what it means-- flying without core containment is madness, suicide, guaranteed no good. No one in their right mind would do it. Which left those who weren’t.

The bridge is hot with all of the wires and electronics, but Shiro still shivers, and he turns back to peer out the windshield at the void around them. Sure enough, in the distance is a small speck of a ship, growing closer by the minute as the halo of light that was their thrusters pushed them along their course.

“Galra.”

Shit .” Keith white knuckles the controls. “Should we run?”

“No, keep on course.” Shiro ordered, already raising his hand to the intercom. More details are being revealed as the Galra ship approached; the whole thing had makeshift welded on spikes covering it’s hull, barbed wire affixed around the portholes. Haphazard splashes of purple paint left a cruel fingerprint on the grey metal. It was clearly much larger than their Firefly, nearly twice the size with a conical nose not unlike the sharks from Earth-that-was.

Shiro clears his throat and turns on the intercom.

“This is the captain speaking. We’re passing another ship. Looks to be Galra. From the size, I’d say a raiding party.” He pauses for a breath, trying to keep his own tremor of terror out of his voice. “Could be they’re headin’ somewhere particular. Could be they already hit someone and they’re full up. So everyone stay calm.”

He tried to imagine what the others were doing right now. Pidge was still in the infirmary with Matt, probably exchanging horrified looks with her brother. Hunk was probably in the engine room trying to hold back sheer panic. Lance would join Pidge and Matt in the infirmary as extra security. Usually he’d be grinning and bold, ready to take on danger, but this time he’d be solemn and scared, finger over the trigger on his beloved rifle. Allura was in her shuttle, prepping it to run if she was smart. Keith beside him, ready to fight or fly as the situation demanded.

And Coran, that idiot, was probably jumping for joy.

He gulped and continued.

“We try to run, they’ll have to chase us. It’s their way. We’re holding course. Should be passing them in a minute. So we’ll see what they do.”

He raised his hand to the button again, then hesitated and said, “Matt you come on up to the bridge.” Before clicking it off.

The entire ship held its breath.

Matt emerged onto the bridge a minute later with a grim twist to his mouth. Coran was hot on his heels, and as predicted, clutching what looked to be a tablet and stylus in his arms. But he wasn’t joyful, no, he was dead serious as he bustled over to the copilots side to stare out at the Galra ship.

“Don’t recall askin’ for you.” Shiro muttered, too strung out to care about being diplomatic. Coran didn’t even acknowledge the jab, just turned to Shiro with focused eyes.

“Captain, in your experience what do the Galra do to those they board?”

“Shouldn’t you know?” Keith snarled, and Shiro laid a hand on his shoulder.

“Keep watching, tell me if they change course.” He said, then turned half of his attention to Coran. “But he’s right, didn’t you say you’ve done interviews?”

“Of course, but I need to make sure the information given is consistent.”

Shiro hissed a breath through his teeth. He really didn’t want to think about it, not with the real thing slowly bearing down on them, but maybe if he did Coran would go away and let him handle things.

“If they board us.” He began carefully, feeling Keith’s shoulders tense under his hand. “They’ll rape us to death, eat our flesh, and sew our skins into their clothing. And if we’re very, very lucky, they’ll do it in that order.”

Coran didn’t pale or flinch away from the information. Instead he just bent over his tablet, clicking away with his stylus.

The Galra ship loomed ever closer. It was coming at them from an angle, looking to go right over top of them, and the four of them stood and stared up at the sparking, almost ruined undercarriage. Keith raised a trembling hand to Shiro’s and grasped at it in a rare moment of vulnerability. The leather of his gloves is soft, and Shiro squeezes back.

It feels like eons, watching the ship sail overhead, Keith’s gaze glued to the screen that would proclaim their salvation or their doom. Five hundred years later, he huffs out a breath and practically goes limp in his seat.

“They’re holding course.”

Shiro finally lets himself breathe again, and Matt melts. Coran keeps tapping at his tablet.

“Didn’t expect to see them here.” Keith mumbled once he regained his breath.

“They’re pushing out further every year, too.” Said Matt. “Just like the Garrison.”

Shiro can’t contain the frustrated growl. “Gettin’ awful crowded in my sky.”

There’s another heavy silence. Coran’s clicking is the only sound and it’s rapidly driving Shiro to distraction, but before he can snap at him Keith is talking again.

“We’re gettin’ close to Taujeer.” He said, slipping his hand out of Shiro’s and sitting forward in his chair. He’s moving on, putting his walls back up and getting ready for whatever’s next. “Shouldn’t be more than another five hours.”

“Good.” Shiro answered automatically. “He’ll probably hail us when we’re about an hour out to set up the trade.”

Keith hesitates, then asks, “Permission to leave the bridge?”

Shiro blinked in surprise. Usually Keith doesn’t ask permission to do anything, he just does it, but maybe he figures Shiro wants him to sit and wait for Sendak’s hail.

“Granted.” Said Shiro with a warm smile. “Go on and say hi to Pidge.”

Keith flushed, but endured Matt’s hair ruffle as he set the autopilot, spun the controls into their rest position, and hurried out of the cockpit.

Matt turned to him, dropping his voice so that the still preoccupied Coran wouldn’t hear.

“That was way too close.” He hissed, and Shiro dropped his head in agreement. Though Taujeer was technically in Galra space on the Outer Rim, near the edge of the system, its proximity to it’s mother planet Weblum usually kept it safe. The Galra were growing bolder.

“This keeps up, in a couple years you won’t be able to go anywhere without riskin’ life and limb.” He continued. Shiro huffed a bit through his nose.

“Don’t suppose the Garrison could be bothered to do somethin’ about it.”

“Based on what Coran said, unlikely.”

Shiro glanced over his shoulder at the man in question. The infernal tapping had finally ceased, and now Coran lounged in the copilots seat as though he owned the place, scrolling through what Shiro assumed was previous data.

Doubt settled in.

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

Several hours later, Shiro was dozing in the co-pilots seat when Keith jostled him awake.

“Bein’ hailed.” He said in way of explanation, and with a groan Shiro sat upright and rubbed his eyes.

“That’ll be Sendak.” He yawned. Glancing out the front windows, he judged their distance to the large planet and it’s four brown moons. “We’re close enough for vid, put him up.”

Keith obeyed, keying in the correct sequence of buttons to open the hailing frequency in a video call. By the time the connection went through Shiro was seated in the pilots seat, with Matt and Keith watching over his shoulder.

Sendak, like Kolivan, was a big man, intimidating. But while Kolivan retained at least a faint aura of restraint, there was always a tint of savagery around Sendak. Like he knew what he wanted and would do absolutely anything to get it-- law and common decency be damned.

“Shirogane!” He bellowed over the speakers, making Shiro fight the urge to grimace.

“Hello, Sendak.”

“Didn’t expect to be hearin’ from you anytime soon.”

Shiro gave him his best shrug of nonchalance. “It’s air through the engine. We’re willing to do honest business if you are.”

Sendak’s mouth twisted into a pointed smirk. “You tellin’ the truth about that cargo? ‘Cause your asking price is a little too low for that much treasure.”

Here goes nothing.

“It’s imprinted. Garrison. Hence the discount.”

Sendak blinked. “Government goods, huh?” There was only the slightest lilt in his voice to indicate worry, but that didn’t stop Shiro from picking up on it.

“That doesn’t work for you, no harm. Just thought you could use--”

“Garrison don’t scare me.” Sendak growled in offense, just as Shiro predicted he would. He allowed himself a small smile. “But I like that you’re upfront about it. We can deal.”

A knot eased in Shiro’s stomach, but a completely different one merely took its place. Just because Sendak said he would deal with them didn’t mean they were out of the woods.

“I’ll upload coordinates for a rendezvous outside town.” He continued with a wide, false grin.

“See you in the world.”

The vid crackled as Sendak disconnected the call, and for a long minute Shiro just sat there with a blank smile.

“I believe that man is plannin’ to shoot me again.”

“He meant to pay you, he would’ve haggled you down some.” Matt scoffed as Shiro rose from the pilots seat.

“A little effort to hide it would have been nice.” Keith said with a bitter scowl.

Shiro sighed heavily and leaned up against the lockers between the pilot's seat and the doorway. The Garrison was still hot on their trail searching for their fugitive, Pidge was still in the infirmary and would be for some time, and they still had a kidnapped federal agent trussed up in one of the passenger bays. The last thing he needed to deal with was a double crossing from Sendak, but it looked as though he wasn’t going to have a choice.

“Doesn’t matter.” He muttered, rubbing a hand over the scar that had suddenly began to ache. “Whatever comes up in front of us, we’ll deal with it.”

“Here’s a little concept I’ve been workin’ on,” Said Keith even as he began to point the ship down towards the moon’s surface, “Why don’t we shoot him first?”

“It is his turn.” Matt agreed. Shiro just shook his head.

“He needs to be alive to pay us, smartasses.”

Matt shrugged. “That’s an arguable point.”

“Just get us landed. Ingrates.”

Matt and Keith exchanged mischievous smiles.

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

Matt let out an offended noise as he and Shiro approached the rendezvous point: an inconspicuous valley with a dry river bed running the length of it. Gently sloping hills rose up on either side of them, concealing the view of the ship parked barely a mile from their position.

“Nice place for an ambush.” He said. Shiro couldn’t help but agree.

Footsteps rustled through the dead foliage as Lance came trotting up behind them, already sweaty and covered in dust.

“Here you are.” He said to Shiro, handing him one of the inscribed copper bars, which Shiro tucked into the pocket of his trousers. “I buried ‘em good. Equipments back on the boat.” For once he wasn’t hauling his rifle across his shoulders-- instead choosing a pair of lightweight pistols strapped to his thighs. The next thing he did was insert the small transmitter into his ear, and Shiro heard the tell-tale crackle and beep as it connected to his and Matt’s.

“Testing,” Lance said (completely unnecessarily). “Testing, Captain can you hear me?”

“I’m standing right here.” Shiro joked with a wry expression. Lance didn’t look over.

“You’re coming through good and loud.”

“Because I’m standing right here.”

Lance stuck his tongue out at him and gave his shoulder a playful shove. “Yeah, yeah, laugh it up. One of these days these transmitters won’t work when they’re supposed to, and then what?”

Shiro indulged himself in a chuckle before moving forward a few steps, training a practiced eye on the terrain.

“Sendak is gonna figure we buried the cargo,” He began, mostly talking to himself even though he had the others attention. “Which means puttin’ us at our ease before there’s any action. He’ll come at us from the east,” He indicated the far side of the valley, “Talk the location out of us. He’ll have the coin to show us first. We get it, give the location.”

He moved forward again, squinting at the hills on their left. “Snipers hit us from there,” He indicated a spot halfway up the slope, “And there.”

“Figure they’re in place yet?” Lance asked.

“Should be. Feel like takin’ a walk around the park?”

Shiro heard the dirt crunch when Lance bounced on the balls of his feet.

“Hell yeah I am.”

“Walk soft.” Shiro warned before he could go rushing off. “I want Sendak thinkin’ they’re still in place. And don’t kill anyone if you don’t have to, we’re here to make a deal.”

“Yessir.” Lance said with a tiny salute before jogging back into the brush, his tan jacket helping him blend in.

“Don’t think it’s a good spot.” Said Matt, licking his lips anxiously. “He still has the advantage over us.”

Bitterness curdles at the back of Shiro’s throat. “Everyone always does. That’s what makes us special.”

 

<><><><><>

 

Back aboard the Golden Lion, Hunk was getting nervous. It had been the better part of half a day since the ruckus in the cargo hold, and as far as he knew no one had checked on the fed the whole time. And he really shouldn’t care so much, he had shot Pidge after all, but don’t people need water to live? Would he lose circulation in his arms from having them bound for so long and need to get them chopped off? How much more trouble would they be in if the Garrison caught them with an officer who had been harmed?

After approximately a half hour of stressing himself out over it, he took it upon himself to bring the poor man a canteen of water. After all, the man was bound. What could possibly go wrong?

He made it all the way to the bedroom door before he hesitated. Should he knock? What was correct hostage holding etiquette? Would it be condescending? Screw it, he was going to knock.

Tap tap .

“Hey, uh, Mr. Griffin? It’s Hunk. I thought you might want--” He moved to slide the door open, but the moment he did a hand sprung out, a bottle clenched in it’s grip. Pain blossomed just over his eye when it struck him, and then everything tilted and faded to black.

 

<><><><><>

 

Matt and Shiro proceeded into the valley. They had barely hit the halfway mark when there was movement behind a nearby bush, and a moment later Sendak and his men were filtering out from behind the dull green needles.

There were seven, six of them mounted on horses and the last on a four by four, and a small cloud of dust kicked up behind them as they approached. Sendak’s horse looked a bit put upon as it struggled to support the muscled bulk of it’s rider. The men lined up before them about ten yards from where Shiro and Matt stood, Sendak staring down at them with a smirk, trying to intimidate with superior numbers and resources.

Shiro breathed in deep.

“Captain Shirogane.” Sendak sneered once his men were in position, somehow making nothing but Shiro’s name sound like an insult. “And his little war buddy tag-along.”

Matt merely narrowed his eyes, refusing to take the bait, and instead studied the line of horses in front of them. “Awful lot of men to haul three crates.”

“Yeah, well.” Said Sendak with an unapologetic half shrug. “Couldn’t be sure Shirogane wouldn’t be lookin’ for some kind of payback.”

Man, I wish .

“We’re just on the job.” Shiro forced his voice to remain even. “Not interested in surprises.”

 

<><><><><>

 

Griffin, after hiding the lumbering engineer in what had been his cell, burst into the room that held his personal effects. Tearing into one of his duffle bags he quickly produced the hand held communicator given to him by the Garrison, but when he attempted to connect to the Cortex an orange error message appeared.

Unable to connect.

In a fit of rage he threw the useless thing across the room, watching in satisfaction as it broke into several pieces and clattered to the floor. Fine, time for plan B. It only took him a moment to locate his extra pistols, one of which he tucked into his waistband while he brandished the other.

He was going to take this fugitive down, one way or another.

 

<><><><><>

 

“Don’t see my cargo anywhere.”

“And you’re not gonna, until I’m holdin’ 200 in platinum.”

Sendak scoffed and rolled his eyes. A few of the horses stamped their feet, the man on the tractor revved the engine.

“Come on, I’m just supposed to take it on faith that you got the goods?”

With a dramatic flourish, Shiro swept back one side of his black coat, revealing both the bar tucked in his pocket and the gun in his holster. After letting Sendak get a good look, he pulled the bar from his pocket and tossed it across the gap to the man riding on Sendak’s left, who passed it to him.

“It’s pure.” He said as Sendak began to peel back the copper foil wrapping with thick fingers. “Genuine ‘A’ grade foodstuffs. Protein, vitamins, immunization supplements. One of those would feed a family for a month.”

Sendak raised the gray paste bar that had been revealed and took a cautious bite of it, chewing consideringly.

“That’s the stuff.” He grunted, tossing the rest of the bar back to one of his men. From one of his saddlebags he produced a hide bag that he threw to Shiro. The coins within clinked, the first reassuring sound of the whole interaction. “So where’s the rest?”

 

<><><><><>

 

He prowled carefully down the hall of the dinky Firefly, keeping a sharp ear out for any sign of the other crew members. So far so good, until he passed the open doors of what looked to be an infirmary and caught a gasp of surprise. Whirling, he pointed the barrel of his pistol into the room, only to find the auburn haired girl he’d shot before, barely upright on the metal table.

She instinctively cringed away from the gun, even as her eyes shone in the harsh lighting of the medical room.

“Make so much as a sound,” He rasped out, “The next one goes through your throat.”

 

<><><><><>

 

“... Then east half a mile, at the bottom of the hill, you’ll see where it’s been dug.”

Sendak straightened his shoulders. “I reckon I will.” None of the horses moved, and the hair on the back of Shiro’s neck began to prickle.

“Well then.”

“Yep.”

The only thing that could have made the awkward silence more pronounced would have been a whistle and a tumbleweed.

“I’d appreciate it,” Said Shiro, even as he acknowledged it was a risk, “If you all turned and ride out first.” Out of the corner of his eye he could see the tiniest movement of Matt’s hand towards his pistol.

“Well, you see, there’s a kind of hitch.” Sendak answered with a fake note of remorse.

“We both made out on this deal. No need to complicate things.”

Please, for once, just let things be easy.

“I got a rule. I never let go of money I don’t have to.”

Of fucking course not. Sendak was still monologuing as Shiro’s blood began to boil with rage, fingertips twitching at the adrenaline leaking into his system in preparation for the inevitable.

“Which is maybe why I’m runnin’ this little world, and you’re still on that dinky old boat, sniffin’ for scraps.” His lips split into a feral smile, baring his teeth like a dog.

Slowly, Shiro reached into his coat pocket and produced the bag of coins, throwing it back to Sendak.

“There. You got the money back. No need for killin’.”

“We’re just gonna walk away, sir?” Matt asked, voice burning with accusation. Shiro didn’t dare take his eyes off of Sendak long enough to look at him.

“Guess that’s up to Sendak.” He raised a challenging eyebrow. “Could be messy.”

“Not terribly.” Was the flippant answer, and with a laugh he said, “Shiro, you just ain’t very bright, are ya?”

Alright, enough talking. Clearly this was only going to go one way, so he swept his eyes over the line of men and settled on the one to Sendak’s left. He was a thin, gangly man, a top hat perched awkwardly on his head and a shining, practically brand new gun slung across his lap.

“That’s quite a rifle.” He remarked, earning a proud smirk and a nod from the man. “Boy must be your best shot to carry that.”

“Called Haxus.” Bragged Sendak, confirming Shiro’s statement. “Always makes it quick and clean.”

“Haxus. Nice hat.”

A shot echoed across the valley, and Haxus’s hat toppled from his head as he slumped in the saddle, red beginning to flow from where Lance’s shot had torn clear through his brain. The other riders froze momentarily in shock, Sendak throwing an accusing glare up at where he thought his snipers were supposed to be, and Matt and Shiro drew their own guns.

They each managed to get a shot off before the other riders could react, taking out one more man on a horse and the one on the tractor, who slumped his dead weight over the controls and started moving the machine forward.

By now the remaining riders had raised their weapons. Though struggling to aim on their spooked horses, one of them hit Matt straight in the chest, sending him sprawling into the dust.

 

<><><><><>

 

Keith fiddled with his pendant, glaring out at the dusty landscape and vehemently wishing Coran would go find someone else to bother. For some reason he was the one the man had chosen to sit with while they waited for the team to return, and he’d been chattering incessantly the whole time.

“Please shut up.” He snapped eventually, finally making him pause in surprise. “I’m tryin’ to listen to the radar.”

“You’re worried?” Coran asked, as though this was a shock. “Surely Shiro and the others know what they’re doing.”

“Even people who know what they’re doin’ can screw up.”

Before he can respond, their conversation is interrupted by the thin, barely audible voice trickling through the intercom.

“He’s out.” Pidge wheezed, making them both tense. “The fed got out.”

With a horrified expression Coran immediately rushed from the room, though to do what Keith couldn’t figure. He was on his feet, about to follow, when a twitter from the radar made him pause. A glance at the screen had his heart pumping ice water instead of blood.

Tāmāde.”

 

<><><><><>

 

Shiro moved to the right, parallel to Matt, trying to get an angle on Sendak’s remaining forces, laying down a healthy rate of cover fire. One man’s shot startled another’s horse, making it rear and dump it’s rider to the ground as Sendak’s horse fought the bit. The man who’d been thrown clambered to his feet just in time to catch a sniper's bullet in the neck, spraying the sand with blood.

 

<><><><><>

 

The doctor hustled down the catwalk. His heart was racing and blood was pounding in his ears and he had no idea what he was doing, but he knew if that fed got off of the ship he (and everyone else he’d accidentally dragged down with him) would be doomed.

Griffin had just strode into the cargo hold, making for the control panel that would lower the ramp and allow him to escape. On the catwalk above him, Coran peered down as he hit the button to release the ramp and open the doors, and knew he didn’t have time to think.

He threw himself over the railing.

The drop was probably about twenty feet, only the body beneath him breaking his fall and preventing him from breaking bones. Even then he lay stunned after he, the fed, and the man’s pistol had all clattered to the floor with a great crash.

 

<><><><><>

 

Lance took a shot at Sendak and missed. The man immediately dismounted, positioning himself behind the horse for protection. Another one of their number followed suit, abandoning his steed for increasing mobility, even as the last remaining member of their party took off the way they’d came.

Raising his head from the dirt, Matt took aim and fired, sending the man crashing to the ground with his horse still running away.

Shiro took a shot at Sendak, only for a spark to fly as a bullet tore through his coat sleeve and ricocheted off his metal arm. With a short shout of irritation he put a bullet through the leg of the last man, and he collapsed with frantic cries of pain. Only Sendak was left, aiming his shotgun over the back of his horse.

With a scowl, Shiro raised his arm to check the scrape, calling over to Matt as he did.

“Armors dented.” He grunted back, looking down at the kevlar he wore beneath his shirt with a grimace. “That’s gonna leave a bruise.”

“Well, you were right about this being a bad idea.”

“Thanks for sayin’, Shiro.”

“Don’t you take another step!” Sendak bellowed from across the sand. With only a momentary twist of his mouth and pang of regret, Shiro raised his pistol and shot the horse he was cowering behind.

It let out a twisted neigh of pain and fell, pinning Sendak beneath it. Shiro bore down on him like a freight train and pointed the barrel of his gun right at Sendak’s teeth as the man stared at him out of the corners of his eyes in terror.

“Now I did a job.” Shiro growled, bitterly vindicated by the look on his face. “I ain’t got nothin’ but trouble since I did it, not to mention more than a few unkind words as regard to my character. So let me make this abundantly clear. I do a job--” He reached down with his free hand, securing the bag of coins Sendak had dangled before him a few minutes earlier.

“And I get paid.”

He clicked the hammer back into place on his pistol and straightened, heading back to Matt who was picking himself up off the ground and putting away his own gun. Before either of them could speak Lance was barreling down the hill beside them, shouting his goddamn lungs out.

“Shiro, it’s Keith! We got a ship comin’ in!” He yelled, skidding to a stop. His face was pale, eyes wide. His radio was clenched in his hand. “They followed us! The gorram Galra followed us!”

 

<><><><><>

 

Griffin recovered before Coran, rolling onto his stomach and army crawling desperately for the gun that had been dropped. His hand had just fell upon the grip when Coran grabbed his shoulders from behind, pulling him off and away. He pulled them halfway to their feet before Griffin reared back and clocked him in the nose with an elbow. Two clatters rang across the cargo hold, one from Coran stumbling back into the crates and one from the gun in Griffin’s waistband hitting the floor.

The fed was barely an inch from his prize when Coran scooped up the other gun and pointed it directly at him.

“Don’t move!” He shouted, voice trembling more than he wanted, but still Griffin froze, looking gingerly over his shoulder.

Coran could taste blood, and his entire face hurt. Most likely a broken nose, but he couldn’t let it distract him. He couldn’t let this man get away, or all of his research would be destroyed, and he would never accomplish his goal--

“Everybody hang onto somethin’!” Keith’s voice echoed through the room as it belted through the intercom. “We’ve got Galra headin’ straight for us! We are in the air in one minute, buckled down or not!”

All around the two men began a whirring as the engines outside booted up, the sound coming in from the open ramp that Griffin eyed. He turned his gaze to Coran, who shifted on his feet.

He was still in his nightwear.

“You can do that?” Griffin questioned. “You’re gonna kill a lawman in cold blood?”

His mustache itched at his nose, but he didn’t lower his weapon.

“I know you’re dedicated to your work, I understand, it doesn’t make you a killer. I don’t want to hurt anybody.” He finished that statement just as Hunk staggered into the hold from the passenger’s quarters, a bloody cut above his eye and a dazed expression on his face.

Coran’s stomach clenched and he tightened his grip. Griffin kept talking.

“I have a job to do-- to uphold the law, that’s what we’re talking about here.”

 

<><><><><>

 

Keith’s leg juttered as he eyed the timer ticking down, down, down. If he looked up through the windscreen he could see the plume of smoke as the Galra ship broke atmo. They were running out of time, and he raised his radio to angrily yell for Shiro.

“What the hell is taking you so long?!”

 

<><><><><>

 

Coran was surprised at the sound of thundering hooves, and looked away from his hostage long enough to get a glimpse at the captain, Matt, and Lance tearing up to the ship on the backs of horses he was pretty certain they hadn’t had before. Unfortunately it was also long enough for the fed to spring for his weapon, and he had to throw himself to the side to dodge the shot that was haphazardly aimed in his direction.

Griffin scrambled back to his feet, leveling his gun in Coran’s direction. Above them the noise had alerted Allura, who came rushing out of her shuttle in a panic.

“I’m not playing around anymore.” Griffin proclaimed as Shiro came striding up the ramp. “If anyone moves so much as an inch--”

Bang .

Shiro didn’t even pause in his march as Griffin collapsed on the floor with a bullet hole through his chest. Hunk looked on from where he braced himself in the doorway, and Allura leaned on the catwalks railing, gripping it tight until her knuckles turned white. Coran was frozen in place, but Shiro didn’t even seem bothered.

“Matt, help me.” He snapped, kneeling and gathering two fistfuls of the man’s shirt. Matt darted forward to help the captain lift the corpse as Lance moved to hit the button to raise the ramp and call into the intercom.

“Keith, we’re on!”

Matt and Shiro hustled by, moving up the ramp even as it closed and tossed the body out into the desert heat. They had to run to make it back into the ship before the doors closed, and that very moment the Golden Lion was lifting from the ground.

Keith was deadly focused when the three of them crashed onto the bridge, Shiro scrambling to gather information.

“How close are they?”

“About twenty seconds from spitting distance.” Keith snapped as they crowded around his seat. The muscles in his upper arms strained as he fought to keep the Lion as in control as possible.

“Well lose ‘em!” Lance said in a terrified voice. He got only a snarl in response.

“Get me the vid.” Ordered Shiro, and Matt obligingly pulled up the back camera feed on one of the screens. Then promptly swore in the worst Chinese he knew at the sight of the Galra ship with its great billowing cloud of smoke behind it.

“How close do they have to be to snare us?” Shiro asked, but Keith didn’t answer, eyes intent on what was playing out before him.

“Come on, Keith, dumbass, dodge ‘em!” Lance was shouting in the background. Keith twisted the controls and sent them flipping neatly around a tall hill, but it wasn’t nearly enough.

“I need Hunk and Pidge in the engine room.”

“Can she even--”

Shiro interrupted Matt. “Lance, get them in there now!” He followed the sniper off of the bridge, nearly running directly into Allura, who had been hurrying up to them.

“Shiro--”

“Get Coran in your shuttle and be ready to take off.” He ordered. The ship jerked and they both had to catch themselves on one of the ladders that descended into the crew’s quarters to keep themselves from toppling to the floor. “We get boarded, you take off, head for town. We might be able to keep them from following you.”

“I can’t just leave you here!”

“You have to!”

“They’ll kill you!”

Despite the dire circumstances, Shiro gave her a cocky grin and grabbed her shoulder. “Worse things than them have tried. You go, now.”

Though reluctantly, she obeyed.

Shiro returned to the bridge. “How we doin’?”

“They’re right on our ass.”

 

<><><><><>

 

Downstairs, Lance was lifting a blanket-wrapped and wincing Pidge into his arms and making for the engine room. Hunk shuffled behind him, still a bit fuzzy from the strike to the head but the adrenaline raising his awareness the longer it stuck around. Allura retrieved the shocked Coran from the cargo hold and pulled him back to her shuttle, perching herself in the pilots seat and readying the shuttle for take off.  

The Galra were right on top of them now, gaining ever more speed the longer the chase went on.

 

<><><><><>

 

Keith came around another bend, flew them down below the clouds and through a valley.

“Can’t keep this up.” Murmured Shiro from above his shoulder where he braced himself. “They get a bead, they’re gonna lock us down.” Keith didn’t answer him, merely called into the intercom, hoping Pidge and Hunk were in position.

“Hunk, I’m gonna need a push.”

“Want me to go for full burn?” His voice was faint and not all there, but it wasn’t something they had time to worry about.

“Not yet, set it up though.”

A bit of shuffling, and then Pidge, “We’re ready for full burn on your mark.”

“Full burn in atmo?” Matt questioned anxiously. “That won’t cause a blowback, burn us out?”

“Even if it doesn’t,” Answered Shiro, mind whirring just as fast as the engines. “They’ll be able to push just as hard and keep right on us.” He looked down at Keith, who was practically biting holes through his lip as he flipped the ship sideways to squeeze through two cliff faces. The idea he’d just had was dangerous, and if anyone but Keith were flying he wouldn’t have dared.

But he was, and if anyone could pull it off…

“Keith, you gotta give me an Ivan.”
Keith grinned wolfishly. “Sir yes sir. Hey Pidge, how would you feel about a Crazy Ivan?”

In the engine room Hunk let out an alarmed squawk at the same time as Pidge’s laugh.

“Always wanted to try one. Hunk, you ever cut hydraulics before?”

“No! This is crazy!”

“Well then just listen to me. Open the port jack control.”

“Pidge this is all electronics, you know I’m not good with wires--”

“Just listen you knucklehead!”

One of the scanners on the dashboard began to beep alarmingly, the proximity alert telling them they had someone dangerously close to them. The Galra’s welded monstrosity of a ship was right there, its shadow devouring them alive.

“Pidge?” Keith asked tensely, white knuckling the controls. After a moment, Pidge answered.

“Ok, it’s ready.”

“Hold on!” With barely that bit of warning, Keith threw the switch next to the controls.

The entire right engine of the ship flipped over, the propulsion now in the opposite direction. Keith let it spin them precisely one hundred and eighty degrees before flipping the other engine and stabilising them again.

Shiro clung to the back of the pilots chair and prayed.

Keith took them right underneath the Galra ship, and the moment they were clear of its smoke trail, he slammed down another button and yanked a lever.

Almost all of their fuel dumped at once and ignited, forming a massive fireball that swallowed the Galra ship and sent it tumbling. Keith expertly rode the shockwave, letting it propel them as far away from the Galra as possible.

By the time the ship stopped shaking back and forth, all of them were trembling and drenched in sweat from the adrenaline.

“Whoo!” Lance’s voice echoed through the speaker. “Whoo-hoo! Yeah! Take that you gǒucàode savages, fuck yes!”

Matt and Shiro both released breathless laughs, frankly astounded at living another day. Keith was beaming and flexing his sore fingers around the controls and didn’t see it coming when Shiro ruffled his hair.

“That’s our hotshot pilot.” He praised, and laughed out loud at the way Keith’s cheeks painted themselves red in response.

He straightened and hit the intercom.

“We’re good, people. We’re safe.”

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

“You want to what?

Shiro ignored Keith’s outburst and cast an eye around the room. The whole group had gathered in the kitchen-- Hunk with his head bandaged, Coran with an ice pack over his nose, and Pidge curled up in one of the softer chairs. She was pale and covered in a thin sheen of sweat, but she’d insisted on being here for this discussion.

“I think we should keep Coran aboard. ‘Course, everyone will get to speak their piece.” Keith opened his mouth, but Shiro cut him off. “Matt, you first.”

Matt gulped, but his soldier facade let little slip. “Actively going after the Galra is suicide.” He said bluntly. “And keeping a fugitive on board will have the Garrison riding our ass. But… I have to admit he has a point about the Galra. And maybe if we keep our distance, let him gather data through interviews and such, we’ll be ok.”

Shiro nodded to him and looked to Lance next, who looked near to bursting with the need to speak.

“I don’t know if this is a great idea.” The words bubbled out of him like a mountain spring. “I mean, you’re the captain so obviously you get the final say, but it’s like Matt said, going after Galra is absolutely kuángzhěde and I ain’t quite ready to die yet, ya know what I mean?”

“I know. Hunk?”

Poor Hunk look petrified. “I want to say we should, I want to say that it’s worth it if we can save all the people who’ll get killed by Galra, but I’m also freakin’ terrified and I don’t know if it’s worth our lives.”

“Alright. Pidge?”

“Obviously I agree with you.” She said. “This research is important, end of discussion.”

Shiro rolled his eyes at that and looked to Allura. If she’s surprised she’s being addressed, she doesn’t show it. She pulls herself up tall, for once her expression free and not restrained behind a Companion smile.

“It’s noble.” She says. “And foolish. But maybe that’s the point.”

He spares her a smile. “Keith?”

Keith is livid, he knows that without even looking at him. “I think you’re the biggest gǒucàode dumb ass in the galaxy.” He growled. Some of the others gasped at his foul mouth, but at this point Shiro was expecting nothing less from him.

“Might be.” He acknowledged. Keith isn’t done.

“The Galra are not our ruttin’ responsibility. We can’t be runnin’ around the system bein’ big damn heroes, not when we’re barely keepin’ afloat as it is. The last thing we need is the Garrison and the Galra on us, ‘specially not for the greater gorram good.”

“Are you done?”

“No. Why do you even want to do this anyway? Why do you want to ‘protect the universe’?” He says is so scornfully Shiro is surprised he doesn’t straight up melt from the acid in his voice.

“Because I’m one of the idiots who lives in it.” He answered mildly. Keith was about to keep arguing but Shiro looked away, signalling the end of the conversation. At the end of the day, Lance was right, and he had the final decision.

He looked to Coran, who was wearing an expression of cautious optimism.

“Here’s how it’s gonna be. We’ll keep you on board as a proper medic, for injuries like this one, and we’ll let you do your research or whatever. But we will not be going out of our way to bait the Galra, and if at any time the Garrison gets to be too much of a hassle, I reserve the right to dump you on your ass.” He finished the statement with the challenging raise of an eyebrow. “Dǒng ma?”

Coran bobbed his head eagerly. Out of the corner of his eye Shiro could see Lance and Hunk exchanging uneasy looks, and it was impossible to not feel Keith’s glare. But the decision had been made.

“Yes, Captain.” Said Coran.

“Oh, and if you ever pull another stunt like you did with Pidge, you’ll be gettin’ very acquainted with how cold space can be. Am I making myself clear?”

Coran gulped. “Crystal.” He rasped out. Having finally ironed this whole situation out, he turned back to a mutinous Keith.

“Set us a course for the nearest fuel station, please.”

“Yes, sir.” Keith spat, more venomous than any cobra, before turning on his heel and storming out of the room. Shiro couldn’t swallow his sigh.

“Alright, let’s get some sleep everybody. It’s been a long couple of days.”

Chapter Text

Two Years Earlier

 

The hub, as always, was dirty and crowded with an entire menagerie of different folk. Food stalls and tiny shops lined the halls, merchants calling out to passers-by in about ten different languages. Across the way one voice was louder than the other; a carnie extolling how for just the low price of five credits you could see his proof of alien life. Their group passed him by without a second glance.

Shiro, like the soldier he still was, always kept himself aware of his surroundings. Matt as always walked to his right, helping him clear a path through the crowd towards the mail station. The other three members of his crew followed along behind: Hunk, happily gnawing away on an ice planet he’d conned Shiro into buying for him, Lance babbling about what he was going to buy with whatever money he wasn’t sending on to his family, and Keith, who hadn’t even wanted to come and looked like he was about to leap out of his own skin.

Shiro wasn’t personally expecting any mail, and he knew Keith wasn’t either, but the other three could plausibly have packages or letters from family waiting for them. Matt especially had been eager to check in at the Hub. It had been several months since he’d last heard from his mother and sister, and since his father’s death at the end of the war he’d been more worried about their wellbeing.

Matt paused, just for a half step, and Shiro instinctively scanned the area for what could have surprised him. He came up empty on potential threats, but what he did see was a short, scrawny girl with short auburn hair, sitting on an upturned suitcase next to the entrance of the mail station.

The girl got to her feet when she spotted them, and this time Matt ground to a complete halt, making Hunk ram into his back.

“What is she--” That was all that Matt got out before the girl had dashed across the hall and crashed right into him, knocking his breath away.

“Check your mail more often!” She said, pulling back just enough to punch him in the arm. She was wearing wire frame glasses. “I’ve been here for three weeks!”

“Katie?” Matt breathed out, and oh, right, this must be his little sister. Katie went back to hugging him as he forced the rest of his question. “What are you doing here?”

From the pocket of her green shirt she produced a rumpled letter, which she handed to him before returning to their previous embrace. Matt ran his fingers through her hair as his eyes darted over the paper, and Shiro held his breath.

If his little sister was here, alone, the news couldn’t be good.

Matt froze, only confirming his thoughts, and the paper trembled in his hand.

“Matt?” Shiro prompted when he didn’t say anything. “What does it say?”

“... It says my moms dead.” Matt’s voice is painfully flat. “I’m… I’m supposed to be her legal guardian now.”

He raised stunned eyes to Shiro’s, and there, buried deep beneath his soldiers mask, is the deep stinging grief that he hasn’t allowed himself to feel yet. Shiro is more than familiar.

“Shiro, what am I supposed to do?” In that moment he’s not a soldier, not a scavenger, just a person. “I can’t-- We don’t have anywhere--”

“We could bring her with us?” Even as he says it he knows it’s not going to go over well, and he’s right.

“What? Shiro! We can’t just bring her, what we do is dangerous, she could get hurt--”

His sister peeled herself off of him with a snarl. “‘She’ is standing right here. And I’m not a little kid, I can be useful!”

“You’re sixteen!” Matt protested, but Katie wasn’t even listening to him anymore. Instead she’s rushing back to her suitcase to dig through the duffle bag sitting beside it, and in a daze the group follows after her.

“Look.” She said, shoving a handful of blueprints at Matt’s chest. All Shiro can see is the word ‘Crybaby’ scrawled across the top of one of them. “Look at what I came up with. What you do is you take a distress beacon off a dead ship and stick it on a bit of space junk. When you’re doin’ something shady--”

Pidge!

“You just deploy this nearby, and if the Garrison comes along you can activate it. Their protocol will require them to leave you alone and go help the fake civilians.”

“Lemme see that.” Demanded Hunk, shoving past Shiro to get at the schematics, which Matt let him take.

“And that’s not all I can do, I know my way around engines too! Who’s your pilot?” Matt pointed numbly to Keith, and Katie whirled on him next.

“Have you ever pulled a Crazy Ivan?”

Poor Keith looked baffled. “Wh-what? No! You’d have to flip both engines and dump the fuel reserves all at once to do that, of course I haven’t--”

“I know how to do that! All you have to do is cut the hydraulics!”

“Pidge--”

At Matt’s voice she spun back around, and Shiro is taken aback to see her eyes shining with tears.

“I can be useful.” She said again, a distinct note of pleading in her voice. “I can earn my keep, I promise, just don’t send me away, Matt. Please, I want to stay with you.”

Shiro can see the exact moment Matt breaks.

“I won’t.” He says, visibly swallowing back the lump in his throat and holding out his arms to his sister for another hug. “I won’t, mei-mei, I promise.”

Matt met Shiro’s eyes again over his sisters head, and Shiro nodded to him. They could figure this out.

They could make this work.

 


Present Day

 

The Middle Eastern style music being played in the dusty bar was nearly deafening, but not so much as the dim hum of chit-chat that surrounded them. An amateur belly dancer wove a complicated path through the tables, covered in sequins and barefoot on the dirt floor, cheap LED bracelets adorning her wrists. Everywhere she went she received appreciative looks from the men drinking, though she paid them no mind, instead dancing her way to the corner table where three non-descript men sat playing Chinese checkers.

Right behind one of them, she paused in her dance just long enough to slip a bit of paper into his hand. He tucked it away his coat, and she danced away.

“Your move.” Said Lance, and Shiro carefully picked up his marble to tink tink tink across the wooden board. It had been awhile since he played, a few months since he and Keith had broken out his worn set with the missing marbles, and that inexperience showed when his move allowed Matt almost all the way across with his next turn.

“Nice work, dumbass.” Lance said with a teasing grin. Shiro opened his mouth to retort, only to be interrupted by a man at the bar, bellowing over the music.

“Toast!” He yelled, and Shiro turned to peer over his chair. “Toast! Quiet! Shut up!”

With a wheeze and a groan the instruments stopped playing, and the belly dancer and various waitresses scurried off to the edge of the room. The man standing at the bar wasn’t much to look at-- bald head, scruffy beard, beer belly. He was also incredibly, obviously drunk.

“I, uh-- I got words.”

“I bet you do.” Matt snickered under his breath, inspiring a laugh from Lance. Shiro merely listened with an impassive expression.

“I’m sayin’ this… is an ass-picious day.”

“What day is it?” Whispered Lance. Neither of them answered.

“We all know what day it is. A glorious day for all the proud members of the allied planets. Unification day!”

“Here, here!” Cried another man from a different part of the bar. Shiro traded a tense look with Matt, who looked about as irritated as he felt.

“The end of them scumbag independants,” The man continued, bolstered by the nods and smiles from those around him, “And the dawn of a new galaxy.”

A cheer went up as the gruff men downed their drinks. Shiro picked up his empty cup and stood.

“Shiro?”

“Just feel the need for another drink.”

Shiro made his way up to the bar, carefully avoiding looking anyone in the eye, and stood beside the man who had toasted as he spoke to the bartender.

“Qǐng zài lái yī bēi Ng-gaa-pei.” He peeled off a couple of bills from the wad he had in his pocket and tossed them onto the counter. The man beside him took notice.

“Hey, you gonna drink to the Garrison with me?” Shiro ignored him, he didn’t notice or care. “Six years today, The Garrison sent the browncoats runnin’, pissin’ their pants.” Shiro still didn’t answer, just picked up the cup the bartender had handed back to him and took a gulp of the brown liquid that tasted more like dirt than anything else.

The man gave him a once over, and he frowned. His breath reeked this close up.

“You know… your coat is kinda a brownish color.”

“It was on sale.” Replied Shiro flippantly, and he took another drink.

“You didn’t toast.”

Good, he noticed that .

“I’m thinkin’ you’re one of them independents.”

For the first time, Shiro turned his head and met the man’s gaze. “And I’m thinkin’ you weren’t burdened with an overabundance of schooling. So why don’t we just ignore each other until we go away?”

Apparently unsatisfied with this solution, the man spat, “The independents were a bunch of cowardly, inbred piss pots.” Shiro took another drink. “Shoulda been killed offa every world spinnin’.”

Shiro set down his glass with a thump and turned to fully face the man.

“Say that to my face.” He growled, and his opponent drew himself up to his full height.

“I said, you’re a coward, and a piss pot. Now what’re you gonna do about it?”

Shiro, unexpectedly, cracked a grin.

“Nothin’. I just want you to face me so that he could get behind you.”

He spun around, just in time to meet the butt of one of Matt’s pistols, and he dropped like a sack of potatoes while Matt smirked.

“Drunks are so cute.” He said with a rueful shake of his head. Shiro chuckled, but his smile dropped as soon as he noticed the entire rest of the bar getting to their feet, eyes locked on them.

“Ō, zhè zhēn shì gè kuàilè de guòchéng.”

Matt turned, flicked his eyes over the scene, and called, “Lance?”

Lance, still sitting in their corner booth, raised his glass to them and kicked his feet up on the table.

“Hey, I didn’t fight in no war. Best of luck, though.”

“Fine,” Said Shiro, setting his jaw. “Let’s do this.”

Two minutes later he was being flung through the front window, which glitched for a moment before returning to it’s previous holographic perfection. He landed hard in the dust, and with a groan rolled up onto his elbow to dig his radio out of his pocket.

“Keith, we’ve got some local color happening, a grand entrance would not go amiss.” He didn’t wait for Keith to respond, he merely tucked the radio away and scrambled to his feet just as Matt burst through the front door of the bar, kicking a man square in the gut and sending him to his back. Without looking back he turned, grabbed another man, and threw him against one of the outside pillars.

The first guy got up and took a swing for Shiro, which he ducked and managed to land a hard blow to the man’s abdomen, just as Matt tossed his guy into the opposite pillar.

Shiro faced off against his opponent. He jerked his arm as though he was about to strike, tricking the man into flinching. Once, twice, and then he kicked him right below the knee and spun the guy around before landing a right hook to his nose.

“Is Lance even awake?” Matt yelled in irritation. A half second later the man in question burst through the doors, wielding two assaulters off with a metal barstool. Grunting harshly he shoved them forward, making them stumble, then hit one across the brow with the head of the chair and the other in the gut with the feet.

After that is got a bit messy. Matt took a hit and went down, springing back up with a fistful of dirt to throw into the man’s eyes. Shiro grabbed another by his collar and slammed their foreheads together to send him stumbling. Lance had lost his chair and was being warded off by it, and after a minute or so of brawling they found themselves being herded towards the edge of a steep ravine, blocked in by nine or ten assailants.

“Woah, woah!” Shiro shouted, barely keeping himself from tumbling over the edge and spinning to face the veritable army he’d managed to piss off. “There’s just an acre of you fella’s, isn’t there?” They all maintained their battle stances, Matt’s hand reaching for his pistol while Shiro held his arms out in a half defensive, half quelling position.

“This is why we lost, ya know.” He muttered to Matt. “Superior numbers.”

“Thanks for the reenactment, sir .”

One man stormed forward through the crowd-- the one from the bar, a red welt rising neatly on his forehead. When he reached the front he pulled a pistol from his waistband, and all the other men followed suit.

“Hey, them’s ain’t fair!” Cried Lance.

He spat at their feet. “I’m thinkin’ someone needs to put you down, dog. What do you think?”

Before Shiro could think of a witty answer their voices were being drowned out by chopping air, all of their clothes tossing as the Golden Lion rose up triumphantly from the cliff behind them. Sure it wasn’t much next to other ships, but compared to nine men it was rather intimidating.

“Every man there go back inside.” Said Keith over the loudspeaker. “Or we will blow a new crater in this little moon.”

The hiss of hydraulics as the gangplank lowered for them, and with grumbles and glares, the men turned to slink back inside. Right before the gangplank closed Shiro caught the bald man’s eye one last time, and raised his hand in a cheeky wave.

Once aboard, Lance promptly lost his shit.

“Damn yokels,” He wheezed, practically rolling on the floor, “Can’t even tell a transport ship ain’t got no guns on it. ‘Blow a new crater in this moon’, holy shit , I gotta give Keith a high five for that one…”

He was still wiping tears from his face in the hold when Shiro and Matt ascended to the bridge, each wearing matching mischievous smiles. Pidge was there this time, on her back fiddling with some wires underneath the co-pilots dashboard. She pushed herself upright when they entered, but Keith didn’t turn.

“Nice save, Keith.” Shiro said to his back. “As always.”

“My pleasure.” The words are short and clipped, and Shiro holds back a sigh. It had been well on a month since Shiro had decided to let Coran stay on the ship, and Keith was still giving him the cold shoulder over it. It was getting old.

“What happened?” Asked Pidge, tossing a cursory look at her brothers bruised and dusty form. “Another terrible brawl?”

“Oddly enough there was.” Her brother answered in the same manner. He looked pointedly at Shiro.

“Hey, I didn’t start it! I just wanted a quiet drink.”

“Funny, sir,” Matt always tacks on sir when he wants to be extra annoying, “How you always seem to find yourself in a Garrison-friendly bar come U-day, lookin’ for a quiet drink.”

Shiro sighed in mock sadness and walked across the bridge to lean behind Keith’s chair. Despite the bruises he could feel forming and his scraped knuckles, that pressure that had been pressing on his chest had dissipated. He could breathe now.

“See, this is another sign of your tragic space dementia, all paranoid and crotchety, it breaks the heart.”

Pidge openly laughed at her brother’s affronted look, and if Shiro wasn’t wrong he even saw Keith’s shoulders twitch a little. Good, maybe the ice was starting to thaw.

“Did we at least make the contact?” He spat out, and ok, maybe not. Still Shiro’s mood was light as he produced the slip of paper from his coat.

“Ladies and menfolk, we have got ourselves a job.” Matt stepped forward with a smile to take the paper, and Shiro strode as close to the windscreens as he could get, staring up at the terraformed blue sky with eagerness blatant in his eyes.

“Take us out of the world, Keith. Got us some crime to be done.”

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

On his way down to the infirmary, Shiro found a little time and a big enough hole in his good mood to brood, just a little.

He didn’t like having Keith angry with him. There had only been one or two occasions of it before, but neither of them had lasted this long. Over the years the crew had bonded into a family, and he and Keith shared a special bond. Keith looked up to him, he knew that, and he personally thought of him as a little brother, not unlike how Matt looked at Pidge. They ribbed on each other and made fun of each other, but they’d also do anything for each other.

It had taken him a long time to earn Keith’s trust. And when he was angry those little bits of softness Shiro had managed to expose closed right back up again.

When he walked into the infirmary Coran was there, bustling over his binders and tablets full of his Galra research, and Shiro neatly tucked away all of his tumultuous feelings about the situation with Keith.

Coran glanced over at him as he made his way to the sink, eyeing his red and swollen knuckles.

“Would you like a weave on that?” He asked in his chipper accent. Shiro shook his head, running the wounds under the tap.

“It’s nothin’.”

“I expect someone’s face feels differently.” There it was, that touch of humor, and Shiro smiled as he straightened up.

“Well, they tell ya never to hit a man with a closed fist, but it is on occasion hilarious.”

“Hmmm.” Coran stroked his mustache. “And did the fight draw any… unwanted attention?”

“No feds. Just an honest brawl between folk. Now if you’ll excuse me, doctor, I’ve got some things to see to.”

“Of course, my boy. I’ll see you at dinner.”

His next stop was to haul a new part to the engine room, one Pidge had been begging for for months. But when he got there, all thoughts of the part flew right out of his mind at the sight of the spider’s web of wires stretched across the entire room. Right in the middle of it sat Hunk, leaning against the generator and flipping his way through a book Shiro knew he’d read at least fifty times.

“Hunk, what the hell is all of this?”

Hunk didn’t even look up. “I dunno, Pidge did it. Something about the compression coil again.”

Shiro held up the part. “What, you mean like this compression coil?”

Hunk jerked his gaze up, and almost immediately his eyes began to sparkle. “Yes! You got us a new one?!”

“Yep. Hows about you get this hooked up and I’ll go track down the wire gremlin.”

“Yes sir, Captain, sir!” Hunk scrambled to his feet, leaving the book discarded on the floor, and snatched the part from Shiro’s hand. Shiro merely chuckled, shook his head, and set off in search of Pidge.

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

Pidge adored Allura’s shuttle. It was all done up in soothing greys and blues, and it was quiet. As much as she loved the hum of machinery and the whir of the Lion’s engine, there was something special about the quiet music Allura always kept playing in the background, just loud enough to notice but not enough to impede even the softest conversation. Combine that with the plush carpeting under her and Allura’s hands in her hair and she could fall asleep right then.

“You have such lovely hair.” Allura murmured, bringing Pidge back from the precipice of slumber. “Do you get it from your mother or your father?”

Allura always asked questions like this. Trying to help Pidge remember them in a way that was less painful and more bitter sweet.

“My father.” Was the answer. “You couldn’t tell ‘cause he was all grey, but mom was blonde.”

Allura let out a little hum of agreement. “Have you ever considered having your hair shorter? I imagine it must get in the way in the engine room.”

“I cut it once. After mom died.”

Allura purposefully dragged the soft brush through her hair, settling it over her shoulders, and let the confession land where it would. She could always tell when to speak and when not to speak, probably part of being a companion. Which reminded her.

“Do you do this for your clients?” She asked. Pidge was curious by nature, and the intricacies of the Companions lifestyle was no exception. Not her type of life, obviously, but there was no harm in asking.

“Very occasionally.” Allura said with a soft laugh. “Not many of them have enough hair to get a brush through.”

Pidge sat forward, making Allura pause in her brushing and twisted a bit to look up at her where she sat on the sofa.

“Have you ever had to service a really hideous client? With boils and the like?”

Allura rolled her eyes. “A Companion chooses her own clients.” She reminded Pidge. “That’s guild law.”

Right, right of course. Companions weren’t prostitutes, and they didn’t have pimps. They had a guild.

“But looks don’t matter so terribly. You look for--”

A knock on the shuttle door interrupts her, and the two girls exchange exasperated expressions. Always being barged in on and cut short on this ship, it would seem.

“Qǐngjìn.” Allura called as Pidge pouted, and then Shiro is there, still in his dusty clothes from the bar fight.

“Princess, you really need to stop holding my mechanic in thrall like this.” It’s fake authority and they all know it, so Allura merely smiles and shakes her head. Her fingers begin pulling Pidge’s hair back into her usual style.

“And Pidge, what the hell is goin’ on in the engine room?” Shiro continued with raised eyebrows. “Were there space monkeys? Some terrifyin’ space monkeys maybe got loose?”

“I had to rewire the grav thrust.” Retorted Pidge, prevented from tossing her head as Allura fixed her hair. “Because somebody won’t replace that crappy compression coil.”

Shiro crossed his arms over his chest and pretended to think. “Now would this be the same somebody who just now delivered a brand new compression coil to the engine room?”

Allura barely had time to finish Pidge’s ponytail before she was darting to her feet, a grin of delight splitting her cheeks.

“Really?! You got us a new one?!”

“Hunk’s installing it right now, so can you put all those wires back where they belong, please and thank you?” Pidge didn’t even hear the entire sentence, she was already rushing out of the shuttle and back towards the engine room.

With a friendly sigh Allura got to her feet, gathering up the hair brushing utensils to put them back where they belonged. For some reason Shiro was lingering, shifting almost imperceptibly from foot to foot.  

“Do you need something, Captain?”

Shiro moved over to her dresser, fiddling with some of the jade figurines she kept there. He didn’t often indulge in little fidgets like this, but he’d long since learned that Allura would know he was anxious whether he hid it or not, so why even bother?

“We got a job.” He said after a few moments of quiet.

“That’s good. This job wouldn’t happen to be somewhere civilized where I can screen some respectable clients?”

Shiro cringed just slightly, and Allura almost felt bad, but not really. She hadn’t been able to have a client for a while now because of all the nonsense happening, and that was technically breaching part of her rental agreement.

“Sorry, but no. We haven’t gotten a location for the actual job yet, but we’ll be landin’ on a skyplex in a bit. Run by a fella called Zarkon.”

Allura closed the drawer she’d been organizing and straightened. Shiro’s voice had changed from the light tone he’d been using with Pidge. Now it was solemn; she should pay attention.

“Never heard of him.”

“Well I have, and while we’re there you shouldn’t leave the ship.”

Allura raised an eyebrow. Usually Shiro knew better than to tell her where to go or what to do, and Shiro seemed to realize her reaction, as he took a step closer and plastered an earnest expression on his face.

“Zarkon’s got a pretty bad reputation, alright, and I don’t--” He cut himself off and ran a hand through his white hair. “I don’t know if you’d be safe.”

Despite the tone of the conversation, the statement made a small smile quirk on the edge of her lip. She wasn’t technically a part of the crew, but Shiro was protective over her just the same.

“You don’t have to worry about me, Shiro. I won’t go anywhere.”

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

The skyplex took the terms ‘cold and clinical’ to whole new level. The halls were all solid grey steel with floors to match, lined with inconspicuous foiled tunnels that led to each room of the structure, patrolled by guards that were both armed and armored.

One such guard led Shiro, Matt, and Lance to one such tunnel, knocking respectfully on the door on the far side while the three of them crouched awkwardly in the small space. With a slight hiss and puff of air the door slid open, and right on the other side of it stood a man that was approximately the size of a mountain, glaring at them with an arm braced over the door frame. That hand held a wicked looking knife that Keith probably would’ve been jealous of.

“Myzax, away from the door.” Commanded a deep, gravelly voice from inside the room. For a moment he didn’t move, merely peered at them with his pale, pale brown eyes. Then, slowly, he lowered his foot from the lip of the door and stood to the side.

One by one, with the monstrosity breathing down their necks, they filed inside.

The interior of the room was much nicer than the hallway. The floor was covered in a plush purple carpet, deep amethyst interwoven with gold and white in a complex pattern. Angled towards the door was a heavy mahogany desk with a touchscreen inlaid on the top, a single lamp on the corner to provide a warmer tone to the white light from the station. Along the right hand wall was a series of thick windows that looked down into the center of the station, revealing bustling machinery at work.

“Which of you is Captain Shirogane?” The tone is frigid, and Shiro puts his shoulders back. In what seems to be a running theme, this man is also bigger than him, lounging behind the desk like an emperor. His dark hair is thinning and combed over his scalp, eyes narrow and calculating, expression revealing nothing. He wears a grey pinstripe suit, neat, pressed, and spotless.

“That’d be me.” Shiro said, taking a half step forward. The air is tense with expectancy and he can still feel the gaze of Zarkon’s guard dog on his back, so he tacks on, “And this is my first mate Matt, and that’s Lance.”

And for once, thank god, Lance doesn’t say a word.

Zarkon gives Shiro a once over and sits back, still intimidating despite trying to appear relaxed.

“Yes, you will do.” He mused. “I’ve heard rumors about you-- people say you get the job done.”

It’s not a compliment. Shiro’s throat tightens, and he merely inclines his head in a thankful nod. This man is evaluating them, and based on what he’s heard about him, he doesn’t want to be found wanting.

Zarkon poises his hands over his desk, folding them imperiously. “You’ve heard rumors about me too, I’m sure.”

“A few.” Shiro admits.

“I suppose they weren’t very flattering.”

It’s a trap .

“I… guess that depends on your definition of flattering.”

Zarkon chuckled, a low, dangerous thing like a growl, and gestured to Myzax. The man lumbered obediently from behind them and around the desk, taking hold of a handle on the wall and sliding back a panel that led to another room.

Behind that door was a man.

Hanging from his ankles.

And judging by the wounds and the lack of movement, most likely dead.

There’s a quiet whoosh as all three of them simultaneously sucked in a breath, and the temperature of the room seemed to drop ten degrees. All of them shifted their heels just a bit into stances more useful for fighting.

Zarkon noticed all of this and merely laughed under his breath again, sending shivers down Shiro’s spine. God, this guy was a nutcase.

“Now they are not just rumors. Now you know exactly what you’re getting into, yes?”

Shiro took a deep, cleansing breath to steady himself before answering. “Yes.”

With a wave of an indifferent hand, Zarkon signals for Myzax to close the door again, then gestures for the three of them to step closer to his desk.

“The job I have for you is a train. Have you done trains before?”

“A few.” It’s a lie, but Zarkon doesn’t have to know that. He merely nods and pressed the touchscreen on his desk to power it up, revealing schematics of a bullet train. He swiped his fingers, scrolling past several cars before stopping and selecting one.

“Here, in the fifth car. Two boxes. Garrison goods.” Zarkon looked up expectantly. “I don’t think you’ll have a problem stealing from the Garrison, will you?”

Shiro said nothing, and Zarkon pressed a circle on the corner of the screen, making the schematic dissipate into a map with two cities labeled, connected by train tracks.

“You’ll get on the train at Hancock, headed for Paradiso. You’ll retrieve the goods before you reach Paradiso and deliver them to Myzax here.” He indicated a position in the foothills, and an orange path lit up from the train tracks to the rendezvous. “Half of the payment will be given to you now, and the other half at the rendezvous. Are we clear?”

“Crystal.”

It was a simple job, and it paid well. So even if the one giving it was some sort of sadistic crime boss, everything would be fine.

Probably.

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

The moment they set foot on that train was the moment Shiro remembered why he preferred travel by ship. The interior was dim and smoky, occupied by far too many people being far too quiet. The car itself jerked and shuddered as it ran over the tracks and it made Shiro’s arm ache where metal met flesh. Still he fought not to let the pain show on his face and waited in his seat across from Matt, making himself wait as long as he could stand before saying anything.

“How long until we reach Paradiso?”

Matt checked. “Another twenty minutes. We should be in the foothills in five.” The foothills, where the Lion was concealed and waiting for them.

“Let’s get to work.”

Shiro rose first and stepped out into the aisle, waiting for Matt to retrieve his inconspicuous satchel of supplies and follow. His shoulders were tense the way they had been for days, ever since they met with Zarkon, and Shiro didn’t blame him. Matt wasn’t the only one with an image of the dead man in his mind. And Shiro didn’t plan on being the next visitor to that room.

They switched cars, gingerly stepping over the connecting metal that seemed halfhearted at best and dangerous at worst, and Matt slid open the door to the next car before they both froze.

Because the next car was full of armored, armed, and hopefully not angry Garrison soldiers.

For a long, terrifying moment no one moved. Shiro’s mind was racing in circles, his fingers automatically searching for the pistol that he didn’t have, heart thumping a million miles per hour. Why was there a full squad of soldiers on this train? Were they guarding the supplies? Had Zarkon set them up?

The door on the other side of the car slid open, and in shuffled a small Asian woman, steering a young child before her. None of the soldiers reacted, and Matt and Shiro exchanged a tiny look of relief before venturing in.

They were letting people pass. They weren’t guarding anything. It was just a coincidence.

The two of them moved forward, sidestepping the small family and passing into the next car. This one wasn’t as nice as the one they’d been on-- It was wooden rather than metal, made out of thin slits that let in slivers of sunlight. There were no seats and no air conditioning, just a bunch of people shoved into a glorified moving crate.

Matt tugged on his elbow as soon as the door was shut behind them.

“I’m thinkin’ there’s some information we might be lacking.” He muttered to Shiro, who nodded in return.

“Yeah, but they don’t seem to be protecting the goods. We stick to the plan.”

Matt blew out an unimpressed breath, knocking some of his long hair to the side, but followed Shiro nonetheless as they made their way to the next car down.

 

<><><><><>

 

Coran wandered into the cargo hold, curious about the sounds he’d been hearing and the absence of the captain and first mate. He knew, of course, that they were on a job; but what that job entailed is what intrigued him.

In the hold he found Hunk and Pidge, Hunk fiddling with some kind of safety harness while Pidge held a controller and was carefully opening up a hatch in the floor. There was another door beneath it, preventing the wind from coming in.

“Hello there, crewmembers.” He said as cheerfully as he could, resulting in two bright smiles. Despite everything that had happened (and Keith’s suspicious attitude), Hunk and Pidge seemed to like him just fine. The latter had even inquired about his research a few times since he’d signed on.

“Hey, Coran.” Pidge said with a cheeky wave. Hunk merely waved as well before returning to his harness fiddling. His brow was creased with anxiety.

“What are you two up to?”

Pidge shrugged, not even looking up from her controller. “Crime.”

Such a blase tone, it made Coran blink for a moment before he recovered himself. “Oh, crime is it? Of course, I should’ve guessed.”

“It’s a train heist.” Hunk explained further, having finally finished the harness and set it aside. His fingers twisted together as he talked. “See, we’re gonna fly over the train car that the captain and Matt snuck onto this mornin’, lower Lance onto the car, and they bundle up the goods and we haul them all back up.”

“Easy as lyin’.” Chimed in Pidge with a smirk.

“Oh, so you’ve done this before?”

That made Pidge laugh at loud. “Oh hell no. But it’s gonna work. Hunk and I came up with it and our plans always work.” This eased Hunk enough for a small smile to escape, and the two of them bumped fists.

Clanging footsteps from the door behind him caught his attention, and he turned to see Lance traipsing into the room, wearing long brown pants and a zipped up heavy jacket, a pair of goggles perched on his head.

“Let’s get this show on the road!” He exclaimed, making his way over to where Hunk had set the harness. “Help me out with this, will ya Hunk?”

“I don’t like this.” Hunk answered, even as he helped Lance put on the harness he had so painstakingly prepared. “What if we drop you too fast? What if you get stuck down there? What if you fall? What if the doors close on you? What if the crates fall on you? What if--”

“Huuuuuuuuuuuunk.” Interrupted Lance as he clasped the final buckle on the harness. “Knock it off, I’m freaked out enough as it is.”

“Right, right, sorry.”

“Besides, if anything goes wrong it’s gonna be Keith bringing us down too close.”

“Unlikely.” Quipped Pidge, and Lance rolled his eyes at her before finally seeming to notice Coran’s presence.

“Hey, Coran, come to watch the thrilling heroics?”

“If that’s alright with you three.”

“Sure it is.” He said with a scoff. “Just because Keith is all pissy about you don’t mean the rest of us have to be. Anyway, it’s just about time to kick off, so sit back and enjoy the show.”

 

<><><><><>

 

They were right outside the door that led to the trains luggage area, just a minute before they’d told Lance to be ready to drop, and the red light of the card scanner glowed angrily at them like it knew their intentions.

As Shiro slid their counterfeit card into the reader, he prayed Zarkon’s sources were good.

The light changed to green, and he exchanged a smile with Matt.

“Shiny.” Murmured the other man, and they ducked inside.

They immediately got to work. Matt closed the door three fourths of the way behind them, kneeling to set up a trip wire attached to a smoke grenade. At the same time Shiro located the ceiling hatch and dragged over a crate so that he could unscrew the bolts holding it shut. Once Matt finished his task he set to tracking down which of the numerous crates and boxes around them were the ones they were after. They worked silently in tandem, in complete unison.

 

<><><><><>

 

The Golden Lion coasted low over the train. The cockpit was probably blaring with proximity and altitude alerts at the moment, but Lance didn’t have it in him to feel bad for Keith as he pulled the goggles down low over his eyes. The door below was already open, the sound of the wind in the metal room deafening, and he used his fingers to count off to Pidge.

3...2...1…

He jumped. He’s in freefall for barely a moment, just long enough for his stomach to drop out, and then he slams into the metal roof of the train car. The wind is awful here, tearing past him and ripping at his cheeks. He can’t hear anything besides its roar, and the slight metal clang when the ceiling hatch opens behind him is almost missed.

Almost, but he notices, and crawls his way over to the opening. Shiro and Matt already have the goods bundled up in the net and in position under the hatch, so all Lance has to do is drop into the room.

Shiro gives him a proud smile and pats him on the shoulder before unclipping the line from his harness and onto the catch in the net. Then he pulls out the radio tucked in his pocket.

“Fifteen seconds.” He calls to Pidge over the wind before tossing the radio to Lance.

Behind them there is a hiss, a clang, and a shout, and suddenly the car is filling up with smoke.

The Garrison soldier who had tripped the trap, blind and panicking, pulled the trigger on his gun. Matt and Shiro dove for cover just as a burned pain erupted in his right leg.

His cry was nearly inaudible over the damn wind.

“Go!” Matt shouted, and Lance really didn’t need to be told twice. He raised the radio to his lips, the adrenaline from pain already sneaking in and making his hands shake.

“Go! Go now!”

The line began to recede, pulling him and the cargo up, up, up into the air, leaving Matt and Shiro to deal with the aftermath.

 

<><><><><>

 

Shiro rushed the soldier, landing a hard kick to his abdomen followed by a blow across his jaw. The man staggered, and he grabbed the man’s gun, twisted it around him so that the strap went over his throat, and used the extra leverage to throw him into the wall.

“Come on!” He called to Matt before rushing from the car. The next one was another boxcar full of people, and he and Matt both tossed smoke bombs into it, creating a screen to allow them to sneak in undetected.

Now all they had to do was talk their way off of the train and back to the Lion before they missed the rendezvous.

Easy.

 

<><><><><>

 

The instant he was above solid decking again Lance toppled off of the crates, swearing when his leg hit the floor with a hard, painful thump.

“Lance!” Hunk was already dropping next to him while Pidge shut the door, and she was shouting too.

“Where’s Matt and Shiro? What happened down there?”

Lance ignored her, spitting out through clenched teeth, “They shot my gorram leg!”

Then Coran was there, and Lance was glad , already inspecting the wound through the bloodied material of his pants. Pidge won’t shut up.

“Are they still on the train? Lance! Answer me!”

“Not just now, Katie.” Coran said in a too-calm-for-the-situation tone. “Hunk, help me get him to the infirmary, please.”

 

<><><><><>

 

“Everybody off!”

They were being herded off of the train just like all the other scared civilians, the tiny town of Paradiso scattered around them. It wasn’t much, a mere gathering of corrugated metal buildings, probably with dirt floors.

Once off the train, Shiro and Matt ducked off to the side. They were surrounded by people-- people in tattered clothes, many of them coughing, children crying, dust in the air stinging their eyes.

Out of the corner of his eye Shiro spotted a man in a leather jacket coming up to the fed standing by them, and quickly turned away to seem inconspicuous while he listened.

“Our man didn’t get a good look.” Said the fed, almost regretfully.

“Well, jeez, will someone find out what they took?”

They , meaning him and Matt.

The man turned, calling across the square to someone else. “Randy! Keep those people together!”

Alright, so this guy had some kind of authority, and was probably going to be in charge of solving the crime. Meaning, interrogating every person on the train. Including them. Brilliant.

“It was the medicine, sir.” This voice is new, a woman, possibly a deputy. “All of the supplies.”

“They stole the gorram medicine?” His voice was stunned, disbelieving, despairing. “We’ve been waitin’... all of it?”

“Every ounce.”

Something hard and angry was settling in Shiro’s gut, and when he locked eyes with Matt, he saw the same thing reflected back at him.

The man behind them sighed. “God help us.”

Shiro gulped, buried his fists in his coat pockets, and closed his eyes before speaking.

“Son of a bitch .”

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

Everyone in the infirmary felt the bounce and jolt when the Firefly landed, Coran having to plant a hand on the floor where he was crouching to keep from falling over. Pidge and Hunk were there, Pidge assisting with bandaging Lance’s leg as best she could while Hunk stood by and let Lance try his hardest to break the bones in his hand with his grip.

A minute later Keith stepped into the room, face stone cold, and Lance glared at him.

“Why are we stopped?” He hissed out through the pain. “This isn’t the rendezvous.”

“It is now.” Keith responded with a snarl, crossing his arms over his chest.

“Zarkon’s people are waiting! They ain’t partial to waiting--”

“We are not goin’ anywhere,” Growled Keith, “Until Shiro and Matt are back on the boat.”

Pidge handed Lance a pain pill that he swallowed dry. “I agree. I’m not flying off without my brother.”

“I’m sure he’ll be fine, Pidge.” Hunk interjected nervously. He hated when the crew fought. “He’s with Shiro.”

“What about the authorities?” Asked Coran as he straightened up and peeled off his blood stained latex gloves. “We’re sitting here with stolen goods, won’t they come looking?”

“We’ll hear them if they buzz the canyon.” Was Keith’s answer, not breaking his staring contest with Lance.

“You don’t get it! He had a guy hangin’ from the ceiling, Keith, and I do not want that to be me! We can go back for them after we make the drop.”

“If we try to finish the deal without Shiro, Zarkon might think we’re tryin’ to double cross him or somethin’.” Pidge was scowling and pacing across the room, heavy boots clunking against the metal floor. “I think we’re better off gettin’ them back first. What we need is a plan.”

Lance groaned dramatically and dropped his head back against the table.

“You idiots are gonna get us all killed.”

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

Well, Shiro had certainly been in better situations. Sitting in the long, dark, hot, crowded hallway of the sheriff's station, surrounded by wailing children and sick, coughing people, next to Matt on a bench and waiting to be interrogated was not what he would call a good time. Then again he’d also been in much worse situations, so he should probably be a little bit grateful he’s not dead or in a gunfight.

While they waited, they watched. Shiro had his eyes locked on the family across from them, a little boy with brown hair sitting in his mother’s lap, face pale and his little body wracked with coughs. The mother was rubbing his back, humming a lullaby, but she couldn’t stop the tears from leaking out of the his eyes when he coughed and it hurt him.

“This is a nightmare.” He mumbled.

Matt was looking around in soldier mode, counting off exits and opponents and possible weapons and didn’t get his meaning.

“Nothing points to us yet.”

“That ain’t what I meant.”

At the end of the hall, where the building widened out into a room without a separating wall, the sheriff was finishing up with the man and woman he was questioning. Him and Matt would be next.

“Whatever happens, remember I love you.”

Matt’s head whipped around, eyes wide with alarm. “What?!”

Shiro raised his eyebrows pointedly. “Because you’re my husband .”

Matt blinked rapidly as he tried to compute the words that had just left Shiro’s mouth. “Right… sir. I mean-- honey?” He gave Shiro the most awkward attempt at a smile he’d ever seen in his life and if they hadn’t been trying to talk their way out of this mess he would’ve laughed.

Before he could say anything else the sheriff was standing in front of them, consulting a list of passengers. His blonde hair was thinning and receding, his face seemed to sag, like a melting candle. His clothes were worn and dusty. He was probably no older than late thirties, but life on the border moons was tough and he was Exhibit A.

“Car three, row twelve.” He read off the list. “Mr. and Mr. Raymond?”

Shiro tucked his hands under his thighs and plastered his best innocent, confused, anxious expression on his face.

“Can you tell us what’s going on?” He asked the sheriff plaintively. “We’ve been here for so long. Did someone on the train get killed?”

The sheriff handed off the list to his deputy, the woman from before, and shook his head at the question.

“No no, nothin’ like that.” He waved his hand for them to follow, and Shiro and Matt obligingly got to their feet to follow the man towards his desk. “Say’s there your fare was paid for by a third party?”

“My uncle. It was a wedding gift.” Shiro paused at the desk, pulled out one of the metal chairs for Matt, and saw him bit his lip to stifle the smirk as he sat. The sheriff sat on the other side of the rough wooden desk, carefully avoiding the chipped cup of coffee that sat waiting for him.

“Wedding gift? Spending your honeymoon in Paradiso?” The doubt was clear in his voice and Shiro couldn’t blame him. Who would want to spend a vacation in a tiny, dusty colony town?

“Actually, we’re here looking for work.” Said Matt with a winning smile. He could be annoying, but Shiro had to admit he could also pull off charming and innocent even better than he could.

“That right?”

“My uncle said,” Shiro had already wracked his brain for a plausible name, an excuse along the lines that Matt had created. “He knew a Joey Bloggs out here, said he might have an opening. Thought we’d try our luck.”

The sheriff raised an eyebrow and sat back in his chair. On the right arm of his jacket was a star patch, indicating his position.

“You a miner by trade? Either of you?”

“Not really.” Shiro admitted, and Matt shook his head.

“Hmmmm.” The man’s eyes turned sharp. “Haven’t seen many folk choose this life that weren’t born to it.”

Matt came up with an excuse first. “Work is real scarce for a couple,” His tone stuttered a bit on the word, “Just startin’ out.”

Shiro glanced around the room again. There were so many sick, miserable people, probably waiting to be given the medicine that they’d stolen off the train. His throat closed up.

“Why are there so many sick here?” He found himself asking.

The sheriff sighed despondently. “Bowden’s malady. Know what that is?”

Shiro didn’t, but as usual Matt did.

“Affliction of the bone and muscle.” He said like he was reciting from a textbook. “Degenerative.”

“Very.” Agreed the sheriff. “Every planet that’s been terraformed for human life has its own… little quirks, I suppose you could say. Turns out the air down underground mixed up with the ore processors-- Perfect recipe for Bowden’s.” He reached into his pocket and produced a carton of cigarettes and a box of matches. “Everybody gets it. Miners, dumpers. Hell I got it and I ain’t never set foot in a mine.”

“But it’s treatable.” Said Matt with a frown.

The sheriff struck the match on the desk and raised it to the cigarette between his lips. “There’s medicine.” He mumbled around it. “Pescaline.” Smoke puffed out of his mouth when he took a drag, and Shiro felt Matt’s eyes on him.

“At least you can live like a person if you get it regular, but our shipment got stole, right off the train you was ridin’ in. Which is why you won’t be seein’ a parade in town today.”

“Stolen.” Shiro repeated in a grave tone, as though he didn’t already know that damn well. “Well, didn’t I see an entire regiment of fine, young Garrison federals on that train?”

The sheriff snorted and rolled his eyes and that was definitely a mood Shiro could get behind.

“That you did. Same regiment let their medicine get swiped right out from under their noses then took off for their own camp without so much as a whoopsy-daisy.”

“Sounds like the Garrison.” Shiro can’t help it, even though it’s entirely his fault the medicine didn’t get to the town and not the Garrison’s, he just can’t pass up the opportunity to trash talk them. “Unite all the planets under one rule so everyone can be interfered with or ignored equally.”

The sheriff got to his feet, wincing a bit as he shuffled around to the side of the desk and perched himself on the edge. He was positioning himself closer to Shiro, putting himself higher, trying to look more intimidating. That was not good.

“Garrison ain’t much use to us out here on the border planets.” He grunted as he settled. “But they ain’t the ones who stole the medicine.”

Ouch. Right.

He leaned forward, looked Shiro dead in the eye as he inhaled on his cigarette. “I ever find those people, they ain’t never gonna see the inside of a jail. I’m just gonna toss ‘em in a mine, let ‘em breathe deep for the rest of their lives.”

Shiro didn’t break eye contact. “Can’t argue with that.”

Suddenly the sheriff grimaced and clutched at his thigh. Probably his Bowden’s if what he’d said was true, and Shiro felt the sympathetic pang in his arm all the way to his nonexistent fingertips. Damn phantom pains.

“You mind tellin’ me when it was,” He ground out through gritted teeth, “You last spoke to Joey Bloggs?”

Aw hell, he’d talked himself into a corner, hadn’t he?

“Never did myself.”

“Right. Your uncle.” The disbelief was back, but at least he was playing along for now. “Now, it was indicated to you that he had an opening?”

“Any job would do.”

“That’s funny,” He puffed on his cigarette again, “That your uncle never went to mentioning the Bowden’s problem, or that Joey Bloggs ate his own gun about eight months back.”

Both he and Matt paused, and he could only hope his expression didn’t betray the oh shit moment he’d just had.

He cleared his throat. “Did he?”

“Yep. Blew the back of his head right off.”

“So… would his job be open?”

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

Keith paced the length of the bridge, back and forth, back and forth. Pidge was crumpled in the copilots seat, and the two of them had spent the last hour bouncing plausible ideas between each other. Pidge wanted to be cautious and wait to see if they could get themselves out on their own, but Keith was itching out of his skin to just go down there and pull them out by any means necessary.

His mood did not improve when Lance hopped his way onto the bridge with his leg thoroughly wrapped in gauze, Coran hurrying along behind him and urging him to sit down. His pleas fell on deaf ears.

“Ok, seriously, we need to go, Zarkon’s gonna be pissed --”

“No rutting way.” Keith snapped, planting himself between Lance and the controls with arms crossed. He heard Pidge get to her feet behind him.

“We can’t leave Shiro and Matt.” She snapped, just as Hunk came rushing up the stairs to join the party.

“We won’t leave them.” Lance argued back. “We can go back for them after but we cannot miss this job, Shiro would make the same decision.”

“He would not!” Keith may have been angry with Shiro at the moment, but he still knew him, and the crew’s safety was always Shiro’s top priority. “And I’m not movin’ this ship until we have them back.”

Lance glared at him. “I know how to fly a ship too, ya know.”

Keith felt the cruel sneer curl his lip, saw Lance’s eyes flicker. “Try it then.” He was so not above stabbing Lance if he had to.

“Enough!” Allura’s voice rang through the crowded room, drawing all of their eyes to the door where she stood with a disdainful expression, hands on her hips. “Fighting will solve nothing!”

“I suppose you have an idea, then, Princess?” Keith knows he’s being mean, but at the moment he couldn’t care less, and Allura just puts her shoulders back in that regal pose that earned her the nickname.

“As a matter of fact, I do. Would you like to continue arguing like a bunch of children, or would you like to hear it?”

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

This room is very much brown. Brown walls, brown floor, people in brown clothes, brown, brown, brown. So when there’s a flash of blue at the door, damn right Shiro noticed it.

He peered around Matt from their position on their bench, and his jaw dropped to the floor. Allura of all people had just waltzed in, clad in all her finest frippery. The floor length satin gown she wore brushed over the dirt floor, the white cape around her shoulders definitely getting dust all over it. As usual she looked flawless, stunning, radiant, all those words but she definitely should not be doing it here. Everyone in the room was staring and she was going to blow their cover!

Shiro got to his feet, made his way over to her. “What the hell are you--”

Her hand flew, impacting him squarely across the cheek and whipping his head to the side. The sound silenced the whole building, and he and Matt stared at each other wide eyed. He’d just been slapped. By Allura.

“Don’t you dare speak to me!” She snarled, whirling on her heel to face the sheriff who had come up on the scene. “Sheriff, I want this man bound by law at once.” Then, seemingly remembering herself, she gentled her tone. “That is, assuming he hasn’t been already.”

“No one’s been bound.” Said the sheriff, considering the spectacle before him. “Not yet.”

“Thank God you stopped them.” She turned a hateful glare back to Shiro. “Did you honestly think you could access my accounts and I wouldn’t find you? And Matthew--”

His eyes widened as Allura whirled on him next.

“What would your husband think if he knew you were here?”

His eyes flicked to a stunned Shiro, back to Allura, back to Shiro. “I… I was weak.” He stuttered out, then slowly, jerkily forced his eyes down in fake submission. Possibly the worst performance Shiro had ever seen in his life.

“So I take it they ain’t newly weds.” Said the sheriff with an amused look. Allura scoffed, full of derision. Jeez, she was a much better actor than either of them.

“Hardly. Takashi is my indentured man--”

A cold shock went down his spine, and he completely missed the rest of Allura’s sentence as he sucked in a deep breath. It had been a long, long, long while since anyone had called him just by his first name. Not since Adam.

When he tuned back into reality the sheriff was hissing at the group of men who’d gathered to oogle Allura.

“Pardon them.” He said as politely as he could to her. “Don’t think a one of them’s seen a registered Companion before.”

Allura gave him that warm smile she was so good at. “I apologize for my manner. Should I contact my ship? Do you need to keep them much longer?”

The sheriff shifted on his feet. “Looks to me like we’re just about done here. We had some, uh, unrelated trouble, but they’re free to go.”

“Thank you very much, Sheriff.” Allura’s voice turned stern when she looked back at Shiro. “Come along.”

And so that’s how Shiro and Matt escaped their predicament-- by slinking out of the building behind Allura, tails between their legs.

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

It’s dark by the time the shuttle clicks back into place on the Golden Lion. The entire crew was waiting for them on the catwalk, and Hunk immediately rushed forward when the shuttle doors slid open.

“How did it go?” He questioned anxiously, just as Shiro brushed quickly past Allura, heading for the stairs down to the hold.

“She hit me.”

Allura and Pidge traded quiet snickers as they all followed him down the stairs.

“Kept the engine running.” Keith called to him, apparently abandoning his cold shoulder, at least for now. “We’re good to go.”

“We’re not goin’.”

“Not… what?” Lance asked. He was hopping down the stairs after the others, his wrapped leg slowing him down. “Not… why?”

“We’re bringin’ the cargo back.” Explained Matt. Shiro had reached the cargo hold floor and now strode for the cargo, still sitting in the middle of the room where it had been left, wrapped in it’s netting. Matt joined him, helping him pull it free.

“What?” Keith rushed up beside him, looking at Shiro like he’d lost his mind. “What about Zarkon?”

“There’s others need this more.” Is all Shiro said in way of explanation. “Let’s get it on the mule.”

“My shuttle’s faster.” Allura chimed in, but Shiro shook his head at the suggestion.

“You risked enough flying in there once. Also, I don’t wanna get slapped around no more.”

More snickers.

“Far as Zarkon goes, we’ll explain to him that the job went south when we return the money.”

“Uh, Shiro?” Lance is still on the landing above, staring with wide eyes at the open gangplank of the ship. “If you wanna explain, now’s your chance.”

Shiro looked up, and his heart dropped. Coming up the gangplank was Myzax, armed to the teeth with so many knives he looked like a haystack made of needles and backed by four smaller but no less dangerous men.

Coran immediately retreated into the hall to the kitchen, hiding himself away lest they recognize him for the bounty. Thankfully Myzax didn’t seem to notice the burst of movement.

“You didn’t make the rendezvous.”

“Ran into a few complications.” Said Shiro, walking forward a few paces to stand between Myzax and the rest of the crew.

“You’re thinking of taking Zarkon’s money, and his property.” Myzax pulled that wicked knife Shiro had noticed the other day and ran his thumb over the blade. Shiro’s eyes flicked to it for barely a moment.

“Uh, interestingly, neither.”

Myzax’s brow furrowed. “I don’t understand.”

“Deal’s off.” Myzax just frowned at him, still confused. “We changed our minds.”

Myzax shook his big head. “You made a deal with Zarkon. There is no mind changing.”

Shiro raised a challenging eyebrow. “I’m afraid that’s where you’re wrong. We can’t take this job, so you just relax, we’ll give you the money Zarkon gave us, you return it, and we’ll call it even.”

“There is no even.” Said Myzax with a sneer.

Damnit, nothing is ever easy.

“Is that so?”

Myzax didn’t bother continuing the conversation. With a quick flick of his wrist, faster than Shiro could track, he whipped the knife he was holding in Shiro’s direction. It embedded right into his right shoulder, above the prosthetic, and he shouted at the starburst of pain.

Bang . Matt’s pistol took down one of the men right off of the bat as they rushed in after their leader. Hunk dove for cover, Allura grabbed Pidge by the arm and hauled her down behind some crates as bullets exploded around the room.

Matt quickly found himself some cover, settling in for a stand off against the two remaining men while Myzax went after Shiro. And man, this guy did not pull his punches. Shiro was already dazed by the pain in his arm and took blow after blow, feeling like he was being hit by a train every time, ironically enough. He got close, pulled him forward and slammed their foreheads together, making Shiro’s vision blur before Myzax grabbed hold of the knife and ripped it free.

One of his men screamed and he glanced over his shoulder, giving Shiro the opportunity to land a kick. He wasn’t fazed, he didn’t stumble, he merely grabbed Shiro by his shirt and threw him against the crates, sending him toppling to the floor.

Then Myzax was looming over him, the knife glinting as he raised it high for the killing blow-- and another gunshot echoed through the room. Myzax bellowed in pain, dropping to the floor to cradle his shot out knee, and Shiro scrambled to his feet to plant a boot on Myzax’s chest and keep him down.

The cargo hold was a right mess. Lance was above them still, armed with his rifle and smirking at the shot he’d landed on Myzax. Matt was on the other side of the room with an unconscious man sprawled at his feet. Standing on the gangplank was Keith, spattered with blood after he’d opened the last goon’s throat with his own blade.

Well, add that onto the list of things to do. Return the medicine, send Zarkon’s living goons back with the money, dispose of corpses, clean blood off of the floor.

Great.

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

The next day Shiro didn’t get out of bed until noon. They were already in deep space, heading for their next destination, their next job, and even when he finally dragged himself out of his quarters there wasn’t anything anyone needed him to do. So he made himself a cup of shitty preserved powdered coffee and sat in the dining room, enjoying what little peace and quiet he could before everything inevitably went to hell again.

His shoulder twinged when he raised the cup for a drink, and he made a mental note to get some more pain meds from Coran sometime in the next few hours.

“Shiro?”

Looking up, there was Keith hovering in the doorway, and Shiro raised an eyebrow. This conversation could go one of two ways, and he wasn’t sure he had the energy for another fight at the moment.    

Keith stepped into the room. He was frowning, but not angrily. Over the years Shiro had learned to interpret Keith’s many varieties of frown, and this one was more contemplative than anything else.

“Yeah?”

“I’ve… just been thinking. You took the medicine back because it was the right thing to do, right?”

Shiro nodded, unsure of where Keith was heading with this. He himself didn’t seem sure, hesitating before speaking again.

“And… is that the same reason you let Coran stay on board?”

Oh, so this was about Coran.

“Yes.” He answered honestly. “I figure someone’s gotta at least try to do something about the Galra, otherwise people’ll just keep dying.”

Keith turned this over in his mind for a moment. Then he pulled out one of the mismatched chairs and sat at the other end of the table, releasing a shaky breath as he stared down at the scratched wood. Shiro waited patiently.

“I’m not angry with you.” He said eventually. One of his hands closed around his pendant. “I guess I’m just… worried.”

No one wants to admit when they’re scared.

“Glad we made that distinction.” Shiro answered with only the slightest hint of flippancy. Keith rolled his eyes at him nonetheless.

“I’m tryin’ to apologize, húndàn.”

“Really? Coulda fooled me.”

Keith huffed, making his bangs floof a bit off of his forehead. “Ok, ok. I’m sorry. I was bein’ a dick.”

“Apology accepted.”

For the next hour or so, before things inevitably spiraled out of control again, they sat in comfortable silence.

Chapter Text

Three Years Earlier

 

“Uh, Matt?”

“Yes Shiro?”

“Is it just me, or is there an empty port where shuttle one used to be?”

“... It’s not just you.”

“So… where is it?”

“I wish I could say, Captain.”

“... Great.”

Two minutes later they were in Shuttle Two, launching from the Lion and rising into the busy airspace above Balmera. Matt was already running a scan and they barely had to wait before their radar was pinging, and Shiro brought the shuttle around to give chase to the thief.

They didn’t even get a visual on the missing shuttle for another four minutes, and by then Shiro’s arm was aching from piloting and Matt was white knuckling the back of his chair.

“I hate it when you pilot.” He grumbled as the craft jerked in response to a twitch from his prosthetic arm.

“So do I.” Shiro grunted back. “Just keep watchin’ for--”

“There!” Matt cried suddenly, pointing over Shiro’s shoulder. He saw the same thing Matt had-- the glimpse of a familiar rusted wing as the shuttle whipped around a larger ship. Shiro leaned on the throttle, biting back a wince at the pressure on his arm.

They turned the same corner, caught another glimpse of the shuttle as it darted underneath a ship this time. Again, Shiro followed.

This went on for some time, Shiro dutifully following the other shuttle. He was trying his best, but they were losing ground, slowly but surely. A few times the mysterious pilot did something unexpected-- a corkscrew or a barrel roll at the last possible second to avoid a collision, and Shiro was forced to go around and lose precious seconds. He hadn’t even known the shuttles could pull moves like those.

“Who is this guy?” Matt muttered behind him, and Shiro’s only answer was a frustrated growl. He could stand normal flying for hours at a time, but these kinds of tricks and hairpin adjustments had pain lancing up his arm and he wasn’t sure how much longer he could keep this up.

His skill isn’t what eventually lets them catch up. It’s pure luck, as a huge ship pulled up in front of the shuttle at the same moment several other ships clustered around them, sealing them off. Shuttle One was forced to hold still, just for a moment, and that’s what gives Shiro time to lock on and fire the towing cable.

“Finally.” Matt sighed, relaxing his grip on the seat back. Shiro breathed his pain through his teeth and towed the shuttle back to the ship.

They’d barely stepped out of the shuttle back on the ship when they caught sight of the blur of a person, racing down the stairs and trying to make their escape.

Shiro got there first, snatching them by the shoulder and shoving them far too easily against the panel of controls for the gangplank. At the moment all he registers is that the person is shorter than him, but thankfully Matt is more clear headed.

“A kid?!

Shiro blinks a few times, shakes his head, and finally starts to see what's in front of him rather than dim orange armor. Matt is correct-- it’s a teenager, no older than Hunk but several inches shorter and dozens of shades paler. He’s dirty and scruffy, dust coating his skin and his torn clothes. A ragged red jacket hangs off of his thin frame, combat boots several sizes too big for him shuffle on the floor, a scarlet bandana hangs around his neck.

The boy squirms and Shiro instinctively tightens his grip. He’s answered by a scowl and angry eyes-- angry purple eyes. Well, kind of purpleish-dark blue. Indigo? Whichever.

“Let go!” The boy spits at them, baring his teeth like a rabid dog.

“I don’t think so.” Is Shiro’s mild answer. “You tried to steal from us.”

The boy grabs Shiro’s arm with one hand and slams the other against it, trying to knock him off, but it’s his left arm and so it doesn’t work.

“There’s no way a teenager flew like that.” Says Matt, crowding his way forward to glower at their captive. “How many others were there? Are they still in the shuttle?”

“There’s no one else.” The kid goes for the knife on his belt but Matt snatched it first. He snarled and tried again to jerk away. Black hair cut in uneven chunks, most likely with a knife instead of scissors, practically bristled around his head.

“You were the one flyin’?” Shiro questioned, but this time he doesn’t bother to answer. He glares at the floor, seething and silent.

“What’s your name?” He tries, and that gets a bitter snap of an answer.

“Why do you care? If you’re gonna turn me into the Garrison just do it already.”

Not for one moment does Shiro believe he’ll go quietly. He’s just trying to get them to move, to open the door and give him a better chance of getting away.

“We’re not gonna turn you in.”

That earns a moment of confusion followed by afraid anger, and Shiro realizes too late what that must’ve sounded like to a street kid.

“If you ain’t gonna turn me in, you’d best let me go or I’ll slit all of your throats while you fuckin’ sleep--”

“Hey, hey, calm down.” The kid is shaking, muscles taut and raised up on the balls of his feet, ready to bolt. “We’re not gonna hurt you. I wanna offer you a job.”

“You what ?” Squawked Matt, whirling on him with an exaggerated look of astonishment. The kid’s reaction is more subdued but no less puzzled, eyeing Shiro with furrowed brows.

“A job… doin’ what?” He eyes Shiro’s grip on his shoulder and Shiro rapidly lets go. Surprisingly enough he doesn’t run-- he merely crosses his arms and scowls.

“Shiro, what the hell?” Matt is hissing at him, which Shiro steadily ignores. The kid is still nervous, obviously, still expecting Shiro to try and trap him somehow.

“As a pilot.” Matt’s jaw drops. “If that was you flyin’ the shuttle, you're more than talented enough.”

The kid eyes him up and down, flicks his eyes between Matt and Shiro, then around the cargo hold. His jaw tightens.

“How long?”

He’s still thinking in worst-case scenarios.

“It’s not an indenturement.” Said Shiro as firmly as he can manage. “An actual job. You’d get pay, food, place to sleep, common human decency, and you’d be able to leave whenever you want. If not, no hard feelings, you walk out of here.”

“Shiro!” Matt grabbed him by the shoulder, spinning him around and forcing their eyes to meet. Matt’s are baffled. “Are you missing your brain? He tried to steal from us. You can’t just go and offer him a gorram job, are you crazy?”

Shiro just looks at him for a second before turning back to their potential employee.

“Why’d you steal the shuttle?”

The boy shuffled his feet in his clunky boots. He looked away-- did he actually feel bad?

“I wanted to sell it.” He admitted reluctantly, closing in on himself even more. “Maybe get enough to get off this rock.” One of his hands clutched at the front of his shirt, maybe at something under it.

Shiro tossed a pointed look at Matt, who responded with a scowl.

“This, for the record, is a terrible idea.”

“Good thing I’m the captain, then.”

“Yeah, Captain Dumbass.”

“So,” Shiro abruptly turned back to the kid. “What do you say?”

The kid is quiet for a long moment, considering. He can practically see the gears turning under his ragged hair, weighing pros and cons and coming up with contingency plans.

“Fine.” He said eventually. “But I’ve never flown a Firefly before.”

“That’s fine.” Shiro answered as Matt seethed. “It’s not hard to pick up.”

A sharp clang sounds from the doorway, making all of them snap their heads around. The engineer Hunk stands in the hall to the kitchen, an unsure, wary expression painted on him.

“New guy?” He asked tentatively, and Matt threw his hands up in exasperation.

“Apparently!” He cried, already storming off. Shiro rolled his eyes.

“So, what’s your name?”

The kid’s hand clutches at his shirt, warily eyeing the hallway the other two had disappeared down.

“Keith.”

 

Present Day

 

“Keith! Keith, over here!” Matt shouted, jumping up and down and waving his arms. Keith throws the patched rubber ball to him, over Shiro’s head. He jumps for it and misses, and Matt twists and tossed the ball through the hoop they’d hung from the cargo hold ceiling, earning him, Keith, and Hunk another point.

Pidge is waiting on the other side of the hoop and catches the ball, sprinting away as Hunk tried to snatch her up. Lance is in position next to a stack of crates, letting Pidge scale them and perch herself on his shoulders so they could rush across the floor and deposit the ball through the hoop.

Shiro had long since lost track of time. They were all panting, soaked with sweat, shouting friendly insults and jabs at each other and making the hold ring with sound. Allura is watching from the catwalk above, and the last time he’d looked up she’d just been joined by Coran.

“Hand over the ball!” Lance yelled, facing off against Keith, who clutched it closer with a wolfish grin.

“You gotta catch me first!”

“You’re on, Mullet!”

Thus begins the game of tag, Keith expertly avoiding Lance and the other grasping hands trying to take the ball from him, until Shiro grabbed him around the waist and lifted him clear off of the ground, holding him still while Lance pried the ball away. Keith is shouting and laughing, trying to kick his way out of Shiro’s grip.

It takes them all a second to register the alert ringing under their own ruckus, but once they do they all pause in their steps. Shiro sets Keith back down.

“Proximity alert.” He said, familiar with the sound.

“Must be coming up on something.” Matt is still breathless.

“Oh no!” Lance began, and Shiro had to stifle his laugh when Keith rolled his eyes. “What could it be, we’re all doomed, who’s flying this thing?!”

Deadpan, Keith responds, “I am.” He wipes sweat from his brow as he heads for the bridge.

“Well, now we’re a man short.” Hunk pouted. Pidge looked to the catwalk with a sparkle in her eye.

“Allura, you come play with us! Get dirty for once!”

Allura gave a graceful smile down at them, but before she could answer one way or the other the entire ship gave a harsh jolt, nearly tossing them off of their feet.

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

“Keith, what the hell?” Lance crowed as they all crowded onto the bridge. “Did you have a stroke or somethin’?”

“No.” Keith tossed over his shoulder, not looking away from the windscreens. “Ran over a corpse, though.”

They all crowded around his chair, eager to see what had caused the disturbance, and the picture wasn’t pretty. Floating in front of them was a presumably dead ship, spinning listlessly on it’s X axis. The windscreens were dark, nothing was coming out of it’s thrusters, and it didn’t look like that nice of a ship to begin with, so really the whole image was nothing more than pitiful.

Wǒ de mā.” Hunk murmured in the background, unnerved by the sight.

“Anybody home?”

“I’ve been hailin’ her,” Keith said in answer to Shiro’s question, “But if everyone else onboard is as healthy as the guy we just ran over, I wouldn’t count on anyone answerin’.”

“Bring us in a little closer.” He ordered, and Keith obligingly reached for the controls.

At the very back of the group, practically in the hall, Allura asked, “What is it?”

“Could be a transport.” Lance suggested, but Matt shook his head.

“Nah, converted cargo hauler. Maybe a short ranged scow.”

“She don’t wanna be parked like that.” Observed Pidge, pointing out something over Keith’s shoulder. “The port thrust’s gone, that’s what’s makin’ her spin the way she is.”

At the gesture from Shiro, Keith flipped the switch to turn on their search light and let Shiro cast it over the wreck in front of them, looking for identifying marks  or insignia.

“What’s a short range ship doing all the way out here?” Coran’s chipper accent confirmed that yes, everyone had come crowding up to the bridge for this. Matt chose to answer, letting Shiro concentrate on the problem at hand.

“Retrofitted to carry passengers.” He explained, leaning against the dashboard. “Travelers pick them up cheap at government auction. A few mods and they’ll serve well enough for a one way push to the Rim.”

“So, settlers?” Asked Hunk, receiving a nod.

“You can cram fifteen, maybe twenty families in a boat that size if you squeeze ‘em tight enough.”

“Families?” Allura repeated, aghast.

Shiro straightened up from the light control, only to find Coran already next to him waiting to get his attention.

“Shouldn’t we report this?” He asked in a low voice. Shiro scoffed.

“To who? The Garrison? Sure, they’d just run right out the minute we called to ensure the safety of their tax payers.”

Coran would have to be an idiot to not understand the sarcasm in Shiro’s voice, and the man may be many things, but an idiot isn’t one of them. He straightened up, put back his shoulders and narrowed his eyes. He was about to say something he didn’t think Shiro would like, which in and of itself intrigued him.

“Then we’ll have to.”

“They ain’t beamin’ no distress call.” Keith pointed out. “If there was someone needin’ help, wouldn’t they be?”

“Which means there’s nobody lookin’ to find her.” Shiro mused, half to himself.

“Even more reason for us to do the right thing.”

Shiro crossed his arms, considered. “We’ll check it out.” He decided after a moment or two. “Could be survivors, if not, could be they left behind somethin’ valuable.”

So, with Shiro’s blessing, Keith aligned the two ships and connected their airlocks, parking the Lion right next to the rotating wreck.

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

Twenty minutes later Matt and Shiro were suited up and waiting in the Lion’s airlock. Once the buzzer sounded, confirming it was locked and creating a vacuum separate from the ship, they moved forward and through the thick door embedded in the gangplank, allowing them to enter the adjoining airlock.

“Alright Keith, knock for us?”

A moment of silence, another buzzer, and the other ships door slid open. With heavy leaded steps from the space suits and beams of flashlights before them, they proceeded onto the ship.

The hall they stepped into wasn’t bare. It was littered with a variety of objects-- books, crates, even a few childrens toys which was foreboding to say the least.

“Emergency power’s up.” Shiro noted into the radio, casting his light over to the dashboard so that Matt would notice the light flashing on it. They continued along the lower floor hallway, a spotlight from an upper deck shining down through the grated floors and casting their shadows long on the walls. They found themselves in a dining hall, trays of food still sitting out neatly as though only just set there, and a cold chill went down Shiro’s spine.

“Whatever happened here happened quick.” He murmured. “And recent-- food ain’t rotted.”

Matt said nothing, and the two continued up to the bridge of the ship, a narrow little room crammed to bursting with consoles and screens and leather chairs. Every screen in the room was on, casting the metal walls in an eerie blue glow.

“Ship must’ve powered down on it’s own.” Said Matt, speaking for the first time since they entered the derelict ship. “No sign of a struggle.” The papers were still on the consoles in semi-neat piles, the chairs all upright and in the correct positions, no cracked screens. “They’re just…”

“Gone.”

Shiro turned away for a moment, considering the screens behind him, only for Matt to call his attention back.

“Shiro, look.” Glancing back, he found Matt standing at a lit console, lines of blocky text scrolling across the screen. “Personal log. Someone was in the middle of an entry.”

Shiro sighed. The longer he stayed on this ship the less he was liking it.

“Keith.” He said to the radio. “Run a sweep, see about the life support.”

After a moment’s silence the radio crackled in his ear. “It’s up, you should be able to breathe fine.”

“Alright, tell Lance and Hunk and Pidge to get over here, will ya?”

“Roger that.”

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

“So nobody made it?”

With a sigh, Shiro ran a hand through his hair, an anxious fidget he’d been unable to do while he still had his suit on. The bridge of the wrecked ship was a lot friendlier with several other people there, though Lance and Hunk’s obvious tension belayed the effect some.

“Ship says the lifeboat launched more than a week ago.” Matt answered, revealing the information he’d gleaned from the consoles while they’d waited for the others to get there. “We’re gonna assume everyone got off ok.”

“We’re just here to pick the bones.” Shiro reminded them all, rubbing the scar over his nose. “Pidge, Hunk, start in the engine room. Lance you take the galley. Be quick about it-- a few loads each. No need to be greedy.”

The three nodded, each taking a few cloth bags from the pile they’d hauled over and scattering into the hall. Matt lingered near the computers, mechanically picking up their share of the sacks but not removing his eyes from Shiro.

“I counted sixteen families signed on.” He said once Shiro had had enough of his staring and asked him what was wrong. “Lifeboat wouldn’t hold more than a third of that.”

“I know.” Shiro raised his radio to his lips. “Keith, any luck?”

“Found some similar schematics,” Said Keith over the radio. “Looks like special stuff’d be stored on the C deck, aft.”

Shiro smiled at Matt, trying to reassure both of them, but he wasn’t sure how successful he was.

“Good work. Keep the engine runnin’, we won’t be long.”

 

<><><><><>

 

“Aren’t you worried?”

Pidge, crammed into a tiny corner trying to retrieve a bit of machinery, answered in a bit of a snap.

“Worried ‘bout what?”

“About what happened here.” Hunk was by the main turbine, pulling out whole handfuls of tiny (but valuable) parts. “A whole boatful of people don’t just disappear.”

“I’m curious.” She admitted. Having finally ripped her part free with a shower of sparks, she climbed back down to deposit it in one of their bags. “After all, doesn’t look like any technical trouble. What about over there?”

“Nope. Everything looks fine.”

“Hm. Kinda creepy.”

Kinda ?!” He shot her an astonished look. “It’s hella creepy, Pidge!”

“Yup. Now let’s finish scavenging it so we can get back on our own creepy ship.”

 

<><><><><>

 

Once Matt and Shiro made it down to the deck Keith had specified, they were pleased to be greeted by boxes upon boxes and crates upon crates of miscellaneous leftovers, and immediately set to crawling through them in search of something worth taking.

Most of it wasn’t. Mostly it was clothes and other personal effects belonging to the passengers. One trunk contained a child’s doll and pounds of accessories for it, while another was full of mechanics tools.

Finally, towards the back of the cargo hold, Shiro found what he was looking for. Four wide, black crates-- all marked with the Garrison insignia.

“Matt, look.” He called, summoning his first mate from the suitcase he’d been going through. “Gen-seeds, protein, crop supplements--”

“Everything settlers need.” Matt finished, and they exchanged a grin. For the moment even Matt had forgotten about the creepy aura that dominated the ship.

“Worth a fortune. Forget the rest, we just take this.”

But Matt hesitates, just for a moment, and he’s back to being on edge and tense.

“Shiro, even on a lifeboat… you’d think people’d make room for some of this.”

You know, just for once, he’d like Matt to not be right. Would the universe really implode if he could have one day of Matthew Holt not being right.

But, unfortunately, he was right. The surviving settlers would have found room for some supplies on a lifeboat, even if they had to leave people behind to do it. So… why hadn’t they?

Feeling the sick seed of doubt planting itself in his gut, Shiro cast another glance around the room, as though the answer to the question was hiding behind a crate waiting to ambush them at any moment. His gaze jumped to the ceiling, just for a moment, and then away.

And he froze.

Slowly, slowly, slowly, he raised his head and his flashlight to the ceiling above their heads. He swallowed hard.

“No one escaped.” He murmured distantly, and he felt more than saw Matt’s frown.

“Huh? What are you…” Matt’s breath caught.

Bodies. Dozens of them, bound together with chains and hauled up to the ceiling in one big mass. Their skin was pale as paper and they’d been mutilated; whole chunks of flesh were missing, as well as limbs, eyes, the tips of noses, sloughs of skin gone and revealing muscle underneath.

“Holy hell,” Matt breathed, and that was just about the understatement of the century. Shiro was already pulling his radio from his pocket, heart racing.

“Lance? Drop what you’re doing and head to the engine room. Get Hunk and Pidge off of this boat, no questions.”

The radio crackled, and instead of the expected confirmation from Lance there was a rough yell, followed by the clattering of dishes being thrown to the floor.

“Lance? Lance?”

A gunshot echoed through the speaker, and Matt and Shiro exchanged a look.

“Came from above.” Said Matt tensely. “The galley.” Shiro nodded, and without another word they turned back towards the hall.

Outside the engine room they ran into Hunk and Pidge, who’d been alarmed by the gunshots as well, and Shiro ordered them back to the ship before he and Matt proceeded up to the galley.

They entered the now-wrecked room with their pistols drawn, taking wary, practiced steps. A rustled noise and Shiro snapped his gun around, only to find himself staring down the sights at Lance, who was doing much the same with his own pistol.

“What’d you see?” Shiro asked, pointing his gun back at the ceiling. Lance was breathing hard and looked a bit wild eyed, but he wasn’t injured anywhere Shiro could see.

“Didn’t.” He said. “Came at me from behind. Big though, and strong.” He lowered his barrel to the floor and nodded his head at something by Shiro’s feet. “I think I hit ‘im, though.”

Sure enough, there was a dotted trail of fresh red blood leading away from them. Shiro traced it with his eyes-- all the way over to the wall and the removable vent-- just a big enough circle for someone to clamber inside if they were skinny enough.

Without speaking the three of them converged on the vent, blocking it from all sides. Shiro could just barely make out a silhouette; a curled up, trembling, frankly pathetic shape, and he sighed. Nothing but a scared survivor who didn’t know who to trust. He holstered his pistol and reached for the vent cover.

“No, no no no, no.” Whimpered the person inside. It sounded like a man. A high-pitched, scared man, but a man.

“Shhh, easy now.” Shiro murmured as he unclipped the vent cover and set it to lean against the wall. “No one’s gonna hurt you.” Matt and Lance stepped up to shine their lights into the vent, revealing a scrawny, emaciated man in rags, probably barely as tall as Lance. Greasy brown hair stuck to his forehead, and Shiro is frozen just for a moment when he saw the man’s eyes.

They were indigo. Like Keith’s.

“No. No, mercy, no.” The man was babbling, holding up his hands in weak defense. Blood ran down his arm and Shiro cringed at the evidence of Lance’s shot.

“Any more than we already did.”

“Sorry.” Lance said softly.

“No, mercy.”

“Don’t worry, we got lots of mercy.” Shiro continued to talk quietly to the man as he inched closer, closer, closer. “We got lots and lots of--” Once he was close enough he cleanly clocked the man in the nose with his metal fist, knocking him out cold. Then, with Matt’s help, he hauled the man out of his hiding place and into the dim light of the galley.

Matt looked down at him with a raised eyebrow, then at Lance. “Oh yes, he’s a real beast. It’s a wonder you’re still alive.”

Lance scowled at him. “He looked bigger when I couldn’t see him.”

Shiro just shook his head.  

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

The man looks even less intimidating in the Golden Lion’s infirmary, skin washed out and sickly pale in the bright light. Shiro stood there with Coran, observing while the doctor did his examination of the still unconscious patient while the rest of the crew peered in through the windows.

“Pulse is rapid.” Coran was muttering to himself as he ran his tests. “Blood pressure is on the high side of normal, which is to be expected.”

The man stirred on the table, a low groan escaping his lips, followed by mumbled words.

“Weak. They were all… weak.”

Coran gulped and continued his work. “Other than the bullet wound there doesn’t appear to be any exterior trauma.” He looked sharply up at Shiro. “Though that crack to the head you gave him probably didn’t do him much good.” He turned away to peel off his blood stained rubber gloves, but Shiro didn’t take his eyes off of the man, who was beginning to really awaken.

The man’s eyes slitted open, and wow, Shiro was never going to get used to seeing Keith’s eye color on another person. He dragged his eyes slowly over the faces visible in the window, then let his head loll to the side so he could see Keith kneeling on the walkway above, peering in from his usual perch.

“Brother.” The man murmured. “Chrysalis.”

His head lolled again, back in the other direction so that he could stare at someone else.

“Cattle. Cattle for the slaughter.”

Shiro followed his gaze, his gut clenching when he realized the man was staring at Pidge and Allura.

“Dope him.”

Coran looked over his shoulder, clearly surprised by Shiro’s order.

“I don’t think that--”

“Just do it.”

“No mercy.” The man grunted, and now Shiro realized he hadn’t been pleading for mercy earlier. Far from it. “No resistance.”

The man let out a tiny sound when Coran pushed the needle into his arm, and rolled over to grasp the doctor’s elbow.

“Open up.” He said, staring imploringly into Coran’s eyes. “See what’s inside.”

Coran grasped his wrist firmly, and with the set expression of a man who’d done it many times before, carefully pulled the man’s grip off of him. Seconds later he was limp on the table, no punching required, with only a single, final whisper.

“No mercy.”

The others gathered close when Shiro and Coran exited the infirmary, all eager for answers.

“So, how’s our patient?” Asked Hunk, always the most compassionate of them.

“Well, aside from borderline malnutrition, he’s in remarkably good health.” Coran said as he clasped his hands behind his back.

Hunk grinned. “He’ll live, then.”

Shiro ran a tired hand through his hair. “Which, to my mind, is unfortunate.”

They all looked aghast, and Allura hissed his name in reprimanding, but he can’t bring himself to care. There was a cold, numb section in his stomach that just kept growing the longer the mysterious man was aboard his ship.

“Would’ve saved him the suffering.” He muttered before turning back to the infirmary doors, pulling them shut and locking them securely. “No one goes in here.” He allowed himself one last look into the room before going back to the others. “Nothin’ we can do for him now, not after what he’s seen.”

“What do you mean?” Asked Pidge, though Shiro was already walking past them on his way to the galley for something to help him settle.

“That ship got hit by Galra.”

There was a commotion behind him as everyone reacted to his statement, jumping up from seats and exclaiming, both in English and in Chinese, and Shiro ignored them all. That didn’t stop every last one of them from following him into the kitchen, though.

“Shiro, how can you know?” Allura asked as he pulled a chipped mug from one of the secured cabinets on the wall.

“He don’t, that’s how!” Lance probably wanted to sound belligerent, but his huge eyes and pale cheeks betrayed his terror. “No way! It was that other fella, the one we ran into.”

Everyone filed into the galley, assembling in front of the counter where Shiro was pouring some left over coffee from that morning into his mug. All of them looked some degree of terrified, even Keith, though in him it was only betrayed by his white-knuckled hold on his pendant.

“He went stir crazy,” Lance had continued, “Killed the rest, then took a walk in space. Wasn’t Galra. Galra don’t leave survivors.”

Hunk put a comforting hand on Lance’s shoulder, which was distinctly less comforting once you noticed how it trembled.

“Strictly speaking,” Shiro sighed, “I wouldn’t say they did.” He took a big gulp of his shitty space coffee.

“What are you suggesting?” Coran demanded, and Shiro was growing very tired of this conversation very quickly.

“Don’t matter that we took him off that boat. That’s where he’s gonna live from now on.”

His eyes met Matt’s from across the room, and he received a reassuring nod. At least one person could understand how even six years later he still woke up on the battlefield and knew that the same would apply to that poor bastard.

But Coran, damn him, looked thoughtful.

“Captain, you don’t suppose I could ask him a few questions when he awakes?”

During their conversation Shiro had shuffled around to stand by the dining room table, and at the question he set his mug down with a loud thump .

“Absolutely not. I said nobody was goin’ in that room and I meant it. That man is dangerous.”

Coran looked down at his feet, chagrined, but Lance was still understandably jumpy.

“Why are we still sittin’ here? If it was Galra, shouldn’t we be gone?”

Shiro pulled out a chair at the table and sat down, taking another long swig of his coffee. “Work ain’t done. Still substantial money value sittin’ over there.”

“Oh I ain’t goin’ over there with them bodies.” Lance said, shaking his head vigorously and crossing his arms over his chest. “No ruttin’ way. Not if Galra messed with ‘em.”

Hunk wrapped his arms fully around his friend. “It’s ok, buddy, I got you.”

“I’ll go.” Volunteered Coran, and they all turned an unimpressive look on him, making him flush. “Not for research! Well, a bit for research, but I’m also a doctor. Bodies don’t scare me.”

“I want to go too.” Said Allura, and about four different people all tried to argue before she rose her hand. “I know a few lines of a resting prayer. If no one else is going to give these people a proper funeral, I would like to do at least a little.”

Shiro considered her for a long moment, and when she cast a genuine smile in his direction, he caved.

“Alright. Lance, you’ll go with them and help cut down the bodies, then load up the cargo.”

Lance blustered and huffed, but after a few minutes of Shiro not budging and Hunk offering to tag along, he finally caved and left the galley, followed by Allura and Coran. The only people left were Pidge, Matt, and Keith, who were all eyeing him with a bit of suspicion.

“Didn’t think you were one for rituals.” Keith said eventually.

“I’m not.” Shiro admitted. “But I figure it’ll keep them busy for awhile. No reason to concern them with what’s to be done.”

“And what’s that?” Matt asked. Shiro picked up his mug and got to his feet.

“Come see.”

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

As often as Matt Holt was right, and as much as it irritated him, Shiro did occasionally get his time to shine. This moment, standing on the bridge with all of them clustered around a tiny dashboard screen displaying the undercarriage camera, was one of them.

“What is that?” Keith hissed, referring to the wires that had attached themselves to the ship when they’d parked next to the derelict.

“Booby trap.” Shiro explained. “Galra leave ‘em sometimes for rescue ships. Triggered it when we latched on.”

“And when we detach?” Asked Matt.

Shiro gave him a long look. “It blows.”

“Great.” Keith’s voice was getting low and growly the way it always did when he was stressed. “So now what?”

“Looks like they’ve jerry rigged it with a pressure catch.” Murmured Pidge as she stared thoughtfully at the screen. “It’s the only thing that’d work with all these spare parts. We could probably bypass that easy if we get to the D.C. line.”

Shiro’s eyebrows rose, and he turned to face her dead on. “Pidge, you tell me right now, you really think you can do this?”

She grinned. “Watch me.”

 

<><><><><>

 

So it was that Allura, Coran, and Lance carefully lowered and prepared the victims bodies, and the remaining crew assembled in the cargo hold, opening the hatch in the floor to allow their young engineer access to the narrow tunnel that ran underneath. As she crawled towards the loops of coiled wires and tubes, in the infirmary their guest was stirring.

He laughed and cried in his sleep, murmuring his mantra of ‘no mercy’ to himself over and over as the drugs slowly crept out of his system.

Pidge positioned herself on her back to untangle a certain coil, and in the infirmary the man's eyes opened wide.

On the derelict black boxes were being stacked onto a dolley to be wheeled to their new home, and in the infirmary a tray was being upended and a scalpel selected from the mess.

Having found the tube she needed and now back upright, Pidge carefully poised her pliers over it, and with one smooth stroke, cut a hole through the rubber. Ruby red liquid spilled over her fingertips.

In the infirmary, ruby red liquid spattered the walls.

When they didn’t explode Pidge smiled and nodded to herself, and by the time Lance returned hauling the goods they were closing the hatch in the floor, proudly proclaiming that not a damn thing was going on in the ship when Lance inquired.

 

<><><><><>

 

Lance, Matt, and Hunk worked together to get the cargo stored away in the little wall niche while Keith climbed back up to the cockpit. They had barely detached from the derelict when an alarm began to blare through the hold, and everyone froze for a moment with wide eyes.

“No, no, don’t say that, it’s the Galra.” Lance said, immediately beginning to panic. “The gorram Galra came back.”

“Get that stuff stored.” Shiro snapped, already beginning to ascend the stairs to the bridge two at a time.

“Like it’s gonna matter!” Lance called at his back.

“Just do it!”

But when he finally made it up to the cockpit, it was even worse than he’d thought. It wasn’t a rusted, decrepit Galra ship rising in front of them, but rather the tall and stately towers of a Garrison cruiser, dwarfing their little cargo ship. Keith was seething at the controls as the voice comes over the radio.

“Firefly-class transport, you are ordered to release control of your helm. Prepare to dock and be boarded.”

Keith clenched his fists, one around his pendant and the other with his thumb rubbing over his knuckles, and turned to Shiro with a question in his eyes. The captain let out a long suffering sigh and half turned towards the door. There was about to be another mad rush, in the momentary lull, he found the time to be snarky.

“Looks like civilization finally caught up with us.”

 

<><><><><>

 

Lance had just finished putting the metal wall panel back in place when Shiro came rushing back out of the cockpit.

“So what was it?” He asked, still anxious about Galra.

“Open the stash, pull out the goods.” Ordered Shiro, already halfway down the stairs.

Lance frowned, offended. “I just got done puttin’ it in.”

“And now I’m telling you to take it all out again.” Keith was right behind him, hustling to get down to the cargo hold with the rest of them.

“Why for?”

“I got no notion to argue this. In about two minutes this boat is gonna be crawling with Garrison.”

Lance immediately flew into motion, pulling the metal hatch back off of the wall. Shiro had just hit the hold floor and bent to help him, as did Matt and Hunk, soon to be joined by Keith. Coran hovered in the center of the room, dead pale.

“Stack everything in plain sight.” Shiro called to them. “Wouldn’t want it to seem like we got anything to hide, might give them Garrison boys the wrong impression.”

“Or the right one.” Muttered Hunk.

“That too. Coran, run and open that yellow locker, would ya?”

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

When the airlock opened, the crew was assembled in the hold in semi-orderly rows, Shiro in front and standing with his arms crossed in front of the stack of black boxes. The only one missing was Coran.

The first to enter were four fully armed and outfitted Garrison troops with semi-automatic weapons, quickly and efficiently moving into the ship and to either side to secure the area. Following them was a stern looking older woman with thinning blonde hair, pulled up under her commanders cap in a bun. Behind her were six more troops.

“Well, quite a lot of fuss.” Shiro said, trying his best to sound surprised. He was prickling all the way up his spine at the sight of orange armor and guns on the edges of his vision, and he had to thank his past self for having the foresight to leave his pistols behind. Two of the soldiers moved forward, one taking each side of Shiro, and began to frisk his crew.

The commander stopped in front of him. Her eyes were steely grey, surrounded by wrinkles bought by squinting rather than smiling.

“Is this your vessel?” Her voice was as crisp and sharp as her uniform.

“It is, bought and paid for. I’m Captain Takashi Shirogane.”

She flicked her eyes over the people gathered behind him. “And is this everyone, Captain?”

“By way of crew it is. Though in our infirmary you’ll find a fella we rescued off that derelict.”

He was very, very aware of the gun three inches from his back. The majority of the troops had formed a box around them, keeping them in place, while two still stood behind their commander awaiting orders.

The commander gave a thoughtful hum, then turned to make eye contact with one of the troops before jerking her head. The soldier set off purposefully towards the hall.

“Straight to the back, next to the common area.” Shiro called. As long as they cooperated, as long as they could convince the Garrison they were just helpful civilians, they might be able to make it out ok.

“And these items,” Said the commander, “Did you rescue them as well?”

Shiro, pointedly, didn’t respond.

 

<><><><><>

 

Two troops made their way down to the infirmary, guns held close just in case. They found what they thought to be an empty room, though concerningly messy, and the cloth spread over the metal exam table was stained with blood. When they turned to check the corners as they’d been trained, they found a figure huddled in the corner, cackling madly to itself.

 

<><><><><>

 

“Looks to me like an illegal salvage operation.”

Shiro widened his eyes in faux innocence. “It does? That’s discouraging.”

“Garrison property, too. You could lose your ship, Captain. But that is a wrist slap compared to the penalty for harboring a fugitive. When I search this boat I won’t find a middle aged man with an orange mustache, will I?” She raised a pointed eyebrow, daring Shiro to lie, and really he didn’t have another option, did he?

“No ma’am.”

Her upper lip was twitching, as though she were furious, as though they were the scum of the Earth she could scarcely believe she had to interact with long enough to scrape it off her boot. The commander turned away, paced back towards the door.

“Any chance he stowed away?” She faced them again, now projecting her voice as though it could intimidate them. “No one would blame you for that, Captain. I know how these older model Fireflies tend to have those troublesome little nooks.”

“Do they?”

“Smugglers and the like tend to prefer them, just for that reason.”

Before Shiro could come up with a response one of the troops came marching back up the hallway, and once again the commander turned away to listen to what the man whispered into her ear.

The sound of her heels echoed when she about-faced, her expression even more stony than a moment before.

“We will continue this conversation in a more official capacity.”

Immediately Shiro’s brain was full of swear words as one of the troops took him roughly by his metal arm to escort him off of his ship. The crew at least had remained blissfully silent, until the commander issued her next order.

“I want every inch of this junker tossed.”

“Junker?” Pidge’s voice is like a firecracker of indignation, and it was absolutely the last thing this situation needed.

“Settle down, Pidge.” He called over his shoulder. They were all being pulled out by the troops, through the airlock and onto the Garrison cruiser.

“But Captain, did you hear what that purple belly called the Lion?”

“Shut up!”

Within seconds the ship was crawling with Garrison troops, springing to their search like ants.

 

<><><><><>

 

“So, you are a Companion?”

“Yes.” Allura answered clearly, making sure to keep her voice in it’s bell tone. The interrogation room was cold on her bare arms and so was the steel table under her folded hands, but she dared not move them to pull up her shawl. She kept her shoulders back, neck long, and a considering smile on her lips.

“And you were based for years on Olkarion?” The commander was across from her, seated with a tablet and a folder in front of her. “It’s only in the past year you’ve been shipping out on the Lion?”

“It’s the Golden Lion,” Allura corrected as politely as she could, “And that’s correct. In a few weeks it will be a year.”

The commander nodded at her, holding the silence, and Allura shifted a bit.

“Why is this important?”

“I’m just trying to put the pieces together.” The commander folded her hands on the table in a mirror of Allura’s posture, and she hid her tiny smile. “It’s a… It’s a curiosity, a woman of stature such as yourself falling in with… these types.”

Allura swallowed, not allowing herself to show her frustration at the disdainful tone the woman had used when she talked about the crew.

“Not in the least.” The commander looked up in surprise, and Allura gave her a gentle smile. “It’s a mutually beneficial business arrangement. I rent the shuttle from Captain Shirogane, which allows me to expand my client base, and the Captain finds that having a Companion on board opens certain doors that may otherwise be closed to him.”

The commander blinked, and smiled pleasantly at her.

 

<><><><><>

 

“According to my records you never attended flight school.” The commander looked up at Keith, who sat in his chair with his arms crossed and a cold glare on his face. “So how did you wind up working as a pilot?”

“I’m a quick learner.” The words were harsh, clipped, and didn’t reveal a damn thing.

“And the captain took the time to teach you? A street rat from Balmera?”

“Didn’t take that much time.”

She pursed her lips and flicked her eyes over his record again. “And when you signed on, was the Captain aware of your many, many arrests?”

Keith drummed his fingers against his bicep. “I figure he did. Never did ask.”

The woman sat back in her chair, giving him a look of false bemusement that made his fists clench.

“Is there any particular reason you don’t wish to discuss your past?”

“It’s past.” He answered gruffly. “Don’t matter anymore.”

“Is there any reason you don’t wish to discuss your relationship with the Captain?”

Keith bit his tongue, and ground out, “None of your business. We’re very private people.”

 

<><><><><>

 

“He stole our shuttle!” Matt was sprawled so far back in his chair he was about to fall entirely, his feet popped up on the table. “He stole a whole chunk of the gorramn ship! But did Shiro question it? Noooooo, the kid was a good pilot so obviously that was a perfectly legitimate reason to just hire him on that minute. Let me tell you, I cannot go anywhere with that man, every time we go somewhere we come back with a new stray, it’s like I’m runnin’ a gorram orphanage! Or a zoo, a zoo is much more fitting.”

The commander stared, unamused, as Matt prattled on.

“At least Hunk was a good kid when we signed him on, even if it was a little young, but Keith was just a troublemaker. And man, Lance, do not get me started on how we found Lance.”

 

<><><><><>

 

“And then Marco said to me that he was gonna steal Luis’s girl, which I thought was total bullshit, ya know, so I went to Luis and I told him, ‘Marco is tryin’ to steal ya girl’, but of course I was only ten at the time and he didn’t believe me, until two weeks later when he walked in on Marco and his girl doin’ the ya know and then they got into this huge knock down drag out in the yard, I mean huge , and then Veronica came stormin’ out of the house like they owed her money and grabbed ‘em both by the ear and dragged them into Mamá, and me and Rachel are watching from the window laughing our asses off, ya know, until--”

 

<><><><><>

 

“Six gerstlers crammed under every cooling drive so that you strain your primary artery function and you end up having to recycle secondary exhaust through a bypass system just so’s you don’t end up pumping it through the main atmo feed and asphyxiating the entire crew!”

Pidge paused for a breath, a steely glare still locked on the Commander, who looked a bit like she was regretting every decision she’s ever made.

“Now that’s junk.”

 

<><><><><>

 

“It’s not often you find a ship of that size that requires two mechanics.” The commander arched a brow. “Is it that run down?”

Unfortunately, this boy seemed a lot more calm than the other engineer, and merely smiled at her.

“No, the Golden Lion could fly just fine with only one mechanic, but I’m not too good with wires.” He raised his grease-stained hands and wiggled his fingers, as if to make a point. “I’ve got big hands, and it’s hard to keep hold of all the little stuff. That’s what Pidge is for.”

“Ah, yes, you mean Katie. She’s quite a spitfire.”

“Sorry about her.” His grin turned apologetic. “She’s real protective of the Lion, don’t take well to people bad-mouthin’ her.”

“What about the Captain? What’s he like?”

“Oh, Shiro? He’s a good guy. He can be real protective of us, too, and the Lion. You should’ve seen him that time Keith got jumped on Taujeer, whew he was not happy with those guys.”

“Really?” The commander leaned forward over her tablet. “What did he do to them?”

“Gave them a real long lecture about good morals before sendin’ them home to their mothers.”

The commander sighed.

 

<><><><><>

 

Aboard the Golden Lion, the soldiers were not being considerate houseguests as they searched the ship. Dining chairs were being tossed about, cabinets rifled through, drawers turned out and emptied onto the floor.

Outside, clinging to the metal hull for dear life, was a man in a brown space suit. He kept his face turned towards the metal, not towards the void that could swallow him up at any moment, and so no one would see his bright orange mustache quivering with apprehension.

 

<><><><><>

 

Shiro was interrogated last, and by the time the door slid open and the commander marched inside, she looked about ready to eject the whole crew out of the airlock. Shiro could only imagine the kind of antics they’d pulled to get her this frustrated.

For a long moment she stood beside her chair, not looking up at him, flipping through a report. Shiro waited patiently, drummed his fingers on the table, but after several seconds of her still not looking he figured out what she was trying to do and sighed, resigning himself to speaking first.

“So, I figure by now you’ve been over to the derelict, seen for yourself.”

“Yes, terrible thing.” The commander answered, not moving her gaze from the report.

“If you want my advice, you won’t tow it back. Just fire the whole gorram thing from space and be done with it.”

“That ship is evidence. I’m not in the habit of destroying evidence.”

Shiro rolled his eyes. “‘Course not. Be against the rules.” He leaned forward, resting his arms on the table. He was tired, hungry, and getting a headache from these ridiculous lights. “I’m gonna make a leap here and figure this is your first tour out on the border.”

The commander huffed, flipped the report closed and smacked it onto the table. Finally, she met Shiro’s eyes, but hers revealed nothing.

“It’s a very loyal crew you have here.” Shiro smiled proudly.

Goddamn right.

“But then I can tell by your record that you have a tendency to inspire that in people… Sergeant.”

Shiro carefully kept the snarl off of his face, and relieved the tension that made him want to clench his fists by leaning back in his chair again. He was trying so hard to be nonchalant, though whether he was succeeding or not remained to be seen.

“It’s not Sergeant. Not anymore. War’s over.”

“For some the war will never be over.” Argued the commander. Shiro narrowed his eyes just slightly, questioning, and she gave a tiny smirk. “I noticed your ship is called the Golden Lion. You were stationed on Naxzela at the end of the war. Battle of the Golden Valley took place there, if I recall.”

Shiro, mockingly, said, “You know, I believe you may be right.” As if he didn't remember. As if he didn’t remember the exact place he had been standing when his world came crashing down, where everything he’d fought and bled and watched men died for became obsolete, where their freedom was stolen from them. As if he didn’t recall every single second of that battle, every scrape and bruise and gunshot and brush of air and drop of sweat. As if he could ever forget.

“Independents suffered a pretty crushing defeat there.” The commander looked smug-- she could tell she was getting under his skin. “Some say that after the Golden Valley the browncoats were through, that the war ended in that valley.”

Shiro raised his eyebrows and gave a disinterested hum, waiting for her to get to the damn point already. She still hadn’t sat down.

“Seems odd you’d name your ship after a battle you were on the wrong side of.”

Oh, Shiro could not let that stand. He should keep his mouth shut, but she’d pressed all the right buttons, damnit.

“May have been the losing side. Still not convinced it was the wrong one.”

The commanders eyes gleamed, and she took a few slow, loping paces towards his end of the table.

“Is that why you attacked that transport?”

“What?” Shiro poured as much outrage as he dared into the question, but the commander didn’t hesitate.

“You’re still fighting the same battle, Sergeant. Only those weren’t soldiers you murdered. They were civilians, families, citizens loyal to the Garrison, trying to make a new life and you just can’t stand that, can you?

He couldn’t believe his ears. He knew the commander was going to be a pain, maybe try to nail them for the goods they took off of the ship, but to be blamed for the murder of 16 whole families? How could his crew of seven have possibly accomplished something like that on their tiny transport ship that didn’t have any guns on it? It was preposterous-- not that logic seemed to matter very much to the Garrison.

“So we attacked that ship, then brought the only living survivor to our infirmary. Is that what we did?”

“I’d ask him,” She’s right over him now, staring him down like a cockroach she’s about to squish, “Only I’m not sure he’ll be able to speak with his tongue split down the middle.”

Shiro went cold. He felt it all the way down to his fingertips-- he felt the blood rush out of his face, felt his eyes go wide. He’d been hoping that he wouldn’t be right this time.

The commander took his reaction as an expression of guilt, and began to stride back towards her chair.

“I haven’t seen that kind of torture since… well, since the war.”

“I should have known.” Shiro muttered to himself. He should’ve known better than to leave that man alone in the infirmary, with all the tools and ways he could hurt.

“You and your crew are bound by law. Formal charges will be transmitted to central authority.”

“Commander, I’m not what you need to be concerned about right now.” The man was loose now, armed most likely thanks to Shiro’s ignorant mistake, and if he was correct about what was going through the man’s mind then he would be very, very dangerous. “Things go the way they are, there’s gonna be blood.” If there hadn’t been already.

 

<><><><><>

 

The med bay was a mess. Six doctors and nurses crowded around the emaciated man, trying to hold him down as his body spasmed and shook. His heartbeat spiked and dropped at alarming rates, and all the doctors were yelling and shouting instructions to each other as they scrambled to get him stabilized and off of death’s doorstep.

But the man was more conscious than they thought. From his fingers he flipped the scalpel he’d stolen from the Lion, and with a mere flick of his wrist, sent blood spraying across the floor.

 

<><><><><>

 

“Galra?”

Shiro leaned back. He’d been gripping both sides of the table as he explained, and now he forced his fingers to uncurl and made himself lean back.

“That is what I said.”

The commander scoffed and finally sat down in her chair. “You have no idea how often people in my position hear that excuse. Galra did it.”

“It’s the truth.” Shiro insisted, and she raised an eyebrow.

“Did you see them?”

Stupid, stupid question. “Wouldn’t be sittin’ here talkin’ to you if I had.”

“No, of course not.” Replied the commander, and she rolled her eyes. It was like talking to a brick wall, but he pressed forward nonetheless. All of them would be in danger if something wasn’t done soon.

“I’ll tell you who did-- that poor bastard you took off my ship.”

The commander blinked.

“He looked right into the face of it and was made to stare.”

“It?”

“The darkness. The kind of darkness you can’t even imagine.” He was well acquainted with darkness of his own, the darkness of the night sky lit up with bombs, the darkness of his bunk when he jolted awake, the darkness of his thoughts during those few months after the end of the war when he’d lost his arm. But this kind of darkness… it scared even him.

“Very poetic.” The commander said, mocking, but Shiro merely leaned another inch forward.

“They made him watch. He probably tried to turn away, they wouldn’t let him. You call him a survivor, he’s not.” No more than Shiro himself was.

He looked down at the table and gulped. He didn’t want to think about it, didn’t want to imagine, because the thought scared the ever-loving holy hell out of him even after everything he’d seen.

“Someone comes up against that kind of will,” He murmured, knowing well that the commander was listening, “The only way to deal with it, I suspect, is to become it. He’s following the only course left to him.” The same way he had. “First he’ll try to make himself look like one. Cut on himself, desecrate his flesh,” The tongue splitting, “And then… he’ll start actin’ like one.”

The commander looked down at her tablet, pressed a button. After a moment of waiting she began to speak into the intercom.

“Let’s have two M.P.’s up here to escort Sergeant Shirogane to the brig.”

Thirty seconds later Shiro was being hauled to his feet by the two troops, hands being cuffed behind his back, all while the commander spoke in an unbearably smug tone.

“Your ship and its contents will be auctioned. The proceeds of the sale will be applied to your defense.” While she was talking another soldier had rushed in, this one in a cloth uniform rather than armor, and she turned her head lightly to hear what he was whispering in her ear.

Her eye twitched.

“Get him out of here.” The guards began to haul him towards the door as the commander got to her feet, already barking orders. “Go to full lockdown. I want guards on the nursery.”

“It won’t matter!” Shiro shouted in desperation, halting the commander in her way out the door. “You won’t find him. But I know where he’ll go.”

 

<><><><><>

 

The soldier that had been set to guard the entrance to the Lion lay dead before the airlock, throat slashed from ear to ear. The commander, armed with a pistol, closed her fist and halted their procession.

“Why would he come back here?”

“Looking for familiar ground.” Shiro rolled his shoulders, already beginning to ache from the handcuffs. “He’s on the hunt.”

“Alright.” She nodded to the troop behind him. “Get him to the brig.”

“No, I should go with you!”

“That’s out of the question.”

“How many more men you feel like losing today, Commander? Nobody knows the Lion like I do, I can help you.”

The commander stared him down for a long moment, considering. Finally, she made her decision.

“We let him go first.”

She was kind enough to at least cuff his hands in front of him rather than behind him, which would really give him the advantage thanks, and then cautiously followed as he led her and her men onto the ship.

He led them all the way through to the galley. The place was a mess, torn to pieces by the soldiers, giving their quarry ample places to hide from them. He made it through the kitchen unaccosted, though paused by the door when he saw a helmet from one of the space suits sitting beside it. Coran had come back on the ship after the soldiers left-- he had to be careful.

Shiro turned back to face the kitchen and met eyes with the commander-- just as a shape leapt up from behind a stack of food crates, grabbed a soldier, spun him around, and cut his throat. The blood spray caught the commander across the face, leaving her blinking in confusion just long enough for the man from the derelict ship to leap upon her and tackle her to the floor.

He was screaming, yelling something incomprehensible, his whole body shaking. Shiro sprung from his place and looped the handcuffs around the man’s neck to haul him off of the terrified commander.

With one sharp jerk of his bound wrists, there was a crack, and the man went still.

Gently, gently, Shiro laid him down.

His face was horrific. He’d carved chunks of his forehead and his cheeks out, and apparently appropriated the tines of some of their forks to make metal adornments for the new holes. The whole thing was a gory mess, but for Shiro the worst part was the eyes: the same color as Keith’s and staring out at him under half closed lids.

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

The commander followed Shiro’s advice: she let them go without a charge, and as they flew away the cruiser fired several shots into the derelict ship, turning it, the bodies, and the ghosts into cosmic dust.

They were all up late that night putting the ship back to rights and grumbling about Garrison soldiers the whole time, and it was three in the morning before Shiro made it back to his bunk. But he didn’t plan on sleeping just yet-- the image of the survivors mutilated face would inspire two nights of restless sleep at the very least.

From above, someone knocked on the entrance to his bunk.

“Yeah?”

Down the ladder came Keith, awkwardly trying to balance the worn cardboard box that held their old set of Chinese checkers on one arm.

“Hey,” He said, a bit nervously, once he reached the bottom. “I was wonderin’... if maybe we could…”

Shiro gave him an indulgent smile, feeling his spirits beginning to lift already.

“Sure, bud.”

They set up the board on Shiro’s bed, and for the first half of the game Keith was quiet. Shiro let him be. Keith usually needed time to figure out what he was going to say, especially if the subject matter was important, and Shiro was more than willing to give him the time that he needed. But this time the silence was stretching on far longer than usual-- like he was hesitating.

“Something on your mind?” He prodded gently, tick tick ticking his marble across the board. Keith paused. His mouth screwed up like he was debating, his eyebrows furrowed, and finally he seemed to decide.

“Just… that guy. He looked like me.”

Shiro risked a glance up at Keith’s face. His bangs hid most of it from Shiro’s view, but he could still see how Keith worried his lower lip between his teeth and the tension in his shoulders.

“I’m sure it was just a coincidence.” Even as he said the words he knew he didn’t believe them, and judging by the unhappy noise that left Keith’s throat, he didn’t either.

“No, I mean, it’s kinda weird, don’t you think? Men-- people used to tell me all the time that they’d never seen eyes like mine before, and his were the exact same.”

Shiro’s gut twisted angrily at the thought of what kind of men would be saying that to a homeless teenager, but beat it back with great effort. Yes, it was strange, he wouldn’t deny that to himself. But there was no reason to worry about it or let Keith worry.

“Keith,” He raised his head just a little, just enough for Shiro to see his whole face and the anxiety it held, “Listen. It doesn’t mean anything.”

For a long moment their gazes held. Then Keith swallowed, gave a tiny, relieved nod, and turned his attention back to the game.

Shiro lost.

Chapter Text

One Year Earlier

 

The woman was beautiful, there was no doubt about that, decked out all in silver and powder blue, lace and silk, jewels that reflected the dull light of the shuttle all around the room. She was stunning, radiant, all of those things. She also stuck out like a sore thumb in the dusty shuttle and in contrast to Shiro’s worn and practical gear.

“She’s smallish,” she said with a slight wrinkle to her nose.

“Well, not overly,” responded Shiro, knowing full well that the shuttle was, in fact, smallish. “I’ve got a surveyor and his wife interested in renting it. They’re just waiting to hear back.”

Delicately, she raised the silver jeweled veil to her forehead and moved towards the cockpit.

“What’s her range?”

“Standard short. She’ll break atmo from a wide orbit, get you where you need to go, bring you back home again.” Shiro followed her into the tiny cockpit just as she was sweeping back her skirts and sitting in the pilots seat. “She’s space worthy, just like the rest of the Lion.”

The woman, whose name was Allura, lowered her hand from one of the button panels and gave him a knowing smile.

“No need to sound so defensive, Captain,” She said, and her voice was low and quiet as she rose from the seat again. “I prefer something with a few miles on it.” She strolled past him to continue inspecting the shuttle while Shiro stood where he was, crossing his arms and observing.

“Were we to enter into this arrangement, Captain Shirogane, there are a few things I would require from you, first and foremost being complete autonomy.” She turned to face him and her expression was no longer coy-- instead it was frozen and stony, the face of a businesswoman. “The shuttle would be my home. No crew member, including yourself, would be allowed entrance without my express invitation.”

“You’d get your privacy.” Shiro answered, slightly offended at the implication that they were all hooligans with no respect for others. Lance, maybe, but not all of them.

“And just so we’re clear,” The silver and blue now made her look more like an iceberg than a moonbeam, “Under no circumstances will I be servicing you or anyone who is under your employ.”

Oh, right, he’d forgotten. Allura was a companion.

“I’ll post a sign.”

That warm smile returned. “That won’t be necessary.” She began walking again, back toward the door, forcing Shiro to follow her.

“The other thing I would insist upon is some measure of assurance that when I make an appointment with a client, I will be in a position to keep that appointment. So far as such assurances are possible on a vessel of this… type.”

“That’s an awful lot of caveats and addendums there, miss.”

Allura remained serene. “As I said I just want to be clear.”

“Well, I’ll be sure to take all of that into consideration when I review the applications.”

Her laughter was bell-like, and when Shiro turned back from the door to face her she was grinning, though this one was less warm and more… mischievous.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she chortled, “You’re going to rent this shuttle to me.”

“Am I?”

“Yes. And for one quarter less than your asking price.”

“Is that a fact?”

“It is.”

“And you figure you’ll be getting this discount… why, exactly?”

Directly in front of him, she looked up at him through her eyelashes and said, “Because you want me.”

Shiro’s eyebrows practically broke atmo.

“I’m sure you’re very nice to look at, miss, but I tend to prefer something less feminine.”

Allura rolled her eyes. “You want me on your ship.”

“Do I?” Shiro wasn’t sure he did.

“Yes. Because I can bring something your surveyor, or any other fish you have on the line, can’t. A certain respectability.”

Shiro scoffed, but she was continuing before he had a chance to argue back.

“And based on what little I’ve seen of your operation, I suspect that’s something you could use.”

“Fine, then let me ask you this. If you’re so respectable, why are you even here? I mean, I’ve heard tell of fancy ladies such as yourself shipping out on big luxury liners and the like, but a registered Companion on a boat like this? What are you running from?”

“I’m not running from anything.” She held her chin high and her face was blank, but her voice held a tiny tremor.

“If it’s Garrison trouble you got, you might want to consider another ship. Some on board here fought for the Independents.”

“The Garrison has no quarrel with me. I supported unification.”

“Did ya? Well, hope you don’t mind sailing with a bunch of vagabonds, Princess.”

 

Present Day

 

The bar was dark and enclosed, filled with smoke from the various men shoving cigars between their lips. Mismatched ceiling lamps hung over the rows of old fashioned pool tables, dim yellow light casting shadows on the sticky carpeted floor. Around the center table was huddled a group of men while a lady with elegant silver hair sat at the bar.

“Didn’t hardly have to convert the ship, even,” one of the men was saying as he lined up his shot. His long, cracking leather coat left flakes on the table when he bent. “Stronger locks, thicker doors. Keep everybody where they’re supposed to be. Don’t even need more rations.”

The man tapped the cue ball, and it rolled into another, but it didn’t go in the hole, leaving the man to curse as the next player stepped up.

“You made money, huh?” Asked Shiro.

“Hand over fist, my friend. Water planets need labor. Terra-forming crews got a prodigious death rate.”

“Labor? You mean slaves.” He kept his tone casual as he took his shot, allowing himself only a small smile when he hit the ball into the hole in the corner of the table.

“Well they wasn’t volunteers for damn sure.”

Shiro moved to hit another ball. “That why you didn’t have to lay in more rations?” That one bounced off.

“I didn’t hear no complaints.”

Having played through his turn Shiro sidled over to the bar, leaning his cue against it.

“There’s a chance you might want to head back to the ship,” he murmured to Allura. She smiled.

“I’m alright. This is entertaining actually.” She sipped at some kind of pink drink in a ridiculously small glass while Shiro side eyed her.

“Yeah? What’s entertaining?”

“I like watching the game. Like with other situations, the key seems to be giving Lance something to aim at and standing back.” She said it just as Lance hit a ball into one of the holes and let out a whoop.

Shiro circled around to face her directly. “Still, might ought to clear out before too much longer. Seems there’s a thief about.”

Allura’s expression went slack. “Thief?”

“Yeah.” From the pocket of his coat, Shiro produced a wad of bills and a wolf grin. “Took this right off him.”

Allura’s eyes widened, and she set her drink on the bar before taking the money from him.

“Now they earned that with the sweat of their slave trading brows.”

“Shiro!” She scolded, tucking the money into her shirt.

“Oh, terrible shame. ‘Course they won’t discover it till they go order their next round of drinks.”

At that moment, a hand landed on his shoulder, an angry voice behind him saying, “Wei.” Shiro set his jaw.

“Good drinker, that one.” He said to Allura before spinning and clocking the man across the face. Over by the pool table Lance was springing into action against the man’s partner, and with the guy laid out on the ground, Shiro turned back to Allura with a grin.

She looked down, heaved a breath, and spun to the side to avoid a kick from the downed man that sent Shiro to the floor.

Shiro’s opponent got to his feet, making him the perfect height for Shiro to grab a bar stool and smack him in the head with it. Lance hit his man with a cue and watched him crumple, and the racket incited the other patrons to join in. Back on his feet, Shiro grabbed the man by the back of his jacket and threw him clear over the bar and into the mirror behind, shattering it and startling the bartender.

Then he took Allura by the arm to usher her out while she muttered, “Lovely place, I’ll tell my friends.”

He laughed.

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

“Seem to you we cleared outta Krell in a hurry?” Matt asked Keith, leaning back against the console as Keith took them in for landing at Balmera. He merely shrugged, biting back his response that it hadn’t been soon enough. Undeterred by Keith’s silence, Matt continued.

“Heard tell we’re stayin’ a while on Balmera.”

Out in front of the ship, the sun rose over the edge of the planet, bathing it in a warm glow that Keith scowled at. If they were staying more than a few hours it probably meant Shiro was gonna force him off the ship, which he was absolutely not looking forward to.

“Well, ain’t that a joyful sight,” came the voice of the devil himself from the entrance to the bridge.

“You gotta love a sunrise,” said Matt, wistfully. “Startin’ to get familiar, too. Like a second home.”

“Balmera ain’t home.” Keith snapped without regard to the fact that he was considerably lowering the mood in the room. “Too many people there wanna kill us.”

Shiro rested his hand on the back of the pilot seat, the other darting forward to ruffle Keith’s hair.

“As much of a grouch as you are, you’re right. We just gotta resupply, look for work, and move along. Sniff the air, not kiss the dirt.”

“Aw, I don’t know,” drawled Matt, “I think Keith could do with a little dirt kissin’.”

Keith snorted. “Better than kissin’ any of you.”

Suddenly something on the dash started beeping and Keith straightened from his semi-relaxed pose as they closed in on Balmera.

“Planet’s coming up a mite fast,” Matt noted as the ship began to tremble.

“That’s just cause I’m goin’ down too quick,” answered Keith. “Likely crash and kill us all.” He shot Shiro a wicked grin.

“Well, if that happens, let me know.” With that, he left the bridge.

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

In her slightly turbulent shuttle, Allura sat before her screen logged into the Cortex, considering a panel of potential clients on Balmera. She dismissed three or four introduction videos, before pausing and tapping on one with a richly dressed young man on it who hadn’t yet grown out of his baby fat.

“I understand your time on our planet is limited,” said the man, voice tinny in the tiny speakers, “And if you selected my proposal to hear, then the honor you do me flatters my…” His voice stuttered, eyes widening in panic, before stammering, “... my honor.”

Allura gave the screen a pitying look and is about to dismiss the video when another pops up in front of it, a live call from the planet below.

“Now there’s the smile made of sunlight.”

The accented voice was smooth and confident, and Allura responded with her usual warm smile.

“Lotor. How wonderful to see you.”

“Did you get my message?” Asked the young man on the screen, raising his perfectly sculpted eyebrows. All of him was sculpted, actually, lean and sharp and angular. “I was extra appealing.”

“What a flattering invitation. I had no idea I was arriving in time for the social event of the season.”

“So, you’ll accompany me? I ask, heart in my throat?” He looked pleadingly at her with wide blue eyes, long blonde hair spilling forward over his shoulders in a waterfall. Allura chuckled a polite little laugh and cast her eyes demurely to the floor.

“There’s a certain offer I’m still waiting to hear about.” Lotor prodded, though Allura was saved by the slight knock at her shuttle door.

“Yes, I imagine there is. I’m delighted to say I’ll be there. Now I’m sorry, Lotor, but I have to run.”

“No, please, I understand. I’ll see you soon, baobei.”

The image of Lotor on the screen went still, just as Shiro came striding into the shuttle, taking the cessation of voices as an invitation to enter.

“Good afternoon, Captain.” Allura greeted politely. Shiro cracked a small smile at her.

“Morning, actually. We’re downing, and in case Keith don’t kill us all local time is gonna be in the A.M., ten or so.”

“Yes, I saw that.”

Shiro peered curiously past her at her screen. “Making plans?” He took a step forward as he read the name on the bottom of the frozen video message. “Lotor Enziel. Now he’s a regular ain’t he?”

Allura smiled, genuinely this time, and rose from her seat in front of the screen. “I’ve seen him before, yes. He’s a gracious host.”

“I’m sure.” Shiro seemed to be gauging her, studying her reactions, trying to make sure the man was safe. Allura couldn’t help but shake her head at his protectiveness. “He takin’ you out on a proper date this time?”

“Actually, we’re attending a ball tomorrow night.”

Shiro tilted his head and his bangs fell childishly into his eyes. “Is it a Companions only thing, or?”

“No, most of the other women there won’t be Companions. The other men probably couldn’t attract one.”

The two of them shared a laugh.

“Well, it sounds like a fine time.”

“I don’t suppose you’d find it up to the standards of your outings.” As she spoke, her voice took on a particular teasing lilt. “More conversation, and somewhat less petty theft and getting hit by pool cues.”

Shiro chuckled under his breath. “You let me know if you need me to come liven it up a bit, Princess.”

“I doubt I’ll have need of your services, Sir Shirogane, but I’ll keep it in mind.”

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

The streets of Balmera are, as always, crowded, dusty, and hot. The entire crew (minus Allura and Coran) made their way down the narrow walkways that wound through the shops, each person laden down by various goods that had to be offloaded. The group emerged into a slightly wider area where they could get a mule ride to the proper marketplace, but the storefronts that framed it were rather distracting.

“Oooh, look at the pretties!” Pidge exclaimed, rushing forward to stare through the glass at the models showing off the newest fashions.

“What am I looking at, the girls or the clothes?” Asked Lance with a sliver of a smirk, only to be roughly elbowed by an irritated Keith.

Pidge turned to face the other window as the group gathered around her, staring with wide, awed eyes.

“Say, look at this one!” She pointed up at the one she was looking at-- a long lavender gown with bows on the short sleeves. The girl wearing it swirled the skirt, bent over and tilted her head forward to show off the matching purple bow holding back her hair.

“Got money for it?” Shiro asked, adjusting the weight of the sack slung over his shoulder. “I don’t pay you for no reason, ya know.”

Pidge’s mouth twisted downwards. “I would, but I’ve been saving up for some parts for my special project.”

“Oh, you mean the special project you won’t let me see no matter how much I beg?”

“Yes, Hunk, that one.” She sighed and gave a reluctant shrug. “It’s a burden to be able to prioritize, I tell you.”

“Well, if we ain’t buyin’, we’d best get movin’,” said Shiro, gesturing towards an available mule. “These ain’t feathers I’m toting here.”

As they’d discussed the others loaded up their cargo onto the mule, including Lance and Shiro’s, and headed off to the marketplace. While they were gone it would be their responsibility to track down some work.

They’d barely made it two steps before Shiro caught the sound of a rifle whirring from the shadows. From them emerged Kolivan, flanked by three armed goons.

“Kolivan.”

Because of course, nothing can ever go smoothly.

“Captain Shirogane. Heard you were in town, thought we might have a bit of a sit down.”

“I’d prefer a bit of a piss off.”

Kolivan chuckled darkly. “I’m very sorry, did I give you the impression I was asking?” His pointed smile fell, and Lance and Shiro exchanged a very trepidatious-- and exasperated-- look before they were lead off into the alleyways.

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

Kolivan’s metal hideout was sweltering in the heat, even with the multitude of fans attempting to lower the temperature. When they arrived, Shiro and Lance were shocked to be offered seats at Kolivan’s desk, and mystified when he sat across from them and produced two shot glasses, filling both with amber liquid.

Shiro eyed his glass with a raised eyebrow, but didn’t drink from it.

“Seems to me,” he began slowly, gauging Kolivan’s expression, “That the last time there was a chance to do business we were all manner of unwelcome. Now we’re favored guests, treated to the finest in beverages that make you blind.” He leaned forward, resting his arms on his knees. “So what is it you need?”

Kolivan smirked, throwing back a shot of his own before leaning back in his chair.

“There’s a local by the name of Lubos. Got some property he wants to sell off planet, fetch a high price.”

“The local powers won’t let him sell off world,” Shiro guessed, and Kolivan nodded.

“What he needs himself is a smuggler. Willin’ to cut you in on it.”

Shiro narrowed his eyes. “Why me? You have access to ships, you could do it yourself.”

Kolivan’s easy expression morphed into an irritated scowl. “Won’t deal with me. He’s taken an… irrational dislike. He’s a quality gent, nose in the air. Don’t find me respectable.”

The captain had to hold back a scoff. Between the drug deals, smuggling, burglary operations, human trafficking, whore houses, loan sharking, and even rumors of assassination, Kolivan’s outfit was probably the least respectable on Balmera. Lubos, apparently, wasn’t blind.

“But you,” said Kolivan, pointing at Shiro, “You, I figure, got a chance.”

“You backed out of a deal last time, left us hangin’.” To his left, Lance was tired of sitting and doing nothing and decided to take the shot Kolivan had offered. Shiro resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “You recall why that took place?”

“Because you got careless and let the Garrison tag you. Garrison won’t be around for this deal.”

Shiro crossed his arms, unconvinced. “How would you even set up a meet? The man won’t deal with you.”

Kolivan’s lip quirked again. “Know a place he’ll be. A safe place, usin’ some new high tech gun scans. High class too, wouldn’t let me in there. You might slip in. Got my hands on a couple invites.”

Lance and Shiro exchanged a look, and Kolivan leaned forward.

“So, what’s it gonna be?”

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

That night Allura waited in line with the other couples, decked out head to toe in silver silk, her hair piled high on her head in an elaborate uptwist. Classical music hummed in her ears; for once from live musicians rather than a reedy recording. Numerous couples were already sweeping across the ballroom floor while the rest waited their turn to be announced.

“Colonel Cyrus Mumsen, and escort,” read the porter in his booming voice, and another couple emerged from the darkened hall behind the archway into the ballroom, well lit by the chandelier that hovered near the tall ceiling.

The next couple stepped forward, the ones just in front of herself and the elegantly dressed man on her arm. The porter consulted his list.

“William and Lady Courtland.”

The two made to step through the archway, but the man was stopped abruptly by the blue laser screen that appeared, zeroing in on the outline of a pistol tucked in his jacket. He stood there for a moment, awkward and abashed, just long enough for another porter to appear and hold out an expectant hand.

The pistol was relinquished, and Lord Courtland was allowed into the ballroom.

Allura straightened her spine when she and Lotor moved forward to stand next to the podium. It had been a long while since she’d been to a proper ball, and already she was feeling a bit giddy.

“Lotor Enziel, and Allura Serrana.”

Gracefully they swept into the room. It was a bustle of music and people, some participating in the group dance happening on the dance floor and others lingering on the edges, making quiet, polite conversation or taking advantage of the lush banquet table. It was heaped high with fresh fruit, pastries, and fondues, and Allura caught her mouth watering a bit at the idea of something not pre-packaged and preserved for space flight.

Lotor led her through the room, blonde hair cascading down his back in a sheen. As they walked, Allura went through the familiar motions of social interactions. Blowing a kiss and a brief platitude when she saw someone she knew, and taking a moment to kneel by the chair of an elderly councilman and greet him in fluent Chinese. When she turned back to Lotor, he was watching her with thin lips quirked in amusement.

“Half of these men wish you were on their arm tonight,” he said, and Allura raised her eyebrows.

“Only half?” She cast a coy look away from him. “I must be losing my undefinable allure.”

“Oh, it’s not that undefinable.” He leaned forward, hair tumbling over his shoulder, and said in a conspiratorial half whisper, “All of them wish they were in your bed.”

The rise of embarrassment was a sharp pinprick, and Allura looked away again, this time sharply and without a smile.

“I’m looking for the boy with the shimmer wine.”

“Oh, she blushes.” He stepped behind her, placing a hand on her lower back to guide her onto the dance floor. “Not many in your line of work do that.”

They reached their destination and Lotor paused, turning to face her. “You are a very singular woman, and I find…” He paused and considered her face for a moment before lifting her gloved hands. “I find I admire you more and more.”

With that he swept them into a graceful, perfectly timed waltz across the floor. Allura knew the dance like the back of her hand, she’d studied it so extensively, and kept up without trouble as Lotor spun and swayed with her across the marble floor, bespeckled in golden light from the hovering chandelier.

“I’m trying to offer you something, you know,” he murmured after a minute or two of quiet dancing. “A life, if you want it.” He raised his hand to guide Allura into a spin, and when he pulled her back she was smiling wide.

“Lotor,” was all she said, hoping her tone would convey the words she didn’t want to speak.

“You can live here on Balmera as my personal companion.”

Her smile stuttered, but she propped it back up. “You’re a generous man.”

He frowned a bit in response. “That is not a yes.”

“It’s not a no either,” she reminded him, then turned her head to call a compliment to a vague acquaintance dancing by. The rhythms of conversation and high society were so familiar… and dare she say comforting. She’d missed it.

Lotor stopped their dance, reaching out to grab a drink from a passing waiter, pressing the small flute of champagne into her gloved hand.

“You belong here, Allura,” he said with great sincerity, “Not on that flying piece of gǒushǐ.”

“Lotor! Language!”

“What, piece of gǒushǐ? But it is a piece of gǒushǐ.”

Allura bit back a cringe, imagining how Pidge or Hunk would react to him talking about the Lion like that, but before she could argue the point the porter called out another name that snagged her attention like a fish hook.

“Miss Katherine Holt, and escort.”

Allura spun on her heel, brow furrowed in confusion. “Pidge?”

And there, stepping through the screened archway, was the Lion’s teenage engineer, wearing a long lavender gown that Allura was certain she hadn’t owned when she left the ship. Her hair was loose down her back, ragged bangs held in and disguised by a purple bow. On her arm was none other than Captain Takashi Shirogane.

“Tāmāde.”

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

“Shiro,” Pidge whispered, squeezing his hand tightly. “Did you see the chandelier? It’s hovering!”

Shiro frowned up at it. “What’s the point of that, I wonder?” He began to make his way around the center of the room, eyes peeled for his quarry, while Pidge tagged along behind. Her voice shone when she spoke again.

“Look, mangoes!”

“I see how they did it, I just ain’t getting the why,” he continued, still stuck on the obnoxious chandelier. Pidge wasn’t listening-- she was staring around the room at all the other people done up and dancing around.

“These girls have the most beautiful dresses,” she said, almost wistfully, before remembering. “And so do I. How about that?”

He glanced back long enough to give her a wane smile. At least Pidge was having a good time, because he most definitely was not. The marble room was loud with music and conversation, and he had the most suffocating sensation that he didn’t belong here and it was obvious.

“Alright, I’m lookin’ for our man Lubos.”

“And Allura,” Pidge added. “We should look for her, right? Just to say hello at her?”

“If we see her. I think she’s wearing silver.”

They paused by a pillar, Pidge still captivated by the activity around them and Shiro’s eyes glancing over every person he could see.

“Okay, Pidge, help me find him. He’s supposed to be older, kinda stocky. Wears a red sash crossways.”

Pidge was staring past him, slack jawed, and murmured softly, “Why does he do that?”

“Maybe he won the Ms. Balmera Pageant. Just help me look.”

“Is that him?” He had to bite back a snicker when he followed the direction of her pointing finger.

“That’s the buffet table.”

“Well how can we be sure unless we question it?” She grinned impishly and it took barely a moment for him to break.

“Fine, don’t make yourself sick.”

Pidge preened as she said, “ Xièxie , Captain,” and made her way over to the table, leaving Shiro in the crowd.

He made a slow lap around the room, scouring every man in search of the elusive red sash. At length he found it on a plump man across the room near another pillar, quietly discussing something with another man. Shiro reached them just as their conversation wrapped up and the other man stepped away.

“Beg pardon, but would you be Mr. Lubos?”

The man stared at him with his small, deep set eyes. The red sash was decorated with several medals and medallions, and underneath his black suit was embroidered with a golden leaf pattern.

He tilted his nose imperiously to the ceiling and said, “Sir Lubos. The sash.”

Shiro floundered for a moment. “The sash?”

“It indicates lordhood,” said the man, blinking slowly at him like he was an exceptionally dumb toddler.

“And it’s… it’s doing a great job.”

With a bemused frown Lubos turned away, probably trying to politely tell him to screw off, but Shiro followed as he tried to walk off.

“Sir, my name’s Takashi Shirogane, I captain a ship called the Golden Lion. I mention this because I’ve been led to understand you want to move some property off world.”

A tinkling laugh sounded nearby, and both of them turned to find the source. It was Allura, laughing at something her dancing partner had said as they swirled around the floor. Shiro gave her a quick once over before returning to the topic at hand.

“Some property you want to move off world discreetly.”

Lubos swallowed. “You’re mistaken, sir. I’m an honest man.”

Ah, so that’s how we’re gonna play it. Unusual, as most of the people he took jobs from knew they were crooks and didn’t bother pretending otherwise, but he could play this game.

“It seems to me there’s nothing dishonest about getting your goods to people what need ‘em.”

“Whom do you represent?” He asked with a raised eyebrow, and Shiro winced.

“Represent isn’t exactly the--”

“Don’t waste my time.”

Reluctantly, Shiro said, “Fellow called Kolivan.”

“I know him,” said Lubos with a nod, “And I think he’s a psychotic low-life.”

“And I think calling him that is an insult to the psychotic low-life community, but the deal is solid.”

“Sorry to interrupt,” said an accented voice, and Shiro turned to see Allura and her dance partner coming up from behind them. The man was easily recognizable as the one from Allura’s Cortex link with his long hair, but reality showed a sharpness to him that hadn’t been visible over the vid. Over his shoulder Allura was giving him a solemn look, as though warning him not to screw things up for her.

“Sir Lubos, I know you from the club I believe.” The two men shook hands, and Allura raised her chin like the princess Shiro liked to call her.

“Captain, this is Lotor Enziel. Lotor, Captain Shirogane.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Shiro said to Lotor, giving his hand an enthusiastic shake while the man looked like he’d just sucked on a lemon. “Allura, I didn’t realize you were going to this party.”

It was a tease, but Allura spoke between gritted teeth. “It’s the only party.”

“And I can see why. How about that floating chandelier? Almost outshines our girl here.”

He meant it as a harmless compliment-- after all, Allura was beautiful, and both of them knew he’d never actually try to pursue her. But Lotor moved his hand up to her upper arm and gripped tightly enough that Allura looked down in surprise, and suddenly all of Shiro’s good will evaporated.

“Lotor. Allura has spoken to you of me, she made a point of your generosity.”

Lotor looked a bit pleased with that and gave a small nod.

“Given that, I’m sure you won’t mind if I ask Allura the favor of a dance?”

For a moment there was quiet, Allura raising her eyebrows a centimeter and Lotor looking him up and down, as though sizing him up. Finally, his lips gave an abortive twitch, probably an attempt at a polite smile.

“Of course.”

With a pleased grin Shiro offered Allura his arm. She took it reluctantly, and then they joined the other couples on the dance floor, parting to join some kind of group dance that was happening. Surprisingly enough, it was one he actually knew.

The dance kept them apart for about thirty seconds before bringing them back together, and immediately Allura was hissing at him like an angry cat.

“Why are you here?”

“Business. Same as you.” Honestly, he could understand why she was upset. He wasn’t exactly comfortable in settings like these, and she was worried he was going to embarrass her in front of many important people. He got it, but he didn’t want to fight. He’d barely made up with Keith, the last thing he wanted was for Allura to be mad at him next. “I was talking to a contact about a smuggling job, and you came over to me.”

“You were staring at me,” Allura snapped and Shiro snorted, leading the two of them into a turn that was probably less graceful than it should have been.

“I saw you is all. You stand out.”

The next part of the dance called for them to face each other and for the lady to curtsy, followed by a bow from the man, but Shiro instinctively tried to copy Allura’s motion and had to stutter into the proper movement at the last second. Allura smirked at him.

“In this company, Captain, I believe you’re the one who stands out.”

“Well, maybe I just want to see a professional at work.”

Allura pursed her lips, finally starting to tease back at him, but suddenly he frowned and became serious himself.

“Allura, I thought you said he was a good guy.”

She blinked and almost botched the next step of the dance. “What? He is, why wouldn’t he be?”

“Just… this. The lie of it all. He’s parading you around like a trophy and everyone is just going along with it.”

“These people like me,” Allura retorted, “And I like them. I like Lotor too, by the way.”

Shiro shook his head. “Well, sure. What’s not to like. I’m liable to sleep with him myself.”

Allura bit her lip, trying desperately not to laugh while she was still irritated with him. “And he likes me, whether you see it or not.”

“Of course.”

“He’s made me an offer.”

The men and women lined up together, partners facing each other, and each line linked hands.

“You may think he doesn’t honor me but he wants me to live here.”

The men raised their arms, allowing the women to duck under their linked hands and wind up on their other side, and the men released their grip to turn back to their partners.

“I’d be his personal companion.” They joined hands and there was no sign of her companion grin. “I could belong here. Call me pretentious but there is some appeal in that.”

“You’re right.” Shiro made himself be just as solemn as she was. “Got no call to stop you. You’ve got the right to a decent life.”

Allura glanced away, back to Lotor’s face, then back to Shiro and decided to extend an olive branch.

“I see Pidge’s here.”

Shiro cracked a smile. “She didn’t want to come, but I told her I’d get her that dress if she made me look respectable.”

“I think she looks adorable,” said Allura with a genuine chuckle.

“Yeah, Hunk nearly started crying when he saw her.” He did a quick scan of the crowd to look for his engineer and found her near the buffet table surrounded by a crowd of older men and a few young ones. Judging by the light in her eyes, she was talking about mechanics again.

She said something with a smirk and the group burst into raucous laughter.

As the dance ended Shiro’s shoulder accidentally bumped into Allura, making them both stop and laugh out loud, clinging to each other.

“Possible you’re right, this ain’t my kind of party.”

Before Allura could answer Lotor had swept down on them, catching Allura by the arm and spinning her around to storm off.

“Whoa now!” Lotor stopped at his voice and turned to glare at him. “Watch yourself, no need for hands on.”

Lotor scowled bitterly. “Excuse me. She’s not here with you, Captain. She’s mine.”

The commotion had called a crowd, people beginning to form a ring around them to watch the argument, but Shiro paid them no mind. He was too busy trying to contain himself at Lotor’s arrogant words.

“Yours? She don’t belong to nobody.”

He let go of Allura, but only so that he could step closer and get in Shiro’s face.

“Money changed hands,” he sneered, “Which makes her mine tonight. And no matter how you dress her up she’s still a--”

His sentence was interrupted by Shiro’s fist introducing itself to his jaw.

Lotor crashed to the ground as the crowd let out a gasp and the orchestra abruptly stopped their music, the whole party coming to a stand still. He turned to a shocked Allura with a smile.

“Turns out this is my kind of party.”

“Oh, Shiro,” said Allura, distraught.

“What? The man was out of line.”

The man in question was staggering to his feet, a surprisingly smug expression on his face for someone who’d just been decked.

“I accept,” he spat out.

“That’s great! What?”

One of the porters appeared behind Lotor, considering the whole scene with a cool, unbothered look.

“There has a been a challenge,” he declared to the crowd. Lotor smirked.

“I hope you’re ready, Captain.”

Confused and with the terrible feeling he’d gotten himself in over his head, his only solution was to gear up for what he knew.

“What, you want a fight? That’s fine, let’s get out of here.” Rule number one of bar fights-- don’t fight in the bar unless you have a quick getaway planned. But Allura grabbed his arm as he was moving to strip off his jacket.

“It’s not a fist fight, Shiro,” she hissed, that disapproving look back on her face.

“The duel will be met tomorrow morning at Kaytree Pond,” continued the porter, who apparently had a script for duels or something.

“Well why wait?” Shiro challenged, rearing to beat this man’s head in some more. “Where’s that guard, he collected a whole mess of pistols.”

Lotor was still smirking at him triumphantly as the porter said, “If you require it, any man here can give you the use of a sword.”

Oh. Fuck.

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

Shocked and astounded, Pidge made her way across the room to where Shiro and Allura were clustered with a man in a red sash (presumably their client now that she thought about it).

“What’s going on?”

“I’m not rightly sure,” answered Shiro as he turned to the man, “What’s going on?”

The man, Lubos if Pidge was remembering correctly, gave a long suffering sigh.

“Well, first off, you’ll be put up in lodgings for the night so you don’t disappear. I wouldn’t blame you, incidentally,” Shiro and Allura traded a heavy look, “Lotor may be a spoiled dandy, but he’s also an expert swordsman. He’s killed a dozen men with a long blade. You’re the only one gave him a reason.”

Pidge’s stomach twisted up in knots, and she bunched her dress in her fists.

Shiro shook his head. “Oh, this is a joke,” he said in disbelief.

“You’ll need a second,” said Allura, and Pidge noticed her fingers twitching, probably as she resisted the urge to do the same thing Pidge was.

“What’s that?”

“I’ll take on the job,” Lubos answered without acknowledging Shiro’s question, leaving it to a flustered Allura.

“He fights if you refuse.”

“Allura!” They all turned to see Lotor standing in front of the entrance, looking at her expectantly with just a hint of resentment in his gaze. “Come with me, please.”

“Now, you taking on this job,” Shiro said to Lubos, “Does that mean we’re in business?”

Lubos blinked at him. “It means you’re in mortal danger. But you mussed up Lotor’s face, and that has endeared you to me somewhat. You might even give him a fight… before he guts you.”

“Allura!”

When Allura turned to look Lotor was even angrier, and pointedly held out his elbow. She spared a worried look for Shiro before going to join him, and Pidge crossed her arms with a huff. She’d been having such a good time.

“I can’t take you anywhere.”

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

“A duel?”

“With swords?”

“The captain’s a good fighter.” Coran bounced on his toes, made anxious by Lance and Keith’s reactions to Kolivan’s news. “He must know how to handle a sword.”

Matt’s expression wasn’t reassuring. “I think he knows which end to hold.”

“All right, so we just need to figure out how to get him out of there,” Hunk chimed in, wringing his hands. “We have until morning, right?”

“Do you know what lodging he’s in?” Asked Lance, but Kolivan shook his head at them and folded his arms.

“You’re misunderstanding my purpose here,” he growled. Keith shuffled back a few steps, warily eyeing the two or three armored guards who had accompanied him onto the ship with Pidge in tow, tired and exasperated in her purple dress.

Kolivan hadn’t looked at him yet, but better safe than sorry. Matt was the one who stepped forward.

“You’re here to make sure we don’t get to Shiro.”

Kolivan nodded. “I do business with the people in this city, I don’t want it known I brought in someone who made such a mess of things. So we’re just going to sit here until it’s all over, and my men and I are going to make sure you idiots don’t go making things worse.”

The crew exchanged glances, but really they had no choice but to comply.

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

Allura made her way down the hall as quietly and inconspicuously as she could, rolling the round key between her sweaty palms. When she reached the right door she slotted the key into it’s hole, and to her relief it sunk in, lighting up gold before the door slid open.

Shiro stood in the center of the room, his back to her, experimentally swinging a decorative scimitar he’d probably taken off the wall.

“Shiro?”

He started and spun with a cry, lodging the blade into a pillar that stood behind him. Shocked, he let go of the blade and it remained where it was.

“What are you doin’ here?”

Allura entered the room, letting the door slide shut behind her. “Lotor’s a heavy sleeper before a big day. You know, he’s got that killing in the morning then a haircut later.”

Shiro rolled his eyes. “Such a comfort, having friends visit in a time like this.” He turned back to the scimitar and with a grunt pulled it free from the wall while Allura glanced around the room. It was lavish, and there were several types of swords laying around, probably Lotor’s attempt at mocking his opponent.

“I knew the accommodations would be nice. Lotor doesn’t skimp.”

Shiro turned away from her and paced towards a low dresser on the far wall. “I don’t suppose I like being kept by him as much as others do,” he grumbled angrily to himself, and Allura bit her tongue. It was a tense situation, she supposed he had the right to be a bit snippy, but when he turned to face her his face was a stormcloud of frustration.

“So. How come you’re still attached to him?”

Allura gave a sigh of exasperation. “Because it’s my decision, not yours.”

“Thought he made it pretty clear he’s got no regard for you.”

God, he just didn’t get it, did he?

“You did manage to push him into saying something, yes. Made a nice justification for the punch.”

“He insulted you,” defended Shiro with a tense shrug. “I hit him. Seemed like the thing to do.”

Allura shook her head at him, and all at once he seemed to deflate.

“Why’d this get so complicated?”

She sternly shook herself, putting the argument out of her mind. They could discuss it later-- right now they had to focus on making sure Shiro didn’t die when the sun rose.

“It’s about to get simpler. I was trained in swordplay at the academy. Nowhere near as good as Lotor, of course, but if I teach you a few things you might be able to get lucky.”

Shiro’s brow unfurrowed, just a little.

“Alright. Suppose we’d better get to it then.”

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

“Attack.” Allura was poised, foil raised, waiting for him to come at her. Shiro hesitated for a moment, then rushed.

She easily deflected the point of his blade and dodged to the side as he barreled past her, her silk robe billowing behind her like a cloud.

“How did I avoid that?”

“By being fast like a freak?” Shiro grunted in frustration, and she did that pitying little head tilt at him again. He’d been getting that reaction a lot tonight.

“No. Because you always attack the same way, swinging from the shoulder like you’re chopping wood. You have to thrust with the point sometimes, or swing from the elbow.”

Shiro swing his sword a few times, testing. “Swinging from the shoulder feels stronger.”

“It’s also slower, Shiro.” She crossed the carpet between them to adjust his white knuckled grip on the hilt. “You don’t need strength as much as speed. We’re fragile creatures.”

Shiro scowled at the ridiculously thin slip of metal. He had been using his left hand so far, his right too clumsy to wield the delicate weapon properly, but he was right handed and it was annoyingly difficult to make the thing do what he wanted it to do.

“Why do you people even still know how to use these?” He whined, giving it another irritated slash through the air. “They’re like a thousand years old. Guns are much more efficient.”

Allura gave a long suffering sigh and stepped back from him. “I don’t know,” she said tiredly, “To preserve culture, I suppose.”

“Culture.” Shiro snorted derisively. “You mean control. This, all this fake politeness and stiff smiles, it ain’t culture. Culture is how people live their lives. This is just a set of rules to keep people in their place.”

“... You’re not just talking about the duel, are you?”

“No.”

Allura laid down her sword on the bureau while Shiro stuck holes in the carpet with the point of his.

“It’s easier in the Black,” he muttered to his feet, “Simpler. I’m starting to get why Keith likes it out there so much.”

She said nothing.

“Don’t take his offer.”

This time her head snapped up. “What?”

“Don’t do it.” Shiro wouldn’t meet her eyes. “Don’t tie yourself down like this, not to him. I said before that I didn’t have call to stop you, and that’s true, but… we’d miss our Princess.”

All of a sudden Allura’s throat was tight, and she wrapped her robe tighter around her body.

“I should get back. He’ll be up early.”

“Right. He’s got that big day.”

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

The woods around Kaytree pond were deceptively quiet. The air was cool in the early morning, fog caressing their ankles where it rolled off the water, and birds were beginning to sing in the weeping willows above. Leaves rustled like radio static.

Across the small patch of grass from him was Lotor. Dressed from head to toe in designer purple silk with a set of loyal followers behind him to watch. Shiro was still in his formal wear from the night before, rumpled from being worn all night, and only Allura and Lubos stood on his side of the clearing.

Taking his sword in hand Lotor gave a few playful swipes, peered down the line of the blade, then turned to face Shiro with a flourish. Gut clenched and adrenaline pumping, Shiro accepted his blade from Lubos and stepped up to face him.

Lotor slid into a ready pose and Shiro stood still, waiting for the inevitable lunge that came just a few seconds later. He leapt back from the glint of sunlight on the blade, his own coming up in a messy deflection that made sound ring through the glade like they actually were dueling with pistols instead of swords.

Lotor smiled and pressed his attack, making Shiro hop rapidly backwards as he frantically tried to keep the metal from skewering him. Lotor rushed, making him hold up his blade to block, and then he shoved them back apart.

He had no idea what he was doing. He could handle a knife and a gun and that was all he’d needed to know up until this point-- when he’d chosen to get involved in a world he didn’t understand. Still, he made an attempt to swing at Lotor’s head.

He ducked and lashed out with a strike of his own that Shiro dodged. He was still smirking, not even breaking a sweat.

He suspected he was being baited.

Clang. Clang. Clang. Steel against steel sang like gunshots and Lotor made a quick swipe at his upper arm. It sliced through his dress shirt but slid off of his prosthetic with a spark, and then it was Shiro’s turn to smirk at Lotor’s perturbed expression.

He dove forward, trying to take advantage of the moment of opportunity, but Lotor had already recovered.

Note to self: getting stabbed sucks.

It was a sharp pain, radiating like a starburst from his side where Lotor’s sword had punctured the skin. He could already feel the warm blood gushing down but he held his ground-- even when he caught sight of Allura’s face from the corner of his eye, twisted in anguish.

Shiro forced himself to keep fighting. Lotor was still wearing that nasty grin, which widened whenever Shiro extended his arm too far and winced at the pull on his wound. He had one hand tucked against it to hopefully slow the bleeding just a little, but it was throwing off his balance and making him even clumsier than he had been before.

They were coming up on the end. Shiro was soaked in sweat and blood and Lotor was spotless, but he kept trying to attack, swinging blindly with the hope he’d get lucky like Allura said.

Lotor blocked his swing, twisted his sword close to the ground, and with a single blow of his foot broke the blade of Shiro’s sword at the hilt. Shiro was on his knees as Lotor raised his sword to his throat but he refused to look away.

“Lotor, wait!” Allura was shouting something, pleading, but Shiro couldn’t hear the words over the roar of blood in his ears. Shiro waited, and waited, until Lotor glanced away from him to look at Allura.

Springing to his feet, he knocked the sword to the side and laid Lotor out with a single punch for the second time in less than twelve hours. The expression on his face as he fell and his sword fell from his hand was almost worth this whole situation, and it only got better when Shiro stooped to pick up Lotor’s sword and hold it over his throat.

A bit of blood trickled from the corner of his mouth from the punch. Shiro’s side throbbed and blood gushed through his fingertips, but he didn’t move. For a long moment there was silence in Kaytree Pond.

Then Lubos came up behind him. “You have to finish it, lad,” he said. Shiro didn’t move and Lotor scooted an inch back, breathing hard and eyeing the blade mere inches from his flesh.

“You have to finish it,” Lubos repeated. “For a man to lie beaten, yet breathing? It makes him a coward.”

“It’s humiliation,” said Allura as she walked to Shiro’s other side. He never took his eyes off of Lotor.

“Sure,” he answered, staring his opponent down. “It would be humiliating. Having to lie there while the better man refuses to spill your blood.”

Lotor glowered at him, lip twitching, but Shiro merely smirked. Now they were back in Shiro’s world where things made sense. Deciding life and death, running on adrenaline and weighing the risks of any possible move.

“Mercy is the mark of a great man,” he said to Lotor. Then he lowered the point of his sword and drove it into Lotor’s gut just long enough to hurt before withdrawing, pulling a low grunt of pain from the downed man.

“Guess I’m just a good man.” Then he tilted his head, considered, and stabbed him again before tossing the blade away. “Well, I’m alright.”

He turned on his heel to leave and immediately swayed sideways. Thankfully Allura was there to catch him. She began leading him towards the exit to the pond, back towards home, even as Lotor called her name in fury behind them.

“You’ve lost her, lad, be gracious,” he heard Lubos say, and smirked to himself despite the pain radiating from his side.

Lotor ignored him. “You set this up, whore!” He yelled at their backs. “After I bought and paid for you.”

Allura turned both of them, Companion expression gone and exasperation written clearly on her face. It’s a good look for her.

“I should’ve uglied you up so no one else would want you.”

Shiro scoffed. “See how I’m not punching him? I think I’ve grown.” Of course it could have also been the stab wound preventing him from curb stomping him, but it’s the thought that counts.

“Well get ready to starve.” Lotor was on his feet now, being helped up by the group of people who’d come to watch him gut Shiro. “I’ll see to it you never work again.”

Allura let go of him for a moment to stalk forward.

“Actually, that’s not how it works. You’ve earned yourself a black mark in the client registry, and no Companion is ever going to want to contract with you.”

Lubos chuckled. “You’ll have to rely on your winning personality to get women,” he snickered. “God help you.” Then when Allura returned to his side, Lubos was with her, not reaching out to assist but merely walking alongside them as they moved away from the crowd.

“You didn’t have to wound that man,” he said pointedly to Shiro.

“Yeah I know, it was just funny.”

“If you’re willing to fight that hard to protect my property, I’ll have it in your hold before midnight.”

Shiro stopped, halting their procession. With a disbelieving grin on his end and a slightly patronizing one on Lubos’s, they shook hands before he walked off.

Well. Not a total waste of time, he supposed. He said as much to Allura, who merely rolled her eyes before dragging him back to the Golden Lion.

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

“Did you ever see such a lazy crew?”

The crew in question, spread about the hold doing various mindless activities under Kolivan’s guns, all jumped to their feet the moment they saw the captain come striding up the ramp with Allura tucked under his arm.

After closer inspection, she was the one holding him up, not the other way around.

“Captain!” Hunk cried out in delight.

“You’re hurt,” said Coran, already moving forward to inspect his injuries. Kolivan rose from his seat on the stairwell and got to Shiro first.

“You get us a deal?” He asked.

“I got a deal. Now get off my ship.”

With a smirk and a whistle to call his men, Kolivan did just that, allowing the crew to crowd around him.

“Is it bad?” Pidge asked when she rushed over, still in her purple dress with Keith’s old leather jacket slung over it.

Shiro let out a grunt. “Yep.”

“We were just about to spring into action, cap’n,” Lance rushed to reassure, “A very complicated escape and rescue op.”

“I was going to watch,” said Hunk, “It was very exciting.”

Despite the twinge it caused, Shiro couldn’t help but laugh.

By the end of that night they were leaving Balmera, Shiro all stitched and bandaged up, staring down with pride at his cargo hold full of cargo.

The cargo was cows, but still.

Chapter Text

Four Years Earlier

 

Three weeks after buying it and the Firefly still wasn’t off the ground. Any engineer they had managed to lure in with the promise of a steady job hadn’t had the skill to actually fix anything that was wrong on the ship, and at this point Shiro was just about chomping at the bit to get the damn thing in the sky and get out from under the Garrison’s thumb.

They had another man coming in today, someone who’d been recommended by one of the others, said he could fix anything floating. Well, that was just great, but Shiro would believe it when he saw it.

The man arrived five minutes late. He looked like a rather grumpy fella, a bit stodgy, bald, with permanent frown lines on his weathered, dark skinned face. He carried a box full of tools with him, painted bright orange with the Garrison symbol on the side, and a younger boy who couldn’t have been more than seventeen hurried along behind him.

“Captain Shirogane?” He called up the gangplank, and Shiro stepped out into the sun with his best easy grin. He really needed this to work out, they had a job waiting for them on Paiquin.

“Hello, Mr. Bester. Thanks for comin’ out.” When they met in the middle of the gangplank Shiro automatically held out his left hand before remembering and suddenly switching to his right. He tried to ignore the man’s strange look-- the prosthetic was still new, it would take a while to remember he had two arms again. “Who’s this you brought along?”

The boy behind ducked his head, but he was so much taller than Bester that it did nothing to hide him. He was also a fairly big guy, but you could tell he was strong. He had a stained orange headband holding back his unruly hair, and when he dared to look up again Shiro took in large, intelligent eyes and a smear of grease across one cheekbone.

“Bah.” Bester said, waving a dismissive hand. “This is my apprentice. If I take your job it’ll be transferred to my partner and I won’t have to deal with the silly sod anymore.”

The boy flushed unhappily, and Shiro frowned.

A real quality guy, this one.

“Well, let me show you the engine room.” He turned to lead the two up the ramp, though he kept talking over his shoulder. “You ever worked a Firefly before?”

“Plenty, though the last was probably twenty years ago. You’ve got yourself a vintage ship here, Captain.”

As promised he led them down the rusty-red engine room with the oblong generator in the middle, still, with the metal fins coated in dust. Bester immediately began to bustle about, poking and peering this way and that, while his apprentice observed just as closely. Shiro hung in the doorway, anxious to hear the verdict.

About a half hour into the inspection the man got on his knees and peered into the guts of the ship, nestled beneath the generator, and frowned to himself. The teenager followed suit, but he didn’t frown. He merely narrowed his eyes a bit.

“Well, there’s your trouble.” Said Bester, sitting back on his heels and wiping an arm over his sweaty forehead. “This bird won’t be gettin’ in the air anytime soon. The secondary grav boot’s shot.”

“No it ain’t.” Argued the teenager, only to immediately slap a hand over his mouth in horror as his teacher glared at him.

“You shut your mouth, boy.” He growled, but Shiro stepped in.

“No, I want to hear what he has to say.” He said, angling himself so that he faced the boy rather than the man. Bester was practically seething with irritation, but Shiro ignored him. “What do you mean?”

“Ain’t nothin’ wrong with your grav boot.” The boy said, a tad hesitantly and wringing a rag between his hands. He wouldn’t look Shiro in the eye. “Grav boot’s just fine. The trouble is that your reg couple’s bad.”

“The reg couple?!” Bester exploded, making his apprentice flinch. “Nonsense! What d’you think you’re doing--”

“Hold on.” Shiro stepped fully between them now. “Show me where the problem is.”

The boy obligingly knelt down to peer under the engine, and Shiro copied him, aware of Bester doing the same despite his blustering.

“The reg couple. Right here.” He pointed into the dark maze of metal and hoses. At Shiro and Bester’s blank look, he sighed a bit. “I’m pointin’ right at it. Here.” Without a moment’s more fuss he reached in and yanked out a square bit of metal with attachments on either side that was about the size of his palm.

“Hey!” Protested Bester, but by now the boy was getting more confident and didn’t react. He merely handed the part off to Shiro and reached up to snag a wrench from one of the wall ridges that circled the metal room.

“Don’t serve much of a purpose anyway.” He murmured to himself as he reached back into the mechanical void. “Just tends to gum up the works when it gets tacked. So I figure why even have one? Better to just take your G-line,” He put the wrench down and picked up a hose, “Plug it straight into your port pin lock, and that should--”

He was cut off by the engine humming to life, and as they all got back to their feet the generator began to spin for the first time since Shiro had bought the ship, establishing that familiar whooshwhooshwhoosh rhythm.

Shiro’s eyebrows disappeared behind his bangs, and Bester was stammering in disbelief.

“How old are you, kid?” He asked while the boy looked at him shyly through his bangs. He was nearly as tall as Shiro.

“Sixteen.”

Shiro jerked his head in Bester’s direction. “You learn that from him?”

The kid shook his head. “Nah, my momma says I’ve got natural talent, ‘s why I got the apprenticeship.”

“You do work for her?”

“Sometimes. Been slow lately.”

“You got much experience with a vessel like this?”

Bester was getting angrier and angrier with every question out of Shiro’s mouth that wasn’t directed at him.

“I’ve never even been up in one before.”

Shiro only considered for a second longer before asking, “Wanna?”

The kid’s eyes opened wide and his jaw dropped, all while Bester blustered in the background.

“You mean?”

“Sure.”

He reached up to toy with the end of his headband, an excited gesture rather than an anxious one.

“For how long?”

“Long as you like.”

Then, just to make sure, he asked, “You offerin’ me a job?”

“That’s the notion.”

Bester couldn’t hold his tongue. “Now what would you need two mechanics for?”

Shiro turned and looked him dead in the eye. “I really don’t.”

 

Present Day

 

They’d been flying with the herd of cows from Balmera for well on a month now, and not one single day had gone by without someone complaining about the smell. Or about feeding them. Or about the hassle it was to maneuver through the cargo bay through twenty or so bovine beasts.

The only one who hadn’t complained had been Lance; he put himself on a personal mission to name each and every one of the animals and making sure they were taken care of properly. He also made sure to inform every person possible about how he’d grown up on a farm, which got tiring after about three days but at least he wasn’t complaining.

As good as it was to have cargo, Shiro wasn’t going to miss the bullshit that went along with it. Both literally and figuratively.

And neither apparently was Coran, who’d just made a noise of dismay upon stepping in a cow patty on his way down the ramp.

Lance, who was helping Shiro herd the animals off the ship and into their makeshift corral, snorted at him and called, “It’s about time you broke in them pretty shoes.”

Coran limped his way off to the side with an expression of despair just as Lance and Shiro got the last of the cows herded onto the ground. The last few of them, tan and white and mottled and everything in between, trotted along the gravel path beside the shallow river they’d landed by, led by the flimsy fence barriers the others had set up.

“I hope this corral is enough to hold ‘em,” Hunk said as he studied the twine holding two chunks of aluminum fence together. “I’m an engineer, not a rancher.”

Keith, perched on the fence beside Matt, chuckled a little bit. “Next time we smuggle stock, let’s make it something smaller.” He didn’t like being planetside much, but as long as there weren’t too many people he could manage for a few hours. Matt laughed.

“Yeah, we should start dealing in those black market beagles.”

Shiro shook his head as he finished tying off the last piece of the fencing. Lance was driving the last stragglers into the main corral for their buyers to see when they arrived, the corral was holding, and everything seemed to be in order, so he headed towards where Coran was still trying to wipe off his shoe in the grass.

“Coran?”

His ginger head popped up immediately. “Oh! Can I help you, captain?”

“Nah, just Allura and Pidge went down to the town to do some lookin’, figured you might wanna join ‘em for a bit.”

Coran raised an eyebrow and paused in his shoe scraping. “Are you sure that’s a good idea? I am marked as a fugitive, after all.”

Shiro rolled his shoulders, trying to dispel some of the tension building in his spine. “Nearest Garrison is the Cruiser Montgomery, miles out from here, and I promise you they ain’t coming out to a backwater like Drule.”

His mustache twitched. “Why do I get the feeling you’re trying to get rid of me?”

“Fine,” Shiro said through a sigh, “The men we’re dealing with ain’t exactly trustworthy, alright? And they’re more likely to recognize you than the locals in town. So just go hang out with Pidge and Allura for a couple hours then come back when the trade is done.”

Apparently Coran noticed the tired lines on his face and decided to take pity on him because he didn’t argue anymore-- he merely sighed and nodded like a chastised child. Shiro gave him a grateful smile.

“Don’t worry, we won’t leave without ya.”

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

Pidge frowned, reaching out with grease stained fingers to caress rough wood. “Is it just me,” she murmured to Allura, “Or does every supply store on every border planet have the same five ragdolls and the same wood carvings of… what is this, a duck?”

“That’s a swan,” Allura corrected, reaching over to touch it herself. “I like it.”

“You do?”

“Yes.” She tilted her head and studied it more closely. “It looks like it was made with… longing. Made by a person who really longed to see a swan.”

Pidge smirked and turned away from the carving. “Probably because they’d only heard of them by rough description.” She heard Allura chuckling behind her as she perused the stores worn wooden shelves, dust shuffling between the floorboards and under the treads of her boots. She was searching in vain-- there was never much to be found in places like these except for poorly made trinkets, dried food, and farming equipment.

“I wish Shiro’d let us land somewhere more high tech,” she grouched, half to herself. “I’ll never find the part I need at this rate.”

Allura came up alongside her and tugged playfully on her ponytail. “Maybe your next job will be on Olkarion.”

“Yeah, and maybe Keith and Lance will finally get along.”

They were both laughing when the door to the general store creaked open, drawing both of their gazes. To their surprise it was Coran, the man’s ridiculous mustache and rich looking clothing sticking out almost as much as Allura did amongst the rough and tumble members of the community.

“Hello, Coran,” Allura greeted in a tone of pleasant surprise. “We don’t usually see you out and about planet-side.”

Coran made his way over to the pair of them with his usual smile, but there was a certain tension in his walk.

“Yes, I’m trying something… new today.”

Pidge snorted. “Well you ain't been missing much. Unless you’re interested in some molasses candy or a new gingham tablecloth.”

“As tempting as that sounds, I think I’ll have to decline.”

Allura chuckled daintily, hiding the motion behind her hand. “At least you have a chance to get out and have some fun. I heard some of the locals discussing a little fair that’s going to be held in a bit. Pidge and I were about to head back to the ship, but perhaps you’d like to attend.”

His smile brightened ever so slightly. “Yes, perhaps I will. Thank you for the suggestion, Allura.”

With a tsk of impatience, Pidge looped her elbow through Allura’s. “If you two are done talkin’ fancy, can we go now?”

 

<><><><><>

 

“This is the last time. The last time with cows,” Shiro grumbled to himself as he picked his way down the minefield of a ramp. “Hey, there’s an idea regarding beagles, they have smallish droppings?”

Matt, coming up the hill towards the ship, shot him a smirk. “I believe so, sir. Also, your disreputable men are here.”

“Better go take their money.”

When he reached the bottom of the hill he began to circle the corral, moving around to meet the two scruffy men standing on the other side. Lance was still in the pen with the cattle, driving them around in circles to show off for the buyers.

“Mornin’ gentlemen. You must be the Grange brothers. Hope you’re in the mood for beefsteak.”

“Attractive animals, ain’t they?” Lance chimed in with a charming smile. The men, standing in the early morning shadows of the scraggly trees, weren’t impressed.

“They ain’t well fed,” the taller one grunted, fiddling with the too-long sleeves of his stained overcoat. “Scrawny.”

“Fèihuà,” said Shiro, though he made sure to keep his facial expression pleasant now that he was within striking distance of the two. “Milk and hay, three times a day, fed to ‘em by beautiful women.”

Lance cackled. “That was somethin’ to see.” The men, of course, didn’t need to know that the cattle had actually been fed once a day, mainly by Lance and Hunk.

The taller one leaned on the fence, knocking his hat back a bit with a finger. The shorter one, hatless, had yet to speak.

“They’s branded,” he said, and Shiro internally rolled his eyes.

“You boys are hittin’ all the selling points. The fresh brand’s a dead giveaway. Claim ‘em as your own.” Shiro moved around them as he spoke, forcing them to turn to face him where he’d have backup, with Lance on the other side of the fence and Hunk somewhere in the background tightening ties on the fences.

The man paused, considering as he glanced out over the herd. Then he said, “Twenty a head.”

“That’s an amusing figure, in light of you already agreed on thirty with Kolivan.”

“That’s before we seen ‘em. They’re atrophied, standin’ on a ship for near a month.”

Shiro turned more fully to face them, resting his thumbs in his belt, giving them a good look at his metal arm and the holsters at his sides. Hunk sidled up just behind him.

“My understanding is the less muscle, the more tender the meat. Thirty.”

The men both scowled and shifted, shooting each other looks, and Hunk fidgeted a bit next to Shiro to get his attention.

“Problem?” Asked Hunk in a low tone.

“No. About a minute from now we’ll agree on twenty-five.”

Somewhere in the brush a twig snapped and the men leapt out of their boots, both of them going for the pistols at their own belts. They peered into the shadows as though waiting for something, and Hunk fastened a dark look on Shiro.

“They seem a mite jumpy to you?”

Shiro gave them a long look.

 

<><><><><>

 

Coran had had just about enough of this tiny general store. It was quaint, sure, but there was little to nothing there to hold his attention. Perhaps he really would go investigate that fair Allura had mentioned before she and Pidge had vacated the dusty premises.

As he stepped out onto the porch of the store, a bit of movement across the dirt street caught his eye. A line of six men, all in long coats, descending down a staircase from the second story of the wooden building directly across from the store. When they turned towards him, light glinted from their chests.

Silver stars. They were sheriffs. And they were coming right across the street toward him.

He instinctively turned his face down and away from them, too late realizing that it could be seen as an indicator of guilt. He was sweating. One by one the men filed past him and into the general store, heading for the back door.

One passed without a second glance. Two. Three.

“Morning, officers!” He chirped on an impulse, raising a hand in greeting. Immediately he regretted it, but one of them merely tipped their hat to him and the rest proceeded without incident. The moment they were all into the general store and the door closed behind them Coran hastened across the street and down an alley.

Better to be safe than sorry.

 

<><><><><>

 

“I’m thinkin’ maybe we walk away entirely.”

Shiro exchanged a quick look with Lance, both of them adjusting their stances. “I’m thinkin’ you do that and we got ourselves trouble.” He turned at the sound of footsteps behind him, bidding a polite good morning to Allura and Pidge as they returned from town before turning back to their buyers. “Serious trouble. Of the ‘you owe us’ variety.”

The taller man paused for a moment, then said, “I can go to twenty-five.”

Shiro faked a sigh and a sad expression. “Well, we’ll be takin’ a loss. But you seem like clean and virtuous boys. Done.”

The man reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a cloth bag, full of coins by the way it jangled, and settled it in his palm to begin counting out their payment. That bag hit the ground when the men spun on their heels at the voice that came bellowing from the trees.

“Marcus and Nathaniel Grange, you are both wanted in connection to the illegal killing of Rance Dervin.” Six men flooded out of the woods at different angles, surrounding the herd and the group of men. Lance, Shiro, and Hunk all automatically put their hands up as a bald man with a pistol rushed up to shout at the buyers. “You are bound by law to stand down!”

Shiro twisted up his mouth. He’d known this planet was a backwater and these guys were crooks, but he was beginning to find this whole planet very uninviting.

 

<><><><><>

 

As luck would have it the dark alleyway Coran had chosen to duck into led through the town and let out into a surprisingly green and sunny field on the edge of the woods. In the field was a crowd of townspeople who had erected a wooden stage lined with colorful streamers, where dozens of couples danced to a flute and fiddle while the crowd clapped along to the rhythm.

Apparently he’d found the fair.

Coran lingered near the back of the crowd, watching as the dancers whirled and stomped across their dancefloor. They were dressed more colorful than the others, probably wearing their Sunday best with white sashes draped over their torsos.

For the first time in several months, Coran let himself relax completely.

 

<><><><><>

 

“Careful with that,” Shiro said to the sheriff who had just tossed his pistols into a pile with the Grange brothers’ effects. Lance had been similarly stripped of his weapons and stood next to Shiro still, both of them still holding their hands in the air, even though his muscles were beginning to ache at holding up the prosthetic for so long.

The bald man, dark-skinned and apparently the leader, stormed up to them and got right in Shiro’s face despite being several inches shorter.

“Who are you?” He demanded, fire burning in his eyes.

“Just a bystander.”

The man relaxed ever so slightly and glanced at the herd. “This your beef?”

“No, sir,” said Shiro, “You’re lookin’ at the proper owners right there.”

The sheriff turned to face the Grange brothers, who were both standing with their hands up as well with a deputy behind each of them.

“I’d like to see some paper on that cattle.”

Then, as things were wont to do, all hell broke loose.

The shorter brother, the one who hadn’t spoken at all during their transaction, had slipped a hand behind him and nicked the deputy’s pistol right out of his holster before turning and decking him. He turned, raised the pistol in Shiro and Lance’s direction…

Just as there was a blast from the top of the hill, where Matt was standing with a rifle. The gun fell to the dirt, leaving the man clutching his bleeding hand. All around them the other sheriffs drew their own weapons, the taller brother stooped to pull a pistol from his boot, and the crew of the Golden Lion hit the ground.

“It never goes smooth,” Shiro hissed as he and Lance army crawled their way to the pile of pistols. “How come it never goes smooth?”

He grabbed Lance’s belt and tossed it to him before grabbing his own-- then he caught sight of the cloth bag of coins, still laying in the dirt where they’d been dropped.

The brothers were retreating towards the tree line, spraying bullets, but Shiro managed to snatch up the bag and roll to his feet without getting shot.

The whole situation quickly dissolved into a shoot out, both groups of men on either side of the herd and using it as cover to shoot at each other. Shiro and Lance kept low, scuttling around the edge of the fence they’d erected, keeping a sharp eye out for Hunk all the while.

The shorter brother took a bullet, and the taller shouted, “Get down!” And raised his pistol again, just in time to get tackled by Shiro. The crowd of sheriffs rushed around the fence to pin the flailing man down in the dust, allowing Shiro and Lance to take a few steps back and breathe. Shiro patted the bag of coins in his pocket to make sure they were still there.

Then he noticed a crumpled form lying in the grass.

It was Hunk, stretched out on his back, a little red circle in his chest.

 

<><><><><>

 

Coran allowed himself to get lost in the music, swaying along and clapping with the rest of the crowd as they encouraged the dancers. The song seemed to go on forever but the dancers just kept at it, never once dropping their wide smiles. Perhaps it was a sort of endurance competition?

He immediately regretted his decision to stop paying attention to his surroundings, however, when a cloth sack was dropped over his head from behind.

 

<><><><><>

 

Shiro and Lance dropped to their knees beside Hunk, both seizing one of his large hands. Lance was speechless and gaping, but Shiro noticed his head beginning to loll to one side and jostled his arm.

“Hey, stay with me, Hunk.”

Hunk strained his neck to peer at the wound. “That’s-- that’s a lot of blood, ain’t it?” He asked, referring to the streams that were pouring from the wound, soaking into his shirt and forming rivulets in the sand.

“It just means you ain’t dead,” responded Shiro with a tense swallow. “Lance, go get the stretcher.”

Lance didn’t move, staring down at his friend with wide eyes.

“Lance!”

He jolted, and before Shiro could blink he was up and running for the ship at a dead sprint.

Two minutes later they were carrying Hunk up to the ship as quickly and gently as they could. Pidge was drawn out by the commotion and met them in the cargo hold, her question of what was happening morphing into a hoarse cry of Hunk’s name the moment she laid eyes on him. She followed them down to the infirmary, trying to get Hunk to respond to her despite the fact that he’d obviously passed out. Matt met them there and dug out his medic kit and Coran’s supplies, but looking at the wound, Shiro got the sinking feeling that it wasn’t going to be enough. The shot had been to the chest, dangerously close to the heart if it hadn’t been hit directly.

He spared a few seconds to rush to the intercom. “Keith, get down to the infirmary, ma shong.”

When he turned back Matt was cutting open Hunk’s bloodstained shirt to expose the wound. Shiro instinctively moved towards one of the drawers to find whatever Matt would need, pulling out the bag of coins from his pocket and tossing it onto the counter, leaving behind brown streaks.

In the corner, a pale-faced Pidge was babbling up a storm. “Don’t worry Hunk, everything’s gonna be fine, Matt and Shiro know what they’re doing, Matt was a medic, he saw a lot worse things in the war.”

Matt pressed a gauze pad over the hole in Hunk’s chest and leaned on it, trying to stop the bleeding, while Lance pulled Pidge into his side.

“Oh God,” she whimpered, a hand fisting into Lance’s shirt. “He ain’t breathin’.”

Suddenly Hunk let out a gasp and his whole torso arched off of the table. Lance lurched forward to hold onto his legs as Matt uncapped a syringe with his teeth and passed it to Shiro, who stuck it into Hunk’s upper arm. Slowly the seizing began to fade and Hunk returned to his previous state of limp.

“He ain’t dead,” Shiro said to Lance, who was staring with that same glazed look he’d had outside the ship, “But he is bad off. We gotta see what we can do to help him.”

Muttered curses in Chinese from the door told him that Keith had arrived, and he barely spared a glance to the pilot as he rattled off his next order.

“Keith, go to town, see if you can’t find that gǒucàode doctor!”

“I’m coming too!” Proclaimed a tear-stained Pidge, and the two rushed down the hall.

 

<><><><><>

 

“Faster,” said a voice as the three men forced Coran down what felt like a forested trail. “Gotta go faster. Wanna get there before dark.”

“Get where?” He yelled through the sack that still covered his head. “Where are we going?”

“Shut up!”

“If it’s money you want I can arrange something!” He couldn’t, all of his accounts had been frozen when the bounty was put on his head, but they didn’t need to know that.

“No talking!”

“You don’t understand--”

A hard fist impacted with his cheekbone, and he didn’t dare to say much after that.

 

<><><><><>

 

Allura and Shiro were waiting in the cargo bay when Keith and Pidge roared up to the ship on the mule. With only the two of them.

“Where is the doctor?” Asked Allura in a voice barely concealing panic. “Why isn’t he with you?”

“He wasn’t in town,” Pidge answered as she slid off the mule.

“Wasn’t anywhere,” mumbled Keith.

“He was in town, we saw him there, didn’t we Pidge?”

“The town’s not that big.” Pidge’s lower lip trembled until she bit it as though in punishment. “He wasn’t there.”

“Probably saw those cops and turned tail,” Keith spat bitterly, but Shiro shook his head and frowned out the open ramp of the Lion.

“Coran could be called a lot of things, coward ain’t one of them.”

Allura paled. “You don’t think he was arrested do you?”

“Worse than that, probably,” Pidge said with a scowl, “Went by the sheriff's office. If we’d checked the posted alerts on this damn rock we woulda known it. Settlers up in the hills like to take people sometimes. Usually trademen and the like.”

Shiro’s frown deepened. “And now they’ve got themselves a doctor. And we don’t.”

He stood for a moment and considered. Hunk in the infirmary, a bullet in his chest. Versus Coran, kidnapped by hill people. The choice was obvious.

“We’re going.” He crossed the floor and hit the button to raise the ramp. “Keith, get us in the air.”

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

Matt pulled back the gauze and grimaced at the sight of the wound. It was swollen deep red and would get infected if they weren’t careful, hence why he was cleaning it out barely an hour after the bullet went in.

“That bad, huh?”

Matt quickly schooled his expression back into something neutral, for Hunk’s sake.

“Battle wounds are nothing new to me,” he said with a shadow of his usual smirk. “I’ve seen men live with a dozen holes in ‘em this size.”

“Is that right?” Asked Hunk with a dazed smile. He probably knew Matt was lying through his teeth to make him feel better, but was playing along anyway.

“Surely is. I knew a man who had a hole clear through his shoulder once.” He pulled the stained gauze away and replaced it with a new square, taping it down with practiced fingers. “He used to keep a spare hanky in there.”

Hunk didn’t laugh. “Where’s Coran? Not back yet?”

For a moment Matt was frozen before he remembered to paste on his fake nonchalance.

“We don’t make him hurry for the little stuff. He’ll be along.”

“You could hurry,” said Hunk, a bit of a whine creeping into his tone. “A little.”

 

<><><><><>

 

Upstairs in the cockpit Keith and Shiro bent low over maps and pamphlets.

“Well, there’s Thayserix,” said Keith, pointing to a planet in the Green system. “They’d have med help there.”

“Too far,” Shiro answered, “More than ten hours. He’s worse off than that.”

“You know where you can find what you need.”

Shiro turned to see Allura walking up onto the bridge, pale and determined, like she knew whatever she was going to say wasn’t going to be received well.

“Shiro, you know where you can find a doctor.”

“Allura, he was dumb enough to get himself grabbed in broad daylight!” Shiro would feel bad for snapping later on, but for now the worry had stretched him too thin to care. “Don’t have time to be beating the trees looking for him now. No assurance we’d find him or that he wouldn’t need a doctor himself.”

“I’m not talking about Coran.” Shiro turned to face her, confused, and she continued, “I’m talking about medical facilities.”

Shiro’s stomach instantly tied itself into knots. “That’s not an option. Nor is it a discussion I much want to have at the moment.”

For one of the first times, Allura lost her temper. “It doesn’t matter what you want! He’s dying, and we need a doctor now.”

<><><><><>

 

Matt was still in the infirmary when Pidge crept up to the door, keeping a vigil over Hunk while he slept. The siblings exchanged worried looks as she padded inside and took Hunk’s cold, limp hand in her own.

“He did this for me once,” she murmured, and Matt gave her a trembling smile. “How’s he doing?”

“I cleaned it out, wrapped it up. Best I could do.” He shook his head a little, hating what the motion did to his little sisters expression. “I don’t know.”

Pidge clenched her jaw. “He’ll be ok. Shiro will come up with a plan. And then we’ll go back for Coran.”

“I don’t know if that’s in the cards.”

“Like hell it ain’t. I’ll make him.”

He chuckled a little brokenly.

 

<><><><><>

 

“Are you sure this is where you wanna be?”

“Oh I’m fairly certain it ain’t.”

The reason for Shiro’s tension was looming up right in front of them: the cruiser Montgomery, stately, restrained, and threatening. The radio spat static when they entered their range and Shiro ground his teeth.

“Be sure to ask nicely.”

With an anxious swallow, Keith raised the radio to his lips. “Garrison Cruiser Montgomery, this is Firefly class transport the Golden Lion requesting permission for docking.”

“Firefly transport Golden Lion, stand by for docking orders.”

Shiro exchanged a long look with Allura on his way off the bridge.

Downstairs he helped Lance carry Hunk into the cargo hold, Matt behind them with the little bundle of registration papers for the ship. Matt circled around front to hit the button that would admit the soldiers while calling back to Shiro.

“You sanguine about the kind of reception we’re apt to receive on a Garrison ship?”

“Absolutely,” answered Shiro as they set Hunk down. “What’s ‘sanguine’ mean?”

“Sanguine. Hopeful. Point of interest, it also means bloody.”

“That pretty much covers all the options, don’t it?”

The buzzer on the other side of the ramp door rang, and Shiro half raised his hands, bracing himself to fight off flashbacks the moment the door opened.  

Matt pulled it open to reveal four soldiers, guns aimed in, behind which were two uniformed officers. They rushed in to cover the cargo bay, the officers striding right up to Shiro with a certain amount of aggression that already wasn’t boding well for them.

“We’re requesting aid,” Shiro said, hoping his voice didn’t shake. “No other purpose.”

The officer walked right past him, forcing him to turn to keep him in view, and Matt came up behind.

“We’ve got papers,” he announced, passing the leather bound bundle to the officer.

“What’s your business?” The officer finally asked.

“We’re a supply ship, freelance. Had an accident this morning and a crewman got hurt. We need medical help.”

The officers were silent, considering the papers Matt had handed them, and Shiro jittered.

“Fast would be better than slow.”

“Official seal’s out of date, Captain…” The officer narrowed his eyes, then looked up at him with a furrowed brow, “Harbatkin?”

“We ain’t been through a checkpoint in a while, sir. You gonna see to my man?”

“How did this happen?”

Matt opened his mouth, ready to lie, but Shiro cut him off. They’d come all this way, flown right into the hornet’s nest-- they weren’t going to screw it up now.

“Bystander in a gunfight back on Drule. You can check. Not he nor any of ours were the aggressors.”

The officer glanced back at Hunk for a split second before plopping the leather book of papers back into Shiro’s hand.

“We aren’t an emergency facility, Captain.” Shiro’s stomach sank. “Our services aren’t available simply to anyone--”

“Wait.” It was Lance, stepping out from around Hunk on the stretcher with a determined set to his jaw. Slowly, holding his jacket open so that they would know he wasn’t going for a gun, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a roll of bills.

“Here,” he said, holding it out to the officer. “Take it. It’s two thousand credits.”

Shiro and Matt exchanged an astonished look. That was a hell of a lot of money-- Lance must’ve been saving that the entire time he’d been with them.

“Go on,” Lance urged when the officer didn’t move, “Just don’t let him die. Please.”

There was a long, tense silence… and then the officer took the money.

“Get him to the infirmary.”

 

<><><><><>

 

“That was kind of you.”

Lance gave no indication that he’d heard Shiro. He just kept staring in through the round plastic window, watching the surgeons as they pulled the bullet out of Hunk’s chest. Like he couldn’t bear to look away.

“I couldn’t let him die,” he mumbled back. “He’s my best friend.”

Shiro reached out and roughly pulled him into a side hug while Matt looked on sympathetically.

“I think Pidge would fight you for that title.”

He  gave a watery laugh into Shiro’s chest. “We can both be best friends. Hunk’s got two hands.”

“You saved his life.”

Now Shiro got to watch in real time as Lance’s expression crumbled, and as he began to sob Matt made his way over to turn their hug into a Lance-sandwich. One of his hands squeezed Shiro’s shoulder in solidarity.

And together they waited for their friend.

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

The sack was finally removed as they forced Coran across a wooden bridge spanning a dry ravine. On the other side was a ramshackle collection of buildings made out of whatever the townspeople could find-- old metal, thin scrap wood, mud bricks. Here and there on the side of the dirt road were piles of brush and chunks of concrete.

“Look at what we got!” One of his captors called proudly to the group of people beginning to assemble outside the buildings. “Got ourselves a doctor!”

The people were even more ragged than the buildings, dressed in traditional settler fashion made from threadbare cloth. They were all dirt smudged, thin, and miserable looking, though a spark of hope was beginning to light on some faces as he surveyed the crowd.

“A real doctor,” he heard someone murmur in the crowd as one of the men thumped him roughly on the back and barked a command for him to stand up straight.

“They brought home a doctor,” said another person.

“Praise the lord.”

Taking Coran by the arm, one of the men tugged him over to a building on the right, the crowd parting before them like the Red Sea. He was pushed through a worn down, slatted doorway, and slowly his eyes adjusted to the dark interior of the room.

“I don’t figure it’s as fancy as you’re used to,” the man was saying as Coran stared, “But it’s what we got.”

It really wasn’t much. A dark room with shutters over the windows, lit only by the dim light of a few thick candles. Towards the back of the room was a set of cupboards and counters, a handmade dining table in front of it with a couple of chairs, and flanking it on either side were low pallets, barely more than straw mattresses on the floor. Every bed was occupied, either by a sick adult or a child (Coran really hoped their sick house wasn’t doubling as an orphanage) and bent over one of them was a woman in pioneer dress, complete with an apron and a white cloth tied around her hair.

“I got you a doctor,” the man called to her, and she looked up with the purest expression of relief on her dark, round face.

“Praise the Lord,” she murmured as she straightened up from her patient. She approached, and Coran felt the man behind him remove his hat in a sign of respect.

“Doralee here’ll show you what’s what,” he said before beating a hasty retreat.

The woman gave him a gentle smile. “What’s your name?”

“Coran.” He was too busy staring around the room at the occupants to remember that he was one of the Garrison’s most wanted. “Has there been a… is there a sickness here?”

Doralee hugged her fluffy knitted shawl closer to her. “Nothing special. Just people get sick or injured. Mostly people heal on their own, but sometimes--”

“Sometimes you need a doctor,” interrupted Coran, beginning to slowly nod in understanding. Somewhere in the background a woman coughed, harsh and deep in her throat, and Coran made up his mind.

“Bring me light,” he said, rolling up his sleeves, “And any supplies you have.”

 

<><><><><>

 

Coran worked for hours in the dark room, cleaning and binding wounds, diagnosing illnesses, setting cool compresses on hot foreheads and throats. At the moment he was standing over a basin of water with a lantern next to it, smoothing down the end of a bandage wrapped around a woman's thin hand.

“You keep that bandage clean now, you understand?”

The woman gave a few meek nods, turning to shuffle back to her corner when Coran released her. He turned to find Doralee standing behind him, eyeing him curiously.

“You’re not from the Rim, are you?” She asked. Really Coran should’ve been more cautious about answering questions from random people, but she was smiling so gently, and a community so cut off from everything else probably wouldn’t know about his bounty. Probably.

“I suppose the clothes gave it away,” he answered wryly, making her giggle and nod. “You’re right. I’m from the Core.”

That made her eyebrows rise. “What’s someone from the Core doing all the way out here?”

He only hesitated for a split second before it hit him. These people lived on the Rim, on the very edge of the Black. They lived under the threat of a Galra raid every day. This random kidnapping could be a goldmine of potential data!

He straightened up a bit and smoothed his mustache, striving for an aura of nonchalance. “I’m a scientist. Conducting some research into the Galra.”

Now he’d seen a lot of reactions over the years he’d been doing this, but never before had he seen someone laugh at the Galra the way Doralee did.

“What’s there to research?” She asked through her chortles. “Everyone knows the Galra are a punishment from God set upon the unfaithful. Like the seven plagues of Ancient Egypt.”

Well. That was a new one.

“The unfaithful, eh? So no one here has survived a Galra raid?”

Doralee’s smile faded. “No one survives Galra raids. Not with their minds intact.”

“What do you mean by that?”

She shifted, hugging her shawl again. Her previous laughter was nowhere to be found.

“Most times no one survives a raid,” she began slowly. “But sometimes someone will, except they won’t. They don’t act human anymore. They act like savages, and… and they have to be killed. As a punishment for their sins.”

Coran lowered his voice. He was right on the edge of a breakthrough, so long as he tread carefully.

“Has that happened to people who have lived here? Or nearby?”

Hesitantly, Doralee nodded.

“And they were all sinners?”

That made her square her shoulders a bit. “Yes. Everyone so afflicted has been guilty of the sin of wrath. They were all so angry-- quick to fight and slow to trust.”

He cast his mind back months, to the derelict ship they’d found spinning in the Black, to the malnourished man in the med bay chattering nonsensically about mercy and weakness and chrysalis.

“Is there anything else the afflicted have in common?” He fought to still sound casual despite the excitement buzzing under his skin. “Like, perhaps… eye color?”

Doralee froze completely, pupils constricting and jaw dropping. Coran knew he’d screwed up when she took several steps back from him.

“How did you know that?” Demanded Doralee in a whisper. “How could you have possibly known that?”

Coran’s throat constricted, but he tried to be dismissive. “Well I said I was a researcher. It’s just a funny thing that keeps popping up in the data--”

“No one should be researchin’ them,” Doralee cut in sharply. “They’re a tool of God. It ain’t our place to question the Lord.”

“Of course. But surely it wouldn’t hurt to understand just a little bit better.”

She backed away again. “We know what the Lord wants us to know. He’s got a reason for everything.”

“Yes, of course, you’re right. My apologies.” Coran may not be the most tactful person in the ‘Verse, but even he knew not to tread on the toes of the extremely religious. “I shouldn’t have asked.”

Doralee eyed him carefully, but after a long moment of consideration bought his words and began to turn back towards the sick. At that same time Coran lifted his head, distracted by a faint humming from somewhere outside the house.

“Do you hear that?”

Doralee straightened from the bed she had bent over and listened. The hum was getting louder, accompanied by the sound of wind, and within seconds the shutters were slamming against the windows in the gale. Now he recognized the sound-- it was the engine of a ship!

He rushed from the dwelling and into the street, and his heart swelled nearly to bursting at what he found. There, landing in the clearing across the ravine with its rickety wooden bridge lit by moonlight, was a very familiar Firefly.

Coran couldn’t help but let out a joyful whoop before turning back to a stunned Doralee.

“Well, it’s been a lovely time being kidnapped by you all, but I’m afraid my ride is here.”

Chapter Text

Two and a Half Years Earlier

“Shiro, look me in the eyes and repeat after me. We are not picking up another stray.”

Shiro sighed, flexing his fingers around the grip of his pistol. “Matt, is this really--”

“Say it, Shirogane.”

“Ugh, fine,” he said with a roll of his eyes. “We are not picking up another stray.”

“Good. Let’s go.”

Together they walked down the ramp and into the cold desert night. Matt had been forcing him to say that every time they went on a job since they’d picked up Keith six months before, and while it was a bit childish and irritating, he could see where he was coming from. Keith wasn’t anything like Hunk. In fact, he was practically feral compared to the other boy the same age. But he could fly even better than Shiro, so he was worth it.

He put it out of his mind as they drew closer to their objective, dropping to conceal themselves in the dry bushes as they crept up on the slavers camp. The nearby town was paying well for the return of their taken citizens, but it wasn’t going to be easy. The cages and chains the poor people were being kept in would be electronically locked-- Matt had to buy a special electronic lock-hacker just for the occasion.

And then, of course, there were the guards. Shiro could already see one guarding the furthest group of cages, pacing back and forth through the dirt with his rifle over his shoulder. But he wasn’t doing the best job. He was looking at the ground instead of his surroundings.

With a few silent looks the two agreed, and Shiro began to move toward the guard while Matt set up his hacker.

He thought sneaking up on the guy (actually a teenager, Shiro realized when he got closer) would be easy with the way he focused on his feet as he trudged through the sand. But he didn’t make it within four yards before he was turning on his heel, rifle up and pointed directly at Shiro’s head.

For a long moment they both froze, just staring at each other. Shiro was cringing from his crouched position in the bushes, waiting for the boy to squeeze the trigger or start calling for his comrades, but neither of those things happened. He just stood there, staring.

Then he took one brown hand off of the rifle and raised it to his throat, where he yanked something free from the chain around his neck and threw it down to the dirt at Shiro’s feet. It was a yellow tag inscribed with a barcode.

“It’s a key,” the boy whispered hoarsely. His blue eyes shone with fear in the darkness, but he swallowed and forced out the words. “You’re here for the captives, right?”

Slowly, Shiro nodded.

“Ok. I’m gonna take my gun off of you, and you can take that and let them out. Capiche?”

No, Shiro did not capiche.

“Why are you doing this?” He hissed, making the boy wince a bit.

“Selling people’s wrong. I don’t want to be a part of it anymore. So if I take my rifle off you, you ain’t gonna shoot me, right?”

Shiro let out a breath and slowly reached for the yellow tag. “Yeah. I won’t shoot you.”

The boy raised the rifle back to his shoulder and shot a sharp, assessing look back at the rest of the camp. Everything seemed dark and quiet, the fires long since burned out, but he still seemed wary.

“I’ll cover you, but you’d best get movin’ before one of them wakes up.”

Shiro didn’t have to be told twice. Matt gave him a strange look but didn’t argue, and together with the boy’s keycard they made quick work of the various cages and chains. Most of the would-be slaves were smart enough to dart off into the desert the moment they were unlocked, and those who weren’t were pointed in the right direction by Shiro and shoved towards it until they understood.

The whole time the boy watched over them, his rifle at his shoulder and ready to shoot any of the slavers who emerged from their tents. Thankfully none of them did, and the lone guard covered their backs all the way back to the Golden Lion.

One of their easier jobs, to be honest. They got in, did what they had to, and got out without a gunfight or a brawl. A major step up for them. But when the boy with the rifle gave them a sad wave as they made their way up the ramp… well.

Matt is going to hate me, thought Shiro when he turned around.

“Hey, what’s your name?”

His smile was tired around the edges. “Lance.”

Shiro went back down the ramp towards him. Lance noticed-- his stance shifting a bit in case Shiro tried anything-- but he stopped within arms reach, making sure his empty hands were visible.

“Mind if I ask you a question?”

His eyes narrowed a bit, but he said, “Go ahead.”

“If you hate slavers so much, why are you workin’ for them?”

Lance winced, one hand rising to rub sheepishly at the back of his head, eyes cast to the dirt.

“I needed the money,” he admitted in a grumble, “And no one else would take me. Pa’s sick; you know how it is.”

Shiro nodded. “Will they be able to tell it was you who opened the cages?”

“Most likely. I’ll hafta run like the rest of ‘em.”

“Well… not if you come with us.”

Lance stared unabashedly at him just as Matt’s voice came echoing out from the hold.

“Takashi Shirogane you’d best not be doin’ what I think you’re doin’ or so help me God--”

“You mean it?” Lance asked in a small voice.

“I do. Proper pay, and we try our best to take on decent work. Not always legal, but decent.”

Lance’s eyes flickered over his shoulder, presumably where Matt was watching with hellfire burning behind him.

“What about your pal there?”

Shiro shrugged, a move that was sure to get him an earful later. “I’m the captain, not him. I hire who I like.”

He gave a hum of consideration and looked up at the ship, then glanced over his shoulder back into the desert. “You got other crew?”

“Just a pilot and an engineer. Small outfit.”

“You don’t say.” For a moment he was quiet, debating, then he looked at Shiro with a grin and a sparkle in his eye.

“I’m in.”

Present Day

The wagon made it’s slow way down the shallow river, the horses hooves splashing through the mud to pull the covered wagon sat on top of a crudely made raft. At the front sat two figures-- a broad shouldered woman in pink gingham with a matching bonnet, and a scrawny man with a dark leather hat pulled low over his eyes, slumping as though he was napping even as he held the reins.

Then from the brush came several men on horses of their own, three galloping forward to stop the wagon from the front while one pinned them from the rear, shouting both to encourage their horses and to intimidate the poor country-folk in the wagon.

It worked. Both figures immediately hunched down and crowded closer to each other, both directing their gazes to the wooden planks beneath their feet and concealing their faces behind their respective headgear. As though it would stop the horsemen from recognizing them.

“Pardon me for intruding,” the lead man drawled as his followers crowded ever closer to the wagon with pistols raised. “But I believe y’all are carrying somethin’ of mine.”

“‘Tain’t your’n,” the man mumbled, still hunching low in his seat.

The leader leaned forward in his saddle. “Did you think we wouldn’t find out you changed your route? You gonna give us what’s due us and every damn thing else in that boat. And,” he reached up to adjust his hat, “I think maybe you gonna give me a little one-on-one time with the missus.”

“Oh, I think you might want to reconsider that last part,” the man answered, slowly raising his head to reveal sandy hair and hazel eyes set in a thin face. “See, I married me a powerful ugly creature.”

The woman gave an offended (and surprisingly deep-pitched) gasp and raised her head to look at her husband, the bonnet still concealing her features.

“How can you say that?” she demanded in her strange voice. “How can you shame me in front of new people?”

“If I could make you prettier I would,” the husband snapped back as the leader rolled his eyes.

“You are not the man I met a year ago,” accused the woman, and then suddenly both where whipping out pistols and facing off against the men who had them surrounded. The woman’s gun was pointed directly at the leaders chest, and as she pushed her bonnet back he realized it wasn’t a woman at all.

“Now think real hard,” said the scarred man with his presumably normal voice. “You been bird-doggin’ this township a while now. They wouldn’t mind a corpse of you.” In the background one of his henchmen struggled to keep a grip on his horse while aiming a rifle one handed, keeping it trained on the two.

The breeze stirred the man’s white bangs. “You can luxuriate in a nice jail cell, but if your hand touches metal I swear by my pretty floral bonnet I will end you.”

The leader gave a careless glance to his left. His man on that side urged his horse forward, pistol in hand and ready to shoot--

Before someone else popped out of the back of the wagon and shot him directly in the heart.

The river exploded with bullets.

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

The party that night was lively to say the least. One of the settlers played a rousing fiddle tune by the bonfire while no fewer than eight couples danced around it, the rest of the settlement sitting in the log circle around it drinking or loitering back in the cool night air.

“In the morning we’ll head for Reiphod,” Shiro was saying to Allura as they strolled around the outer edges of the party. “Give you a chance to find some work of your own.”

“I appreciate it. This is lovely, but--”

“Not your clientele? I understand. You gotta play at being a lady.”

Allura chuckled. “Well, yes.”

Shiro cast a quick look around the clearing. As usual Lance, Hunk, and Matt were in the thick of it, enjoying the attention and the drink (probably more than they should). Coran chatted with a group of solemn looking elders near the fire. On the opposite side, also loitering on the edges of the hubbub, were Keith and Pidge quietly discussing something while Pidge sketched something in the dirt with a stick.

“Lance looks like he’s enjoying himself,” said Allura with a nudge to his side, and he looked back to the bonfire. Sure enough there was Lance with his ‘I am so hella smashed’ grin on his lips and a girl kneeling in front of him. All Shiro could see at this distance was her long blonde braids that fell down her back as she positioned Lance’s hands in front of him and placed a bowl in them.

“Yeah, for now. He’ll regret it in the morning.”

Lance tilted his head back and drained the whole bowl.

“Think I should step in?”

Allura shook her head and said, “No, he’s having a good time. Let him relax.”

The girl with the braids climbed to her feet, and after stooping to pick something up, straightened and deposited a little wreath on Lance’s head before twirling away to join the dancers. Lance laughed, nudged Hunk to show off his new crown, and turned back just in time for another woman to pull him up to dance with them. Another woman grabbed Hunk as well, and they joined the settlers as they formed a circle of joined hands around Lance and the blonde girl.

Shiro huffed a bit to himself. “Good thing we’re spending the night here. Last time he brought a girl to the Lion no one got any sleep.”

Allura bit her lip to keep from laughing as they watched the girl lead Lance around in their dance. It wouldn’t last forever, this warm atmosphere with the smell of smoked meat swirling with the dust under the moonlit sky, but there was no harm in enjoying it.

At least for now.

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

“Elder Gommen, thank you for the hospitality.” Shiro was striding quickly towards the ramp of the Lion, the leader of the settlement alongside him as his fellow settlers skittered in and out of the ship like a little army of ants. The town hadn’t had much cash to pay them with, so they fell back on trade goods.

A whole lot of trade goods.

“We owe you a great debt,” said the white-bearded man in answer. “I’m sorry we have so little to pay it with, though I hope our gifts will show our regard.”

“They’re surely appreciated.” They paused at the top of the ramp, but before their conversation could continue Matt came jogging up to Shiro and caught him by the elbow.

“Garrison patrol boat heading into atmo right now,” he hissed into Shiro’s ear, and he spun back to the Elder with a false smile on his lips.

“Well, we gotta fly,” he said, clapping a hand onto the mans shoulder and leading him a few paces back down the ramp.

“We’ll pray for a safe voyage, and hope to lay eyes on you again ere too long, my friend.”

“Count on it.” They paused to shake hands. “Bye now.”

“Bless you.”

The rest of the settlers called farewells as the ramp closed, and within the next minute the Golden Lion was back in the air, cargo hold full of goods.

“Lance,” he said as he stepped over the man sprawled out on the cargo bay floor, “Help me get the rest of this put away.”

Lance gave an incomprehensible groan.

“Hey, it ain’t my fault you got blackout drunk last night. Actions have consequences.”

He groaned again, louder. “God, you’re worse than my pa.”

“I’m honored. Now on your feet soldier.”

There was a great deal of whinging and whining, but he did eventually manage to stagger upright and begin hauling some of the loose jugs left on the bay floor to more secure positions.

For a blessed moment, all was quiet and calm.

Then Lance gave a cry of alarm. When Shiro whipped around he found the man on his ass on the floor, staring in stupefaction as a thin, barefoot girl with blonde braids crept out from behind a cache of barrels.

“Who are you?” Shiro demanded. He crossed the cargo bay in a few steps and hauled Lance upright by his jacket while the girl stared at them with big doe-like eyes.

“Um… what do you mean?” she asked in a voice barely louder than a whisper, her hands fisting into her blue skirt.

Shiro’s eyebrows rose. “I think I was pretty clear; what are you doing on my boat?”

She shuffled a bit, edging further out from behind the barrels. Her eyes flickered, and surprisingly landed on Lance, who still looked spooked out of his mind at finding a girl where no girls were expected to be.

“You know I’m… to cleave to you,” she murmured, attention focused solely on Lance. He stuttered in response.

“To wubba who?”

She bit her lip. “Did Elder Gommen not tell you?”

“Tell me what?” squeaked Lance. “Wh-who are you?”

“Mr. McClain, sir,” she said, a crease forming in her brow as she cast her eyes downwards in submission. “I’m your wife.”

Both of their jaws dropped so far they could’ve been dragging on the planet below. Lance was speechless for the first time in his life, mouth opening and closing like a suffocating fish on a dock, and it even took Shiro a few seconds to collect himself enough to say anything.

“Could… you repeat that, please?”

The girl gulped and didn’t look at Shiro as she repeated, “I am your wife,” to Lance. “That was your agreement with Elder Gommen, since he hadn’t cash nor livestock--”

“I-I’m sorry,” Lance interrupted, apparently having found his tongue again. “Go back to the part where you’re my wife?”

The girl paled like she’d seen a ghost.

“I don’t please you?”

“You can’t please me, you never met me--” He turned to Shiro with panicked eyes as footsteps echoed from the hallway. “Shiro why do I have a wife?”

“You got a what?” questioned Matt as he came around the corner. “How did you net a wife?”

“I didn’t!” Lance protested, sounding vaguely panicked as he looked back to the girl for answers. “We’re not married!”

Her lower lip wobbled. “I’m sorry I shame you.”

“You don’t shame me!” His voice was going higher and higher pitched. “Shiro, will you call Hunk? Please call Hunk.”

Shiro nodded to Matt, who rushed over to the intercom. If he’d seen the mischievous look in his eye, he would’ve gone himself.

“This is Matt. We need all personnel in the cargo bay.”

“All?! I said Hunk!”

Matt sauntered back over with a smarmy grin. “Lance, everyone should have a chance to congratulate you on your day of bliss.”

“There’s-- there’s no bliss, I don’t know this girl!” Lance cried, waved his arms dramatically in the direction of the girl cowering back against the barrels.

Shiro sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose, ready to sigh Matt’s name in exasperation, but it was too late. The rest of the crew was already accumulating.

“Uh, who’s the new recruit?” Hunk asked as he came down the stairs. Pidge had just emerged from the hallway with Allura on her heels, and now waggled her eyebrows suggestively in Lance’s direction. Within moments the entire crew was gathered, and while Lance hid his face in his hands, Matt stepped up to the plate.

“Everybody, I want you all to meet,” he reached out, gingerly wrapping an arm around the girls thin shoulders as she stared, mortified, at the floor, “Mrs. McClain.”

Allura openly gasped in delight, a hand flying up to cover her smile, while Pidge’s jaw fell disbelievingly.

“You got married?” Keith scoffed. “Christ, Lance.”

Coran frowned and quickly turned to leave the room, and frankly Shiro didn’t blame him. This whole thing was just… yeah.

“Who is she anyway?” questioned Pidge, taking a few curious steps closer to the blonde girl.

“She’s no one!” Lance cried in frustration, only for the girl to let out a quiet sob in response.

“Lance!” Hunk said admonishingly, making Lance even more flustered if the way his hands were wringing was any indication.

“Wh-why are you crying? I don’t--”

“I’m sorry,” she murmured in a little broken voice. Allura hissed a quiet reprimand and moved forward to envelope the girl in her arms, stroking her hair gently.

“It’s alright, dear. He makes everyone cry, he’s like a monster.”

“I’m not a monster!”

“Keith,” cut in Shiro while Pidge snickered, “turn the ship around.” This was way more nonsense than they had time for.

Keith bit his lip to hold in the smirk. “Can’t.”

What?

“It’s an order.”

“Shiro, we can’t. There’s already a bulletin on the Cortex about the murder of a prefect’s nephew. One of the bandits. We’ll be walkin’ into a gallows if we go back there.”

Of course. Because nothing ever goes smoothly around here. Shiro could feel the headache building already.

“Well then what’re we gonna do?” Lance was still, understandably, freaking out.

“I suppose we’ll go on to Reiphod,” Shiro said reluctantly. He didn’t get to finish his sentence before Matt clapped Lance on the shoulder.

“And you can enjoy your honeymoon.”

“Fuck off Matt!” Lance looked furious… until his eyes fell on the still crying girl and he visibly switched over into concern. “Look, you… I’m sure you have very nice qualities, but I didn’t ever marry you.”

“I believe you did,” called Coran from the hallway, drawing everyone’s attention to him. He had a small book in his hands and a knowing smile under his mustache. “Last night.”

Lance immediately turned to Matt to mutter, “How drunk was I last night?”

“I don’t know, I passed out.”

“It says here,” Coran continued, “‘The woman lays her wreath upon her intended’, which I do recall--”

Shiro groaned and threw his head back. He remembered it too. Fuck, Lance really had gone and gotten himself married hadn’t he?

“‘Which represents his sovereignty.’”

Lance shot the girl an incredulous look. “That was you?” She merely lowered her red-rimmed eyes.

“‘And he drinks of her wine. And then there’s a dance with a joining of hands.’ The marriage ceremony of the Puig settlers. You, my boy, are a newlywed.”

Coran closed his book with a smart snap and lowered his arms to rest in front of him, all while the others waited in tense silence for Lance’s response. He stood there for a long moment, staring blankly, before slowly opening his mouth.

“What’s it say in there about divorce?”

With a muffled sob the girl fled the cargo bay.

“Woooooooow, Lance. You lady killer.”

Lance snapped something rude in Chinese back at Pidge while turning towards the hall, as though to follow after the girl, and Shiro caught him by the elbow.

“Are you sure you’re the one to talk to her?”

Lance shook off his grip. “The way I see it me and her got one thing in common.” He shot them all a withering glare. “We’re the only ones who don’t think this is funny.”

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

“Hello? Woman… person?”

It was really hard, Lance was learning, to find someone when you didn’t know their name.

It took him the better part of ten minutes, but he did eventually find the girl, curled up beneath the engine of the ship, sniffling pathetically into her knees. He hesitated for a moment at the door.

What the hell was he supposed to say to her? Sorry, you’re very pretty, but I don’t remember getting married to you and I’m barely responsible enough to keep myself alive, let alone you. Also, I don’t know your name.

Yeah, sure.

“You alright?” is what he settled on, making the girl jerk out of position to look up at him. Her gaze only lingered for a moment before she looked back at the floor. She did that a lot, Lance was noticing. Like it was some sort of trained reflex.

“I thought last night during the ceremony that you were pleased.”

With a sigh, Lance took a few steps closer. This whole situation really wasn’t helping his hangover.

“Last night I was. Had some mulled wine, pretty girl gave me a hat made out of a tree. But nobody said I was signing up to have and to hold, ya know?”

She gave a pitiful sniffle and peered up at him through her lashes. “Are you gonna kill me?”

“What? What kind of crappy planet is that? Hell no I’m not gonna kill you.”

Her fingers toyed with the hem of her skirt. “In the maiden’s home,” she began quietly, barely audible over the thwip thwip thwip of the engine, “I heard talk of men who weren’t pleased with their brides--”

“Well I ain’t them!” She blinked and looked at him again, this time properly, lifting her chin, and a hard ball of acid anger settled in Lance’s chest. What kind of people had she come from, expecting things like that? “And don’t you ever stand for that sort of thing. Someone ever tries to kill you, you-- you try to kill ‘em right back.”

She didn’t answer to that, and Lance found himself moving to sit next to her beneath the engine.

“Look, wife or no, you’re no one’s property to be tossed aside. You got the right, same as anyone, to live and try to kill people.”

The girl cast a doubtful look at him.

“I mean, you know, people who are-- that-- that’s a dumb planet.”

All of Lance’s efforts didn’t seem to be assuaging her in the least, and for a moment Lance considered that maybe Shiro had been right and he should’ve let someone else sort this out. Someone like Allura.

“What will you do with me?”

“I’m not really sure,” he admitted, dragging his hand over his face. “I don’t really make the decisions around here-- god knows why the Elder gave you to me instead of Shiro.”

At this the girl turned shy and cast her eyes away again. “I… it was mentioned, but the Elder didn’t think your Captain was the… lady type.”

Lance laughed. “He definitely isn’t. Anyway, right now we’re bound for Reiphod. It’s a decent kind of planet. Might be able to get you set up with some work there.”

“I’ll not be anyone’s doxy,” she argued immediately, and Lance cringed. He hadn’t thought about how that would sound when he said it.

“I don’t mean whoring, they got factories and the like. Some ranches, if you’re more for the outdoors. Near a week before we get there, though, so Shiro might sort somethin’ out before then.”

He moved to stand, figuring by the way she’d been avoiding looking at him again that she was all talked out, but as soon as his back was turned she spoke up again.

“I’d be a good wife.”

God, she sounded so damn upset about the whole thing.

“Yeah, well. I’d be a terrible husband. You’ll have five whole days to figure that out.”

Her eyes lit up at that, and she quickly clambered to her feet. “So, for five days, we’ll be together?”

Fuck.

“Well, we’ll be together on the ship, but not in any--”

“That’ll be fine,” she said, scrambling to please him. “I’ll do for you, or not, as you choose.”

“Well, shiny.” For a moment he paused, at a loss of what to do when she was just standing there looking at him like that. What had his mama always said about welcoming guests? “Um… hungry? Kitchen’s just through there.”

She followed his gesture to the door and gave a small, anticipatory smile. “I’ll cook you something.”

She darted past him and Lance followed, helplessly bewildered.

“No, I meant for you!”

“I’m a fine cook, everyone says!” she said, darting out the door. Jeez she was fast when she wanted to be.

“That’s-- great. Look, hold it, hold!”

She froze and spun around, looking at him with questioning eyes, leaving him floundering.

“I ain’t even--”

“My name is Nyma.” And with that and a coy look through her lashes, she disappeared into the kitchen.

For a second Lance just stood there, feeling like he’d just been trampled by an entire herd of cows before Coran popped out of the adjoining corridor, shaking his head ruefully at the spectacle he’d just witnessed.

“Divorce is very rare,” he said in answer to Lance’s pleading expression. “And requires dispensation from her pastor. I can send him a wave, see what I can do.”

“I appreciate that.” He rubbed at his forehead where the headache was the worst. “She’s nice, I just-- I didn’t know what I was signing up for.”

“No need to defend yourself to me, lad,” Coran said, draping a soothing arm over Lance’s shoulders. “I got into quite a few hijinks myself when I was your age.”

Lance shrugged off his arm as politely as he could. Normally he loved Coran’s stories, but now was not the time for one.

“Thanks, Coran. I should go make sure the other passenger room is cleaned up for her.”

With that excuse Lance, much like Nyma had, made his escape.

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

Unfortunately, the escape didn’t last. Less than forty-five minutes later he’d been cornered back in the kitchen by Nyma, who pressed him into a chair and planted a plate firmly on the table in front of him.

“Thank you,” Lance said as sincerely as he could muster, hoping she’d go away, but instead she just stood there next to his chair and… stared. Waiting for him to eat. So, shrugging his shoulders to roll off the awkwardness, he dug in.

“Something smells good,” came Pidge’s voice from the hallway as she wandered in with her brother behind her, both of them smirking at the sight of Lance and his shadow.

“Having yourself a little supper, Lance?” asked Matt with a raised eyebrow.

“Nyma insisted on it,” Lance answered through a mouthful. “You know, I didn’t want to make her feel-- this is damn tasty.”

“Anymore where that came from?” Nyma tensed at Pidge’s question and tilted her chin down to whisper to Lance.

“I didn’t think to make enough for your friends, but…” she shyly raised her eyes to peer at Pidge from under her eyelashes. “Everything’s laid out if you’d like to cook for the rest of you.”

Matt openly guffawed at that while Pidge screwed up her mouth, making Nyma waver uncertainly.

“Is something funny?”

“I don’t cook,” said Pidge. “That’s Hunk’s job.”

Nyma blinked several times. “Oh. I just thought--”

“Ok!” Matt clapped his hands together and moved to take a seat at the table. Pidge followed, though she shot Nyma a bit of a look, which Nyma seemed to take as a dismissal as she bustled back behind the countertop. “So, Lance, enjoying your own nubile little slave girl?”

Lance scowled across the table at him while shoving another forkful of bao into his mouth. “She wanted to make me dinner! And I would appreciate it if one person on this boat wouldn’t assume that I’m an evil, lecherous hump.”

“Nobody’s saying that,” Pidge said with a sympathetic look, which was immediately belied by Matt’s chuckle.

“We’re pretty much just giving each other significant glances and laughing incessantly. Is that cider?” He nodded to Lance’s glass.

“By the stove.”

“Sweet, I’ll get you a refill. Pidgeon, do you--” He was halfway out of his chair with Lance’s cup in his hand when Nyma swooped in and snatched it from him.

“That’s for me to do,” she hissed, leaving them all in stunned silence as she turned back to the counter to fetch the cider.

Despite how good the food tasted, it was a little harder to swallow after that.

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

“Reiphod,” Allura said to her monitor, “City of New Dunsmuir.” The machine beeped as it registered the location, allowing her to continue. “Arrival: October twenty-fourth. Departure--”

The glide of the shuttle door opening interrupted her, and she turned to see none other than Lance anxiously peering past the curtains.

“Can I come in?” he asked in such a tremulous voice it sent Allura’s eyebrows climbing for her hairline.

“I suppose. Is something wrong?”

Lance made his way over to her seating area and slumped into a plush cushion, curling his torso over his knees a bit.

“Yeah, I mean, I just needed to… hide.”

Allura turned to face him more fully. “So I take it the honeymoon is over?”

His response was a cringe. “She’s a fine girl, don’t misread me, I just--” Something on his face softens, and Allura feels something in her chest twinge in answer. Perhaps she shouldn’t have been so flippant about the situation. “This isn’t how I wanted this to happen.”

Well now, that was intriguing.

“What do you mean?” Allura asked with a curious head tilt. Lance gnawed on his lower lip and kept his eyes on the carpeted floor.

“I know everyone thinks I’m some kind of player, or somethin’, but that’s not all true.” His fingers tapped restlessly on his knee. “I want to have a family, eventually, when I can. If I can. And-- and I don’t want it to start like this. Whoever I marry, I want to love them, and I want them to love me, truly, not just be following some--” His face twisted up. “Some screwed up patriarchal order of society.”

For a moment, despite all of her training, Allura was speechless. She’d known Lance was more than just his outer façade, everyone was, but despite knowing him for more than a year she hadn’t known he was such a… romantic.

She found herself on her feet, striding across the room, and before she could give it a second thought she’d enveloped him into her arms. He stiffened in shock but she didn’t let go.

“I’m sorry,” Allura murmured into his hair, running her fingers through it in a surprising display of affection she usually reserved for Pidge. “I shouldn’t have made fun.”

Lance released a wet sounding chuckle, though his arms rose to embrace Allura in return. “Yeah, well. That’s what I get for being the class clown, I guess.”

“Don’t worry, Lance. This whole thing will sort itself out. You’ll see.”

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

Lance was on his way down to the cargo bay after his mini-therapy session with Allura, finally feeling somewhat less like an evil, terrible person who will be going to the Special Hell with people who talk in the theatre for taking advantage of Nyma, when the girl herself popped out from under the stairs and nearly made him jump out of his skin.

“Jesus!” he exclaimed, jolting to a stop on the cargo bay floor. After a few breaths to control his heart rate, he gulped and said, “You do sneak about, don’t you?”

“I’m sorry,” answered Nyma like a conditioned response. “I just noticed you go into the Companions shuttle.”

He instantly felt his cheeks flush red. “Oh, no, it’s not like that. We were just talking. Allura doesn’t, er, service any of the crew.”

Nyma gave a considering hum and glanced up towards Allura’s shuttle.

“I wonder what it’s like,” she murmured, half to herself, “to be someone like her.”

“Not as easy as it looks.” Lance turned, glancing back to invite her to walk alongside him, and together they ambled towards the hallway. “She had to go to school for a long time. She still has to go back sometimes-- for checkups and the like.”

“Go back to where?”

“Olkarion, where she’s from.”

“Where are you from?”

He shot her a half-suspicious glance out of habit, but she seemed innocent enough with those wide dark eyes.

“Callum, in the Blue system. My family has a little farm there.”

“That sounds nice,” she said with a hum. “Is that what working on a ranch would be like?”

“You’d have to ask Shiro-- he grew up on a proper ranch back on Daibazaal, before the Garrison bombed it all to hell.”

“I always thought that was a terrible thing.”

Lance made an acknowledging sound and paused to haul himself up onto a crate just in front of the entrance to the hallway. Nyma stood in front of him, hands meekly clasped before her and rocking slightly on her bare heels.

“What about you? What’s your history?”

She gave a bashful shrug, blushing under Lance’s attention. “Not much to say. Life like yours, I figure you’d find mine terrible dull.”

“Oh I long for a little dullness. The only certainty we have on this boat is that eventually something will come along and try to kill us.”

<><><><><>

“It’s a wreck,” the man spat at the screen, which beeped lightly as it categorized the parts it could find from the scans of the passing Firefly.

“No, this is good,” said a taller man from behind him as he leaned over to see the screen for himself.

“It’s parts. A bunch of cheap parts we’ll never unload.”

The taller man sighed and shook his head. “This is why you’ll never be in charge, Beezer. You don’t see the whole. The parts are crap.”

“I said exactly that.”

But you put it together, you got yourself a Firefly. Thing’ll run forever, they got a mechanic even half awake.”

Beezer grumbled, folding his arms. “It’s got no flash.”

“Some people ain’t lookin’ for flash. She’s a good catch. She comes our way, you prep the nets.”

<><><><><>

“Clearly she’s out of her mind.”

“She’s led a sheltered life,” Hunk tried to reason, eyes still fixed on the tinkering he and Pidge were doing in the engine room. She hadn’t stopped ranting about Nyma since their little run-in in the galley, and honestly it was starting to annoy him.

“She’s following the same patriarchal ideals that tried to stop me from becoming an engineer,” she responded hotly. “And the same ones that landed her here with a husband she doesn’t even know in the first place.”

“Every planet has its own weird customs. I read about a moon where the principle form of recreation is juggling geese.”

Pidge shot him an incredulous look.

“My hand to god. Baby geese. Goslings. They were juggled.”

She just shook her head bitterly. “That’s not the same as being given away to someone as though you’re property, like-- like some kinda robot who only exists to cook and clean and be fucked.”

Hunk flinched, and that seemed to gentle Pidge, just a little.

“Look, I’m not mad at her. Not really.” She yanked out a handful of wires with a little bit of a spark. “I’m mad at her planet.”

“So am I,” murmured Hunk. “It’s awful. But we’re gonna take her to Reiphod and get her a decent job and a place to stay. We’ll fix it.”

“As much as something like that can be fixed.”

Hunk had nothing to say to that; the first rule he’d learned as an engineer was that not everything that’s broke can be fixed.

Still, they would try.

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

Lance was glad when he finally got to slink into his bunk that night. It had been a long day-- there’d still been things he needed to do even with his new shadow, and having her hovering at his back constantly was more than a little awkward. His muscles ached from being tensed, and he couldn’t wait to just crawl into bed and pass the fuck out.

So when he crawled down the ladder and turned to see blonde hair sprawled across his pillow, he nearly screamed with frustration.

“Nyma, what are you--”

Then she sat up, and his voice failed him. She had the blanket pulled up under her shoulders, so he couldn’t see anything, but those shoulders were bare and he had a terrible suspicion that the rest of her was, too.

“I’ve made the bed warm for you,” she said quietly, tilting her head just so and making her hair spill over her bare skin.

“Yeah, uh, it-- it looks warm.”

Gently, Nyma settled a hand at her collarbone, tugging the sheet up as she cast her eyes demurely to the floor.

“And I’ve made myself ready for you.”

Aw hell.

“Ok, um, no, you can’t-- Didn’t you see you got a room of your own?” Lance had pressed himself against the edge of his pullout desk on the opposite end of the room, trying to get as far away as possible from the blonde woman in his bed. A situation he never thought he’d find himself in, but the ‘Verse is a tricky, tricky place.

“And I’m to sleep there?” she asked.

“That’s the notion, assumin’ you’re, well, sleepy.”

“But… we’ve been wed. Aren’t we supposed to become one flesh?”

“No, no, we’re still two fleshes here, and I think your flesh oughta sleep somewhere else.”

Nyma shifted uncomfortably on the bed, a bit of an embarrassed flush beginning to warm her cheeks.

“I’m sorry, when we talked, I’d hoped--” The blanket slipped from her grip, falling to her lap, and Lance’s whole body jolted as he frantically cast his eyes away.

“Woah woah woah, Nyma, it’s-- it ain’t a question of pleasing me, alright?” He placed a hand over his brow, shielding him from Nyma’s bare skin. “It’s more a question of what’s right. You know, um, morally. Morally right.”

When she answered, there was an audible pout to her tone. “I do know my bible, sir. ‘On the night of their betrothal, the wife shall open to the man as the furrow to the plow--”

“Ok ok! That’s enough bible, thanks!” He dared a glance between his fingers (at her face thank you very much) and was surprised to see her lip quivering, surprised enough to fall silent.

“I’m not skilled, sir,” she began, and Lance bit his tongue. “Nor a pleasure to look upon, but--”

“Nyma, stop.” Lance lowered his hand, but kept his eyes fixed stubbornly on her own, refusing to linger any lower. “You’re beautiful. You are, and under any other circumstance I would be all for it, but you gotta understand. You and me, we ain’t married. Just ‘cause you got handed to me by some douchebag who couldn’t pay his debts don’t make you beholden to me. I keep trying to explain--”

“Let me explain.” She still wasn’t looking at him, but her voice was stronger than he’d heard it yet, and it kept him quiet for long enough for her to begin her next sentence. “I lived my life in the maiden house, waiting to be married off for trade. I’ve seen my sisteren paired off with ugly men, vicious or blubberous, men with appetites too unseemly to speak upon. And I’ve cried for those girls. But not half so hard as I cried the night they gave me to you.”

Lance tensed off of the wall. “Why?”

She gave a sad little smile. “I cried, for I’d not dreamed to have a man so sweet, so kind, and beautiful. Had I dare to choose, I’d choose you from all the men on all the planets the night sky had to show me.”

He swallowed hard and clenched his fists. He’d be lying if he said he hadn’t fantasized about hearing exactly those words before, murmured lovingly in drowsy half darkness as he held someone to him and drifted off to sleep. But in those fantasies he always knew the person more deeply than he knew himself, had pursued them chastely and with as much respect as he could muster for as long as they would let him before doing anything like this.

“If I am wed,” Nyma pushed herself off the bed, letting the blanket fall away from the rest of her. There she stood in the center of Lance’s bunk, not a stitch on her. “I am a woman, and I’ll take your leave to be bold.” She gulped, almost nervously, and tottered a step closer over the cold metal. Lance didn’t move.

“I want this.” She pressed close, so close he could feel the heat radiating from her and their lips almost brushed. “Leave me at the nearest port, never look upon me again. I’ll make my way with the strength you’ve taught me. Only let me have my wedding night.”

Her dark eyes shined in the low light, pleading as they stared up at him, and Lance could feel it as every strand of his self control began to snap, one by one.

Damnit, he’d sworn he wouldn’t give in, wouldn’t be the womanizer everyone thought he was, but fuck she was right there, and naked, and practically begging him to--

He lunged forward, slamming them together into a kiss. It only lasted a few seconds, a few hot messy seconds, before he heard his blood rushing in his ears and pulled back. Nyma was still there in front of him, though now her gaze was evaluating rather than pleading, and shadows were tingeing the corners of his vision.

He didn’t even get a chance to complete his curse before he slumped to the floor.

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

Nyma dressed as quickly as she could and hustled from the room, leaving Lance passed out on the floor of his bunk. The toxin would only buy her a half an hour of time. Well, he was scrawny, so maybe forty.

It was well past eleven at night; she was fully expecting everyone on the ship to be asleep. So she was dismayed (and a bit irritated) when she climbed out into the hallway to find the door to the bridge open and the form of the pilot still at the helm.

Well, fine. She’d seduced one man tonight. What was another?

Pulling back on her mask of shyness and submission, she made her way into the cockpit with quiet steps. The pilot (Keith, she thought his name was) detected her footfalls and turned, expression flat with no sign of surprise except for the few raised inches of his eyebrows.

“What are you doing up here?” he asked, rough, and Nyma suppressed a frown. Not exactly the reception she’d been hoping for, but she could work with it. She hovered by the door, looking down, clinging to the frame as though she was frightened.

“Am… I allowed to be up here?”

“Uh, I guess? Unless Shiro said otherwise.”

Carefully she crept into the room, watching the man with eagle-eyes as he turned back to the windscreen. He had one leg up on the chair, held close to his chest, while his hand toyed with something around his neck. His eyes focused on the glow of far off stars. That, she could work with.

“I’ve never been off world before,” she whispered, as though it was a secret. “It’s beautiful. Like a dream.”

Keith eyed her in his periphery, but said nothing. So, still feeling the weight of his gaze, she ducked her head and shuffled back to the door to pull it shut.

“What are you doing?” The question was sharp and suspicious-- this guy clearly had some trust issues. He’d be a tough nut to crack.

“Now we’re alone, just us and the stars,” Nyma answered with the brightest grin she could muster. “No ship, no bellowing engines, no crew to bicker at each other.”

Keith frowned and flicked his eyes over her. Not appraisingly like she’d been hoping, but wary.

“You haven’t spoken to anyone but Lance all day,” he said, “Why are you bein’ so friendly now?”

She gave a forlorn sigh and cast her eyes away with a bit of a flutter. “Lance is kind, but I have to admit, when I learned I was being given to someone on a ship like this I’d been hoping for someone more… commanding.”

He snorted and turned back to the stars. “Good luck with that. He’s more likely to annoy than command.”

“Yes, I discovered that.” She dared a few steps closer to his chair. “It’s our wedding night, and he refused to be with me the way I was promised.”

Keith visibly tensed up, his knuckles going white around his necklace. “Why the hell are you talkin’ to me about this?” His voice had dropped an octave or two, going low and growly, which she interpreted as a good sign.

“I just-- you seem so strong. So detached from the rest.” She sidled a step closer, and closer. “I was hoping, if Lance wouldn’t, maybe you could make this night what it should be.”

“What do you want?” He spat, taking her aback. “Quit talkin’ pretty and tell me plain-like.”

Nyma hadn’t been expecting such a brusque response, but perhaps Keith was just one of those men who wanted someone more enthusiastic, less coy. She could do that.

She put her shoulders back. “I want you to sleep with me.”

He turned his head, gave her a long look, then said flatly, “No.”

She nearly screamed with frustration. What was with the men on this boat?!

“I don’t belong to Lance, you know,” she tried, only for Keith to snort derisively.

“This ain’t about Lance. It’s about me.”

Shit. She’d really managed to land herself on a ship full of gay men, chivalrous airheads, and guys carting their own weight in emotional baggage. Freaking brilliant.

“Keith--” She stepped forward, held out her hand to barely skim along his shoulder. It was the wrong decision.

He reacted like a cat who’d just had water flicked at it; leaping back and out of the pilots seat, putting his back to the wall. His hand had left his pendant to rest on the hilt of the knife on his belt, and if she wasn’t wrong he was even baring his teeth at her in a snarl.

“What are you doing?” he demanded for the third time that night. “I said no.”

Nyma put on her best disappointed pout. “I just want something good to come out of this whole mess. For both of us.”

He snarled at her. “You oughta go back to your room.”

In an instant she changed her whole posture, dropping her head and shrinking her body language down, forcing tears into her eyes to complete the picture.

“I-I’m sorry,” she stuttered, adding a sniffle for effect. “I was only trying to d-do what I was t-told.”

From the corners of her eyes she saw him falter, just a little, and pride welled in her chest. She had him now.

“Look,” said Keith, and if she was right that was guilt in his voice. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I… I know what it’s like, thinking that’s all anyone wants from you. But you don’t have to here.”

She nearly rolled her eyes. What a moron.

“So, just… go back to bed. Please.” He turned his attention away, back to the stars, moving to return to his seat. Finally he’d let his guard down enough, and while he was still lowering into the pilots seat she whipped her leg up.

Her foot connected solidly with his temple and he went down.  

Instantly she sprung into action, hauling the man's limp body out of the seat and out into the hall outside the cockpit. In a flash she was back in the pilots seat, expertly weaving through screens and inputting coordinates for the autopilot. She locked onto the course she’d entered, set the ship for hard burn, then ducked under the dashboard and pulled aside one of the loose metal panels.

One handful of wires yanked out, two connections put together with a shower of sparks, and voila, one compromised Firefly. Nyma powered everything down in the cockpit, then made for the door.

Keith was still sprawled on the floor where she’d left him, the cut on his temple bleeding sluggishly, but he was beginning to stir already. She wasted no time sticking the welding strip to the door and sliding it shut, not even waiting to watch it do its work before rushing off towards the shuttles.

Now the companions shuttle was on the right, so she needed to go to the left--

Just as she was pulling open the door to the shuttle a face appeared on the other side, letting out a surprised noise as Nyma practically ran into her.

“Are you lost?” asked Allura as Nyma spun around, trying to hide her panting breath.

Christ, did no one on this ship sleep?

“I’m sorry, I thought the other shuttle was yours.”

The contemplative frown was audible in Allura’s voice as she answered. “It is, I was on the Cortex and the screen shorted, this one’s out too.”

Thinking fast, Nyma turned on her heel to face her, though kept her eyes firmly on the metal catwalk before her and not on the Companions face.

“Looking for customers?”

A pause.

“What were you looking for?”

Ok. She could play this game for the third time tonight. She made her fingers toy with the edge of her skirt, more than aware of the time ticking down on her.

“I don’t mean to be rude. A Companions life is so glamorous and strange. I wish I had the skill for such a trade.”

“It’s not skill so much as training,” said Allura as she took a step closer, sky blue robe dragging over the floor. “Why? You’d like to please your new husband?”

Nyma gave a coy chuckle. “Oh he’ll have none of me. For true I’m somewhat relieved. If I’m to learn of love,” she sidled forward a bit, “I’d like it to be at the hands of someone gentle. Someone who could feel what I feel.”

Allura moved again, until they were close, closer than she’d stood to Keith, and Nyma let her eyes rise. Their gazes lingered on lips and eyes, flickering back and forth. The only sounds were their bated breaths and the whisper of Allura’s robe.

After a lingering moment of consideration, Allura whispered, “Come to my shuttle.”

Nyma feigned pleasant, disbelieving surprise. “You would… you would lie with me?”

At that moment alarms began to blare, loud and jarring, and both of their heads snapped up. When she looked back, Allura’s eyes were cool.

“I guess we’ve lied enough.”

Nyma smirked. “You’re good.”

“You’re amazing, who are you?”

The smirk grew. “Lance McClain’s widow.”

Allura’s expression twisted to horror just as Nyma went to throw a punch. Allura, to her surprise, blocked it with her forearm, and managed to duck her high kick, but her robe twisted around her legs and sent her to the floor, allowing Nyma to run past her into the empty shuttle.

And then she was home free, lifting off into the Black, and she allowed herself a triumphant grin.

Suckers.

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

When Allura made it to the hall leading to the cockpit, she was immediately blasted by chaos and shouting. Pidge was on the floor, kneeling over Keith.

“Keith? Come on, wake up!” She looked up, and when she met Allura’s eyes, cried, “He’s bleeding!”

Behind her Hunk was pulling against the closed cockpit door to no avail. “There’s no one in there!” he said, giving the metal door another impatient yank. Heart thundering in her chest, Allura rushed to Lance’s bunk and kicked down the ladder.

He was there, unconscious and sprawled out on the floor, but when she reached him and felt for a pulse it was there. So not dead, just knocked out, and from what she gleaned from Nyma she could guess how.

“What’s going on?” The voice was Shiro’s, floating down from the hallway. Allura called back.

“Shiro, we need Coran!”

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

Lance’s vision came back to him blurry, nothing but a number of blobs around him and the vague sense of being surrounded. For a moment he couldn’t tell if it was the crew or his family.

“Is it Christmas?” he mumbled, and his vision sharpened just enough to make out Coran smiling at him with a stethoscope around his neck.

“Well, he’s back,” said the mustached man as Lance struggled to sit himself up. His limbs felt like weights, his tongue too large for his mouth, his thoughts forming sluggishly and out of order.

“What happened about me?”

“Your blushing bride was a plant,” Matt explained from his other side. Dimly he was aware that Keith and Allura were in the room too, though Pidge, Hunk, and Shiro were nowhere to be found. “She took both of you out.”

Confused, Lance looked in the direction Matt gestured, only to finally notice how Keith was pressing a bandage to his temple and scowling at him angrily.

“How did--”

“Narcotic compound,” Coran interrupted, packing up his supplies. “Probably spread over a seal on her lips. You get it on yours, and pow!”

Matt gave him an amused look. “Lips, huh?”

Thankfully Coran continued before he had to try and defend himself. “We used to get a lot of guys brought in on the night shift at the E.R., usually robbed, very groggy. They called it the goodnight kiss.”

“So you two were kissin’?” Matt said, raising an eyebrow. Gaping, Lance looked to Keith, but before he could get a single word out he was scowling deeper and snapping.

“Don’t get any ideas, húndàn, she kicked me in the head.”

Lance, with some help from Coran, managed to stagger to his feet. “You guys don’t understand--”

“Oh, it seems pretty clear from here,” said Matt with a wolfish grin.

“That’s not what happened!” he growled and gripped a fistful of his hair. “What’s going on anyway, what’d she do it for?”

Matt, thankfully, left off the teasing. “We’re shut down. The others are trying to get us back on the bridge, but it looks like she set us a course somewhere. Somewhere that ain’t Reiphod.”

With the teams help they managed to get Lance back up into the hallway, where Hunk had broken out the welding equipment to get into the cockpit while Pidge and Shiro stood and watched impatiently.

“She didn’t just lock it, she fused it to something,” Pidge reported in an irritated tone. “Both entrances.”

“But why?” asked Shiro, directing a look at Lance. “What was she after?”

“Don’t look at me! I’m the innocent party here!”

The metal of the cockpit door groaned, and with one last touch it slid open to reveal the dark cockpit that they all rushed into. Keith and Pidge disappeared under the dashboard (which, Lance noticed, already had a panel loose) and within seconds were peering into the mess of wires with flashlights and muttering to each other.

“She’s a pro,” Keith said with begrudging respect.

“This is a masterful job of a muck up,” Pidge responded. “See how she crossed the drive feeds?”

“Uh-huh.”

“So if we even try to reroute it’ll all lock down.”

Keith squirmed and pointed at something. “She went straight for the thermal cap.”

“Yeah! We are so hung.”

Shiro decided now was a good as time as any to interject. He looked immensely grumpy, hair sticking up all over and still in his pajamas. Probably one of the few nights he’d been able to fall asleep easily, and look where it got him.

“I’m glad you two are having a good time under there, can we progress to the making it right?”

Pidge shone her flashlight in his eyes in retribution. “That’s not gonna happen for a long while, Captain.”

“Well we don’t have a good long while. We could be headin’ straight into a nice, big, solid moon for all we know, so hows about we get to work?”

“Why are you tellin’ us off?” Keith growled, even as he reached up to fiddle with some wires. “It was Lance’s big makeout session that got us into this.”

“I was poisoned!” Lance said, only for Allura of all people to scoff at him.

“You were drugged.”

“Well what can you do?” asked Shiro, and Pidge sat up. There was already a smear of grease on her cheek.

“Give us time, we can get the Cortex and nav-con back online, at least see where we’re headed.”

“What about steering?” Shiro asked.

“What about stopping?” That one was Matt. Pidge shook her head.

“She humped us hard, we’re gonna have to do a lot--”

“Well do it. Doesn’t help me to see where I’m goin’ if I can’t change course.”

Keith kicked Shiro in the shin without looking. “This girl really knows her ships, Shiro.”

“That’s not all she knows,” said Allura. “She’s well-schooled.”

“What do you mean, the sedative?”

Allura shook her head at Coran’s question. “No, I mean seduction, body language, signals. She’s had training. As in Companion. As in the academy.”

Lance frowned. “How do you know?”

Allura scoffed again and tossed her head. “She tried to seduce me, too.”

For a moment Lance was speechless. “And did she-- did you--”

“You don’t play a player.” If he was right in the darkness, Allura was a bit smug. “It was sloppy of her to try it, but I think she was in a rush.”

“But she was a professional. So in my case, was it really--” Matt was snickering, and Lance rounded on him with an accusing finger, “You would’ve kissed her too!”

Hunk, loitering in the background, said lowly, “Keith didn’t.”

Lance spun on him next. “But she was naked! And all… articulate!”

“Ok!” Keith sprung up from beneath the dashboard. “Everybody not talkin’ about sex, in here. Everyone else,” he pointed to the door, “Elsewhere!”

<><><><><>

“They’re coming!” Beezer cried over the beeping of the consoles. Rolo immediately barged through the door, a familiar greedy light in his eyes.

“How far out?”

“Ten minutes or so, right on target. Speed: A-1.”

Rolo braced his hand on the console and grinned at the screen. “That girl’s a wonder.”

“She gets it done.” Beezer agreed. “I’ll tell the boys.”

<><><><><>

After a few minutes of tinkering the screens on the dashboard flickered back to life, inspiring a cry of triumph from Keith as he scrambled to his feet.

“You got it?” Shiro asked, crowding behind him as Keith bent over the screens.

“Lights and screens, yeah. Partial yes.”

“What about nav control?”

Pidge emerged next, flicking her ponytail off to the side. “No.”

Shiro reached down to give her hair a comforting ruffle. “So where are we heading, Keith?”

“Not a planet or anything, but whatever it is, it’s close.”

“Did she signal anybody?”

“She did. Same coordinates, but no I.D.”

Hunk frowned and leaned on the dashboard to peer out at the stars. “Who’s out there?”

Bumping Keith aside with her hip, Pidge took up position over the screens. “Let me see if her signal wave can translate to a visual. There might be--”

She leaned over the screen that lit up, showing a red glowing circle that crackled around the edges, and frowned to herself.

“Electromagnetic interference,” she muttered. “It’s bouncing the signal all over the place. Look at it.”

Shiro leaned over her shoulder and frowned down at it. Then his brow creased.

“It’s a net.”

“A carrion house,” said Matt from the back corner with wide eyes. “A scrap shop.”

“What do those do?” asked an anxious Allura, and Matt sighed.

“Takes ships, pulls ‘em apart or fixes them up to be sold.”

Pidge scowled and flicked the screen. “That net’ll turn the ship into one big electrical conduit, burn us all from the inside out.”

“Some of the newer ones’ll just hold you,” Shiro interjected. “Then they’ll override the airlocks and either pull the O2 or gas you. They’re not looking to deal with survivors.”

“I’ll keep trying,” said Pidge, crawling back under the dashboard, “But I can’t promise I’ll be able to do anything in time.”

Shiro pushed back his hair. “We’re gonna need a plan B.” After a short considering pause, he put his shoulders back and began issuing orders. “Matt, go get our suits prepped. Lance, go get your best rifle. Pidge, Keith, tell me as soon as we have visual on the net.”

“Yessir.”

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

“What am I aiming for? The window?”

Shiro, pressed shoulder to shoulder with Lance at the screen in front of the airlock, shook his head.

“That might kill some folk, but it won’t disrupt the net.” He pointed with a bulky finger, encased in the space suit. “See these six points where it’s brightest? Those are the breakers. Hit one of those and it should short out.”

Lance gulped at the word ‘should’, but pulled on his helmet anyway. It was nerve wracking enough to know that their survival rested on his aim, but it was even worse knowing that it might not even work. Still, it was their only chance.

Together, he and Shiro entered the airlock, the alarm blaring behind them as the door shut. With a press of a button the air sucked out of the chamber and the gravity fell away. Shiro slowly pulled open the door on the underside of the ramp, exposing the neck they were roaring towards.

It was wide, big enough to swallow up a ship many times the size of the Golden Lion, built of scrap metals and sparking with lines of electricity.

“You see it?” asked Shiro through the crackling of the comms.

“Clear as day.” The points where the electricity flowed sparked brighter than the rest. And not even that small. So he drew in a deep breath and let it out slow, counting his heart beats, willing them to slow, waiting for the net to come in range, adjusting for the warping of his vision from the helmet.

Closer. Closer. Closer.

Right as the nose of the ship was about to come into contact with the center of the arcing electricity, he squeezed the trigger.

There was a bright flash as the breaker shattered, reducing the web of electricity to a sparking ring flowing around the scrap structure of the net. The Golden Lion sailed through without a scratch.

Just for good measure, he aimed the next few shots at the window of the scrap shop as they flew by, smirking in satisfaction as the bodies were sucked through the tiny hole and into the cold, unforgiving void of space.

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

“We got it!” Keith shot on excited grin over his shoulder at Shiro as he hurried back onto the bridge. “It ain’t pretty, but we can steer enough to turn the hell around.”

Shiro smiled back at him warmly. “Nice job you two.”

Pidge clambered out from under the dashboard wearing a vexed expression. “Not enough in time to help,” she grumbled, but Shiro pulled her into his side.

“Hey, it’s a lot easier to pull things apart than it is to put ‘em right. You and Hunk are still the best engineers floatin’.” He gave her a good squeeze, then let her go to ruffle Keith’s hair, who ducked away with a pleased flush. “And Keith’s still the best pilot.”

“You’re pretty cheerful considering we just evaded death,” said Keith with a smirk.

“Well nobody’s dead or hurt. Just counting my blessings.”

“Sooooo,” Pidge said as she redid her ponytail. “What’re we gonna do about the missing shuttle?”

“I’ve got a plan. Or rather, Lance does.”

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

Outside the lodge the snow fell softly. Inside it was warm and cozy by the fire, where Nyma was busily zipping up her boots after another job well done. Her pick up shuttle should be there in a few minutes to take her away from here (and carrying her payment from the scrappers).

She turned her head, one hand beginning to creep for the holster under her jacket. She thought she’d heard something from outside, the crunch of snow under a foot, but now everything seemed quiet. Perhaps she--

The door burst open. And there, with a rifle against his shoulder pointed right at her head, was Lance McClain.

“Honey,” he said with a sharp smile, “I’m home.”

For a moment she played along, casting her eyes downwards. Then she sprang to her feet, knocking the barrel of the gun to the side with one arm. Lance blocked her incoming punch, and after a brief grapple he grabbed her by the wrists and forced them forward until the backs of her knees hit the mattress, sending her onto her back on the bed.

Lance opened his mouth, probably to say something snarky, but Nyma jerked up her knee before he could and nailed him between the legs. In his brief relaxation of his grip she wrenched herself away and rolled off the bed, only for him to follow and put them right back in the same position, this time on the floor with the barrel of Lance’s rifle touching her temple and one of his hands on the trigger.

For a second they stared into each others eyes. Then Nyma spoke.

“You gonna kill me?”

He tilted his head. “Can you conjure up a terribly compelling reason for me not to?”

“I didn’t kill you.”

That earned her a scoff. “You handed me and my friends over to those that would kill us. That buys you nothing.”

“I made you dinner.”

“Why the act?” He leaned in a bit closer and Nyma mentally smirked. She could still turn this to her favor, if she played her cards right. If she’d learned anything on that boat it was that Lance was weak. “All the seduction games and dancin’ about folk. There has to be an easier way to steal.”

Nyma rolled her eyes. “You’re assuming the payoff is the point.”

“I’m not assuming anything at this juncture.”

Ugh. Whatever.

“How’d you find me?”

“Only a few places you could make it to from where the shuttle left. Shiro’ll be happy it’s intact.”

“You’re quite a man, Lance.” She gave a sultry grin and shifted a bit under him. “I’ve been waiting a long time for someone good enough to take me down.”

“Nyma. If you even think about playing me again I will riddle you with holes.”

Nyma jerked her head away and snarled. “Everyone plays each other. That’s all anybody ever does. We play parts.”

“You got all kinds of learnin’, and you made me look the fool without tryin’, and yet here I am, with a gun to your head. That’s cause I got people with me, people I trust, who ain’t always lookin’ for the advantage.”

“Ugh,” she groaned, “Promise you’re gonna kill me soon.”

Lance chuckled and sat back, freeing her upper body. “You already know I ain’t gonna.” She followed, propping herself up on her elbows. Yeah-- like she said. Weak.

“You know, you did pretty well. Most men are on me within ten minutes. Not tryin’ to teach me to be strong and the like.”

He rocked back until he was kneeling, the gun still pointed in her direction.

“I just got one question. One thing I’d like to know straight up. What’s your real name?”

Nyma’s face dropped, and for a moment she just stared up at him. Until his knuckles met her cheekbone and everything went black.

Chapter Text

 

Shiro hated the sound of pounding feet on metal floors in the morning.

“Matthew Holt I swear on the soul of Earth-that-was I am going to gut you and decorate the engine room with your intestines!”

Matt’s laugh reached the kitchen a moment before he did. “Gonna have to catch me first!” He crashed into the room, barely dancing aside in time to avoid the dining table, something fluffy and brown dangling from one hand. Pidge was right on his heels, barefoot and in her pajamas. Her brother didn’t make it past the table before she was leaping onto his back with a banshee scream.

Shiro set his cup of coffee down with a bit more force than necessary and snapped, “What does a man have to do to get some peace and quiet on his own gorram ship?”

The siblings didn’t stop wrestling, Matt still trying to buck Pidge off of him while she clung like a spider monkey, but she did deign to yell an explanation over the racket of Matt’s laughter.

“He cut my hair! I was asleep and he cut my hair!”

Matt cackled, and oh, that must be Pidge’s ponytail he was holding.

“It was gonna get caught in the engine!” Matt protested through breathless laughter. “It was a safety hazard--”

“I’ll show you a safety hazard!” Pidge shrieked, yanking on his hair in retribution. “You gǒucàode motherfucker, I’ll skin you alive--”

“Alright, alright, that’s enough!” Having shoved his chair back from the table, Shiro made it to them in two strides and peeled Pidge off of her brother with one hand, still kicking and scratching while Matt doubled over with glee.

“Why are you like this?” he asked in exasperation, which only made Matt laugh harder. Footsteps drew Shiro’s attention to the door, where several more bedraggled members of the crew were stumbling in.

“What’s goin’ on?” asked Hunk with a yawn, already making his way over to the coffee pot, while Keith stood in the doorway with a glare that could’ve melted steel.

“It is eight in the goddamn morning,” he growled. “Give me one good reason not to march up to the cockpit and open the airlock on us all.”

“Aw, come on Keith,” said Matt, finally straightening and wiping tears of mirth from his cheeks. “It’s just a little harmless sibling fun.” He tossed the ponytail onto the table. Keith stared at it for a moment before rolling his eyes and following Hunk in his quest for caffeine.

“Christ, Matt,” Shiro said. He set Pidge down, only to hold her back when she made another break for Matt. “Can you please throw that away? I know for a fact you were raised better’n that.”

He was still laughing, but he did pick up the bundle of hair and make to leave the room. Pidge grumbled and dropped into a chair, plopping her arms onto the table and hiding her head in them. Even from this angle Shiro could see where her hair had been chopped to the length of her cheekbone.

“I’m sure Allura can fix it,” he said awkwardly, but Pidge was having none of it.

“I’m never speakin’ to him again,” she declared without raising her head. “I disown him. I’m an only child.”

Shiro, being an actual only child, had no idea what to say to that. Thankfully Hunk sat down just then with his cup of coffee, nodding sagely along with her decision.

“Siblings are a curse on our lands,” he said in a dull monotone.

“Amen to that,” chimed in Lance from the doorway, taking two steps into the room before freezing. “Pidgeon, what the hell happened to your head?”

She flipped him off without looking up.

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

A few hours later, after everyone was awake and dressed and not trying to kill each other, Shiro made his way up to the cockpit where Keith was entering them into orbit around Oriande, one of the four moons that circled Weblum. Almost the entire planet was white sand dunes, making it sparkle like granite in the black velvet backdrop of space.

“Are the scans back?” he asked, and Keith swiveled to look at one of his screens.

“Yeah, I’m not pickin’ up any ships, ‘course that doesn’t tell us if there are any here that are on blackout. There are little blips of biorhythms, but they’re real sparse. Could just be wildlife.”

Shiro answered with a considering hum and peered out through the windscreen. They couldn’t see their destination from so far out, but he knew it was down there. Somewhere.

“Are you sure about this?” murmured Keith, drawing Shiro’s eyes to him. His lips were pressed into a thin line, a fist clenched around his pendant, and Shiro didn’t blame him. Lance had nearly left the crew when he found out what Shiro’s plan was for their next stop.

“Sure as I can be. Coran needs data, we need cargo to unload, and the Galra woulda left this town months ago. Should be safe enough.”

Keith wasn’t appeased. “Ok, but why do I have to come? Shouldn’t I stay with the Lion in case things go south and we have to leave in a hurry?”

Ah, so that’s what this is about. It took all of Shiro’s willpower not to roll his eyes.

“You’re not gettin’ out of coming planetside, Keith. I need you to drive the mule-- I can’t trust Matt or Lance on that thing.”

“Can’t Coran do it?”

“Coran isn’t comin’ down until we make sure it’s safe. Give it up, kid.”

He let out an irritated growl and sank in his seat, glaring down at the planet. He’d probably wind up giving Shiro the cold shoulder for a couple of days for forcing him to leave the ship, but what other choice did he have? Matt and Lance always got into competitions over the mule-- seeing who could do a wheelie for the longest and other juvenile nonsense-- and it had been months since Keith had last left the ship. He needed fresh air at some point, even if Shiro had to drag him kicking and screaming.

“Quit whining and bring us in,” Shiro instructed, letting Keith’s glare roll off of him. “We’ve got scavenging to be done.”

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

Down in the cargo hold he found Pidge, still viciously ignoring her brother, trying to instruct Lance on what kind of part she was looking for to finish off her secret project. Allura had in fact been able to clean up her hair into a kind of fluffy pixie cut, though the frown that was still on her face promised she would hold this grudge for a long, long time. Thankfully Matt was distracted with readying the mule for their expedition, so they weren’t butting heads at that exact moment as Shiro wandered in his direction.

“Hey,” he greeted when he noticed Shiro's approach. “How’d it go with the problem child?”

Shiro shrugged. “He’ll get over it.”

“Well I’m not sure Lance will. He’s been tremblin’ in his boots for days.”

Glancing over his shoulder, Shiro surveyed the man in question. He was putting on a convincing show, but there was a pale tint to his skin and a tension in his shoulders that spoke to how not-happy he was about scavenging from a town that had been raided by Galra.

“And frankly I don’t blame him.” Matt had continued, “Usually the motto is ‘if a Galra touched it, don’t go near’, and that motto is generally correct.”

“The Galra never stay at the location of a raid for this long and you know it. Besides, Coran is getting impatient about not getting new data in a while, and when he gets impatient he gets annoying. We’ll just go down for a few, sweep for whatever bits of pretty survived, let him poke at the ashes, and then get the hell out before sunset.”

Matt shook his head, though he didn’t look up from his task, even as the ship gave a shudder that sent them all swaying on their feet. The familiar feeling of breaking atmo-- it wouldn’t be long now.

“Whatever you say, cap’n. I’m just along for the ride.”

Within a few minutes Keith had set the ship down on the sturdiest bit of sand he could find and was joining the rest of them down below as they prepared. He’d pulled on his old red leather jacket and tucked his pendant beneath his shirt, an expression of such strong dread on his face that it rivaled Lance’s, who didn’t dare miss the opportunity to poke fun at him.

“Careful there, flyboy,” Lance said, poking a finger at Keith’s shoulder which was swiftly swatted away. “Someone might see your face and think you actually have emotions.”

“Shut it, húndàn,” Keith snapped back. “Or the Galra will hear your loud mouth and come to kill us all.”

“Come on, Keith, that ain’t funny.” That voice belonged to Hunk, who had apparently just come to Lance’s rescue. “We don’t joke about that.”

Keith scowled, but Shiro stepped in before he could retaliate.

“Alright, that’s enough. Matt’s nearly got the mule set up and Keith will drive us into town. Coran will join us once we send back the all clear. Pidge,” he shot a glance over at her as she not-so-subtly tried to kill Matt with her eyes, “you monitor the radar while we’re out there, make sure nobody sneaks up on us.”

“Yessir,” she grumbled without breaking her stare. Now it was Matt’s turn to ignore her, and Shiro could do nothing but sigh in defeated confusion. Siblings were a mystery he didn’t want to unravel.

“Let’s move out.”

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

The town was about what Keith expected it to be-- a burnt-out box of matchsticks scattered in the desert dunes. There had once been about twenty or so buildings, but all that remained of them now were scorched black timbers, some still erect and some toppled over to the ground, in the process of being buried by the ever shifting sands. The whole place felt melancholy, and as he pulled the mule up to the town’s edge and killed the engine, his gut twisted in a way he wasn’t entirely sure was due to being planetside.

“Alright guys,” said Shiro once they’d all climbed off the mule. “Spread out, search for safes and anything valuable that survived the fires. You see bodies, don’t touch ‘em, just move on. Meet back here in an hour.”

Keith could at least take comfort in the fact that Lance and Matt looked as uncomfortable as he felt. Shiro put on a good façade, but he wasn’t stupid, and Keith noticed the way his eyes flicked around the ruins of the town, and the handles of his pistols in their holsters when the dry wind stirred his coat. Reluctantly the four of them parted, going in different directions to search the town. Keith decided to go east.

He walked with his hands in his pockets, kicking at the little piles of ash mixed with sand that still lingered after all of these months. By their reports, this town had been hit by the Galra nearly four months ago. Usually raiding parties only bothered to stay in one place for a couple of weeks at the most, so there shouldn’t be any danger of being caught by stragglers, but even so, chills crept up and down Keith’s spine like the touch of skeletal fingers.

It wasn’t just the smell of dust or the glare of the sun on the sand that was bothering him. He went through the motions of searching, digging in the dirt in what would’ve been rooms of the burnt down homes, lifting charred beams and smearing himself with charcoal, but all the while his hair stood on end from the strange sensation of being watched. His mind kept flipping back to the scant biorhythms he’d picked up on the scans.

Sure, they could’ve been wildlife. They could’ve just as easily not been, and if a ship, Galra or otherwise, was lurking somewhere nearby while powered down their buzz wouldn’t have picked it up. Maybe it was the utter silence of the place that was getting to him-- the utter lack of any engine hum or creaking metal, just shifting sand and wind. Whatever it was, by the time half an hour had gone by he was ready to jump out of his skin.

Keith straightened up from where he’d been searching for any kind of hidden safe. He hadn’t found anything, and as he looked out amongst the ruins and realized he couldn’t see any of the others from his position, was suddenly struck by a wave of anxious nausea. Something wasn't right. He didn’t know what or how he knew, but he knew. They had to get back to the ship.

With a hand white-knuckled around his pendant, he ran to find Shiro.

Fortunately he wasn’t far, having chosen a few buildings close to the mule to search through. He popped up from behind a half destroyed wall when Keith called his name, his face confused and smeared with ashes.

“Hey, Keith, find something?”

“We need to leave.” His words came out harsh and clipped, low like a growl, but he couldn’t help it. His skin was crawling under his jacket like the sand had gotten under it. Thankfully Shiro was able to tell he was serious, not angry, and straightened up to his full height to approach.

“Why? You see somethin’?”

“No, not exactly, but it’s-- this place-- it doesn’t feel right.”

Shiro had reached him now, and his head tilted as he gave Keith a long, searching look. After a moment he reached for the radio on his belt and held it to his lips.

“Hey, Pidge, you there?”

It crackled. “Yeah, what’s up?”

“Can you do another sweep of the town?”

“Sure, just a second.” There was silence, during which Keith shifted anxiously from foot to foot and found his hand wrapped around the hilt of his knife, before Pidge returned. “Scan says there’s nothin’ there. A few bio signals bouncin’ around the edge of town, but it’s probably just rabbits.”

Shiro raised an eyebrow at him and Keith’s cheeks flushed with heat. He shook his head.

“Shiro, listen to me,” he said as vehemently as he could. “We need to leave, now, before something bad happens. Before they come back.”

Shiro’s mouth opened, probably to ask what he meant by that when Keith himself didn’t even know, when the radio crackled again.

“Uh, hold on. Those bio’s are suddenly getting really numerous, hold on, lemme do a sonar sweep, just a second-- Āiyā! Huàile! ” There was the sound of a button being pressed as Pidge opened the channel to all of their radios. “Guys, get back to the ship ASAP! There are tunnels carved out under that town and they’re full of heat signatures, human-sized ones-- fuck, they’re heading in your direction!”

Keith and Shiro’s gazes met, wide and full of terror.

“Hide!”

Immediately the two of them dove to the ground, behind the wall, huddled in the sand. The moment they stopped moving they heard it-- the sound of feet trudging through dirt. Keith sucked in a breath and held it, back braced against the charred wall, one hand around his pendant and the other around his knife. Shiro quietly drew one of his pistols, though didn’t pull back the hammer in fear of the noise alerting whoever was bearing down on them.

Keith had the worst feeling that he knew who it was.

He held Shiro’s gaze as the footsteps came closer, and closer, only closing his eyes when he heard voices. They were some yards away, probably grouped around the mule. They knew they were here-- and it probably hadn’t been long enough for the wind to blow the sand over their footprints. God, they were so--

A hand landed on his shoulder. The one on the other side from Shiro.

Keith wouldn’t remember what he did next. One moment he was cowering behind the wall, the next he was up and his knife was in his hand, bloody, and there was a corpse in the sand on the other side of the wall. Then there was a crowd of people, all rushing at them and shouting, and he heard the report of Shiro’s pistol beside him and felt the resistance as he slashed at some more figures with his blade, but after a whirlwind few seconds it was wrenched from his hand and his cheek met the ground.

The last thing he saw was a face, criss-crossed by dozens of red burns, and filthy matted hair hanging into eyes with yellow where there should have been white, before a boot hit the back of his head and everything went dark.

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

Shiro had found himself in a lot of shitty situations over the years. And most of the time, exempting a notable few, he could come up with something to say to make it just slightly less terrifying. Something wry, sarcastic, maybe even falsely cheery to lighten the mood, even if it was only by an ounce.

Now there was no way he could manage something like that. Because this was beyond just a shitty situation.

They’d been captured by Galra.

And therefore, they were going to die long, slow, painful deaths.

And there was nothing they could do about it.

Escape was a pipe dream. They’d all been unconscious when they’d been hauled into the maze of underground tunnels (Shiro’s throat still ached from where one of the Galra had hooked their elbow to choke him out) and now were bound in a dark cell, hands behind their backs and attached to the back wall made of sheet metal that looked like it came from a ship. If the others were smart they would’ve had Allura get in the pilot seat and get them off that planet the moment Pidge realized what was happening.

He wished he could be brave about this. He wished he could still face death the way he had in the war; with honor and dignity and maybe a little bit of eagerness. But he couldn’t seem to muster it up in himself. He didn’t-- fuck, he didn’t want to die. Not like this.

The others it seemed weren’t doing much better. Matt was a line of stone next to him, staring off into space as though whatever he saw there could negate the tremors wracking his body. Lance had curled his knees to his chest and tipped his head down, his eyes closed and his lips moving. Praying, maybe. Then there was Keith, his head tilted back to glare at the ceiling like he personally blamed God for everything that was happening to him and he was planning on kicking his ass the moment it was all over.

Shiro really wished he could feel that way. But all he felt was the fear. And the guilt.

After all, he was the one who’d brought them here.

He had no idea how long the Galra let them sit there, but eventually the door to the cell did creak open, revealing a hallway that was no better lit than the cell, and in filed four Galra. Thankfully the low light kept Shiro from being able to see their faces, surely mangled beyond the point of being merely grotesque. Each carried some sort of pointed metal weapon in one hand, and with the other they each seized a captive, hauling them to their feet. All four went without a fight, Lance merely letting out a bit of a whimper as they were marched down the dark passageway to their doom.

The room they emerged in was large-- at least compared to the cell. Parts of the walls and floor were hard-packed dirt, reinforced with sheets and bars of metal, and lit by metal barrel fires with thin scraps protruding like an imitation of spikes. Here and there were piles of junk, including some white things that were probably bones, and other Galra in their ratty armor and mutilated bodies lined the room. Shiro could feel their bloodlust rolling off of them; they were nearly vibrating with it. It made bile rise in his throat.

In the center lounged what could have only been their leader on a pile of ripped clothes that had clearly come from the inhabitants of the destroyed town. He rose to his feet as they entered, standing taller than even Shiro, and though they were all the same level of filthy, his armor and towering spear were clearly the best quality of the party. Matted hair fell to his waist, and as he approached the prisoners his version of self-injury became clear.

Small burns, shaped like the crescent moon, spotted over his entire face and down his neck. Where his hands were bare showed evidence of the same, his nails sharpened to claws and his teeth filed the same when he snarled at the captives, and the whites of his eyes, through illness or otherwise, had yellowed like ripened lemons. The irises were indigo.

The smell was the worst thing. Too terrible to describe, but if he had to try, Shiro would put it somewhere between vomit and pig shit.

Even if by some miracle they were transported back to the ship right then, Shiro would have nightmares about this moment for the rest of his life.

He was expecting it to be a bit of a frenzy. He thought the others were only going to hold back until their leader gave them the signal, and then they would descend upon him and his crew like a pack of raptors. But instead everything was disconcertingly still as the man came closeclosecloser and peered into Shiro’s eyes.

For his part, he stared back without flinching.

The man frowned a bit and flicked his hair, then stepped to the side to do the same staring contest with Matt. He shook like a bobblehead on the dashboard of a crashing ship, but didn’t look away, and again the leader moved on.

Next was Lance, but his eyes were closed, and his lips still moved in his frantic prayer. The Galra growled and raised the point of his spear to Lance’s chin, who made a small sound of fear and turned his head away.

“Lance,” Shiro said raspily, half afraid he was going to be skewered for speaking. “Open your eyes.”

Lance whimpered again, but reluctantly obeyed, and the leader didn’t pay him half a bit of attention once he had.

Then he got to Keith, and Shiro felt the whole atmosphere in the room change as they stared each other down. Everyone was frozen.

Until the leader gave a sharp-toothed grin and seized Keith by the throat.

Instantly the room was deafening, filled with shrieks and howls as the Galra standing around the room rushed to the center. Keith fought them as he was pulled forward, snarling, kicking, even snapping his teeth at anyone who got too close, but it wasn’t doing anything. Nor were Shiro’s attempts-- his cry of Keith’s name and lunge against the Galra holding him had only earned him an arm wrapped around his neck again to keep him in place. That didn’t stop him from trying though, screaming for him until his voice cracked. Keith probably couldn’t hear him over all the war cries of the Galra surrounding him from all sides.

“No! Keith!” Matt shouted, tugging against his guards grip on him.

Lance shivered and sagged, shaking his head and murmuring, “Oh God, oh God.”

Keith was forced to his knees before the leader and Shiro almost closed his eyes. He didn’t want to watch this happen, not to him, not to his little brother. But Keith, under that rabid anger, looked terrified, and Shiro couldn’t bear to make him go through it alone.

One of the Galra reached out and pulled the elastic from Keith’s hair, burying his fingers into the loose strands and pulling his head back, giving an extra hard yank just to see Keith wince. But then the leader did something Shiro hadn’t been expecting-- he crouched down, so that he was at eye level with Keith. In his fingers was a smoking piece of meat (don’t think about what kind of meat it was don’t think about it Takashi don’t don’t don’t) which he held up to Keith’s lips, as though in offering.

Keith stared at him for a long moment, wide eyed, then clenched his jaw and turned his head away. The Galra holding it jerked him back into place so that the leader could offer the piece again, but again Keith refused it. The third time Keith opened his mouth, but only to direct a glob of saliva at the leaders face, which made him release a terrifying roar of fury and leap to his feet.

Then he backhanded him, hard, snapping Keith’s head to the side with a crack that made the other Galra erupt in elated cheers. Shiro felt the sob leave his throat but couldn’t hear it. The mad Galra cheering was the only sound.

The leader tossed aside his spear, letting it clatter to the floor without regard, and snatched one of the thin bits of scrap sticking out from the fire barrel. On the end was a flat bit of metal, thinner, pointed, and slightly curved near the top, glowing white hot.

Shiro started shouting for him again-- when had he stopped? Had he stopped at all?-- but as expected it did nothing to deter the Galra leader from approaching Keith with the hot metal while the other Galra held him in place with firm grips on his limbs and his hair. He struggled, tried to escape, tried to turn away to avoid the heat, but it was all in vain. The leader pressed the metal flush to Keith’s right cheek, the point turned in towards the corner of his eye.

And Keith screamed.

Keith screamed, and Matt surged against the guard holding him, spewing a string of curse words that probably hadn’t even existed before this very moment.

Keith screamed, and Lance sobbed in empathy and horror.

Keith screamed, and Shiro wasn’t there anymore. He was on a foggy battleground, wedged into an alley with three inches of mud caked on the bottom, holding the man he loved as he shrieked at the pain of having his entire lower body evaporated by a mine.

Keith screamed, and Shiro screamed with him.

Keith screamed, and screamed, until the Galra finally pulled the brand away and the cry crumbled into heaving gasps broken into bite-sized pieces by sobs.

Shiro’s vision was hazy. His head full of cotton. Dimly he was aware of Matt, still yelling expletives, and Lance begging the Galra to stop, but couldn’t muster anything of his own. The Galra were truly in a frenzy now-- Shiro could feel it when his guard yanked his nails down Shiro’s flesh arm in excitement. It stung. Not enough.

Keith had gone lax, letting his body slump to the floor and against the Galra holding him up, making the leader bend to inspect his face and keeping Shiro from seeing either of their expressions. Whatever the leader found on Keith’s face he apparently didn’t like, as he spun on his heel with a sneer and faced the rest of his prisoners, examining them all with crazed eyes.

They landed on Lance.

Shiro shuddered as he watched Lance be hauled forward to join Keith. Despair was making itself a home between his ribs. He suspected it wouldn’t be leaving again.

Lance was deposited on the floor, flat on his back. He squirmed a bit, tear filled eyes directed to the ceiling, but it was hopeless and they all knew it. The Galra hauled Keith up and forward, dropping him haphazardly on top of Lance so that they were face to face, Keith struggling to hold himself up on trembling arms.

They stared at each other. One of the Galra growled, shoving Keith down by his neck, but still both of them were frozen, not wanting to accept what the Galra wanted from them.

Movement on the ceiling drew Shiro’s eye, a welcome distraction. Floating into the room from one of the passageways, just below the edge of the room, was what appeared to be… a drone? It was vaguely triangular in shape with a blinking green light, and as Shiro watched it began to descend towards the huddle of Galra.

Shiro was still watching in detached bemusement when the drone self destructed.

When his eyes finally cleared from the flash he found himself in a vortex of chaos he was still too stunned to participate in properly. A good number of the Galra who had been standing in the huddle were now piles of miscellaneous body parts strewn about the room, a few still alive and shrieking their heads off, though Shiro couldn’t hear it through the ringing in his ears. A few Galra still remained on their feet, though the one holding Shiro had gone down and Matt had his on the floor with his hands around his throat.

Keith was upright, digging the head of the leader’s own spear into his chest.

Through the haze of smoke issuing from the remains of the drone came three figures. At first Shiro tensed, trying to figure out how to make his limbs work again so that he could get up and fight, until there was a muffled bang and one of the remaining Galra dropped dead and he realized he recognized these silhouettes.

Coran had a pistol in his hands and had just fired what was likely the first round of his life.

“Matt!” The shriek came from Pidge, already halfway across the room and lifting her own handgun to take out the Galra her brother was still struggling with. Hunk was the last through the door, Lance’s rifle held to his shoulder and a strange mix of terror and determination in his eyes. He made it all the way over to Lance before Shiro found his limbs again.

He went immediately to Keith.

Keith whirled at the touch of Shiro’s hand on his shoulder. His eyes were wild, blood spattered all over him, and the burn was beginning to blister where it cut across his cheek. Still, at the sight of Shiro he relaxed just a miniscule amount, going without reluctance when Shiro pulled him under his arm.

Someone waved a hand in front of their faces, trying to get their attention. It was Hunk, and though Shiro wasn’t hearing any of the words that were pouring frantically from his lips, he still understood the meaning. They had to leave. Now.

Pidge, Coran, and Hunk led the way, Pidge with Matt and Hunk with Lance and Coran at the front with his gun at the ready. Shiro stumbled along behind, never loosening the grip he had on Keith. The tunnels were dark and winding and they probably never would have found their way out on their own if not for their rescuers.

Finally the ground began to slope upwards, back towards the surface, and gradually the light level increased, until they were all standing and blinking back spots at the bright sun over the scorching desert. The prisoners all felt their muscles fight to go limp with relief, but the others wouldn’t let them.

“We have to go back to the ship,” Pidge said, and oh, apparently he was hearing words again. That’s helpful.

The race across the desert was a blur. They might’ve found the mule and rode it back, or that might’ve been something Shiro made up in his head. He was still floating somewhere outside of his body and couldn’t find the tether to pull him back until the ramp was closing behind them and the Golden Lion was rising into the sky. Then it all hit him at once-- grains of sand sticking to his skin, stinging scrapes down his arm, aching throat, the scent of sweat and blood filling the air. Adrenaline still finding its way out. It wasn’t the worst situation he’d ever been in, but that didn’t make it any easier to swallow down what was mostly bile and try to hold himself together.

Keith squirmed under his arm.

“Flying,” he gasped. “Who’s flying?”

“Don’t stress yourself, lad,” Coran had moved closer and now crouched before the two of them, tired relief etched into every wrinkle. “Allura is getting us out of the world.” He patted Keith’s shoulder twice before getting back to his feet and turning to face the whole team.

“Alright, everyone to the infirmary now.”

Somehow they all made it there. They shuffled like a group of zombies, leaning on each other in total silence, and then shoved their numerous bodies into the relatively small space while Coran fluttered around collecting supplies. The gun was still tucked into his waistband.

“Triage, who’s injured the worst?”

Wordlessly Shiro shoved Keith forward to Coran, who sat him down on the examination table without fuss. Shiro collapsed to the floor after, leaning against the cabinets to keep him upright while he took in the rest of the team.

Lance and Pidge sat side by side on the opposite counter top. Pidge had wound both her arms and her legs around her brother and clung to him as he clung to her, her face awash with silent tears. Beside them Hunk was holding Lance, he too crying as Lance shook like a leaf in the wind.

Alive. By some miracle, they were all alive.

Keith flinched away from Coran when he tried to apply the antiseptic to his burn. But he didn’t follow, didn’t try to force him, just waited patiently until Keith was still again before speaking.

“I know, I know it hurts lad, but I need to do this for you.”

The next time Shiro watched Keith’s spine move as he took in a depth breath and held it, and this time he let Coran clean and bandage the burn without moving a single muscle. Then the cut on his temple, then the most visible bruises.

“That’ll have to do,” he said, and Keith practically leapt off of the table. “Who’s next?”

“Shiro,” said Keith, and the next thing he knew he was sitting where Keith had been a moment before as Coran shined a flashlight down his throat to check for damage.

“Hm, you’ll have a hell of a sore throat, but nothing permanent. Now let's get this out of you.”

Confused, Shiro followed his gaze down to his left arm, and for the second time had to swallow down bile. Apparently the Galra holding him had gotten a little too riled up, and embedded in one of the rough cuts on his arm was a bit of a broken fingernail that had somehow clung to the wound all the way back to the ship.

“Do you mind if I keep this, Captain?” he asked as he pulled it out with a pair of tweezers. “I may be able to run a DNA test on this and find out something.”

Right, Shiro was the captain. He had to make decisions.

“Knock yourself out,” he muttered in answer. Coran took a moment to tuck the nail away in a plastic bag before returning to his patient.

He worked through all of them that way, even making Pidge and Hunk sit through an examination despite insisting they were fine, and by the time he was done Allura had entered coordinates into the autopilot and had appeared at the infirmary door.

“Thank goodness you’re all alright!” she cried, rushing forward to throw her arms around Shiro’s neck. She pulled back after only a moment, before he had time to reciprocate, and he was taken aback to see tears glimmering in her eyes. Not that he doubted how much Allura cared about them, but she was always so in control, so composed, that to see her shaken was… unsettling.

Allura made a lap of the room, trapping everyone into hugs, even Keith. More surprising was the fact that he let her.

“I thought you were dead for sure,” she was saying as she made her round. “And that Pidge and Hunk and Coran were going to get themselves killed going in after you, I can’t believe it worked, I just--” Abruptly she stopped, dropped to a seated position on the infirmary table, buried her head in her hands and began to weep.

Coran laid a hand on her back to make gentle circles.

And no one moved for a long time.

Chapter Text

 

“I can’t believe we’re alive.”

Those were the first words spoken after their spell of silence, shortly after one a.m. by Lance in a tremulous voice. At some point they’d migrated from the infirmary to the lounge just outside, huddled in the ragged couches and cushions, and now they all stirred as the words forced life back into their shells.

Matt gave a shaky laugh, shoving his tangled back from his face. His eyes held that haunted shine Shiro recognized from times before.

“Yeah. Damn miracle.”

Pidge snorted, trying to disguise how tightly she held to her brothers shoulder.

“A miracle named Katie Holt.”

“So…” Allura sat forward over her knees, drawn up under her dress. Shiro had never seen her so taken apart. “What do we do now?”

It took Shiro a moment to realize everyone was looking at him, and another to muster the will to say anything.

Really, he hadn’t the slightest idea what they were going to do. What do you do after… something like that? But he owed them an answer. He dragged them into this mess-- least he could do was give them a way out.

“Get to wherever Allura set us to,” he found himself saying. “Find a job. Keep flying.”

After a second of tired quiet, Hunk let out a breath, and with a great exaggerated heave, rose to his feet.

“Right. Well. Does anybody want somethin’ to eat? When was the last time any of us ate?”

He was looking to Shiro for an answer, so he plastered on a tiny smile. “That’d be nice Hunk. Thanks.”

With a relieved nod, Hunk rushed off to the galley.

“Coran?” Keith murmured, drawing everyone’s eye. “When are you gonna do your DNA test?”

Coran stroked his mustache. “I suppose I could start it right away, but it will take several hours to process even with the tech I stole from my old hospital.”

Keith made a sound of acknowledgement, and there was an awkward pause before he worked up the courage to make his next statement.

“Test me too.”

“What?” asked Pidge. “Why? What are you talkin’ about?”

Allura was wearing a troubled frown, and Lance looked distraught before shifting forward in his seat.

“Keith, I’m sure it ain’t what it--”

“Test me too,” Keith demanded, eyes lasered in on Coran, who for his part didn’t look the least bit surprised. He just nodded slowly.

“Alright, lad. If you want.”

Matt and Shiro exchanged a wretched look.

“Well,” Allura got to her feet, “you all should probably go change your clothes. It’ll… it’ll help.” Her eyes slid to Keith. “I’ll be in the cockpit. You let me know when you’re ready to take the helm.” With that and a rustle of silk, she vanished up the stairs.

Pidge clambered off of Matt, swiping a hand under her glasses as she went. “Matt, will you meet me in the engine room when you’re done changing? So we can talk?”

Matt gave a weary nod and let Pidge pull him to his feet.

“Come with me to the lab, if you please, Keith.”

They left.

Lance stood. His shoulders slumped like he bore an entire planet on his shoulders.

“I’m gonna go… yeah.”

And Shiro was alone. With a sigh he leaned back against the cushions, only now becoming aware of how his arm throbbed where it attached to his prosthetic, and lower down his metal fingers buzzed with oncoming phantom pain.

He doesn’t know how he wound up in his bunk. But he got there somehow, and with a great deal of effort managed to change his clothes into something not smeared with grit and blood. Then he washed his face in his rickety old sink, and the cool water brought him back into himself, just a little bit. At least enough to realize that he had responsibilities.

He should check on everyone.

Hunk was in the galley, and with as much false cheer as he could muster informed him that breakfast was almost ready. Confused, Shiro looked at the time. It read 11:01 A.M.

Allura was in the cockpit as she’d promised, leaning back in the pilot's seat and staring out at the blackness of the ‘Verse. When she heard him coming, she turned her head and gave him a sad, tired smile.

Matt and Pidge were in the engine room, clinging to each other.

Coran was in the infirmary staring at something under the microscope.

For a few minutes where he could feel panic pricking Shiro couldn’t find Lance or Keith, until he peered into Lance’s bunk and saw them sitting across from each other on Lance’s floor, the old Chinese Checkers board set up in between them. Neither of them spoke as they moved their marbles across the pitted bit of metal.

With everyone present and accounted for Shiro returned to his room and found himself reclining on his bunk, staring at the metal ceiling.

They’d survived a Galra raid. They’d been captured, by Galra, and they all got away alive and not rambling nonsense like that man off the derelict so many months ago. At least, not yet.

They’d done the impossible.

Shiro sucked in a deep breath, held it, and slowly let it out.

His arm ached down to the knuckles.

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

Four hours later Coran called them all down to the infirmary for the results of the DNA test. In that time Shiro had done nearly twenty more rounds of the ship, making sure everyone was still where they were meant to be, double checked their coordinates with Allura, and managed to keep a few bites of food down. Now he had mostly pulled himself together-- at least, enough to seem so on the outside.

For the second time that day they all crowded into the small medical room. Almost all of them were radiating exhaustion like heat waves, except for Keith, who was a ball of tension so tight he was liable to snap apart at any moment. He recoiled when Shiro reached for his shoulder, so Shiro let him be.

“So…” said Pidge, the first to break the silence. “What did the test show?” She pushed her glasses up with a finger, keeping her eyes fixed on Coran. Shiro had seen Matt do the same thing, focusing on the science to keep himself distracted from everything else.

Coran cleared his throat. “Well, the DNA shows that the Galra are definitely human. But they aren’t just men who traveled to the edge of space and went mad from it, either. They are… changed, by some degree.”

“Like what?” Shiro asked, “Mutations from radiation?”

“No. These types of modifications are man made-- a scientist went into their chromosomes and altered their DNA sequence.”

There was a pause as they all collectively shifted on their feet and exchanged looks.

“So what did they do?” Matt questioned gruffly, “What changes did they make?”

Coran’s hands gathered before him, pressing his palms together anxiously. “It-- it would appear that the genes for aggression and impulse control were affected. Based on other data it would appear that at least one generation has passed since the initial alterations, but the evidence is still there.”

“So someone genetically engineered these people to be savages?” Allura sounded aghast, horrified, voicing emotions the rest were keeping in. Coran gave a solemn nod.

“Yes, it would appear so.”

“But… but who would do something like that? And to so many people?”

Unwillingly Shiro pictured it in his mind. A cold, white lab. Needles. Little comfort. Losing their minds. A shiver rushed down his spine and with great difficulty he dismissed the image.

“The only group I could think of that would have the technology to do so… would be the Garrison. But I know not when or why.”

Lance breathed, “Jesus,” and leaned weakly against the exam table. “Just when you thought they couldn’t get anymore evil.”

“What… what about me?” Keith’s voice was small and hesitant in a way Shiro had never heard it before. He was in the center of the group but stood with his arms crossed, shrinking in on himself. “What did the test say about me.”

Again, Coran cleared his throat, though this time it didn’t stop the words from coming out tremulous. “The test on the Galra DNA showed that another gene was affected-- the gene for eye color. Apparently they were all designed to have the same eye color for easy identification.”

Sick silence. Keith was nearly vibrating out of his boots.

“Keith, it seems you share some lineage with the Galra. It is diluted, so the effects aren’t as strong in you, but… it’s there.”

For a long moment Keith was still, staring with blank eyes. Then with no warning his knees buckled. Thankfully Shiro reacted quickly enough to catch him and lower him gently to the floor, but that didn’t stop his muscles from shivering and his breath from coming fast.

The others crowded around with concerned exclamations that Keith didn’t seem to hear. He clutched at his hair, for once his fingers not straying to his necklace.

“I knew it,” he was murmuring under his breath, “I knew it, I knew there was something wrong with me, I knew it--”

“Keith--”

Shiro’s voice made him jolt. In moments he was on his feet and pushing through the crowd to flee the infirmary, making quick time up the stairs.

“Shiro, shouldn’t you follow him?” asked Hunk, wringing his hands. Shiro shook his head.

“I’ll go talk to him after he’s had a minute to calm down.”

“This is… so messed up,” Pidge said.

Allura braced herself on the counter.

Lance took a deep, purposeful breath.

Coran looked at the floor.

“Shiro,” he turned to see Matt staring him down, “what are we gonna do about it?”

Shiro swallowed hard. “Nothin’. The plan doesn’t change. Get to our location, find a job, do it.” A look of unbearable weariness consumed every face as he said it and he felt his stomach twist, but he had to do this. He had to be the strong one, or they would all crumble to pieces. “It’s a three day flight from where we are. So we can… wallow, and try and process everything until then, but afterwards we have to get back on our feet.”

Pidge rubbed a hand over her mouth.

“We have to get back up. We always get back up, no matter what. You with me?”

One by one, his crew nodded back to him, and Shiro stood a little straighter.

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

That night Matt and Pidge sat side by side, backs against the warmth of the engine, both taking comfort in it’s steady rhythm. The heartbeat of the Golden Lion drumming away, steady and dependable. Solid.

“Matt?”

“Hm?”

“I… I’m sorry I said I hate you.”

Matt looked over at his little sister. She had her knees pulled to her chest, a smear of grease on her chin, her new hair scruffy around her ears. His throat tightened like someone had wrapped a python around his neck.

“I don’t hate you. I don’t disown you, not really. I’m so sorry.”

He snaked an arm over her shoulders to pull her close. “I’m sorry too. I shouldn’t have cut your hair like that. It was childish and mean.”

She sniffled and leaned into his chest. Matt squeezed her tight. When they’d been down there, in that Galra hole, he’d been convinced he was never going to see his little sister again and her last memory of him would be him cutting her hair off like an asshole. He still couldn’t entirely believe they were alive, that this wasn’t just his transition into whatever after life he was destined for.

“I love you, mei mei.”

Pidge shook with a sob, but still she whispered, “I love you too Matt.”

 

<><><><><>

 

“I want to go home.”

Hunk looked up from his cutting board. Lance was slouching at the dining table, a cup of half-drunk space coffee between his hands.

“Yeah?”

Lance bobbed his head. “Yeah. It’s… it’s been almost four years since I’ve seen them, Hunk. And all I could think about while we were down there was that I was going to die and my body would be ripped apart, and I would never see my family again. And I don’t want that. I don’t want to die so far away from them.”

He sniffled and drew an arm across his eyes. Hunk set down the block of protein he was slicing and began to move around the counter towards him.

“I miss them. So much. And-- I don’t--”

Hunk wrapped him in an embrace.

“I don’t know how much longer I can do this.”

 

<><><><><>

 

“Keith?” Shiro knocked on the entrance to his bunk for the fifth time over the last few hours. Unlike every other time though, when he’d gotten no response, this time he heard the electronic whir of the lock being released. He pushed in the ladder and climbed down.

Keith’s bunk was the barest on the whole ship. By this point even Coran had some personal items decorating his room, but even after more than three years Keith didn’t have anything to distinguish his room from anyone elses aside from a few knives scattered around. The man himself was sitting on his bunk, his head in his hands.

“Keith--”

“It must’ve been my dad,” he said, cutting in without looking up. “I figure my mom must’ve been the Galra, ‘cause if my mother was the victim they wouldn’t have let her live long enough to have me. So it… it must’ve been my dad.”

“Keith--”

“But why leave me on Balmera instead of raisin’ me like one of them? How’d they even get to Balmera? And what does this mean?” He yanked his pendant out from under his shirt and glared at it. Shiro took a few steps closer to him, but his gaze didn’t waver.

“Maybe it was a gift from your mother,” Shiro murmured quietly. He could tell Keith was listening by how his spine tightened. “To remember her by.”

Keith’s lip curled into a snarl and he tore the cord from his throat. The pendant clanged against the opposite wall where he threw it.

“Fuck her!” Keith spat, on his feet now with furious tears brimming in his eyes. “Fuck her! She was a monster and she wanted me to be one too!”

“Maybe she left you on Balmera to protect you.”

Keith whirled on him. “She was Galra, Shiro! They’re evil, mindless animals, they-- they--” his voice cracked as the tears spilled, “and I’m one of them.”

“No, Keith,” thankfully Keith let Shiro pull him into a hug and didn’t push away. In fact he reciprocated, winding his arms around Shiro’s waist, and Shiro rested his chin on his head and swayed them lightly. “You’re not one of them. You’re one of mine, you hear me? You’re on my crew.”

Keith could barely speak through the sobs tearing through his chest, but that wouldn’t stop him from trying. “But I-I’m so angry, and-- and mean, and I like the Black too much--”

“Don’t matter,” said Shiro sternly. “You’re on my crew. You’re one of us, Keith, not one of them. It don’t matter what your DNA says. It matters what your actions say, what your heart says. And you? You’re a good person Keith. A good person where it matters.”

He had devolved into a sobbing mess at this point. The only words Shiro could make out were stuttered, rough apologies.

“You ain’t got nothin’ to be sorry for.”

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

It was midnight by the time Keith fell into his exhausted, tear stained slumber. Shiro wandered down to the galley for another cup of coffee, not yet confident he could sleep for any length of time without waking up screaming, only to find Matt at the dining table drinking the same thing. He raised his cup in wordless salutation when Shiro entered the room, which Shiro answered with a nod.

There was silence until his coffee was poured and he was seated across from Matt, taking his first sip of over hot, over bitter coffee. Then Matt spoke up.

“You doin’ ok?”

Shiro shrugged. “As ok as can be expected. You?”

The tiniest quirk of a lip. “Similar,” then he frowned. “You serious about the job thing? We’re just gonna move on?”

“Not move on,” Shiro corrected, “move forward. Put it behind us.”

Matt raised an eyebrow. “Keep flying?”

A smile teased at Shiro’s mouth.

“Keep flying.”

Chapter Text

 

Time always seemed to freeze after a terrible event. It felt like someone had hit a cosmic pause button. But outside of the sanctuary of their dinky little ship time kept ticking. The worlds kept spinning, the ‘Verse continued on, and they had no choice but to move with it.

They took jobs. They moved cargo. They got in firefights. They kept flying.

But things had changed. They all pretended it hadn’t, but it had. Pidge got terribly anxious whenever Matt had to leave the ship without her. Shiro and Matt spent more nights sitting at the dining table wordlessly sipping coffee than they did sleeping. Keith hid from everyone in the cockpit, barely resting, snatching food from the kitchen when no one was around. Allura was flighty, Hunk paranoid. And Coran could never seem to shut up about his research.

That’s what led them to their current situation, months after the incident, with the whole crew gathered in the hall outside the crew bunks, shouting.

The story, as far as Shiro could gather from all the frenzied babble, was this:

Keith had been on his way back to the cockpit when he’d been ambushed by Coran. He’d babbled on at length and at great speed about things Keith honestly couldn’t understand, and despite several requests (and warnings) refused to shut his trap. So Keith shut it for him.

Shiro sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. He was tired, they were all tired, and the last thing he wanted was to deal with a silly scrap. But Coran’s eye was swollen shut and neither of them seemed terribly apologetic, so something had to be done.

“Alright, um,” he said, oh-so-eloquently, “Coran, what were you-- why were you bein’ such a pain? Usually you got more tact ’n that.”

“It was for my research,” Coran answered primly. Everyone went still but Coran continued, oblivious. “Trying to test how the increased aggression and lowered inhibitions genes impact behavior.”

Now normally, Keith never hit anybody without feeling that he was in the right. But now he was shrinking back, shame coloring his cheeks as his hand compulsively clutched at his shirt where his pendant used to hang.

“You were experimenting on him?” Allura’s tone was tight, which seemed to surprise the doctor, though he didn’t have a chance to argue before Pidge was upon him.

“You can’t just do stuff like that without his say-so!” she cried, squaring up to Coran as though she wasn’t half his height. “He might be part Galra but he’s still on this crew! You can’t treat him like--”

“Alright, alright, Pidge, enough,” Shiro interrupted. She obligingly shut her mouth, but didn’t stop her death glare. “Everybody get gone, you have jobs to do. I’ll deal with this.”

Reluctantly, one by one, the rest of the crew filed away into the rest of the ship, Keith fleeing first up to the cockpit and sliding closed the door behind him.

Finally they were alone, and Coran looked more than a little nervous, which he should.

“Listen,” Shiro began, watching Coran’s throat bob anxiously. “Your research is important to you-- I understand that. But Keith is not a lab rat or a piece of equipment for you to run tests on. Dǒng ma?”

He nodded rapidly. “Yes, Captain.”

“No, I ain’t done.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “I want to be clear. You ever do somethin’ like that to Keith again, and I’ll kick you out on your ass. Got it?”

“Yes, Captain.”

Shiro studied him for a moment with narrowed eyes, but he seemed spooked enough. So with a wave of his hand Shiro dismissed him and headed up the stairs to the cockpit. Keith was where Shiro expected him to be-- coiled close like a snake in the pilot's seat, eyes never wavering from the stars outside, as though if he ignored Shiro for long enough he would disappear. And sometimes that worked, but not this time.

“Keith.”

His hand tightened where it was hooked through the collar of his shirt, the fidget he’d adopted in the absence of his pendant. He still wouldn’t look at Shiro, even when he was standing right next to him with his metal hand on the back of the seat.

“I shouldn’t have hit him.”

Shiro sighed. “I don’t blame you for it. He was being purposefully annoying-- I would’ve hit him too.”

Keith’s lip quirked just the smallest bit, but still he shook his head in denial. “No you wouldn’t. You’re too good.”

“I think you may be overestimatin’ my character.”

“He was testin’ me, Shiro. And I failed.”

“Hey,” Shiro spun the pilot’s chair, making Keith face him even if he kept his eyes lowered. “You didn’t fail anything. Coran can do whatever little experiments he likes. That don’t change your place here.”

“Well maybe it should.” Keith folded his arms, purposefully looking over Shiro’s shoulder instead of at his face. “I could lose my mind like that guy on the derelict. I could-- I could turn like some kinda animal--”

“We don’t worry about things that ain’t happened yet,” Shiro said firmly. “If that happens, which I doubt it will, we’ll deal with it then.”

When Keith finally looked at him, his eyes were pleading. “What if I’m dangerous?”

“I know you’re dangerous. That’s why you’re still here.” Straightening up, Shiro paused to ruffle his hair. “You just worry about keepin’ us in the air. Alright?”

Keith still looked uneasy, but he seemed a little less on edge. “Ok. Yeah. I can do that.”

Shiro gave him one last supportive squeeze on the shoulder before leaving the cockpit.

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

“Hey, Shiro, can we chat?”

Shiro rolled his shoulders, his spine popping. He’d spent the last few hours moving things around in the cargo bay, trying to distract himself from captainly duties for a couple of hours, but they always seemed to find him. He faced Lance with a sigh.

“Yeah, Lance. What’s the problem?”

Lance sidled closer. A few months ago the solemn look on his face would’ve been unusual, but not anymore. His hands were shoved deep into his pockets, but otherwise he seemed steadfast.

“I’ve been thinkin’ for a while now, and I think I’d like to go home.”

That gave Shiro pause. He always forgot that there were people on this boat who actually had families, people elsewhere that would miss them and that they would miss in turn. It made his chest ache, but he didn’t let it show.

“Like for a visit, or… permanently?”

Lance gulped. “I don’t-- I don’t know yet. I just wanna see my family.”

Shiro nodded slowly. Of course he didn’t like the idea of losing anyone on his crew, but this was Lance’s choice, and who was he to keep him from his actual family?

“Alright, well. Whatever you decide, just let me know. We’ll drop you at Callum when you’re ready.”

“Thank you, Shiro,” said Lance with a small smile, “for understanding.”

“Sure.”

Lance sauntered away, apparently with a weight lifted from his shoulders. Shiro cracked his knuckles and got back to work.

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

The ‘Verse works in many mysterious ways. It was a lesson that was easy to forget, but never failed to remind you of it’s presence before long. As it turned out, Lance wouldn’t need to decide when he was ready to go home. Because the ‘Verse decided for him.

A few days after his conversation with Lance, Shiro was enjoying a moment of rare downtime, situated in the lounge watching Lance, Hunk, Pidge, and Matt play Chinese checkers. As usual Pidge was in the lead, though Hunk was beginning to catch up while Matt and Lance engaged in a personal battle of who could inconvenience the other the most.

Footsteps sounded on the metal staircase in the hold, and a moment later Keith popped his head in through the door, his brows furrowed in some kind of confusion.

“We just got a wave,” he reported to the room, making everyone pause in their game and look up. “It sounds like a distress call, but the lady’s askin’ for Lance.”

Lance’s eyes widened, and before any of them could blink he’d abandoned the game, rushing out of the room and up towards the cockpit. The rest of them followed, bound by curiosity.

Lance beat them there, and by the time they caught up with him he was bent over the console’s monitor, speaking rapid-fire in some language that wasn’t English or Chinese. Spanish, probably. Under his elbow Shiro caught a glance of who he was talking to-- an older looking woman with Lance’s dark skin and brown hair, soft wrinkles around her eyes.

He waited for a lull to fall in their conversation before speaking. “Lance, what’s going on?”

Keeping one hand braced on the console, Lance raised the other to run over his face. “I… it’s my mom. My family-- some rich guy back home is pissed at them and they’re-- they need help.”

Finally, he looked up at them, and his expression could only be defined as pleading. Shiro exchanged a short glance with Matt and briefly considered their fuel and supplies before making his decision.

“Let them know we’re coming and give Keith the coordinates.”

A smile broke over Lance’s face before he bent back over the screen. “Mama--”

Shiro turned to the rest of them. “We better go prep. Callum’s only a twelve hour flight from here.”

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

“Did they say what the problem was?”

Lance snuck a glance at Keith from the corner of his eye. The two of them were the only ones in the cockpit, Keith guiding the Golden Lion back towards Lance’s home while Lance stood by in case his family sent another wave. Keith kept his eyes firmly on the windscreen, not revealing a thing, but he decided to answer anyway.

“No, just that it was bad. Like… firepower bad.”

Keith gave an acknowledging hum, but said nothing else, and for the next few minutes there was only silence between them. Until Lance couldn’t take it anymore.

“Hey, you know, uh--” he paused to clear his throat, “you know we don’t think any differently about you, right? With the whole Galra thing?”

Keith huffed, “That’s what Shiro keeps sayin’.”

“He says it cause it’s true.” He crossed his arms over his chest, looking out the screen like Keith was, if only to grant him the courtesy of not staring him down. “You’re part of the crew, ya know?”

“Yeah,” Keith answered quietly, “I know.” Then, out of nowhere, he asked, “Do you love your mother?”

Lance shot him a look of surprise. “What? Course I love my mama. What kinda question is that?”

“Cause I don’t. Love my mother, I mean.” His fingers drummed over the pilots controls.

“Well, duh. Yours was Galra. Not all mothers are created equal.”

“Hmph. That’s for damn sure.”

Lance glanced back down at the screen, then over at the nav screen. They would be touching down on Callum in about two hours. In two hours, he was going to see his family. Despite the anxiety of the situation he felt giddiness rise in his gut.

He was actually going to see his family.

“We’ll be closin’ in soon,” Keith informed him (completely unnecessarily). “You should go get ready.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m on it.”

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

Callum was a desert planet on the rim, which meant it was covered in tiny, one hundred to two hundred people-sized towns that barely had the tech to run themselves. Scattered in between, usually within a day or two’s journey of a town, with a wagon, were homesteads and farms that struggled every day to eke a living out of the nearly barren soil. Lance’s family owned one such homestead, surrounded by enough land that they could land the Golden Lion practically in their backyard.

Shiro let Lance off the boat first to give him a couple of hours alone with his family. After all, they hadn’t seen him in more than three years. They deserved a little privacy. Then, around sundown, he and Matt struck out to meet the infamous McClain clan.

They were received in the kitchen. It was a large room, cluttered but clean— most likely from unending effort on the part of Lance’s mother. The woman herself was seated at the huge dining room table (Shiro recognized her from the wave) along with a middle aged man, Lance, and a young lady in a light blue gown.

The air in the room was heavy, and when Lance stood to greet them, his smile was strained.

“Guys, hey. Meet my parents, Mama and Pa, and my sister, Rachel.” Shiro and Matt gave polite nods to the other family members as Lance’s mother got to her feet. “Mama, this is our captain, Takashi Shirogane.”

“I appreciate your comin’,” said Mrs. McClain, her voice as solemn as her handshake.

“No problem at all,” Shiro answered. “This here is my first mate, Matt Holt. Lance said you were in some kind of trouble?”

The woman snorted a bit. “You could say that. Please, sit down.”

Shiro and Matt both took seats at the table, as asked, while Mrs. McClain returned to her own. Lance was sitting between them and his sister, holding her hand, and it wasn’t until that moment that Shiro noticed the top of her belly sticking up over the edge of the table.

She was pregnant. Very, very pregnant.

Lance’s father cleared his throat awkwardly. “Rachel, would you like to tell these gentlemen what they’re here for?”

Rachel sat up a bit straighter. She had the same lean, angular features as her brother, but her hair was several shades darker, her eyes brown instead of blue. Her voice was soft and half-ashamed when she spoke.

“About a year ago,” she began, “I got involved with someone I shouldn’t have. He was married, and Mama taught me better than that,” she cast a sorry look at her mother, who watched on with a stony expression, “but he… he was so sweet, and he said he loved me. That he wanted to start a family with me.”

Raising an eyebrow, Shiro said, “But I assume that’s not what happened?”

Her expression grew stormy. “No. He lied. The only reason he was with me is because he needs an heir and his barren prairie shrew of a wife can’t give him one.”

“Rachel!” her father scolded, but she refused to look over at him. Her eyes were fixed on Shiro’s, stubbornness layered over fear.

“I told him no. I told him this was my baby and he wasn’t gettin’ his grubby little fingers on it. And ever since then life has been hell, for all of us.”

“What do you mean?” asked Matt, leaning his elbows on the table. Rachel gave a tiny shrug, growing misty-eyed.

“Him and his men, they’ve been skulking around for months. Cuttin’ up the fences, killin’ the livestock, burnin’ our crops. Even come right up to the front door and threaten us to our faces.”

Shiro sat back in his chair and frowned. “And reason don’t figure into this? Or law?”

“The man is the town’s magistrate,” Lance’s mother answered, tone clipped and short. “He can do whatever he likes and he knows that.”

Rachel, who had taken the pause as an opportunity to gnaw on her lower lip, suddenly let go of Lance’s hand and sat forward to reach for Shiro, resting her fingers over his metal ones.

“Three days ago he came to the house,” she said, all in a rush of breath. “He had fifteen men with him, all armed, and he was on some kinda hoverbike with somethin’ mounted on it. A laser, I think. He told me to sign over the rights to the baby or he would burn everything we owned and leave us to bleed in the ashes.”

A few tears escaped her, trailing over her brown cheeks, and Shiro swallowed. “What did you tell him?”

Her jaw tightened. “I said if he wanted the baby he was gonna have to cut it out of me.”

Shiro winced. Judging by what he’d heard so far, the man probably hadn’t taken that very nicely. Rachel nervously licked her lips and drew her hand back to her side.

“And we haven’t heard from him since.”

The silence descended upon them like a physical thing-- like a quilt filled with rocks. One by one, Shiro examined the faces of the family. Lance, who was looking between him and his sister with obvious pleading in his eyes. Rachel, who’d wrapped her arms protectively around her belly. Mr. McClain, eyeing him anxiously, and Mrs. McClain, whose eyes burned like coals.

“You considered leaving?” he asked after a long moment. “Packing up and finding somewhere new? We could always give you a lift.”

“No,” hissed Mrs. McClain. “Our family never runs scared! Never!” She was poised to say more, but Mr. McClain put a hand on her shoulder and spoke before she could.

“Please, you must understand. This is our home. Everything we have is in this house, on this land. We could not possibly leave it.”

With a sigh, Shiro exchanged a look with Matt. He had his jaw set and eyes narrowed in that familiar stubborn Holt look, and he didn’t even need to consider Lance’s expression before deciding.

“Alright, we’ll see what we can do to help.”

All of the McClains immediately lost the tension they’d been bearing in their shoulders, and Lance took Rachel’s hand again with a bright grin. But Shiro wasn’t done talking yet.

“Do you know when he’ll be comin’ back?”

Rachel’s throat bobbed as she swallowed, her knuckles whitening where she clenched her brother’s hand. “Mama says I’m due any day now. I reckon we’ve got a day or two at most before he makes his move.”

“Right.” Shiro ran a tired hand over his face. “What we can do is spend tomorrow getting the house set up for defense. Then I guess we dig in and wait for him to make his move.”

“Thank you,” Lance murmured with shining eyes. “Thank you, Shiro.”

Shiro gave him a small smile.

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

Bright and early at seven a.m. the next day, Shiro stood with both the entire McClain family and the entire crew of the Golden Lion gathered before him in the farmhouse living room, all waiting for orders and wearing masks of excitement over fear. It felt like a moment from another time… but he brushed it off.

“Here’s the game plan. Matt, you, me, Marco, and Luis are gonna be outside, boardin’ up as many open spots as we can. Just make sure to leave enough room to stick a gun barrel out of. They’re gonna want to burn us out first, save their bullets, so Hunk and Pidge I need you to rig up the well pumps to do somethin’ about it.”

He waited for the round of solemn nods before continuing.

“Lance, Veronica, and whoever else don’t end up with somethin’ to do, dig up every firearm and piece of ammo on this property and make a stockpile. Knives, too-- anything you can kill a man with. Lisa and Coran, you two stay with Rachel and the kids--”

“Wait!” cried one of the children, stopping Shiro in his tracks. The protest came from a petulant looking little boy, one of Luis and Lisa’s kids, and if Shiro wasn’t mistaken, his name was Sylvio. He wiggled out of his mother’s grasp and darted to the front of the group, putting his little fists on his hips. “I wanna help too!”

Shiro blinked down at him a couple of times. No one was speaking up to stop him, so he supposed he could humor the kid. Just a bit.

“You want to work?”

“Yea!” He stomped his foot, making Shiro chuckle.

“Alright, why don’t you help Keith set up a tripwire ‘round the outside of the house?”

He felt his skin prickle at Keith’s affronted stare, but Sylvio’s face lit up as he revealed a toothy grin. And again, none of the McClain’s protested, so…

“Let’s get moving people!”

<><><><><>

Working with the kid wasn’t all bad, he supposed. With a helper Keith could focus on unspooling the wire and let the kid kick the dirt over it to obscure it from view. For a while they worked like that in silence, Sylvio dutifully concentrating on the task he’d been assigned, but Keith must’ve lost himself in thought or something because suddenly there was a little hand tugging at the hem of his shirt.

He looked down at the child with wide eyes. It wasn’t that he didn’t like kids, he just wasn’t sure how to interact with them. He’d never really gotten a chance to be one, after all.

“Mr. Keith?” Sylvio asked with a frown, and ok, ok, he could do this. He would not scare Lance’s little nephew. He cleared his throat.

“Uh, yeah? You need somethin’?” He was just a kid and they’d been working for several hours, he was probably thirsty or hungry or tired--

“Can you teach me howta shoot a gun?”

Wait, what?

“What? Why for?”

Sylvio’s frown deepened. “To shoot bad guys, duuuuuuuh. What if they get into the house and no one else is there? What if they try to hurt Nadia?” He punctuated the end of his sentence with a sniffle, and jeez Keith was probably being played here but what was he supposed to do? Tell the kid not to protect his sister and rely on the adults? Yeah, when had that ever worked for him?

Nervously, Keith knelt down to Sylvio’s level. His bright blue eyes never left Keith’s for a second.

“I can’t teach you to use a gun,” he said, and Sylvio’s mouth opened to protest before he held up a hand. “But, I can teach you to use one of these.” The little boy’s jaw dropped when Keith pulled one of the three knives from his belt, purposefully choosing the smallest one.

“Woah,” the boy breathed in awe.

“Here,” Keith took his hand as gently as he knew how to, curling the delicate little fingers around the hilt of the knife. It didn’t belong, but such was the way of life. “Hold it like this.”

Sticking his tongue out to the side in concentration, Sylvio tightened his fingers. “Like this?”

“Yeah, just like that. If someone comes after you or your sister, and none of the adults are around, you hold it just like that and swing at them as hard as you can. But only at the bad guys, dǒng ma? It ain’t a toy.”

Sylvio nodded his head gravely. “I understand, sir.”

“Ok.” He hesitated a split second, wondering if he should, then gave Sylvio’s shoulder a little squeeze. God but it was so tiny, so fragile. He was so easy to hurt. But Sylvio just grinned at him, none the wiser, and Keith mustered his best smile in return.

“Alright, back to work now.”

<><><><><>

“Shiro?”

He turned. Lance was coming up behind him with another armful of boards, having joined the construction crew after clearing out the house of weaponry, but Shiro hadn’t been expecting a conversation and as such, had a mouthful of nails between his teeth. So he just gave a questioning grunt as he positioned the next nail and hammered the board into place.

“I just wanted to say thanks again. For doin’ all of this for us.”

He set the hammer down and pulled the nails from his mouth.

“You don’t gotta keep thanking me, Lance. You’re on my crew-- I’d do this and more for any of you.”

“I know that. Just…”

He hesitated long enough for Shiro to turn and face him fully, and when he smiled it was tinged with sadness.

“You deserve a little thanks once in a while.”

Shiro’s throat tightened, and without another word he went back to the boards.

<><><><><>

It was hot in the house, even with all of the windows open to keep the glass from shattering when the boards were nailed over them, the curtains fluttering in the dry desert breeze. Allura sat in a bedroom on the second floor, keeping Lance’s sister and niece company while the others turned the house into a fortress.

With a flourish, she tied off the braid she’d done in Nadia’s hair.

“There you are, dear. Pretty as a princess.”

Nadia leapt to her feet with a squeal of delight, reaching back to feel the intricate twists before turning to face Allura with the kind of blinding smile only little girls can manage.

“Thank you Ms. Allura,” she said, lisping slightly with her missing teeth before turning on her heel and scampering across the room to show her mother. Allura just happened to glance up at the bed, where Rachel was reclining and watching, and was surprised to find her expression twisted with something like despair.

Rachel noticed her watching and swallowed, looking away.

“What’s wrong?” Allura questioned, carefully rising to her feet. Rachel still avoided her eyes.

“It’s nothing, I’m…” Her breath heaved. “I’m afraid. I’m afraid that he’ll win.”

Allura took one of Rachel’s hands in her own and squeezed.

“Everything is going to be fine. I promise.”

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

“They’ll most likely come at sunrise.” He didn’t need any outside information to tell him that. He could feel it-- there was battle tension in the air and a glow of red over the horizon, doubtless the magistrate riling up the menfolk of the town to storm the farm. “When they come, here are the positions I want you in.

“Lance, I want you and your grandfather on the top floor. Have him keep your guns full of ammo and make taking down the laser cannon your top priority as soon as it shows. Pidge, Hunk, you two man the water pump and put out any fires as fast as you can. Marco, Luis, you two will be with me and Matt on the ground floor. We’ll be the first line of defense if any of them get past the gunfire.

“Mr. and Mrs. McClain, I need you on the second floor laying down cover fire for us over the back of the house. The back of the ground floor will be where Lisa and the kids will be, with Veronica there to guard them. Allura and Coran, you’ll be with Rachel and her grandmother hiding in the shed out back, and you’ll be armed. Keith, I want you to make a few low passes in the Lion, spook any horses they have and cause some confusion.

“And everyone, remember to keep your radios on you at all times in case plans need to change. Am I clear?”

A chorus of affirmative answers reached his ears and Shiro’s shoulders dropped a few inches. To say he wasn’t looking forward to the battle would be a massive understatement. He was tired, they were all tired, and now they had to go and fight for their lives the very next morning in a way that was very much reminiscent of the war and he wanted it on the official record that he didn’t like it at all.

“Alright. Those of you who can, try to get some sleep.”

The group dispersed, feet shuffling in all directions, to any slightly comfortable position they could find to catch some shut-eye. Shiro stood at the window beside the front door, staring out into the night, at the stars, and wasn’t surprised when Keith appeared at his side.

“You gonna sleep?” he asked gruffly, and Shiro choked on a laugh.

“Not likely. Are you?”

“Nah. Sleep is for the weak.”

They let the quiet filter between them. There were low voices as people talked to each other in soft tones, light rustling from cloth being moved, the chirping of crickets just outside. For a few seconds it was peaceful.

Then: “ Zhùyì, Shiro. Don’t let anything happen to you.”

Shiro reached out to ruffle his hair, and for once Keith let it happen without a struggle.

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

They were up before dawn the next day, all feeding ammo into rifles and pistols and shotguns, the clicking sound filling the house. Every face was solemn and grave, and few words were traded. Keith ducked out early to warm up the Lion, ready to go at Shiro’s signal, and as the sun rose bloody red over the horizon, Shiro called some last minute advice to the denizens of the house taking their positions.

“Remember, don’t shoot the horse, shoot the man. A dead horse is cover, a live horse is a whole heap of panic.”

“Anybody goes down you drag them to the back, radio Coran, and get back to shootin’. Only way to help them is to finish this.”

The sun was an inch or so over the horizon when Lance’s voice crackled over his radio.

“Shiro, looks like we’ve got some imminent violence.”

Shiro got sight of them a second later. Fifteen men, all armed and riding in on horseback, in formation behind a sleek hovercraft driven by the douchiest looking man Shiro had ever seen. And on the back of that hovercraft was a laser gun, armed by another man in goggles. They were approaching fast given the cloud of dust welling up behind them.

He raised the radio to his lips just as some of the riders triggered the tripwire and were sent sprawling off of their horses. Two or three were down, but the rest kept going with nary a glance back.

“Keith, we’re gonna be tradin’ injuries in about two minutes. Would like my sky looking a little less empty.”

Shōudào, Cap’n.”

<><><><><>

No sooner had he said the words than shots were ringing out through the cargo bay. Keith hit the deck immediately, his radio skittering across the floor as he took cover from the bullets raining down from the catwalks. The damn magistrate had sent men to set up in the Lion.

Keith ground his teeth and tried to think of a way around.

<><><><><>

“Everybody down!”

Every person on the first story of the house fell to the floor when the hovercraft-mounted laser tore through it. Shiro could hear the crack-pop-shatter-hiss it made as the beam came into contact with and destroyed various pieces of furniture, but thankfully no screams of pain. After thirty seconds or so of ducking with no end in sight, he raised his head just a little to speak to the radio.

“Lance, looks like our first hurdle. Think you might--”

A rifle shot echoed out from above their heads and the laser stopped.

“I think I might, Captain.”

“Fire!” Shiro shouted, and all of them rose up as one to fire a volley into the invading force. There was another hiss and a whoosh from the side of the house-- probably Hunk and Pidge putting out fires from the laser. He squeezed the trigger and a man dropped.

He tried to ignore how his ears rang-- so much so that he almost didn’t hear the voice in his radio.

“Captain Shirogane!” It was Lisa’s voice, high pitched and terrified. In the background he could hear one of the children crying. “We need help, Veronica’s been hit!”

With a hissed curse, Shiro shouldered his borrowed rifle and scurried off down the hallway, half bent to keep from making a target of himself through the windows.

The nursery was a rowdy mess. Sylvio and Nadia were coiled in a corner, Nadia screaming her poor little head off. In the opposite corner lying amongst wooden splinters and other shrapnel was Lance’s oldest sister, blood pooling under her from the wound in her shoulder.

“What do I do?” Lisa was sobbing, “What do I do?”

Shiro dropped his gun to the floor and grabbed for Lisa’s hands, pulling them over her sister-in-law’s shoulder wound. Veronica groaned at the pressure, her head lolling, but Shiro wouldn’t let Lisa let up.

“Keep pressure on the wound,” he instructed brusquely. “Keep pressure or she’ll bleed out, you hear me?”

Lisa sobbed but nodded, and Shiro sat back with blood-stained hands and reached for his radio.

“Coran, Veronica needs you in the nursery. Keith, forget about the Lion and get over here, we need someone to take the kids to hide with Rachel.”

He barely waited long enough to get two affirmative answers before scooping up his gun again and rushing right back out of the room.

<><><><><>

Well, at least now he had an excuse for not getting the Lion in the air in time.

Coran beat him to the nursery and was bent over Veronica when he barged in, already wrapping gauze around her wound.

“Mr. Keith!” Sylvio squawked, dragging Keith’s gaze over to their corner. The little boy was already coming in his direction, towing his sobbing little sister behind by her wrist. “Mr. Keith, Tia Veronica--”

“I know,” he cut in, “but don’t worry, Coran will take care of her. We’ve gotta go.”

Sylvio nodded. His chin crumpled up, but he fought back the tears and put on a determined expression, and he reached up to take Keith’s hand.

He was so startled he almost pulled away, but managed to squash the impulse and took the little boy’s hand in his gloved one.

“Hold on to your sister.”

They set out into the hallway, Keith with his knife at the ready. The air was hazy with dust, the sound of gunshots and shouting outside had Keith’s ears ringing, but still he listened as closely as he could for any hint of oncoming enemies as he led the kids as quietly as possible down the staircase.

Sylvio cringed and hesitated at the foot of the stairs, probably because at that moment his father had given a hoarse shout of pain following by swearing, but Keith held tight to him and didn’t let them slow. They were almost there-- they just needed to get through the back hallway, out the back door, and over to the shed. Simple.

It was a tiny bit quieter in the back hall. Quiet enough to discern Nadia’s sniffling. But it was fine, they were fine, they just needed to make it--

They were right at the back door when it smashed open. The person in the doorway was large, bulky, unfamiliar, and that’s all the information Keith needed to let go of Sylvio and launch himself into an attack.

He was blocked by the man’s shotgun, the tip of his blade mere inches from his throat. His opponent grinned, revealing yellow teeth, and with a harsh shove forced Keith off of him hard enough to make him stumble back into the wall.

His spine hit the wood hard and knocked the breath out of his lungs. The man crowded into the hallway, blocking out the light from the door, and grabbed Keith by the front of his shirt to yank him face-first into the other wall. He barely had time to register that same hand closing around his ponytail before he was pulled to the floor.

His scalp prickled with pain, and for a moment as the man loomed over him, face in shadow, he froze. The man’s teeth looked sharper as he grinned, his eyes gleamed yellow--

“Leave him alone!”

The voice was tiny and scared, followed by a small grunt of effort. The man jolted and swore, whirling on his heel, and there was a bloody slash in the back of his coat.

Oh, Sylvio, no--

“Little brat!” He reared back, bringing up his weapon as though to strike with the butt of it, and Keith barely felt his fingers tingle with adrenaline as he surged to his feet.

His movements were mechanical; practiced. Grip the greasy hair, pull it back, knife, throat.

Only Sylvio’s cry of surprise and disgust as he was showered in blood pulled Keith back to the moment.

The heavy thump of the corpse hitting the ground seemed to shake the foundations of the house. Sylvio was there, staring with glassy eyes, and behind him Nadia was wailing.

Keith didn't hesitate this time. He snatched Sylvio up in his arms, grabbed Nadia by the hand, and hauled ass.

<><><><><>

The heat in the shed was stifling. The tension holding them all taut wasn’t helping much. Rachel was sitting in the only chair in the corner of the room, pale faced, clutching her grandmother’s hand in an iron grip. The older lady stood by her side and murmured soothing things into her ear while stroking her hair, and Allura positioned herself by the door. She had a sturdy pipe in one hand, ready to strike anyone who came through the door without warning, though her palms sweated and slid against the steel and she wasn’t sure how effective her hits would be. Nevertheless, she stood at the ready.

All of them jumped about a foot in the air when someone banged on the door.

“Allura!” Her shoulders slumped when she recognized the raspy voice on the other side. “Allura, open up!”

She drew the deadbolt and opened the door, allowing Keith to stumble in, Lance’s nephew in his arms and his niece following by the hand.

“Why did you bring them here?” she questioned as she locked the door again. Behind her she heard Keith sigh, and the crunch of grit under shoes as he set Sylvio down. When she turned she nearly vomited-- the little boy was splattered with fresh, sticky blood, but at least he didn’t seem to be injured anywhere.

“Veronica got hurt,” grunted Keith. “Shiro told me to bring the kids here.”

“Is she alright?” came Rachel’s voice, high and strained. “What about Lisa?”

“Coran’s with her. She’s gonna be fine.”

“Oh, Sylvio,” the grandmother cooed, sinking into an unsteady crouch and opening her arms to the little boy. “What happened to you?”

Sylvio went eagerly into her arms, followed closely by Nadia who was having trouble catching her breath from tears.

“Bad guy,” he said with a quiet sniffle. “In the hallway.”

“Shh, shh, there there, it’s alright now.”

Allura cut a glance at Keith from the corner of her eye, but he just shrunk behind her shoulder and didn’t say anything.

“Well,” Allura wiped a hand over her forehead, “all we can do now is wait.”

<><><><><>

Three more volleys after Shiro returned to his window, and most of the magistrate’s men were dead, dying, or ran off. They had three injuries on their side: Veronica’s shoulder, Luis with a burn on his temple from a ricochet, and Mr. McClain with a flesh wound on his calf. But the magistrate himself still refused to leave, darting this way and that on his hovercraft, firing pot shots at the house with a fancy little revolver that barely had the range to do it.

“Someone’s gonna have to go out there,” Marco said to him as they were reloading.

“Maybe,” answered Shiro before picking up his radio. “Lance, can you get a clear shot on the magistrate?”

“I can try, but he’s movin’ an awful lot. Ey, Abuelo, hand me that one.”

Shiro switched channels. “Pidge, Hunk, you there?”

“Right here, Cap’n.”

A rifle shot echoed above them, but the magistrate just kept zipping along.

“Think you can grab a couple of the horses and make him stand still for a spell?”

“Ten-four.”

“Everybody but Lance, hold your fire!”

The desert fell quiet in response, and they all held their breath as they watched the deadly game of cat and mouse unfold.

<><><><><>

It took half an hour, but eventually the magistrate turned his hovercraft to flee, and Lance nailed the money shot right in the back of his skull.

Some of them cheered. Shiro merely pressed his lips together in a thin line and steadied himself for clean-up.

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

It was well past three a.m. when the first stage of cleaning up finally came to an end. Of course the family would still have to pry the boards away from the windows and replace broken glass, repair bullet holes in the walls and floors, and dismantle the system the two engineers had built over their well. But for now the corpses were gone, man and beast, and the blood stains scrubbed. That would just have to do.

Lance leaned against the doorframe between the kitchen and the living room. Sylvio and Nadia were fast asleep snuggled up in Luis’ arms, and Marco had dozed off beside them. Most of the crew had trudged off to the Lion for the night, but Shiro promised they wouldn’t leave until Lance gave them the definitive answer of whether he wanted to leave or stay.

He frowned at the thought. Looking at the scene in the living room, listening to the bustling of the rest of the household in the kitchen behind him, soothed the ache of how sharply he’d been missing them for the last few months. It felt right to be here, where he belonged. He could probably be happy here. Farming, taking care of his family, maybe marrying a nice girl from a few miles away and starting his own family.

But the crew of the Lion was a family in itself, wasn’t it? He would probably miss Hunk’s hugs and Pidge’s banter and Matt’s bad jokes as acutely as he’d missed the same from the people he was surrounded by. And with the repairs to the house to be made and another baby on the way, the family would be hurting hard for money.

Lance sighed and scrubbed a hand over his face. As tired as he was of the firefights and killing… his longing to travel the stars hadn’t abated at all.

How was he supposed to choose?

“Lance.”

He turned at the hand on his shoulder to find Rachel giving him a sad smile, and he tried his best to plaster one on in return.

“Hey, Rach. How’re you feelin’?”

“I’m fine. But you’re not.”

Lance turned his head away, cheeks burning. “Rachel…”

“You should go with them.”

He snapped back around so quickly he nearly gave himself whiplash. Her lips quirked at his wide-eyed look.

“Huh? I thought you would’ve wanted me here after all of that. For… for the baby.”

His sister have a low chuckle and shook her head. “That would be nice, sure. But they need you up there, I can tell. And you’d miss them.”

Lance opened his mouth-- to do what, he didn’t know, but Rachel didn’t even let him speak.

“No, Lance. It’s ok. We’re not going anywhere. If you get homesick you can always visit, but with them… you never know.”

He wracked his brain for an argument and came up empty. Rachel smiled.

“We’ll see you soon, little brother.”

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

The Golden Lion took off at sunrise. The whole McClain family gathered on the porch to wave goodbye as she broke atmo, Sylvio holding his dad’s hand in one of his and the knife Keith had given him in the other.

Chapter Text

They were all feeling pretty good after their rousing success at the McClain homestead, reveling in the glow of helping their fellow man and what have you. So, of course, the ‘Verse had to step in and smack them back down. 

They’d barely been in the air for two hours before Shiro was being summoned to the cockpit by Keith, tension in his voice that had the hairs on the back of Shiro’s neck prickling. 

“What is it now?” he asked upon arrival, only for Keith to gesture wordlessly at the radar screen. Shiro braced an arm on the dashboard and leaned over it. Behind the small dot that was their ship was a large shape on the screen, creeping ever so slightly closer as he watched. Looking back up, he noticed the tightened cords of muscle in Keith’s arms as he gripped the controls.

They both knew that a ship that big could only be one thing. 

“How’d they find us?”

“Dunno,” answered Keith. “Could’ve been a pin on the Cortex from someone in town.” 

Shiro ground his teeth. “Can we outrun them?”

“Normally, yeah, but,” he grimaced, “we’re low on fuel. If we stop to refuel they’ll catch us for sure.”

“But if we try to run we could risk running dry and getting stranded.”

Keith gave a tense nod, and Shiro swore under his breath. “Got any ideas?”

“One.” Without looking away from the windscreen, Keith jabbed a finger at another map. “We’re comin’ up on a moon. I can use it’s gravity to slingshot us around it, give us some distance and speed, but I can’t promise it’ll be enough.”

“Do it. I’ll warn the others.”

As he left the cockpit, he cursed the Garrison for never leaving well enough alone. 

 

<><><><><>

 

“So when they board us, are we fightin’?”

Shiro winced at Matt’s deadpan question. He’d already seen through to the heart of the matter-- there was no “if” they were caught-- it was, indeed, a question of “when”.

“Depends,” he answered tightly. “If we avoid ‘em for long enough they’ll be extra quick on the trigger. But if they catch us fast, maybe not so much.” 

“So what’s our timeline?”

He had to decide. “Longer than two hours, we don’t fight. Ain’t worth the risk of someone getting hurt. Shorter than that we try, and if we can get away and lose the trail, alls the better.”

“Well, considering it’s us,” said Lance, trying to appear cheerful but with battle readiness in his eyes, “I would put my money on the worst-case scenario.”

“Counter-offer.” That came, unsurprisingly, from Pidge. “One hour chase, one firefight, we’re home free.”

“Deal.”

They shook on it, and Shiro pinched his brow. With a deliberate sigh, he said, “I’m going back to the bridge.” As he turned to go, the whole deck lurched under their feet-- Keith executing his flight maneuver. Shiro managed to brace himself in the entry to the hall, but he heard several squawks as the other crew members fell into each other. And if he smirked to himself, just a little, well. That was his business. 

 

<><><><><>  

 

“What are you thinkin’?”

Keith frowned at his many screens, tapping his index finger against the ship controls. It had been about twenty minutes since his moon-slingshot, and the whole while Shiro had been hovering over his shoulder, waiting to see if it was enough to keep them out of the Garrison’s reach. Rather annoying, really.

“Not sure,” he answered, finally, if only to keep Shiro from badgering him further. “They are further behind now, but they’re still going just as fast, and a ship like that probably don’t run outta fuel ‘til Judgement Day.”

Somehow seeming both wry and grim, Shiro asked, “And I’m guessing we don’t have near that much?”

Keith shook his head. “We might be able to lose ‘em long enough to refuel if we hit an asteroid belt, but the nearest is at least an hour. They’ll catch up by then, and if I try to be too evasive we might not even get that far.”

Shiro groaned and put his head in his hands. “Why isn’t anything ever easy?”

That made Keith snort, but he didn’t otherwise reply, and after a moment or two Shiro lifted his head again. The circles under his eyes were larger than the rings of Saturn. 

“Well, get us as far as you can. Maybe we’ll get a miracle.”

This time Keith laughed out loud. “Yeah, sure,” he chortled. “Maybe God’ll reach out his hand and cast the Garrison down.”

“It’s the best we can hope for.” 

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

The time passed by slowly. As it turned out, spaceship chases were incredibly boring. Just sailing in a straight line, one eye on the fuel gauge and one eye on the radar; the huge shape of the Garrison cruiser looming ever closer. Shiro paced back and forth across the cockpit floor. Occasionally, he descended to the hold to see about the rest of the crew, but with nothing else to do but fret and pace, he would soon return again. 

It took two and a half hours before the Golden Lion started issuing it’s “fuel low, set course for station” message, the words echoing from the speakers and repeating in both English and Chinese. 

Once it started, Shiro’s jaw set. 

“Go ahead and put on the brakes,” he said, the casual words nowhere near matching his angry tone. “If they want us, they’ll have to catch up themselves.”

Keith did as he was ordered. “Not fightin’ then?”

Shiro shook his head. “No point. I’ll tell Pidge to put everything on blackout-- you shut things down here and meet us in the hold.”

He turned on his heel, a sharp about-face that revealed his military past, and left the bridge. Keith busied himself for a moment turning everything off, all the screens and piloting systems, but out of pure spite, he took his time doing it. 

Damn Garrison, always getting in the way. 

He was just getting up from the pilot seat when the radio crackled with an incoming message. “Firefly Golden Lion, you are ordered by the Garrison Cruiser Montgomery to hold course and prepare for boarding.”

With a scowl etched into his face, he left the cockpit. 

 

<><><><><>

 

Once again, fate found the crew of the small transport ship gathered in the cargo hold, tightly knit together and bristling with defensive postures and angry expressions, waiting for the Garrison to decide their fate. 

Shiro didn’t think he could get more tired or angry about being pushed around by the Garrison, but every time he proved himself wrong. Over the years he’d discovered there was always a way to be angrier, more bitter, more untrusting. He wasn’t sure how deep the rabbit-hole went, but he was likely nearing the bottom of it. 

And there it was. The steam-hiss of two airlocks connecting and forming a vacuum. 

The door was pushed open from the other side, and as expected, in poured the squadron of Garrison soldiers, armed to the teeth with their fingers poised over triggers. Shiro breathed deeply and tried not to let the muscles in his jaw tick as he ground his teeth. 

The leading officer stepped in last. Tall, broad, dark skinned, clad in admiral dark-blue, and with a scar running over one permanently closed eye. 

“You are the captain, I presume?” he asked of Shiro, far more loudly than was necessary. Shiro wasn’t capable of being entirely polite at the moment, but he tried his best. 

“Yes, that’s me. There some kind of problem?”

The officer smirked. “Well, that depends entirely on you, Captain.” He jerked his head at the soldiers, sending them fanning around the group, keeping them pinned down with their weapons. Only then did he take a few cautious steps into Shiro’s vicinity. 

“You’re just off of Callum, correct?”

He nodded. 

“And were you aware that right before you left, there was a massacre reportedly committed by the crew of a Firefly class transport?”

Shiro raised an eyebrow. “A massacre?”

“Fifteen men dead or wounded in a firefight, reportedly instigated by the crew of a scavenging Firefly, trying to rob a little town of everything its got.”

Shiro’s fists wanted to clench, but he settled for a slow curl of his fingers instead, trying to think past his rage quickly enough to come up with a story besides the one the Garrison clearly believed. Unfortunately, Pidge thought quicker.

“Um, question,” she said with a raised hand, prompting the officer to look at her with a startled expression. “The first time, you said it was a massacre, which kinda implies a one-way exchange of bullets, if you know what I mean. But then you said firefight, which means that there were weapons on both sides. So what is the truth?”

The officer’s cheeks darkened, but before he could say anything Shiro jumped in. 

“It was self-defense,” he said. “There was a family there being threatened by the men of the town, and they hired us to protect them.”

Not entirely the truth. Not entirely a lie.

But was it enough?

Judging by the officers face, the answer was…

“Take them into custody.”

… a resounding no. 

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌  

 

They were barely aboard the cruiser before alarms started blaring. Some kind of facial recognition system had been triggered-- by Coran. 

Man, they were so screwed.

The admiral, whom Shiro had discovered was called Iverson, had grinned entirely too brightly when he found out exactly who he’d managed to stumble upon. 

“Set a course for the nearest base,” he instructed the pilots as the guards began to lead the crew away, “and send a wave to command requesting transfer right away.”

Then the door to the control room had shut, and Shiro heard nothing else. They were escorted down to the holding cells in the belly of the ship and shoved unceremoniously inside, most of them in one while Pidge and Allura were kept in the one directly to their right. 

It was different this time-- it was bright and sterile-clean. They weren’t bound, and at least for now, didn’t expect to be slaughtered the moment the door opened. 

It was very different, but it didn’t help all that much. Shiro still felt itchy and suffocated, yellow eyes blinking from the corners of his vision when he turned his head. 

He wasn’t the only one. Keith paced from corner to corner like a caged animal. Lance was in the back, sitting on the long metal bench attached to the wall, pressed close to Hunk in search of comfort. Matt stood in the corner where the two cells met. His face was pale and set in stone, but one hand had slipped through the bars, and Pidge grasped it with all her strength. 

“Where do you suppose they’ll take us?” asked Coran after a time. 

Shiro ran a hand over his face. His arm ached.

“Not sure,” he admitted. “They’re gonna separate us at some point. You’re a high-stakes find, you’ll probably be taken to a high security place, if you ain’t shot first.” 

Coran gulped. Shiro continued. 

“Allura they’ll let go. She’s too classy for the likes of us. We’ll go to lock-up, not sure how long, and they’ll auction off the ship.”

“Well, we’re not gonna let them,” said Pidge, fiercely, only for it to melt into uncertainty at Shiro’s expression. “We aren’t… are we?”

For a moment, Shiro almost gave in. He’d spent so many years fighting against the Garrison, and what had it gotten him? He’d lost an arm, a lover, and a home. Was it really worth it for him to go on doing this, struggling against something that had already beaten him? 

But looking around at all the faces he’d come to love looking to him to protect them, to give them hope, to show them they could always reach for the impossible and win ; well… he couldn’t take it away from them. 

So he gave a sharp smirk, and Pidge’s face brightened. 

“Damn right we’re not.”

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

It was another few hours before anything exciting happened. They were all almost asleep (except Keith, who was still pacing) when an alarm blared, jarring them all into awareness. The alarm faded after a few angry buzzing blasts and the door to the cell block slid open to admit Iverson, followed by a small squad of armed soldiers. 

“Nearing the end of the line, now,” Iverson said when they reached the cell, sounding entirely too pleased by the situation. Shiro kept up his mask of impassivity as the guards removed them, one by one, from the cell-- a trick he’d learned in camps after the war, when he lost his arm. If you react, you’re entertainment, and then they won’t ever let you alone. 

Pidge and Keith, however, sneered at Iverson as they were led out, all of them with their hands cuffed behind their back. Except for Allura, who was as ever so graceful and elegant (and high class) that the Garrison wouldn’t touch her.

It was a long walk from the brig to the airlocks, the ship being as big as it was, and though Shiro watched the whole way for any opportunity to take, none revealed themselves. They were surrounded on all sides by armed guards, and even if they could break free and get back to the Lion, they’d still need time to refuel her. No-- if they were going to escape somehow, it wasn’t going to be from here. 

Iverson had gotten ahead of them, and was already on the other side of the airlock when they were marched through. He was waiting for them, and loudly arguing with another man in a white coat with blue rubber gloves pulled over his hands.

“You can’t just bring anyone in here,” the coated man was saying. “This base is not accessible to the armed forces--”

“Policy states,” Iverson shouted over him, forcing him to stop his own argument, “that when in possession of a wanted fugitive with a bounty of over one hundred thousand platinum, any and all bases under Garrison control are required to provide holding assistance until a transfer is completed.”

The other man scowled. He looked away from Iverson, dragging his eyes over all of them hatefully, as though this whole situation was somehow their fault, until they came to a sudden halt just behind Shiro. Then they widened.

“Very well,” he said. Iverson blinked, surprised, but he was already continuing. “We do have holding facilities, though they are… unconventional.”

“Any will do.”

Shiro glanced over his shoulder. The person directly behind him in their line was Keith, his lip still set in a dangerous snarl. His heart sank. 

“I’ll show your men the way while you call for your transfer. Afterwards meet me in my office, if you please, Admiral.”

The guards began to move again, prodding at their captives with their weapons to urge them along, but Shiro barely noticed. He hadn’t liked the way that man had looked at Keith. 

This time the walk was shorter. Three hallways and one (very crowded) elevator ride later, the man was swiping a key card and leading them into a room that resembled the infirmary on the Lion. It had the same harsh white lighting, counters and shelves filled with all sorts of things Shiro probably didn’t know how to use, and machines and beakers and microscopes. There were even a few examination tables and a computer terminal. 

The thing that made it different from the infirmary was that they didn’t have a ten foot by ten foot cage. 

The man, who, given the look of the room, was probably a scientist of some sort, tossed something to the frontmost guard. 

“You can put them in there,” he ordered with a lazy wave of his hand. “I’ll be back.”

The guard moved to the door, revealing the item to be an old-fashioned physical key that he used to unlock the cage.

“This is how all of my nightmares start,” whispered Pidge. Mentally Shiro agreed. He kept his expression stoic as they were herded into the cell-- all of them together, this time, even Allura. Even after the door was closed behind them the guards didn’t leave, merely spread themselves around the room to continue watching over them, which put any more covert planning to an end. Add in the fact that their shackles had been left on and their escape opportunities were looking slim to none. 

But God knows that no amount of security could keep Lance from talking.

“It looks like some kind of lab,” he hissed to the rest of them, as quietly as he was capable of. “And obviously it’s being run by the Garrison, but for what?”

“Judging by the cage, I’d say for making soda that tastes like chocolate cake,” said Pidge in a sarcastic whisper. “What do you think, dumbass?”

The last thing Shiro wanted to be thinking about was what use the Garrison could have for secret medical facilities. Lance, bless his heart, chose to ignore Pidge and continue his train of thought, unfortunately aloud. 

“Maybe they’re makin’ mind control drugs. Wouldn’t put it past ‘em.”

One of the guards sent a glare in their direction, and Shiro nudged Lance’s leg. 

“And I wouldn’t put it past ‘em to shoot you for talking too much,” he said through gritted teeth. Thankfully, Lance fell silent at that, but his comment didn’t do much good for the group morale. They waited in sulky quiet, broken only by Lance’s fidgeting and the occasional taunt from a guard that they’d all learned to ignore. It felt like eons before the door of the lab opened and the admiral returned, followed by the scientist.

“Time for some questions, fugitive,” said Iverson with a sharp smile. “I’d hate for you to be bored while we wait for your transfer.”

Coran gulped, clearly apprehensive, but put his shoulders back. He’d learned some gumption from this crew, it would seem. Before he could move towards the door however, the scientist pointedly cleared his throat, and the admiral’s smile dimmed. 

“Right, right. And the pilot.”  

Shiro immediately stepped between Keith and the cage door. “Why?” Even as he asked it he knew he wasn’t going to get an answer. And predictably enough Iverson just shot him an irritated glare.

“None of your concern,” he snarled, then jerked his head at the guard, who moved forward with the cage key in hand. Shiro stayed where he was as they escorted Coran roughly by the arm. He fully intended not to move, to keep the guards away from Keith, whatever it took, until Keith nudged his elbow into Shiro’s side.

“Don’t be stupid, Shiro,” he murmured in a low tone. “It probably won’t be that bad.”

Shiro wasn’t so sure about that. The only thing worse than the Garrison were Galra, and the Garrison had the training and military discipline on their side. But when he didn’t move Keith made the decision himself and stepped out from behind him, ignoring it when Shiro hissed his name. 

“Smart choice,” said the guard holding the door open. Keith scowled at him, but otherwise didn’t fight when he was pulled out of the cell. Shiro finally understood when he caught Keith flicking his eyes around the room at the various armed guards-- he was trying to keep the guards from hurting any of them. 

The cage door slammed back into place with a clang that made Pidge jolt. Shiro didn’t react at any of the leers the other soldiers gave them as they all marched out of the room-- he just watched until the last possible second, when the door to the lab slid shut and sealed. Then he slumped against the bars, not having the strength to look back at the crew’s hopeless expressions.

“So…” Hunk ventured after a minute or two. “What now?”

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌

 

Well, that other doctor-looking fellow had certainly been right about this base not having holding facilities. There were only two rooms that could be used for interrogation on the whole base, and they must’ve been some sort of test chambers before, as the one Coran was placed in had a two way mirror looking into the next, where Keith was sitting. 

The whole situation made Coran nauseous. Not just the prospect of being caught and executed (though that was certainly high on the worry list) but also why the scientist seemed so interested in Keith. He could guess why, but all he could do was pray that his suspicion was incorrect. 

For a few minutes both of them were left alone. Coran was busying himself counting the panels on the ceiling when the door to the room swung open and closed loudly, making him jump in his seat. 

To Coran’s relief, the person who had entered wasn’t Admiral Iverson, though they did wear the same blue officer uniform. This man was older, with graying hair at his temples and thin lips. He didn’t bother to sit down; he dove right into the questions. Routine ones most likely. They’d leave the juicy stuff for the professionals in the Core.  

He got through name, profession, and date of birth before Coran heard the door to the other room open. A glance to the side showed that the man in the laboratory coat had entered, dragging a trolley with a tray atop it behind him. 

He squirmed a bit in his wrist cuffs, his answers to his own questions becoming distracted as he tried to pay attention to what was happening next door. He could just barely hear the doctor’s voice through the glass. He seemed to be going down the same list of questions as Coran’s questioner. 

“Name?”

Keith answered in a reluctant, sullen tone. “Keith Kogane.”

“Planet of origin?”

“Balmera.” 

“Date of birth?”

“Dunno.”

The scientist raised an eyebrow. “You don’t know?”

Keith shrugged. “Street kid.”

A loud sound made Coran jump again. His interrogator had just slapped his hand against the wall, trying to get Coran’s attention back. For a few more questions he did, then he tuned back into the conversation next door, trying to be more subtle about it this time. 

“Ever know your father?”

“No.”

“Your mother?”

“No.”

“Any relatives?”

“No.”

“Mr. Smythe!” Coran jerked his gaze back to the red faced man, contrasting horrifically with his uniform. “If you cannot be bothered to participate in your own interview, we can make it much more interesting. Would that suit you?”

Coran didn’t want to know what the Garrison’s definition of ‘interesting’ was, so he resigned himself to focusing on his own questioning. Perhaps he would get a chance to talk to Keith afterwards. 

The inane questions seemed to go on forever. At no point did they even come close to touching what had made Coran into a fugitive in the first place, and all of this information was probably in his file anyway, but he had the impression that this wasn’t really about information. It was a test of his personality. Whether he would cooperate, if he’d be a nuisance, if he’d withstand any of their torture. 

Eventually, eventually, the officer straightened his collar and stepped back from the intimidating position he’d adopted over his prisoner. Somehow his voice wasn’t at all hoarse from all the talking, even though Coran’s was grinding in his throat. 

“Your transfer will arrive in four hours. Please try to cooperate with them-- it would be such a shame if something were to happen.”

With that last threat, he did an about face and marched out, closing and locking the chamber door behind him. 

He immediately turned back to Keith’s room. The hum of voices had ceased some minutes before, and now it seemed the scientist was merely fiddling with something on his tray while Keith waited. He was impatient as ever, tapping his foot and casting restless eyes around his tiny prison. 

A moment later the man turned around, a filled syringe in his hand, and both Coran and Keith went very still.

“What is that?” Keith growled at the same time Coran thought it. 

“Don’t be afraid, I’m a medical professional,” he said, as though that was supposed to be comforting in any capacity. “I’ve just discovered some genetic impurities in you. This drug is experimental, but I have full confidence it will be effective.”

“What?” Keith jerked in his seat, and it was then Coran noticed that his legs had been bound to his seat, a layer of security that hadn’t been placed on him. “No, you can’t just-- I’ve got rights, don’t I? You can’t just shoot me up with somethin’ without my say-so--”

“Perhaps in a normal hospital.” The man stepped forward as Coran watched in horror, all too aware that any of his protests would go unheard and unheeded. “But things are very different here.”

He set a hand on Keith’s shoulder, only to retract it a moment later when Keith attempted a bite. 

“No!” he exclaimed again, snapping his teeth when the man tried to move closer. “No!”

The man frowned at him reproachfully, as though Keith were a disobedient pet and not a human being. 

“Really, you should be honored. You’re participating in research that could save the entire system.” 

“I ain’t your lab rat!” Keith retorted, pulling so hard against his cuffs that Coran could see his muscles straining. Apparently fed up, the man huffed a bit and passed the syringe to his other hand before grabbing Keith’s ponytail. Keith grunted in pain when he yanked his head to the side, then let out a shout when the needle pierced his flesh. 

“See,” the man said as he stepped back, a sick grin on his lips. “Was that so hard? 

 

🌌🌌🌌🌌🌌   

 

The Admiral made a huge mistake leaving them in that room unguarded. Within two seconds flat Allura had shaken the pins out of her hair and Pidge was up against the bars, fiddling with the old-fashioned lock. 

One flaw in their plan-- Pidge was trying to pick the lock with her hands literally tied behind her back. Which, as you can imagine, makes the task rather difficult. The only reason she could fit both arms through was because of how skinny they were, and after a few minutes of work she was wincing at the strain in her elbows and shoulders, but she didn’t complain, and the others didn’t ask. They all knew it was their only shot. 

Lance was the one to hear the footsteps in the hallway. He hissed out a warning the same moment the door began to open, and Pidge barely had time to retract her hands and clench them to hide the pins before two of the guards returned, escorting Coran between them. 

None of them said anything, but Shiro swept his eyes over Coran as one of the soldiers opened up the door. He didn’t see any blood or bruising, no indication he’d been harmed, but his cheeks were pale and the look in his eyes was one of distress. 

“Won’t be long now,” one of the soldiers commented as his partner relocked the door. He looked at the group with a conniving grin. “Some time in lock up will teach you scavengers how to contribute to society.”

Lance, never one to hold his tongue, sniped back, “Unlikely. We’re all lost causes.”

The other guard sneered and rested the barrel of his gun on one of the bars, making the barrel even with Lance’s gut. 

“Maybe we ought to save ourselves some time, then?”

For a long moment none of them moved. Then, with a jarring pair of laughs, the guards sauntered back out of the room without a care in the world. 

Pidge immediately went back to her lock-picking attempts. Shiro focused his attention on Coran, who had spent the last few minutes standing quietly in the corner of the cage. 

“Coran.” His eyes flicked to Shiro’s. “You good?”

Coran drew in a long, slow breath. Every part of him was trembling, including his mustache. 

“I’m alright,” he answered in a soft voice. He swallowed, then: “I saw Keith.”

Shiro snapped to attention. “Is he ok? Do you know what they want with him?”

“He knows. The scientist, he… he knows about Keith.”

Shiro went cold all the way to his fingertips. 

“He gave Keith something,” Coran continued, rolling his shoulders in some kind of an attempt to get ahold of himself. It seemed to have worked, as his voice got stronger. “Some kind of an injection. I don’t know what it was, but I don’t expect it to be benevolent.”

“Pidge?”

The girl grunted at Shiro’s prod. “I’m tryin’, I’m tryin’, almost got it--”
He turned to the others. Packing his panic up tight, he put it in a box and shoved it away. They needed a plan of attack. 

“When Pidge gets the door open,” he began, not leaving any room for ‘if’, “Hunk, I want you, Lance, and Allura to track down the Lion. Probably in one of the vehicle bays. See if you can’t scrounge up some fuel, too. Get her ready to fly.

“Coran and Matt, get as much data as you can out of this place. Whatever the Garrison knows about the Galra, I wanna know too. Pidge, you and I are gonna get Keith.”

There were nods all round. A moment later there was a metallic creeeaaaaaaaaak as Pidge slowly turned the lock on the cage door, crowned by a satisfying click. 

“We’re in business,” said Pidge with an evil gremlin grin. 

“Let’s get moving.” 

 

<><><><><>

 

Unfortunately, because nothing could ever go their way, Shiro’s plan had left out the fact that they were all still handcuffed. Fortunately, for once, there was an easy way out. Matt hit the button to open the room’s door, revealing the turned back of the guard assigned to watch over the room. Before he could turn to investigate the noise Shiro was slamming into him, driving him all the way across the hall into the opposite wall and knocking him out cold. On that guard’s belt was the electronic key to their shackles. 

Once they were free they scattered to their tasks. Coran led Shiro, Matt, and Pidge back to where he’d been questioned, indicating two doors down a dead-end hall, then took Matt to search for the main info hub. 

“Damn, how old is this base?” Pidge muttered to herself as she went at the lock with Allura’s hair pins. “The security is shit.”

“I don’t think most people are supposed to know it’s here,” answered Shiro, trying to keep himself from getting impatient. “They probably rely on secrecy for security.”

“And look how well that’s workin’ out for ‘em.” As she spoke she turned the door handle and shoved it open, revealing the tiny, brightly lit room beyond. And there, as promised, was Keith. 

Shiro’s stomach clenched at the sight of him. He was slumped in the chair he’d been bound to, chin resting on his chest, and didn’t move in response to any of the sounds they’d been making. His shoulders heaved up and down with heavy breath, and between his restrained ankles was a splatter of brownish vomit. 

Tāmāde,” he spat as he rushed forward. 

Keith’s skin was clammy to the touch and sticky with cold sweat. He cupped a hand under his chin, and when he lifted it, Keith’s eyes fluttered open. His pupils were blown wide, making him grimace at the burn of the lights, and he couldn’t seem to get them to focus on Shiro’s face. 

He felt Pidge brush his elbow as she unlocked the restraints. That was the only reason he knew to hold Keith up when he slumped forward. 

“Help me get him up,” he forced out of his tight throat. With some effort he straightened up, bringing Keith up to his unsteady feet, and Pidge ducked under one of his arms to take his weight. 

“What now?” she asked, shoving a few strands of choppy hair out of her eyes. “Take him back to the Lion?”

Shiro shook his head as he positioned himself under Keith’s other arm. He was a bit lopsided due to the height difference, but it would have to do. 

“Whatever that guy did to Keith, he’s probably the only one who knows how to fix it. Gotta track him down.”

“And then what?”

Shiro grunted and took the first step forward. “Whatever comes next.”

“Great. Excellent. Awesome. Foolproof plan, Captain.”

“Got any better ideas?”

Normally, the answer would be a smug yes. This time Pidge didn’t say anything.

 

<><><><><>  

 

Their pace was slow and shuffling as they made their way down the hall Matt and Coran had taken earlier. Keith wasn’t making much noise beyond raspy breathing, but still Shiro strained his hearing to listen for incoming footsteps. Whenever they came across a door Pidge would duck out and check it to see what was in the room-- a surprising number of the doors weren’t locked, but the rooms seemed to be nothing more than dusty, abandoned labs. 

If he thought about it too much it sent eerie shivers up and down Shiro’s spine. 

Eventually they came upon a door that had sounds coming from behind it. The clackclackclack of fingers racing over a keyboard, a slow thump thump thump of pacing feet. Someone spoke and it was too low to discern words, but Shiro could tell by the quiver of the voice that they were afraid. 

Pidge slid the door open. 

The room was one of the larger ones they’d come across. Directly to the right of the door was a wall of computer banks, the top half lined with security cameras and various radars. The far wall was lined with bookshelves, and before them a desk with an old-fashioned computing unit atop it, surrounded by a small ocean of miscellaneous papers and files. Tucked in the corner, a large safe that now stood ajar, and everywhere vials, syringes, bottles, and other chemical testing equipment. 

The fingers they’d heard in the hall belonged to Coran. He sat before the computers, rapidly tapping away and scouring every screen for information. The scientist that had been flitting in and out of their holding room before was sitting in the chair behind the desk, and the scared voice had probably been his, considering that Matt stood over him with a pistol. 

The scientist’s eyes practically bulged out of his head when he saw them standing in the doorway. His strangled gasp had Matt glancing over his shoulder at them, and his expression did the exact opposite of his hostage’s. 

“Nice of you to join us,” he drawled. His eyes flicked between them all, then softened. “How’s Keith?”

“Dunno,” grunted Shiro. He and Pidge awkwardly set Keith down against the wall, then Pidge dropped to sit beside him while he straightened up, leveling a dangerous glare in the scientist’s direction. “But the person who does happens to be right here.”

He got to watch in real time as the blood drained from the man’s face. He got paler and paler as Shiro marched across the room to his chair. Matt stepped to the side and offered Shiro the pistol, but he brushed it aside, instead electing to brace his metal hand on the back of the chair and lean in close. 

His gut twisted in grim satisfaction at the sight of the man’s fear. He was practically shaking in his boots. 

“Now you listen to me. Whatever you did to my pilot, you’re gonna undo it. Right now. Or I will snap your neck with my bare hands and toss you out the nearest airlock. Do we have an understanding?”

The scientist gaped at him, by now nearly as white as his coat. 

“You-- you don’t know-- what he is,” he stammered, white knuckling the armrests. “He’s a-- d-danger--”

“I know exactly who he is,” Shiro snarled down at him, making him shut his mouth right quick. “And you will do as I said. I won’t ask again.”

His Adam’s apple bombed as he swallowed, then he gave a tiny, stuttering nod. Shiro made a show of straightening up ever so slowly. Catching Matt’s eye, he nodded in their captive’s direction and received a nod of understanding back. He’d make sure he didn’t try anything stupid. 

Still keeping a hawk’s eye on Keith, Shiro fell back to the other side of the room, where Coran was still scouring away at the computer bank with laser focus. He looked grim, but determined, and didn’t so much as jolt when Shiro rested a hand on his shoulder.

“You got something?”

Coran nodded, his jaw tightening. “I don’t have time to read it all now, but we can take most of it with us.” He took a moment to jab a finger at some of the screens. “If you have a look you might be able to find out where the Lion is, and the Garrison troops.”

Shiro obligingly moved over to the other monitors. Flicking through the cameras, he came across the motionless form of a soldier in one of the lower level hallways. From there he just had to follow the trail of taken down guards to the third vehicle bay, where he was treated to the sight of Hunk and Lance hauling out the hoses to refill the Golden Lion.

He smiled to himself. He knew sending Lance along with them was a good decision. 

“Shiro.”

He turned to see Matt standing near Pidge and Keith, the trembling scientist at his side. In his hands he held a syringe. He joined the group, pausing to give the man a frosty look. 

“If this does anythin’ short of cure him, you’re a dead man.”

With another nervous nod and gulp combo, the scientist tottered forward a few steps and awkwardly knelt. Keith looked like a rag doll propped against the wall, his head lolled onto his right shoulder, eyes closed. He jerked a bit at the first prick of the needle, but stilled when Pidge took his hand in hers. Shiro watched, ready to spring at any moment, and the scientist slowly pushed the plunger. 

From the computer bank came a few electronic chirps and a mechanical whirr, and a moment later Coran appeared at Shiro’s side, tucking a datatab into his pocket.

“That everything?” Shiro asked gruffly, not taking his eyes off Keith. In his periphery Coran nodded. “Good.”

He waited for the scientist to stand back up and turn to face him with a questioning gaze. Shiro examined him coldly, then without a word, held out his hand in Matt’s direction. The metal was cold when Matt pressed the pistol into his palm. 

“No, wait!” he wailed as Shiro gripped him tightly, fitting the barrel between his eyes. “We had a de--”

Shiro squeezed the trigger.

Chapter Text

Lance and Hunk didn’t react to the blood-spattered condition of Shiro’s clothing when they met up in the vehicle bay. Allura looked a bit pale, but she seemed to be gaining a tolerance for this sort of work, which was a depressing thought Shiro chose not to dwell on. 

“We’re all set!” Hunk called, busily closing the locks on the gas valve door. “Let’s get moving!”

Lance, after waiting for Hunk to join him, hurried up the ramp and disappeared into the Golden Lion’s cargo bay. Matt and Coran were right behind them, but Allura hung back a few paces, casting worried looks at where Shiro and Pidge were still holding Keith up. 

“Will he be able to fly?” she asked as they slowly made their way onto the ship. Shiro opened his mouth to answer just as the stepped inside, just as the ramp began to rise behind them, and just as Keith jerked out of his arms and onto his knees to retch up bile onto the metal floor.

“I’ll take that as a no,” chirped Allura, and with that rushed off towards the cockpit. With a chagrined grimace on his face Shiro knelt at Keith’s side. He was breathing too fast, and sweat sparkled on the back of his neck, underneath the half undone ponytail. 

“I’ll go get the mop.”

Shiro stopped Pidge with a held up hand, though even as he spoke, he didn’t dare tear his eyes away from Keith for even a moment.

“Not important right now. Grab Hunk and get to the engine room-- Allura might have to do some fancy flyin’ if the Garrison notices us leaving.”

Pidge bobbed her head quickly in assent, and a moment later was gone. Shiro could feel the vibrations in his knees as the Golden Lion powered up, and after sparing himself a few seconds to catch his breath, turned his attention fully on Keith. 

“Keith, hey, you with me?”

Keith winced. Sitting back on his heels, he pressed his fingertips to his temples, eyes screwed shut in obvious pain. 

“Come on, I need you to focus. Think you can manage it?”

He didn’t open his eyes, but he did give a reluctant nod, and despite the way his skin tone went a few shades greener at the motion, Shiro felt relieved. Keith was still conscious and coherent, which eased a large portion of the fear that had been lurking underneath his earlier anger. 

“Ok, I’m gonna help you up, and we’re gonna go to the infirmary. Good?”

If the way his expression twisted up was any indication, the answer to that question was decidedly not good. But he didn’t protest, and when Shiro pulled one of his arms away from his head to loop over his shoulders, he didn’t fight back. He let Shiro hoist him to his feet, and though he swayed and stumbled and kept his eyes closed, he was at least taking some of his own weight.

With a firm grip around Keith’s wrist and his waist, Shiro took a step forward. Then another, and another, heading for the staircase that would take them down to the infirmary. But on the fourth step the Lion jerked and trembled, and dimly Shiro thought he heard the other crew members shouting, but it was quickly drowned out by the sound of Keith’s knees hitting the floor and him vomiting again.

He sighed and ran a hand over his sweaty face. 

This wasn’t going to be easy.

By the time he got Keith to the infirmary there were four puddles of vomit marking their path, and if Shiro hadn’t shoved a container into his lap the second he was on the examination table, it would’ve been five. He dismissed it-- he would get the mop and clean it up later. Right now he needed to help Keith… somehow. 

The sound of metal rolling back alerted him to the person entering the infirmary behind them-- it was Coran, the datatab he’d taken earlier jutting out of one of his vest pockets, a grim expression on his face.

“Think you can help him?” Shiro asked without preamble, pitching his voice over the sound of heaving. 

“I can try.” Coran stepped over to the counter and stripped off his gloves, rolling up his sleeves, as the Lion roiled beneath their feet again. 

“Jesus,” he couldn’t resist snapping just a bit as he almost smacked his head into a cabinet. “Keith, I need to be payin’ you more.”

Keith’s only response was a pained groan. 

Coran reappeared in front of them. One of his hands braced him against the exam table, while the other held an empty syringe. 

“I need to take a sample to determine what exactly that doctor,” the word was said with a distinct tone of disgust, “gave him.”

“Alright, but be careful,” Shiro warned. “We ain’t exactly on a smooth ride.”

He nodded, his mustache twitching with solemnity, but when he grasped Keith’s arm and tried to pull it away to get a sample, Keith jerked it away. With a set jaw he tried again, but again Keith recoiled, this time letting out a sound that could only be described as a growl. 

“Let him help you,” Shiro said into his ear. Keith shook his head and finally looked up, a frighteningly dazed look in his eyes. 

“No more needles,” he mumbled, barely audible, and Shiro barely bit back the sigh of annoyance. 

“Sorry, bud. It’s gotta happen.”

When Keith still didn’t allow Coran access to his arm, Shiro, though with a guilty twist in his stomach, gripped it himself and peeled it away from the makeshift bucket. Keith thrashed and squirmed and made a few more protesting noises, the kind Shiro had only ever heard him make in his fitful sleep, but Shiro managed to keep his hold and Coran got the needle into the vein. 

Not much was needed. In just a few seconds he was done and stumbling over to one of the machines he’d set up on the counter months ago, and Shiro had to wrap an arm around Keith and hold on as the Lion did something ridiculous around them. If this is what flying felt like in the cabin, he was glad he spent most of his time in the cockpit. 

The next few minutes were more of the same, Shiro hanging on to Keith and trying to keep his footing while Coran scanned the blood sample and muttered what sounded like (to Shiro’s ears, at least) gibberish. 

Eventually the Lion leveled off, and a moment later Coran’s shoulders lost their tension. He turned back to them. 

“He’ll be alright,” he said to Shiro’s questioning gaze. “The original toxin would’ve caused internal hemorrhaging, but the second negated the first’s worst effects. He’ll just be ill for a few days.”

Shiro let out a sigh of relief. But even as that worry was eased from his mind, several more came bearing down in its absence. 

The Garrison had everything on them now. Their names, their faces, a detailed description and the registration of the Lion. They knew Coran was on board, and there was a price on his head. Any one of their usual contacts would think nothing of turning them in for it. 

They’d spent years like this, operating just under the Garrison’s nose with the help of money in the right palms and not a little amount of luck. 

What were they going to do now?

Back in the real world, Coran was still talking. “I’ll start looking through the data from the base. With luck it’ll have the information we’ve been searching for.”

“Righ,” answered Shiro absentmindedly. “Let me know what you find out. I’ll tell Allura to take us into some remote space so we don’t get interrupted.”

Coran nodded and waved a hand, already moving to set up his machines. So Shiro turned back to Keith, who, despite the tint of his skin, hadn’t thrown up again, and put a hand on his shoulder. 

“Think we can make it to your bunk?”

Keith shivered-- Shiro could see goosebumps rising on his arms as the sweat on him began to dry-- but still gave a determined nod and set the bucket to the side.

Shiro helped him down from the exam table. He stumbled a bit and turned a shade paler, but didn’t protest when Shiro took a step, supporting more than half of Keith’s weight. 

He gagged and heaved a few more times during their journey, but thankfully nothing else came up, and Shiro was able to get his pilot into his bunk and onto his bed.

Instantly Keith rolled onto his side, tucking his knees up and facing the wall. He probably didn’t like that Shiro was seeing him like this, but he couldn’t help noticing how he still shivered against the Lion’s cooling system. So, with a hard tug to get it out from under Keith’s body, Shiro draped the bunk’s blanket over his shuddering form. 

Keith grasped the edge tight enough to turn his knuckles ivory. But still he didn’t speak, so Shiro honored the unspoken wish for privacy and turned back to the entry-way ladder. As he did a glint of red caught his eye-- Keith’s pendant, still lying on the floor where it had been thrown all those months ago. 

 

<><><><><>

 

After cleaning up the messes Keith had made, Shiro set himself to auto-pilot, meaning: check on the crew, ensure their safety and orders, repeat. 

One by one he tracked down the rest of the crew. 

Hunk was stress cooking in the kitchen. Probably unable to sleep after their ordeal. 

Lance was in his bunk, though through the door Shiro could detect the sounds of a nightmare; he pounded on the door loudly enough to wake him up, then moved on. 

Pidge and Matt were harder to track down, but he finally found them with Coran in the infirmary, all of them gathered and staring at a screen with intense expressions. He let them be.

Keith was still in his bunk, asleep. 

Finally he ascended to the cockpit. As he’d been expecting, Allura was there, though he definitely wasn’t prepared to find her in the co-pilot’s seat, silent tears streaming down her cheeks.

“Uh, Allura?”

She started violently, then muttered a low curse Shiro had never imagined coming from her lips and reached up to wipe the moisture away. 

“Didn’t mean to intrude,” said Shiro. His tone was stilted and awkward, but he couldn’t help it. Ever since the Galra incident Allura’s aloof companion facade had been cracking, and for the first time Shiro felt like he was seeing the real Allura-- a scared young woman caught up in things much larger than herself. 

Shiro could relate.

“Not at all, captain.” She attempted a composed tone, but it failed when she added a sniffle. “I suspect you have a course in mind.”

Not really, but, “Yeah. I can do it if you… wanna rest, or… somethin’.”

Allura gave a pitiful little laugh mingled with a sob, and when she spoke again it was hoarsely, all idea of pretense abandoned.

“What am I doing out here, Shiro?” she asked. She gazed out the windscreen to avoid his face, and the stars outside reflected in the sheen of tears in her eyes. “I’m a companion. I should be in the Core, attending balls and dinners and making rich men believe I care about them.” A few more tears leaked out that she didn’t bother to brush away. “What am I doing here, out in the Black? I used to sit on the roof of my family home and stare at the sky, wanting more than anything to go there. But looking at it now,” her expression hardened to stone, “all I see is emptiness.”

“Well…” Shiro sidled forward a few steps and sat in the pilot’s seat, busying his hands with setting a course as he tried to think up an answer. 

“I think everyone on this boat is here ‘cause we’re runnin’ from something. Some of us more literally than others.” He dared a glance, but his joke hadn’t garnered a reaction from Allura. He swallowed and continued, “I don’t know what you’re runnin’ from. I can’t speak for anyone but myself. But I’ve been thinkin’ and… maybe it’s time to stop runnin’.”

She made a sound that was half scoff, half chuckle. “And then do what? I have a life I can go back to, so do Lance and Hunk, but Coran has nothing but a jail cell waiting if he slows down. Matt and Pidge only have each other, Keith would rather die than be stuck on the ground again. And you…”

Shiro shook his head to banish the thoughts. The questions Allura was raising were inevitable; they couldn't hide in the Black forever. But they were ones he couldn’t take right now. 

He didn’t want to think about what life would be like without the Lion-- Matt and Pidge, alone in their parents’ old home; Keith, back to selling his body to earn enough for food; Coran, rotting in a cell. Himself, stuck planetside under the Garrison’s thumb. 

He let out a shaky breath.

“You don’t have to worry about the rest of us,” he mumbled. “You gotta decide what you want, what’s best for you. You never signed up for all of this nonsense with the Garrison and the Galra. If you want to stop sailing with us and go somewhere else, somewhere safe… not one of us would blame you.”

“I would. I would blame myself.”

For a moment there was quiet, broken only by quiet beeps as Shiro set the Lion’s course. Then there was a rustle of cloth as Allura shifted her position.

“I’m scared, Shiro. I really am. But even so I could never just… leave the Golden Lion. Pretending I never met any of you, that I don’t care… that’s beyond my ability.”

Having set the course, Shiro sat back in his seat and looked over at Allura. Tears still lingered on her cheeks, but her expression had morphed into something hard and determined. Hauntingly similar to the ones he’d seen on the faces of his comrades, even as the idea of victory faded from possibility. 

He felt like he could cry, but he’d forgotten how. All he felt was an ache in his chest-- a deep, empty ache. 

“It’s up to you, Princess,” he said eventually. This time when Allura laughed, it was genuine. Sad, but genuine. 

“Yes, I suppose it is.”

 

<><><><><>

 

Keith woke eight hours later. Shiro was in the lounge, sprawled out on the couch and staring at the ceiling. They’d reached their destination without complication, and nothing had changed around the Lion for hours, so for once he had absolutely nothing to do. 

The tap of something against the metal wall was what got his attention. Craning his neck up, he found Keith leaning in the doorway, still wrapped in the blanket from his bunk and wearing a dazed expression. 

“Hey,” Shiro said as he sat up. “How are you feeling?”

Keith’s answer was an incomprehensible grumble before he staggered over to the couch and collapsed onto it.

“That good, huh?”

Keith groaned into the cushions. Shiro reached over and rubbed his back, though a bit distractedly. He was trying to determine the severity of Keith’s condition, and if he should interrupt Coran’s hacking marathon to address it. 

Rolling over, Keith exposed his face to the air. He was still a little pale, but his face was more grumpy than nauseated. 

“What happened?” he muttered to Shiro. “Did everyone get out alright?”

“Yeah, we’re all alright. No one got hurt. Coran lifted a bunch of intel off of that base, he’s goin’ over it now.”

Keith shuddered at the mention of the Garrison base. “God, that guy was so fuckin’ creepy. Kept talkin’ about me havin’ ‘genetic impurities’.” His eyes found Shiro’s face, brows furrowed. “I think he knew.”

Keith didn’t want to say it, so Shiro merely gave a slow nod. 

“Well, we know this much for certain: the Garrison is doing something about the Galra, but for some reason they don’t want anyone else knowin’ about it.”

Keith nodded back, but his eyelids were drooping, and when he spoke his voice was distant. 

“Did Coran fix it? Whatever that guy did to me?”

“Yeah, you should start feelin’ better soon.” He purposefully left out the part where he’d threatened and killed the scientist. Keith probably wouldn’t have cared, but there was a spot somewhere in Shiro’s hardened heart that wasn’t sure if he’d done the right thing. 

“Great.” Rolling onto his side, Keith let his eyes close again, apparently content with the information Shiro had given him. “At this rate you’re gonna have to hire Allura as co-pilot.”

Shiro forced a chuckle. “Compared to her jobs, I imagine the pay wouldn’t be worth the hassle of gettin’ it.”

A low hum was Keith’s answer, and only a few minutes later he’d dropped back into slumber. Shiro stared at his face the same way he’d been staring at the metal a few minutes prior, returning to his haze of half formed thoughts. 

The experience at that base, being trapped in a cage with no way out, knowing people much more powerful than him could take away everything he loved in less than a moment and without a jot of sympathy-- it had changed something in him. Or maybe it had just deepened something that had already been there, a little piece of him that had cracked back at the beginning of the war, and had only cracked further over the years.

Losing Adam. Losing his home. Losing the war. Losing his arm. Always losing losing losing. Having the Lion had helped slow the process. But after the Galra the cracks had revealed themselves again, not gone but merely plastered over, and now a spiders web of them had sunk in. 

Now, hovering in the Black, waiting for Coran to announce what he’d learned, felt like standing on the edge of a precipice with a gun at his back. No way forward and no way to return-- not without losing his life or himself in the process. Was he ready to take that leap of faith?

Shiro wasn’t sure. 

And that scared him more than anything else. 

 

<><><><><>

 

They spent three listless days in the Black. Keith had been improving at a steady rate, but that was about the only thing, good or bad, that happened that entire stretch of time. Pidge and Matt remained locked away with Coran, only growing more pale and haggard looking each time they emerged for food or drink. Lance and Keith were growing stir crazy, the latter increasingly so as his health improved. Hunk had to be physically locked out of the kitchen so that he didn’t stress-cook away their entire food supply. Allura was withdrawn and quiet, that same hard determination always in her eyes when Shiro looked. 

Shiro, himself, was struggling to know how he felt. 

Despite all the waiting that felt like being in purgatory, eventually the inevitable happened: Coran, Matt, and Pidge finished looking through all the data they’d lifted from the Garrison. The crew gathered in the galley, faces drawn and solemn as they waited for the findings to be revealed. 

Shiro seated himself at the head of the dining table, a cup of gritty, bitter coffee held loosely in the cradle of his prosthetic fingers. Disgusting, but grounding. Exactly opposite him sat Matt, resting his elbow on the table and chin in his hand. He looked exhausted, and the bags under his eyes seemed to grow a shade darker as Coran began to speak, standing behind him in one of the doorways. 

“Right,” he said, clearing his throat and awkwardly adjusting the collar on his shirt. The pause extended as he fiddled with his gloves as well, stalling. “Well, we, uh, managed to decode all of the data from the base, as you all know, and some of the things we learned were very-- I mean, not all of the information was usable, of course, a great deal was simply logs and procedures and inventory lists, but some was helpful in identifying--”

“We were right,” Pidge blurted out, drawing the attention of the room to her. She’d been pacing up and down one side of the table, biting off her nails, and now she flushed and cast her eyes to the floor. 

“We were right,” she said again, softer, “about the Garrison. They did create the Galra.”

There was a hesitant quiet that fell over the room as they all processed the information. Shiro took a sip of his coffee silt and tried to think. 

He wasn’t surprised. He’d suspected as much. He knew the Garrison to be capable of such things. So why did it still feel like a punch to the gut?

“How?” That voice was Lance’s, cold and unforgiving as steel. Coran cleared his throat to answer, apparently past his jitters from a moment before. 

“The Garrison had been anticipating the war for far longer than anyone expected. Only a few years after its creation, after the initial alliance between the Core planets, they were already planning how they were going to expand their reach. And they already knew some planets would resist.”

Matt and Shiro met eyes across the table. That look told him all he needed to know, but there wasn’t a power in the ‘Verse that could stop Coran’s words from reaching his ears all the same. 

“Some thirty or so years ago, before any of you were born, I imagine, the Garrison began advertising a sort of elite academy for gifted citizens.” 

The groups’ expressions must have done something at that, as Coran blanched and hurriedly assured, “Not necessarily for children, just-- talented individuals. Individuals whose skills the Garrison needed. Pilots, programmers, engineers, strategists-- the Garrison advertised the place as a way for them to build up their experience in their fields, to help them find positions back in the Core. They called it Altea.”

Allura drew in a quick breath. In the dead silence of the room it was perfectly audible, and everyone turned their questioning eyes on her.

“I’m sorry,” she said, sounding stunned by her own reaction, “but that name… it sounds familiar. I believe my father mentioned it in passing, about how he’d applied as a young man and been rejected.” There was a dazed look on her face as she shook her head, saying nothing more. 

Shiro took another sip of coffee to drown the butterflies in his stomach. 

“Right, well,” Coran shifted on his feet. “Obviously that’s not what the place was actually for. They provided all the things they said they would, including housing and food, a real top-notch place as I understand, but at the same time they were conducting experiments. The Garrison would call each of the students to the medical facilities often, claiming to be running basic tests to monitor their overall health. Then they’d say they needed to give them a shot or some other medication, for some minor infection or another, and of course the students had no reason not to trust them.”

“It was gene therapy,” said Matt in a dead tone, speaking for the first time. His eyes were glazed over; the look of someone who had seen too much horror and didn’t have room for anymore to live inside him. “They’d invented the nanotechnology for it a few years before. They could’ve given it to hospitals, published their findings and helped people with chronic illnesses. Instead they kept it a secret so that they could build super-soldiers.”

Sitting beside Lance, Hunk murmured, “Jesus,” and dragged a hand over his face. 

Coran continued, though now his voice had a noticeable tremble to it. “They were conducting experiments on these students while simultaneously teaching them skills necessary for war. From what I could tell, the Garrison’s main goal was to make soldiers who wouldn’t be held back by morals-- who would do what they were asked no matter how cruel or violent.” He swallowed, then his eyes flicked to Shiro for a split second as he said, “It seems the Garrison was already anticipating events such as the firebombing of Daibazaal, and didn’t want to be hindered by deserters or protestors in the ranks.”

Shiro looked away and drank his coffee. In his mind's eye he could still see the remnants of his home planet, going up in clouds of orange and red and falling back to ashen gray. It had been a long time since he’d allowed himself to think about it. 

Pidge, who had still been pacing this entire time, broke back into the conversation with a nervous titter.

“They fucked it up.” She laughed, a little hysterically, and even from his distance Shiro could see her hands shaking. “They were focusing so much on bloodlust and apathy that they forgot it doesn’t only apply to the people they wanted it to. The indications were there, in the data-- increased insubordination, fights breaking out, students harming themselves-- and the researchers ignored all of it. They were so damned cocky.” 

She was wringing the hem of her shirt like it was the neck of a chicken. In a few steps Coran was close enough to place a steadying hand on her shoulder, and Pidge took in a deep, shuddering breath. With a grim set to his jaw, Coran picked the narrative back up. 

“Eventually things began to fall apart. There were incidents of researchers being attacked, a few buildings burned down, but by the time they began to put the place under lockdown things were already out of control. The majority of the researchers and other staff were massacred and most of the ships docked there were stolen. The Garrison sent out numerous search and destroy parties, but they’d chosen prodigies for a reason, and most were never recovered. This was the origin of the people we now know as the Galra.”

“The Garrison covered it up.” Matt leaned forward as he spoke, now bracing both elbows on the table and staring down at the grain of the wood. “They stopped advertising, destroyed almost all of the records of Altea except for what they needed to work on getting rid of them once and for all. Journalists who asked too many questions disappeared, worried parents were ignored, investigators were paid off-- and after a few years everyone forgot that it had ever existed.”

There the story seemed to have concluded. None of the three said anything else. Once again someone had pressed the cosmic pause button… until Lance let out a heavy breath and asked the deadly question.

“What now?”

Suffocating silence fell over them all. The same thoughts were in everyone’s minds. They’d worked so long and so hard for this information, but what were they going to do about it? They couldn’t do nothing, but what could they do? They were wanted criminals, almost all of them, in one tiny, old transport ship filled with the scraps picked from the carrion of the void. How could they do anything to the Garrison, the great monolith of authority and power in the whole of the ‘Verse?

Shiro set his cup down with a deafening thud and got to his feet. He was standing on the edge of the precipice, staring down at infinity. Ghosts from the depths whispered his name. 

He leapt. 

“We go to Altea. We get proof. And we make sure every person in the ‘Verse knows it.”

The reactions registered in slow motion. Lance and Hunk’s jaws dropped. Pidge’s hands rose to tangle into the ends of her cropped hair. Coran went a shade paler. Allura’s eyes widened. 

Matt just stared at him from across the table, the exhaustion of a veteran ground into the lines of his face, and his eyes asked are we really going to do this all over again? And for a long moment no one spoke.

Then there was a footfall behind him. Just one step, moving out of the doorway he’d been standing in this entire time, silent as the Black. 

“I’m in,” said Keith. 

A ripple went through the room.  

One by one, thunderstruck expressions morphed into determination, anger, passion. Backs straightened, jaws tightened, eyes held fewer shadows. All around him, Shiro’s crew spoke. 

“Me too.” Pidge.

“Me three.” Lance.

“I want it noted this is a terrible idea, but count me in.” Hunk.

“Come this far, might as well finish it.” Coran.

“What’ve we got to lose?” Matt.

Everyone turned to look at Allura, who looked like she was holding her breath. In his gaze Shiro tried to convey what he was thinking, that she could opt out, that he would expect her to, that he would never ask her to get involved with something so dangerous if she didn’t want to. 

But then she smiled softly, and he knew none of those things were about to come from her lips.

“It’s noble,” she said, “and foolish. But perhaps that’s the point.”

 

<><><><><>

 

“So where is Altea?”

They were all crowded into the cockpit, all leaning over each others’ shoulders in attempts to see the pilot screens. Keith had his fingers hovering over the keyboard, ready to input coordinates, but first he needed coordinates to put in. 

Fortunately, Coran had them. 

“Altea was located on a dwarf planet in the Red system,” he said, reaching around Shiro to access the screen. With a couple of taps he pulled up the planet in question on a map, which made Shiro’s eyebrows rise. 

“That’s where Altea is? It’s right next to Krell and Reiphod-- we’ve been there for jobs.”

Coran nodded solemnly. “Yes, but you haven’t been to this particular planet, have you?”

“No, it--” Shiro cut himself off as he realized, and judging by the knowing looks spreading around the cockpit, he wasn’t the only one. “It was declared unfit for terraforming.”

Lance gave a bitter laugh, and Keith shook his head at the screen, but no one spoke up about it and Keith began to chart their course. 

“We’ll need to be careful,” Shiro told him, bracing his metal hand on the back of the pilots seat as he leaned over the dashboard. “If we approach from the side that faces Krell we could get flagged.”

“But Altea is where the Galra were created,” said Pidge as she wiggled her way to the front. “It’s entirely possible there are still Galra there, clustered on the far side.”

“We’ll figure it out when we get there. Keith, set a course for the far side, avoid going to close to any of the populated planets.”

Keith nodded absentmindedly, busily entering the course into the Lion’s controls. He didn’t seem worried or tense about their mission, on the outside, at least, but Shiro knew as soon as they got there he would be. They all would. 

“It’s gonna take awhile,” Keith reported after completing his task. “We’re still on the Rim around the Blue System, and the Red is on the other side of the galaxy. We’ll have to go around if we don’t want to cut through all of the Core planets.”

“How long?” Shiro asked.

“‘Bout a week, I’d say.”

He noticed some of the others making wry expressions, in some cases mixed with relief, but Shiro didn’t indulge in either of those emotions. He wasn’t necessarily looking forward to the mission, but he was still determined to do it. The more time they had to prepare, the better.

He said as much to the crew, earning himself some nods and noises of agreement. Keith gave him a teasing smile he hadn’t seen in a long while.

“Patience yields focus, ain’t that right Captain?”

Shiro made a face back at him, but inside he was smiling. 

“Can it, smart ass. Everybody hop to it. We’ve got work to do.” 

 

<><><><><>

 

That night was one of the quieter ones they’d had in recent memory. Most of the crew was scattered about the ship, either thinking about what they’d agreed to or distracting themselves so that they wouldn’t have to. There were only three people in the dining room, sipping bad coffee; Shiro, Matt, and Coran. 

Matt took a long drink from his mug, still looking no less tired than he had earlier that day. He hadn’t said anything about their new mission so far, either good or bad, but now he lifted his heavy eyelids and fixed his gaze on Shiro. 

“How are we gonna do this?” he asked, only to immediately hold up a hand when Shiro began to answer. “Not the whole Altea part. That’s simple enough. I mean the second part. Tellin’ the whole ‘Verse, as you said. Any clue how we’re gonna do it?”

Shiro bit the inside of his lip. In all truth he hadn’t thought that far-- and he hadn’t thought about what he was saying when he was saying it. Telling the whole ‘Verse may have been just a little bit too ambitious.

He was saved from saying anything by Coran, who for the last several hours had been nursing a mug of certainly now cold tea and staring at the table. He still didn’t look up as he answered. 

“I may know a man.”

Shiro raised a single eyebrow at him. “Really? ‘Cause if it’s one of your buddies in the Core, that ain’t gonna go too well.”

Coran gave a cheerless chuckle. “No, not one in the Core. In fact, he left the Core before I did. Long before.”

Matt leaned back in his chair, taking his coffee with him. “Sounds like a story.”

“It is.” Coran stretched a bit, straightening his spine and flexing his fingers, then settled back into his seat and finally looked up at the two other men. “He and I were friends in school. He was a genius with technology, highly praised in more than one field, but he was also rather… eccentric.”

Matt snorted. “Meaning?”

“Right, sorry, eccentric is a Core euphemism for mentally ill. He suffered from severe OCD and paranoia.”

Shiro hummed and took a drink of his beverage, not yet contributing his opinion. 

“Anyway, he had always been rather suspicious of the Garrison. Always thought they were hiding something. He was right, of course, but back then I didn’t know that. I just dismissed him and focused on my own studies.

“But then he sent me a few files that he’d stolen from the Garrison. Files on the Galra. Most of it was encoded and difficult to understand, but he insisted that I look into it further, considering the files had a biological component and he was never one for that subject.

“At first I just did it to humor him. But when I started looking into it, I began to realize he was right, that something was going on. Before I could get back to him about it he disappeared, fled the Core, and I haven’t heard from him since.”

“What was his name?” asked Matt. 

“Slav.”

Matt and Shiro exchanged a look. Coran caught the motion and frowned at them, waiting to be clued in. 

“We’ve heard of a guy,” Shiro began, “who has a space station somewhere on the Rim. Some scavengers have done jobs for him, but they say he never meets in person, just through screens that don’t show his face. Some of them claim he’s so good at hacking he can get to any screen in the system. Think that’s our guy?”

Coran gave a few bemused blinks. Shiro might’ve found it funny a few days ago, but the humor capacity aboard the Lion had shrunk dramatically of late. 

“Yes, I suppose it could be,” Coran answered. “If anyone was capable of such, it would be Slav.”

“Think he’ll help us?” was Matt’s next question. 

“Maybe. If the right person asks him.” Coran gave a wane smile. “After all, he was the one who put me onto the Galra conspiracy to begin with.”

Shiro tilted his head back against his chair and breathed out. It wasn’t exactly a foolproof plan, especially if this guy, Slav, was as paranoid as all the scavengers said, but it was the best one they were like to get. 

He’d long since passed the point of no return, anyway. If he was going to go out, let it be on a chariot of fire, driving right into the beast's maw.

Or something poetical like that. 

 

<><><><><>

 

The week it took them to reach Altea was probably the quietest week of Shiro’s life. The aura of the ship was solemn and silent, the whole crew being crushed under the weight of their mission. Add in the fact that they avoided all planets and well trafficked routes, sticking purely to the Black, and not much had the chance to happen. 

But eventually they began to draw near. A few hours before their estimated arrival the whole crew crowded once again into the cockpit to watch the approach. Keith snapped at Lance a couple of times for breathing down his neck, but otherwise no one spoke, only the whirring of the engine beneath them breaking the quiet atmosphere. 

Slowly, the planet loomed into view. From what Shiro could see, the majority of it was the same type of pale desert that made up places like Callum and Taujeer, except for the very center which had a splotch of green trees. 

None of the crew were looking at that, though. The moment the planet was visible to the naked eye a wave of sucked in breath had washed through the cockpit, every person trying to contain dismayed gasps. 

Pidge had been right. The far side of Altea was completely swarmed by Galra ships.

Chapter Text

Keith was the first of them to surface from despair. The shock in his eyes sharpened as they darted this way and that, scanning over the minefield. 

“We’re so fucked,” Lance muttered behind him.

“Oh, Jesus,” Hunk murmured. 

“Well, living was nice while it lasted,” said Matt.

Shiro blocked them all out and followed Keith’s gaze out the windscreen, trying to see what he saw. The Galra ships were obvious; large, usually older, models of spacecraft so derelict and neglected they probably weren’t at all safe to fly. Their size left considerable gaps between each craft, but each space was clogged with wreckage and other space junk. He couldn’t see a path through it-- not without lighting up every single radar on this side of Altea.

But Keith didn’t look daunted.

“Got an idea?” Shiro asked softly. Keith frowned and rubbed his thumb over his knuckles. 

“Maybe. If we backed up and got a good start on full burn, maybe I could get enough momentum to cruise through.” He paused and bit his lip. “And if we switch everything to blackout right before we get into radar range we can avoid being buzzed. Maybe.”

Huh… better than nothing, he supposed. 

“Pidge.” He turned, cutting off the rest of the crew in the midst of their increasingly distressed chatter. “Hunk. Keith’s got an idea.”

The two engineers sidled forward, wary curiosity scrawled on their expressions, and for a few minutes everyone was quiet as Keith explained his plan. Lance, as ever, was the first to speak. 

“You’re gonna kill us all,” he said, bluntly-- Keith didn’t so much as blink. His attention was focused on Pidge and Hunk who, so far, merely had considering looks on their faces and hadn’t said anything one way or the other. 

“I mean…” began Pidge.

“It could be possible…” continued Hunk.

“We might die, but…”

“We were kinda planning on that anyway.”

“Dear God,” said Matt, pressing his palm to his forehead. “Shiro, if we survive this, I’m gonna sue you for hazard pay.”

Shiro ignored him. “What do you think, can you three make it happen?”

Pidge and Hunk exchanged a brief look, then turned back to Shiro and nodded. Keith’s lips curved into a smirk. 

“Alright, get to it then. We ain’t got all day.” 

 

<><><><><>

 

“This is crazy. Absolutely insane. You know that, right? I mean, a crazy Ivan is one thing but this is absolutely--”

“I know, Hunk,” Pidge snapped as she yanked the backing off of a remote control. “But what else are we gonna do? If we approach from the far side we could get tagged by the Garrison.”

“I know, I know, I just don’t really feel like dying in a massive fireball when we crash directly into the broadside of a Trans-U.”

“Would you rather die of old age in a prison cell? Or, more likely, in the middle of the night with a gun to your head?”

She looked up in time to see Hunk blanch and felt just the tiniest kick of guilt. It wasn’t Hunk’s fault he was scared. By all rights she should’ve been right there with him. But ever since she’d helped Matt and Coran go through all of those files, it felt like there was a cloud of rage between her and reality. At the moment she would do anything if it meant getting some sort of vengeance on the fuckers. 

“I’m sorry,” she said with a sigh, turning her eyes back to the remote she was trying to hook up while Hunk prepared the ship for full burn. “I know it’s scary. But we’re all in it together. And if anyone can make this work, it’d be Keith.”

She heard the air whistle when Hunk sucked in a breath through his teeth. 

“It’s not that I’m worried about-- not really. What I’m scared of is what we have to do. Switchin’ a ship from full burn to total blackout that quickly… I’ve never done anything like it before. Never heard of it, neither.”

“Neither have I. Things might get screwy. There might be flames. But the Lion can take it.”

Pidge paused and looked up at the engine above her head, slowly, calmly cycling in the same rhythm it always had. The heartbeat she’d spent so many restless nights listening to. 

“She can take anything.”

 

<><><><><>

 

Lance’s pacing was starting to drive Matt to distraction, but it was either deal with that, with Keith and Shiro muttering over flight paths and coordinates, or with Hunk and Pidge as they tried to perform feats of ingenuity. Compared to the other options, loitering in the galley with the remainder of the crew wasn’t so bad. 

“What if there are Galra when we land?” Lance demanded, the next in a long line of similar ‘what if’ questions. “They were created at Altea, wouldn’t they make that their home, fortify and hunker down?”

“They wouldn’t,” Coran reassured. He was seated at the dining room table with a cup of tea, feigning patience, though the liquid revealed the tremble in his hands each time he brought it to his lips. “Galra dislike remaining planet-side, remember? They prefer to make their homes in spacecraft.”

“Except the ones that grabbed us.” Matt looked up at that and was surprised to find Lance’s eyes hard and glittering like steel. “They seemed perfectly happy in their base, which, as I recall, was underground.”

“Well, in scientific data there will always be anomalies. Perhaps those particular Galra had been separated from the main population for a significant amount of time and developed their own strategies and preferences. Perhaps they were mostly comprised of second generation mutants, like Keith. Perhaps--”

Matt cut him off. The words were difficult to form with the way Lance’s comment had made his throat tighten, but somehow he got through it. 

“If they are on the ground, we won’t be goin’ in blind. All of us will be there, and we’ll all be armed and aware.” 

It wasn’t the most robust line of comfort he’d ever given, but even so it seemed to soothe Lance’s nerves more than Coran’s technobabble had. Then he looked at Allura and got worked up all over again.

“What about you, Allura? You’re not comin’ down with us, right? It wouldn’t be safe, but then again we can’t really leave you on the Lion alone, so one of us will have to--”

Allura held up a gracious hand. Normally by now Lance would be complaining about being interrupted so much, but for now he held his tongue. 

“I’ve already decided,” said Allura as she took a sip of her own tea. “I will be going down to the planet with the rest of you.”

Once again Matt was taken aback, but this time he wasn’t the only one.

“What?” Lance exclaimed. “You can’t be serious!”

At the moment, Allura looked deathly serious. Her agreeable companion mask had fallen away, and now as they watched her brow furrowed, following the angle of her piercing eyes as she glared into her mug of tea like it had killed her parents. 

“I supported unification,” she said after a few moments of dangerous silence. “I supported the war effort-- I was lied to and misled. I need to know the truth, so that the millions of others in the Core that are like me can know it, too.”

Coran seemed impressed by her speech. “That’s quite brave of you,” he said, summoning a small smile from Allura. But Lance and Matt simply gave each other solemn looks.

They both knew that however this mission of theirs panned out, it wasn’t likely to be pretty. They would probably get off lucky with only slightly traumatizing. But what were they supposed to do? Tell her no?

“Your choice, Princess,” Matt eventually wound up muttering. As the conversation died out, he hoped that she wouldn’t make the wrong one. 

 

<><><><><>

 

“Is everything ready?”

Pidge nodded and pressed a remote into one of Keith’s gloved palms. “Put this on the dash next to you-- when you’re ready to cut the engine and go to blackout, hit the button. Hopefully it won’t make the ship implode.”

Shiro mentally winced at that, but outwardly maintained his facade of confidence. After all, he was the one who’d wanted to do this. If something went wrong, if people got hurt, if they died, it would all be on him. 

“Alright,” Keith answered, “thanks.” He put the remote down and turned back to the screen he was fiddling with, trying his best to approximate a path through the debris. Of course it would be ever changing as the wreckage danced around in the planet’s gravity, but it never hurt to have a plan. He tapped a few buttons before spinning to another screen to double check the coordinates he was going to be shooting for. 

“I’m gonna get back to the engine room,” Pidge murmured to Shiro before scurrying out of the cockpit. Shiro couldn’t blame her for being flighty; they were all feeling the pressure, most of all Keith, who had insisted everyone but Matt and Shiro stay out of the room while he was flying. 

I can’t think with Lance babblin’ in my ear the whole ruttin’ time, he thought the exact words were. 

Matt was tense and closed off at his side. Mentally preparing for what was to come. If Shiro had the time he might’ve felt guilty about putting Matt through this again. Fortunately, he didn’t, because Keith was about to prove whether he was really the best pilot in the ‘Verse. 

“You guys ready?” he called into the intercom as he wrapped his hands around the controls. Two affirmative answers echoed through the radio static. Keith rolled his shoulders and straightened his spine. 

“Hit it.”

Instantly the ship rocketed forward with such force it sent Shiro and Matt stumbling against the back wall. Keith had backtracked them a fair bit during the interlude, but even so the horde of Galra ships was growing larger and larger, so quickly that Shiro couldn’t help but be a little bit terrified. But Keith was deathly focused-- Shiro could see it in the ramrod straight line of his spine and hunch of his shoulders over the controls.

He and Matt struggled back up to the front of the cockpit step by step. Matt split off to cling to the co-pilot's seat, eyes open, but his white knuckles said that they didn’t want to be. From here Shiro could see how fast Keith’s eyes moved, darting all over the windscreen and then down to the radar and back up again, counting down seconds and milliseconds. 

Shiro restrained to urge to shout orders at him. Even as the Galra ships began to loom, even when Keith passed the point where Shiro would’ve stopped even if he was running for his life, he bit his words back. He’d chosen to trust Keith, and he couldn’t change that decision now. 

Keith took one hand off of the controls. It hung poised over the button Pidge had given him, the muscles in his other arm straining as he fought to keep the Lion on a straight course with only one hand. Just barely his lips moved as he counted. 

When he slammed that hand down Shiro expected to feel his organs in his throat. Surprisingly enough he didn’t-- the lights flickered out and the never-ending roil of the engine under their feet ceased, but still they maintained their speed, and Keith brought his other hand back to the controls. The hull around them creaked and groaned.

The ship hadn’t exploded. Yet. 

Now for the hard part.

Their straight course was safe for about three seconds. Then Keith gave a harsh jerk to the right, flipping the Lion sideways to fit through a gap. Shiro felt his stomach twist at the sensation of their gravity generator trying to figure out what was going on, and before it could Keith had put them into a nosedive to go underneath another piece of debris, then jerked them back up to go over something else. 

It was almost like watching an acrobat. Or it would’ve been, if it hadn’t been absolutely gut-wrenchingly terrifying. 

There was a horrendous grating screeeeeeech as part of the Lion scraped against something, but Keith didn’t seem to waver in the slightest. Shiro was lamenting the fact that he couldn’t check the screens to find out if any of the Galra had pinned them, and the motion outside the Lion’s windscreen was too much even for him. All he could do was wait, and pray. And hold on for dear life. 

He blinked, and suddenly there was no metal in sight. Just Altea rising before them, the green splotch of vegetation growing to fill the whole windscreen. There was a moment of dead silence, no one daring to breathe. 

Then Keith exhaled and sat back, slowly pulling back on the controls to slow their descent. Sweat beaded on his forehead and his arms trembled minutely, but a grin was on his lips, and when Shiro met his eyes they were shining.

“We made it through.”

Cheers erupted through the radio. The lights overhead flickered back on as Matt slumped into the co-pilot’s seat, putting his head in his hands and swearing up a storm. Already he could hear the footfalls on metal walkways-- the others rushing up to celebrate with them. 

Shiro just put his hand on Keith’s shoulder and squeezed, and when Keith reached up and gave his wrist a squeeze back, Shiro knew he understood. 

“Dude!” Lance’s voice shattered the moment as he stampeded into the cockpit, the others on his heels. All were laughing in slightly hysterical tones, like they couldn’t quite believe they were still alive. Shiro could relate. “I can’t fucking believe you actually pulled that off! Holy shit--”

“I told you she could take it,” said Pidge with a punch to Hunk’s arm. “Our Lion can take anything.”

Coran was clinging to Allura’s arm, staring out the windscreen with an intense gaze, feasting his eyes on Altea, which to him probably looked like a gold mine of potential data. Allura was flushed with exhilaration the way only another pilot could be. 

“Why didn’t you become an engineer, Holt?” Matt was muttering to himself. “Why did you get yourself all mixed up in so much random bullshit?”

Through it all Keith shook his head like he was trying to get water out of his ears. Still buzzing with adrenaline, most like, and all the commotion wouldn’t be helpful. 

“Alright, chill out everybody,” Shiro said, breaking up the celebration. “That was only part one.”

Keith returned his hands to the controls, his expression settling back into concentration. 

“I’ll bring us in. Hopefully whatever security they have ain’t workin’ anymore.”

“If any of it was, the Galra probably tore it out and stuck it on their ships,” said Pidge as she leaned against one of the dashboards.

“Still better to be safe than sorry,” Hunk chimed in.

“Yeah, yeah, I know.”

Keith shook his head again, this time in irritation. “God, you guys never shut up.”

“You love us anyway,” teased Lance. He reached out to ruffle Keith’s hair, but only Shiro had that luxury, and Keith ducked away from his hand with a sound of irritation. 

“I will crash and kill us all, I swear.”

“Ok, ok, enough.” He almost felt bad for breaking up the banter, but if he was being realistic, they were coming up on their destination and they needed to be ready for whatever was going to happen once they touched down. “Let’s go get geared up, guys. Keith, tell me when we’re on final approach.”

“Sir, yes, sir.” 

 

<><><><><>

 

By the time the Lion touched ground, everyone but Keith was clustered in the cargo hold. All of them armed to the teeth (even Allura had a little pistol hanging from the belt of her black pants-- possibly the first time Shiro had seen her wear pants) ready to fight. A few minutes later Keith descended from the cockpit to join them.

Well, it was now or never.

Shiro didn’t waste time on an inspirational speech. Without ceremony he marched to the controls and lowered the ramp, the blast of air as the airlock unsealed blowing the edges of his coat back. The air that greeted them was warm and humid, and already he could smell the vegetation-- something he hadn’t experienced in a good long while. 

Without a word, he led his crew out into the sunlight. 

Altea was blinding. For a moment the sunlight reflecting off of everything made it impossible to see, but as his eyes adjusted Shiro began to make out buildings and sidewalks, all made of white concrete and glass. Directly ahead of them was a large vehicle hangar attached to the landing pad, and attached to that was another building with a large satellite protruding from the roof. 

Shiro halted their procession a few steps from the Lion. He wanted to be cautious, just in case there were Galra or other dangers hiding amongst the buildings, but so far everything felt strangely, eerily empty. Untouched, by human hands or otherwise. 

“Well, the grounds are pretty, at least,” Pidge snarked, breaking the spell that had fallen over the group. With a wry shake of his head Shiro rolled his shoulders and started forward again, moving towards the buildings. If this was the official landing and launching area for the settlement, there may be important data inside. 

The Golden Lion was the only ship on the tarmac. And from what Shiro could see, most of the hangar spaces were empty, as well. He wasn’t the only one to notice.

“The Galra must have stolen the ships after the uprising,” Coran murmured, almost to himself. Already Shiro could hear the tap tap tap of his stylus racing over the surface of his tablet. “Which makes sense, considering they were biologically directed to prefer space travel to planet living--”

“Coran, will you please shut up?” snapped Keith. A glance over his shoulder showed Shiro what was wrong-- he was tense, his knuckles turning white where they were wrapped around the hilt of his knife, and Shiro felt a ping of pity. This whole process was going to be hellish for Keith, he knew-- hellish, but necessary. 

It was cooler in the shade of the hangar. Anywhere else it could’ve been refreshing, but here it bordered on uncomfortable chill. That feeling only increased when they came upon a crumpled shape beside the entrance to the other building. 

“Eugh,” muttered Hunk with a visible shudder. “A body.”

Technically it was more of a skeleton. Bones coated in dirt and dust rested on the concrete floor, curled into a fetal position, in some places still clothed with the remaining scraps of black trousers and what could’ve been a white coat. Banked up against the remains were small piles of dead and decaying leaves that stirred minutely with the movement of the air. 

Coran took a knee beside the body. “One of the scientists, I’d wager,” he said, then leaned forward on one of his hands, without regard for the state of his white gloves. “He was stabbed in the gut, with this shard of metal here.”

A closer look proved him correct. A thin bit of metal was protruding from between two of the corpses ribs, finger bones arranged around it as though he’d died while grasping at the wound. 

Shiro straightened up. Now that he knew what he was looking for it was easy to see where the metal had been pulled from the door frame. If he squinted, he could even see small smears of blood in the same place, as though the assailant had torn their nails pulling the metal free.

“I wonder…” Pidge padded forward and stooped to pluck something from the skeletons white coat. A white plastic card, roughly the size of her palm, with a black bar on the back. “It probably won’t work after so long, but maybe…”

Stepping gingerly around the body she made her way over to the door and pressed the card against the reader. It took a moment, but then the reader lit up a dull green, and Shiro heard the gears whirring in the door as it unlocked.

“Good job, Pidge.” He reached out to open the door and cringed a bit at the texture of dust on stainless steel. “Everybody be on your guard.”

The room beyond didn’t raise any immediate red flags. It just looked like an office space, probably for people to sign in and out as they arrived and left the colony, and behind the wall of desks was another large door. Above it hung a sagging sign that read Welcome to Altea.

“Looks like they have security cameras,” Shiro noted, nodding in the direction of the lens hidden in the upper left corner of the room. “Think the video is still stored?”

Matt snorted. “Knowing the Garrison? Definitely.” 

Pidge had already clambered over the desks. The others began to follow as she moved forward into the room, carefully taking in every detail-- including the small name plate beside another door to their left. 

“Found it.” She tapped at the plate just as Shiro put his feet back on the floor. “This one says Lab Access. Restricted.” She glanced back to meet Shiro’s eyes, oozing solemnity, and it didn’t take a genius to understand what she was hinting at. 

The lab. Where the Garrison had tried to build their super soldiers.

Drawing her shoulders back, Pidge turned back to the door, shifting her grip on the scavenged key card. “I’m going in. Who’s with me?”

“I’ll come.” Matt moved to his sister’s side, hands hovering near his holsters, just in case. Coran joined them wordlessly, but no one else seemed too eager to follow them down. Shiro certainly wasn’t.

“The rest of us will go through the other door,” he decided for them, “and take a look around the rest of the place. See what we can see. Keep your radios on, and if something goes wrong we rendez-vous at the Lion.”

The dead leaves scattered over the floor crunched as Hunk shifted his weight. Drops of anxious sweat ran down his face and dampened his headband. 

“I don’t wanna go any further,” he blurted out suddenly, dipping his head to hide how his cheeks darkened. “I already know the Garrison did awful things to people here-- I don’t need to see it for myself. Seen enough horror already, thanks.”

Shiro nodded in understanding. A part of him felt the way Hunk did… but the larger part wanted the truth. Wanted proof that the Garrison had always been as bad as he thought, and that he hadn’t picked the wrong side. 

“That’s alright. You can go back to the Lion and see if anything needs fixin’ from that stunt we pulled.”

His expression melted into relief, and with a murmured word of thanks, Hunk began to make his way back from where they’d come. Leaving the Holts and Coran to investigate the lab, and Keith, Lance, and Allura to follow Shiro. 

“Alright. Let’s get moving.”

 

<><><><><>

 

He wasn’t exactly sure what he’d been expecting to be beyond that door. Whatever it was, this wasn’t it; this long idyllic white walkway, flanked on either side by one story buildings made up of as much glass as wood and stone, shadowed by willow trees that let their small leaves fall ever so gently to the grass. 

He had been expecting bodies, but maybe not this many. 

Skeletons littered the ground. Shiro couldn’t even take his planned step out with how clustered they were around the door-- he had to readjust or risk stepping right through a skull. Behind him Lance swore and Allura murmured a prayer, but all of them followed when he began to gingerly pick his way through the group of bones. 

There had to be at least ten skeletons directly in front of the door. Like they’d been trying to escape but been locked out and cut down. All of them still had a few scraps of cloth on them, black and white, and one even still had a shoe. A high-end loafer with ragged fringed edges. 

Beyond that the bodies spread out, though not by much. If he dared to glance through the windows of the buildings Shiro could see more remains inside, sprawled over floors or pressed against the glass, empty eye sockets seeming to watch their procession as they passed. He tried to shake the feeling off and continue, until Lance made a soft sound of interest and broke from the group.

He was heading for a skeleton half-sheltered under a tattered awning. It lay upon its face, its arms tucked underneath it, and when Shiro followed Lance close enough he found the finger bones pressed against the skull, near those eye sockets that Shiro found so haunting.

“Look at this,” Lance said, quietly, as though not to disturb the slumbering. He scuffed one boot against the ground beside the skull.

“What is that?” asked Allura. Shiro answered before Lance could.

“Blood stain. Old. Set into the concrete.”

She made a squeaking sound. Lance knelt, propping himself up with his rifle as he studied the bones more closely. Shiro was about to ask why when Lance beckoned him forward.

“Look,” he said again, “What do you make of this?” A point of his finger directed Shiro’s gaze to where he wanted it: a set of grooves in the bone, just below the eye sockets and almost going into them. 

Shiro winced. “Not sure but… I think he clawed his eyes out.”

He pushed himself back to his feet and took a deep breath, pretending to take a look around to disguise it. Allura was pale and had a hand over her eyes. Lance straightened up as well, setting his jaw the way he did whenever he didn’t want his emotions to leak out. And Keith was just… staring. 

“Think it was one of them?” Lance asked, gazing off at a tree some distance away. “One of the… the…”

“Students,” Keith supplied softly. Lance’s eyes cut to him once, then flickered away again.

“Yeah, them.”

“I’d reckon so.”

Lance swallowed. Keith, with a sudden sharp movement, turned away.

“Let’s keep moving,” he said rather gruffly before pushing past Shiro. And Shiro, at a loss, followed. 

Aside from the skeletons, the campus looked surprisingly untouched. After several minutes of trudging they finally found an indication that something had happened-- a single door, standing ajar. Eerie as hell, a matter not helped any when Keith began to wander toward it. 

“Keith?”

He didn’t respond. Shiro turned to see Allura giving him a questioning look, but could only offer a shrug in return. Really, what else was there to do?

The building Keith led them into was a dorm; the worn, water-stained posters pinned to the walls gave that away. Most of them were for hover-bikes and jets, and some of them were blueprints. 

Across the room Keith had gravitated towards a dusty desk. Before it was the chair, tipped over, and installed into the wall above it was a small camera. Probably for correspondence and record keeping, which Keith confirmed when he reached out and powered it on. 

The image was flickering and full of static. Whatever power the place had left was probably on its last legs. But that didn’t stop all three of them, Shiro included, from gasping at the face that appeared on the screen. 

It was a woman. Her face was lean and angular, skin pale, wearing a wry half-smile, with warm brown eyes. Shiro didn’t even need the added detail of the pendant around her neck. Even without it, she was the spitting image of Keith. 

With a certain mechanical tinge to his movements, Keith hit another button. A video began to play.

“Well, um, hello, I guess.” The voice was jarring. The whole campus had been so quiet, silent like the grave. And now one of the headstones was speaking, in a husky, solemn voice that reminded Shiro of so many people he’d known before everything went to hell. “I’ve never done one of these personal logs before, but the Garrison says it’ll be good for us, so… here I am.”

She paused and fidgeted in her seat for a moment. She seemed anxious, but at the same time also comfortable and at ease. An odd combination.

“So, um… today is the first day of the Altea Academy.” Her lips parted into a blinding, proud grin. “I’m here to be a pilot. I didn’t think I was gonna get in, I almost didn’t even go to the testing, but here I am!” Another smile, and her fingers rose to roll her pendant between her fingertips in an all too familiar fidget. “Uh, I’m not sure what else there is to talk about, really. So I guess I’m gonna… go. Yeah? Ok, yeah, I’m going.”

The video cut, and Shiro took a step forward, reaching for Keith’s shoulder.

“Keith--”

He started another video before Shiro could finish. 

“Wow, this place is amazing!” The woman’s cheeks were flushed, her eyes sparkling. Shiro’s stomach twisted, recalling how many times he’d seen that look on Keith’s face. “I’m learning so much, way more than I ever would’ve learned on that piece of gǒushǐ moon that I came from. And the food isn’t even half bad!” She gave a delighted laugh. Then she seemed to calm, and sat back against her chair. “I mean, some of the people here are real dicks, and we’re constantly getting called in for health checkups, but other than that? This place is practically paradise.”

This time when the video ended Shiro didn’t move. He would let Keith get what he needed. 

“The strangest thing happened today.” This time the woman was leaning back, arms crossed, with a puzzled look on her face. One of her hands had returned to her necklace, and she stared slightly off to the side of the camera, as though lost in thought. “I had Rizavi over to talk about the new engines we’re learning about and, this is going to sound so weird, but I swear when we met she had green eyes. I remember, because I remember thinking to myself that they were the greenest thing I’d ever seen.” 

Her brow furrowed and she sat forward, resting her elbows on her knees, now staring down at the floor. “I could’ve sworn they were green. But today her eyes were this weird blue, purple-y color.” She looked back into the camera. “I’m not going crazy, right?”

Keith cut the video and chose another one. Shiro, Lance, and Allura were all silent. They knew what they were watching. Shiro almost wanted to look away, knowing what was coming, but he couldn’t bring himself to let Keith witness this alone. 

In the next video, her eyes were different. 

“I knew it!” she was crying to the camera. Her expression wasn’t just anxiety this time-- it was pure fear. “They are changing us! When I woke up this morning my eyes were different too, but when I asked the doctor about it at my check up he said they’d always been that color. He even showed me my file, and my eye color was marked as indigo!” 

A rattling breath left her, almost like a sob, and she crumbled forward with her fingers twined desperately through her hair. 

“But-- but-- I know I’m not crazy!” When she raised her head again, her new eyes were wild. A very particular kind of wild that made Lance stumble a few steps back. “I know I’m not. I looked back at my past videos-- my eyes are brown in those! The Garrison is lying to us-- something is going on.” Then her eyes narrowed into a glare, and her voice came out in steel. “And I’m not going to quit until I know what it is.”

The video stopped. Another started. 

Even Keith flinched. The woman on the screen was a completely different person than the one they’d been watching. Her hair was mussed and practically standing on end. Her teeth were bared in a snarl. Two matching, bloody lines trailed down her cheeks and dripped crimson onto her collarbones. The whites of her eyes were gold.

She looked…

Galra.

“They did this to us!” she growled, the mic popping and fizzing at her proximity. Her expression was so twisted with rage she was nearly unrecognizable. “The doctors-- the Garrison-- they lied. They lied. They hurt us.” She clenched her fists, and as she opened her mouth to speak again, blood began to sluice down her wrists. 

“They. Will. Pay!” With a guttural roar she whirled around. Her chair fell over, she stormed to the door and yanked it open, and then the video finally ended. 

All of them ended. 

For a long moment there was utter silence. Lance and Allura exchanged helpless, traumatized glances. Shiro kept his eyes on Keith, and after a minute or two of not moving, dared to reach out again. 

Keith was shaking. Shiro wordlessly pulled him under his arm, into his side. After another second after Allura circled around in front of them and, with wounded eyes, reached up to cradle Keith’s jaw in her palm. For once he didn’t brush her away. 

“Are you alright?” she whispered, and just like that the spell of silence broke. Lance strode forward, boots crunching over the leaves, and came up on Keith’s other side to clap a hand on his shoulder. Keith nodded, but his sniffling gave him away. 

“She liked flying,” he said, barely audible even to Shiro. “Like me.”

Shiro’s chest ached. He combatted it by giving Keith a reassuring squeeze. But no one really knew how to respond. 

Keith indulged himself in sorrow for a few minutes longer, then gave a rough exhalation and wiped his cheeks with the sleeve of his jacket. 

“I’m goin’ back to the Lion,” he declared, and squirmed until they all let go of him. “I don’t need to see anymore.”

Shiro didn’t bother giving permission, knowing Keith wasn’t asking for it, and instead turned his eyes to Lance. 

“Go with him,” he ordered, “Just in case.”

Lance nodded without argument. He, too, looked like he’d had enough. 

Keith allowed Shiro one more shoulder squeeze before shuffling out of the dusty room, Lance at his back. As soon as they were gone Allura scurried over to one of the various dressers around the room, apparently eager to do some snooping. Leaving her to her whims, Shiro wandered around the room, idly examining the torn posters. 

“She was from a poor moon,” Allura called to him. There was a rustle of fabric. “Self sufficient, from the appearance of her clothing.” A drawer slide shut, another opened, and Shiro inhaled dust.

One of the posters caught his eye. It was a diagram of a Firefly, parts labeled in white against a dark background that reminded him of the Black. In the lower right corner was the name of the ship: Serenity. 

For once, Shiro didn’t think before he acted. He took the poster down and, with a ginger touch, folded it into a neat little square. 

Allura’s footsteps echoed behind him. “I found these,” she said, and handed him something that clinked like metal. 

They were dog-tags, long abandoned in a drawer amidst ruins. Imprinted in the metal was a name. 

Krolia Kogane. 

“Do you think he’d want them?”

“I don’t know.” All the same, Shiro pressed the dog tags on top of the poster and tucked both into his coat pocket.

“Let’s get out of here.” 

 

<><><><><>

 

They didn’t wander much more after that. There wasn’t much more to see. It was all the same; empty buildings, bones, ghosts. When he and Allura returned to the building Lance was waiting for them, outside the door, staring blankly at the skeletons. 

“Lance?”

“Oh, hey.” He shook himself a bit and readjusted his grip on his rifle. “Coran and the Holt’s are still downloading data. Keith and Hunk are back on the Lion.”

“Right. I’ll go check on them, radio when they’re done.”

Lance attempted a joking salute, but it fell flat and empty. 

It was quiet aboard the ship. Allura returned to her shuttle. Hunk was in the engine room, and gave Shiro a weak thumbs up when he poked his head in. The cockpit was empty, so Shiro left the poster and dog tags on the pilot's seat and went back to the galley to do some of his favorite activities: drinking shitty coffee and brooding. 

He’d seen a lot of awful things. Some were objectively more horrifying than this, much bloodier and more violent. But there was something haunting about the silence of Altea, the unburied, unremembered bodies, the creeping knowledge underneath it all that human beings had been tortured and twisted there until they forgot how to be people. But worst of all was knowing they were too late to stop it-- several decades too late. 

An indeterminable amount of time later, his radio buzzed, Lance’s voice crackling through. 

“Hey, the brainiacs are done, we’re headin’ back.”

Phantom pain danced between Shiro’s fingertips as he reached for it. 

“Roger that.”

Shiro drained the rest of his mug, and after a moment of stillness, he rose. 

Time to act. 

When he returned to the cockpit, Shiro was pleasantly surprised to find Keith already there, bent over the screens as he plotted their course. He still wore his jacket, but just barely Shiro could see things peeking out from his collar. A black cord, and a metal chain. 

He smothered his smile before stepping in. 

“How’s it lookin’, ace pilot?”

Keith glanced up at him. His eyes were red-rimmed and the necklaces were tucked under his shirt, but his expression had a certain serenity to it. An acceptance. Closure, maybe. 

“Not terrible,” he grunted, pulling Shiro back out of his thoughts. “If we follow the curve of the planet we should be able to slip around the Galra. Only problem is Galra space and Garrison space border pretty closely, we’d risk getting tagged by them. But I can’t think of any other way-- we don’t have the space to do the same trick from before on the way out.”

Shiro hummed and moved forward, studying the maps Keith had pulled up. He was right, but how were they going to deal with it?

“If they tag us, they tag us,” he said after a moment of thought. “We’ll go to full burn and head straight for Slav’s station. Hold them off long enough to get the info out, then whatever happens after, we’ll deal with then. 

Keith smirked. “Reckless and not thought through. Sounds like my kind of plan.”

Shiro couldn’t resist ruffling his hair. “I’m gonna go check on the others. I’ll be back when it’s time to fly.”

Shōudào , Cap’n.” 

 

<><><><><>

 

He went first to Allura’s shuttle but, upon hearing the muffled sounds of sobbing through the door, backed away.

Pidge and Hunk were in the engine room. Pidge was busily fiddling with a box of wires, but her hands were shaking, and Hunk knelt at her side with an arm around her shoulders. 

“That bad, huh?”

Hunk sent a grimace over his shoulder, but Pidge didn’t look up, only spat, “Those monsters. I’m gonna burn the whole gǒucàode thing down, even if I have to go down with it. Bastards, fuckers, I’ll kill them all slowly--”

“The Lion is good to fly,” Hunk interrupted, though Pidge went on muttering under her breath. “Whenever we’re ready.”

“Thanks, Hunk.” As Shiro left the room, he didn’t envy Hunk being the person who tried to quell Pidge’s fury.

He found Matt standing outside the infirmary, leaning against the wall. Coran worked inside, and Matt answered his question before Shiro could ask it. 

“He’s puttin’ everything together to be broadcast.” He paused, then when Shiro came a bit closer, murmured, “It was awful, Shiro.”

Bluntly, Shiro asked, “Would it help if I saw it, too?”

Matt immediately shook his head no. “No, you’ve seen too much already.”

“We both have.”

“I wish Katie hadn’t seen,” he said, ignoring Shiro’s statement. He opened his mouth as though to continue, but the words died in his throat. Shiro tried his best to resurrect them. 

“You can’t protect her from everything.”

“I know,” Matt answered in a sigh. “But I wish I could. I really, really do.”

Shiro, thinking of his crew, said, “Me too.”

Matt shook himself and straightened up from the wall. Glancing through the infirmary window, he murmured, “Coran will be done soon. I’ll get him to send Slav’s coordinates up to Keith.”

“Alright. Thanks.”

Matt looked at him, and his lips twitched like he was trying to smile but couldn’t quite manage. Shiro tried his best to smile back. 

“We’ll be ok, Matt.”

Of course, that was what made the bastard laugh.

“Aw, Shirogane,” he said with another head shake. “That’s the worst lie you’ve ever told.” 

 

<><><><><>

 

“Did Coran send you the coordinates?”

“Mhm. Pidge and Hunk, you ready for full burn?”

The two answers came through the radio, Pidge’s voice still holding an undercurrent of anger. 

“Let’s get moving,” Lance chimed in impatiently from his corner of the cockpit. “I wanna get off this haunted ass rock.”

This time Matt and Shiro stood back from Keith’s chair as he took off. There wasn’t as much danger for this route-- whether the Garrison buzzed them was entirely up to chance. All they could do was sit back and hope. 

Keith took them low, under the clouds. It didn’t take long for them to pass over the false vegetation of the colony and emerge over the desert dunes. 

“Are we sure about this Slav guy?” Lance asked, incapable of being quiet for more than twenty seconds. “We sure he’ll help us?”

“Not really,” Matt answered wryly. “Coran said he was paranoid and unpredictable. He could totally just kick us out on our collective ass.”

“But,” Shiro broke in, “We’re choosin’ to believe he won’t.”

“Despite all evidence,” muttered Matt.

“It’s our only choice,” Shiro shot back. 

“God, no one on this boat ever shuts up.”

Lance laughed at Keith’s irritation. “Chill out, fly boy. All you gotta do is go in a straight line.”

“For about five more minutes. Shiro, will you flip the radar and stuff on?”

Shiro did as he was asked. For the most part the scanners were blank, though as they drew nearer to the edge of Galra territory, where they were going to slip out, a sliver of color began to appear. 

He muttered a curse under his breath as the shape grew larger and larger. Of course there would be a whole ass cruiser right next to where they were trying to escape from. They just had the best luck.

“Be ready for full burn,” he said through clenched teeth. “Keith, we’re gonna need to break atmo soon.”

With a solemn nod Keith tilted the Lion up through the cloud cover. Overhead the lowest lying Galra ships were clearly visible, metal insignias of death blurry against the upper atmosphere. 

The Lion rose steadily. Keith kept an eye on their altitude, and Shiro watched the radar with growing tensions, and the cockpit grew silent. 

The hull shook and rattled as they broke atmo. “Hit it!” Keith cried to the radio, and the ship filled with a dull roar as full burn kicked on. The ship shot away from Altea like a rocket, but Shiro didn’t let himself breathe yet.

A second later the screen lit up red and the alarm began blaring, and Shiro barely kept from punching the dashboard in frustration. 

“They buzzed us,” he spat. He heard Matt groan and Lance curse before Keith spoke to Hunk and Pidge again. 

“Keep on full burn, we have enough fuel to run it for about half of the way.”

“Will that give us enough of a headstart?” Pidge asked, garbled over the radio channel. 

“It’ll have to,” Shiro answered grimly. Then he straightened up and smacked on the overhead intercom. “Allura and Coran on the bridge, please.”

Shiro didn’t notice how worn out the two of them looked when they arrived. He couldn’t-- didn’t have the time. 

“We won’t know if Slav will let us in until we get there,” he began, addressing everyone. “And we don’t know how the Garrison is goin’ to handle the situation. So I need all of you on your toes and ready to do what you’re asked when I ask you. Dong ma?”

Around the circle, everyone nodded, even Keith as he glared out the windscreen. 

“Lance, run down to the hold and get into the gun locker. Everyone gets one.”

“Yessir,” he answered, and hustled out of the cockpit. 

“Pidge, Hunk, as soon as we’re off full burn I want you up here. We stick together as much as possible until I say otherwise.”

He got two affirmative answers. A few minutes later Lance returned with a tote bag full of weapons over his shoulder, and Shiro and Matt put themselves to work loading them. One by one the pistols were distributed. While passing one to Allura, Shiro happened to notice how her manicure had chipped, and all at once the cognitive dissonance hit him again.

“Allura--”

“Oh, shut up,” she snapped, making Shiro stop and blink in surprise. In fact the whole cockpit turned to stare at her and Allura’s cheeks flushed, even as her eyes still sparkled with anger. 

“All of you treat me like a child. Like a-- a princess .” Her voice was as affected as Shiro had ever heard it, seething with a million emotions he couldn’t tell apart. “I don’t know where you got the idea that I don’t know how life is out here, or that I would ever want to run away like a scared damsel, or that I don’t care about any of you. But you are my family, and this ship is my home, and goddamnit, I’m going to fight for it!”

For a second there was stunned silence. Allura still looked pissed, and even Lance didn’t seem to know what to say. Ultimately, through the radio, Pidge was the first to speak. 

“Hey, ‘Llura?”

Allura huffed. “Yes, Pidge?”

“We love you too.”

She blushed even deeper. Then Lance cried, “Group hug!” and threw his arms around her neck. Allura cried out in protest, and she wasn’t the only one. 

“Hey!” yelled Hunk, offended. “No group hugs until I get up there!”

“Alright, alright,” Allura was trying to sound scolding, but the giggles breaking through ruined it. “Rain check on the group hug, Lance.”

Somehow they were laughing. They’d just flown out of a tomb, were flying into almost certain arrest and/or death, and yet they were laughing. 

Shiro closed his eyes, trying to commit the scene to memory. With all of his heart, he hoped it wouldn’t be the last time. 

 

<><><><><>

 

They cut full burn after another half an hour. Then the whole crew took their places in the cockpit, and together they waited for Slav’s space station to come into view. All the while Shiro watched the radar and the giant shape behind them that never quite disappeared. 

Eventually he thought he saw something. A light out ahead of them-- not a star, unless stars were red and flashed on and off with a rhythm. 

Turns out he was right. As they drew closer metallic spires and rings began to come into view  against the velvet background of the Black. 

Slowly the group roused from their waiting stupor and began to gather together, all eyes out the windscreen and on the station. 

The vid screen crackled with an incoming message. 

“Everyone cross your fingers it’s not the Garrison,” Matt snarked, just before Shiro accepted the call. 

There was no face on the vid screen. Just a cerulean background covered in scrolling white text. For a split second Shiro thought it was glitching before the voice came through. 

“Who are you?” demanded the voice. It was accented in a way Shiro didn’t recognize, with an edge of hysteria accompanying the warning. “I didn’t authorize the entrance of a Firefly class transport ship. You have thirty seconds to answer before I release missiles.”

Shiro opened his mouth, just as Coran slammed into his side. 

“Slav, old chap, it’s been ages! So lovely to hear you’re still alive and kicking. Surely you remember me from our school days, when you gave me the idea to research--”

“Shhh!” hissed the voice with great vehemence. “You cannot speak of it over radio!” There was a pause, as though he was thinking, then, “Are you aware of the cruiser currently pursuing you?”

“Nah, we hadn’t noticed,” Keith drawled. He said it under his breath, but still Slav heard. 

“Well, there is.” Keith rolled his eyes. “For God’s sake, Coran, I warned you not to visit Altea on the second Tuesday of October!”

Shiro was caught off guard by that, and apparently so was Coran, as all he could do was stammer.

Slav gave an irritated sigh. “Very well. I’m opening hangar 308-A. Please be cautious when landing.” Then he unceremoniously ended the call, leaving the crew to stare at each other in mystification. 

“Well,” Matt said, “They were right when they said he’s eccentric.” 

“But he let us in,” Shiro reminded him, “and that’s what matters.”

Optimism was a pretty dangerous emotion in his experience. But as they flew into Slav’s station, Shiro couldn’t help the swelling of hope in his chest.

Almost there.

Keith landed the Lion, as Slav had instructed, with caution. It was probably one of the nicer places their dinky little Firefly had landed-- the hangar was all sleek silver metal and bright, expensive lights. Large screens beside the hangar doors revealed the electronic controls that Slav used and Pidge eyed with jealousy. 

“Ok, everybody,” he said to the apprehensive silence following the powering down of the Lion’s engine. “Time to move. Coran, you got the data?” 

In answer Coran pulled a data tab from his pocket and winked. 

“Alright.” Shiro’s stomach was twisty and fluttery in a way he hadn’t felt in years. “Let’s get this done.”

The lights in the hangar were even brighter outside the ship. Shiro shaded his eyes with one hand, just as an intercom played overhead. 

“Please ascend to central command,” said Slav’s voice through the speaker, “Quickly. We don’t have much time. And whatever you do, don’t stop on any prime-numbered floors!”

Shiro raised an eyebrow. Coran merely grimaced and shrugged before beckoning them forward. 

Directly outside the hangar was a large freight elevator, everything built of the same shining chrome. All eight of them managed to squeeze themselves in, Coran hit the button for the top level, and slowly they began to rise. 

“This place is amazing,” Pidge whispered to the tense air. “So much of it is electronic-- his cyber security must be insane if he trusts so much of the station to a network.”

“Think you could break it?” asked Matt with a side-long glance. 

She gave a shrug steeped in false nonchalance. “Maybe. Gimme a half an hour.”

The elevator let out a quiet ding when they arrived at the top floor. The door slid open to reveal a long hallway, a sturdy steel door on the other end. Cautiously, one hand on his pistol, Shiro led them forward. 

As an ex-soldier, it was impossible for him not to notice the grooves in the walls concealing sliding, sealable doors. Thin lines in the floor under their feet indicated traps, and there were cameras embedded every ten feet in the ceiling. 

Paranoid was certainly apt. But, considering the circumstances, that was probably a good thing. 

Finally they reached the door, but it didn’t immediately open to them. Instead a lens in the wall above it glowed blue, and a moment later there was a laser running over them, scanning them. 

Keith gave an irritated growl, but no one protested, and after a moment to compute and a positive ding, the door slid open. 

Beside him, Matt’s jaw dropped. 

Pidge murmured, “Amazing,” and even Shiro was impressed. 

The room the door led into was absolutely huge. Every wall was blanketed in circuit boards and wires, back lit in blue. They all connected to the center, where a tube nine feet in diameter ran floor to ceiling, filled with even more wires and lights and computer parts. Then a black chair with its back to them, dwarfed by the size of the tower, with a dozen screens pointed towards it. 

But Slav was nowhere in sight. Until Coran took a brave step forward and cleared his throat.

The chair spun around. In it was a little dark-skinned man, barely taller than Pidge, with large glasses and slicked black hair. Even as he watched them his fingers flew at lightning speed over the transparent keyboard in his lap.

Shiro, stuck somewhere between amusement and bafflement, couldn’t think of anything to say. Luckily he didn’t have to. 

“Slav!” cried Coran in a joyful tone that sounded surprisingly genuine. He took another step forward, arms outstretched, but Slave recoiled in his chair. 

“No touching!” His voice sounded the same as it had over the radio. “Who knows what kind of space germs you’ve tracked in here.”

“Hey!” said Lance in offense, but Coran merely chuckled. 

“Understood.”

Slav leaned forward with eager eyes, his fingers still tapping away.

“Did you really do it?” he asked in a hushed whisper. “Did you really go to Altea?”

“We did.” Coran produced the data tab from within his jacket and held it up. “It’s all here. Every test, every name, every incident. We finally know where the Galra came from.”

“Excellent, excellent,” Slav hissed in excitement. “Finally, the conspiracy will be exposed!” Still muttering to himself, he struck a key, and from out of the floor at Coran’s side unfolded a table. The sudden motion made Shiro and Matt jump, but Coran seemed to be expecting it, and laid the tab on the table. It jerked into motion, following a track on the floor all the way to Slav’s side. 

“How long is it gonna take?” Shiro asked, finally inserting himself into the conversation. “To get the info leaked, I mean?”

“Mmm, several hours,” Slav answered. He’d finally stopped typing and was now turning the data tab over and over in his fingertips. “The radio frequencies on the Rim are unreliable, and the signals to the Core heavily protected. But I’ll get it done.” His lips split into an evil grin. “They can’t keep me out.”

A bit disconcerting, but at least he was on their side. 

“What about us?”

Shiro hadn’t been expecting Keith to speak up. When he turned he found the pilot in his usual arms crossed position, but tightened by guarded tension. He hadn’t forgotten the dangers of what they were doing. 

“The Garrison could be here at any minute,” he continued, oblivious Slav’s annoyed expression. “What are you gonna do about them?”

“Well, hold them off, of course,” Slav snapped as though it were obvious. “Observe.”

He spun his chair back around and resumed his rapid fire typing. A bright blue light ignited to Shiro’s right, momentarily blinding him, and only then did he realized there was a huge screen on the wall that was taller than him. 

“My station is the most secure place in the galaxy,” Slav began. Blinking away the sunspots, Shiro finally deciphered the image on the screen-- blueprints of the base. “However, it is statistically impossible to create anything with no weaknesses. As such, when I refuse the Garrison entry, they will likely attack at these three points.”

In three places on the screen red circles appeared. One, directly above a trash compactor. Two, behind a large vehicle hangar. Three, a hallway connecting an outer ring to the rest of the station. 

“I have of course installed safety doors at all of these points, but they will only buy extra time, so you’ll need to hold these points for as long as possible before activating them.”

“So we’re just buying you time?” Matt asked. They couldn’t see Slav in his position, but the screens cast his shadow on the floor, which was nodding vigorously. 

“Yes, yes, precisely.”

“Wait a minute.” Lance pushed past Shiro’s shoulder wearing an accusing expression. “On the vid you said you had missiles. Why not just blow ‘em up?”

Slav gave a mad chuckle that made the hair on the back of Shiro’s neck rise. 

“I don’t actually have missiles, stupid boy! I was bluffing!” He laughed again. “The best security measures are the ones your enemy is afraid of, whether you have them or not!”

Lance scowled, but Shiro spoke before he could.

“And the Garrison ain’t scared of much.”

“Precisely.” Slav waved a hand in their direction as he turned his chair back towards his screens. “Plan defense amongst yourselves, I have to work.”

Turning to study his crew, Shiro loosed a deep breath. There weren’t many of them. They were all tired and undersupplied and not doing so great on morale, either. 

But, he thought as he met Matt’s eyes, not like it’s the first time.

 

<><><><><>

 

The worst thing about battle wasn’t the dying. It wasn’t the screams, or the blood, or the explosions. It wasn’t even the battle itself.

No, to Matt the worst part about battles was waiting for it to start. 

He and Pidge were crouched on a thin walkway above a trash compactor, churning away below them at deafening volume. They couldn’t hear too well, but if they put their mouths right next to each others’ ears, they could manage a few words at a time. Matt held her tightly to his side and took advantage of that as much as he could. 

“Promise me,” he said, hating the ache of his knuckles where they were wrapped around his gun. “Promise me that if something happens you’ll go home. That you’ll be better than this.” 

Initially she scoffed, but Matt retaliated by jabbing his fingers into her side until she smacked at them. 

“Fine, fine, I’ll promise. But only if you promise that if something happens, you won’t go home.”

“Huh?” Matt didn’t think he’d heard correctly. But Pidge just leaned in closer and repeated. 

“If I die.” He flinched, but his sister twisted her hand into his shirt collar and refused to let go. “Don’t leave Shiro and the others. He needs you, and you need him, whether you admit it or not.”

He wasn’t sure how he felt about that. He and Shiro had been through hell together, that was true. But Shiro was also the one that had dragged them all back into this mess. That couldn’t let go of the war. Matt couldn’t pretend he wasn’t the slightest bit resentful about that. 

He promised just the same.

 

<><><><><>

 

To say Hunk was nervous would be an understatement. He felt nauseous. Dizzy. Clammy. The whole nine yards. His hands were shaking so much he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to hold the gun properly. 

And Keith acting so calm and cool and not the least bit intimidated wasn’t helping at all. 

He was just leaning against the wall, flicking his eyes all around the hangar, studying the various ships parked around them. There were three of them, all twice the size (at least) of the Golden Lion, and top of the line, from what he could see. 

“These are all new models, ain’t they?” Keith asked suddenly, jolting Hunk out of his panicked haze. 

“Uh, yeah, I think.” Hunk swallowed hard and tried to focus. Keith was probably trying to get him to calm down, in his own way, and he might as well play along. “This one in front is a-- a Bernadette 20-V.” Carefully, he moved his gunless hand and pointed to the next ship, hoping Keith wouldn’t notice the tremble. 

“This one’s a Windleaf, some kind of new jet, supposed to be real agile. And the one at the end is a Trans-Z, I think.”

Keith mulled over that for a moment, then said, “What are the Trans people gonna call their ships now that they’re out of letters?”

He was startled into a shaky laugh. “I dunno. Maybe Chinese characters.”

“Yeah, maybe. How mad do you think Slav would be if these blew up?”

Hunk’s head snapped around. But Keith looked just as casual as ever, enough that Hunk thought he must’ve misheard.

“Huh?”

“I’m just sayin’,” said Keith with a shrug. “Big ships, lots of fuel, lots of shrapnel. Could make good weapons, dontcha think?”

Looking back to the ships, Hunk’s head tilted to the side as he tried to consider. It wouldn’t be hard to rig the ships to blow. Of course there were safety features, but those were easy enough to get around so long as you knew how. Which he did-- and he expected Keith did, too. 

His apprehension started to become something more like excitement. 

“Yeah. Yeah they could.” 

 

<><><><><>

 

“Know how to shoot it, Princess?”

“Yes.” With one hand Allura swept her hair over her shoulder and demonstrated her grip to Lance, who gave a pleased smile. 

“Good job.”

Allura didn’t smile back. She paced across the hall with four long strides, back and forth from wall to wall. Honestly the place made Lance a little jumpy-- there wasn’t a lot of cover to be had, and the glass walls on either side didn’t look like they’d hold up too well to bullet holes. But they would just have to make do, and there was always the safety doors to withdraw behind. 

“Hey, Allura. What are you fixin’ to do after all of this is over?”

Allura turned to face him, but only to continue pacing, her arms crossed and her chin tucked to her chest. So unlike the companion posture Lance had grown used to seeing from her. 

“That depends,” she answered softly. “If this doesn’t succeed, I don’t expect there will be an after-- we’ll be imprisoned or dead.”

Lance nodded solemnly. It was a risk, but one they’d all signed up to take. 

“And if it does succeed, things will change so much it’s impossible to predict.”

“That’s just a long, fancy way of saying you don’t know.”

She gave a mirthless chuckle. “I suppose it is.”

“Think you’ll ever go back to the Core?”

That finally made her stop her pacing. Her back to Lance, Allura stared out at the Black just beyond the glass, and for a long moment didn’t answer. 

“I… I’m not sure. Even if we win, even if things change, I… I think it’ll be a long time before I can look at the Core without seeing Altea.”

She was mourning, Lance realized. They’d all been shaken and horrified by what they’d found at Altea, especially Keith, and none of them were going to blame him for that. But for Allura, the Core had been her home, the people her people, the Garrison their support. Their leaders. Their protectors.

And she’d just lost all of it. 

“I hope it’ll get easier.”

Lance himself wasn’t entirely sure what he meant by that. But, all the same, Allura nodded in agreement. 

So he figured it must’ve been the right thing to say. 

 

<><><><><>

 

“They’re coming,” Coran reported grimly from his station over Slav’s fancy radar. “The cruiser will be in radio range within the next five minutes.”

Shiro quadruple checked that his pistols were loaded. That his radio was on and working. That everyone was in position. The song and dance he knew like the back of his hand, backwards and forwards. 

Slav was still tapping away. As time had passed his muttering had grown more and more frenzied, but Shiro was trying not to listen. No point in psyching himself out already. 

Having been expecting the crackle of a radio, Shiro jumped a bit at the electronic chime that went off when the Garrison hailed them. Then he had to bite his tongue at the voice he heard to keep from groaning in sheer frustration. 

“This is Admiral Iverson of the Garrison Cruiser Montgomery, requesting permission for docking.” The tension in the man’s voice told Shiro exactly how much he hated uttering the words ‘requesting permission’, but he was going to hate the answer even more.

“Not at this time, Admiral,” Slav called back, never tearing his eyes from his screens. “I’m afraid we’re dealing with some electrical issues, the hangars are currently offline.”

There was a pause. Shiro was holding his breath-- it felt like the moment before a missile strike, watching the trail burn across the sky.

“We are under direct orders from the Garrison governing body to pursue a rogue Firefly transporting a highly dangerous fugitive. We have reason to believe they’ve docked here. Do you deny us entry?”

Slav gave an impatient sigh, like he was being harassed by an overly persistent toddler. “I am a very busy man, Admiral, and right now I would like to get my base up and running again, so if you want a tour you’ll just have to wait.” Without ceremony the connection cut off. Shiro couldn’t tell from whose end it was terminated, but it didn’t really matter. 

“Here we go,” he muttered to himself, and cracked his knuckles. 

 

<><><><><>

 

Every person in the station felt the impact when the cruiser ran into the station and forced an airlock seal. All throughout the structure alarms began to blare, heralding the onslaught. An annoying sound, but at the moment Keith had bigger fish to fry. 

The Garrison had, predictably enough, chosen the hangar Slav had specified as the one to land in. He and Hunk were huddled on the other side of the airlock doors, listening to the soldiers bark commands at each other as they tried to get it to open. 

“Ok, we clear on the plan?” he whispered to Hunk, who gave a tight nod. 

“I’m gonna start the safety doors closin’. Then you hit the ignition and run back.” He paused to gnaw on his lip. “Man, I knew we should’ve made the wire longer.”

“Too late for that now.” They were close to getting the door open, Keith could feel the metal trembling under his shoulder. “Get movin’.”

With an anxious gulp and a pale face, Hunk retreated down the hallway. 

Keith kept his eyes locked on him all the way down. He watched carefully as Hunk opened up the door control panel and set everything up. Then he held up one hand, three fingers extended. 

Three… two… one…

There was an ungodly screech as the safety doors began to emerge from the walls. A second later Keith jammed the red button down as hard as he could, dropped the control at his feet, and ran like a bat out of hell. 

The safety doors were layered, closing from four directions at once. The square in the middle grew smaller, smaller, and smaller still, but the opening was still just large enough for him to dive through when he reached it. 

He hit the floor hard and skidded. He felt the skin on one of his knees tear open, but the adrenaline pumping his blood in his ears didn’t let him acknowledge it. Hunk grabbed him by the shoulders and yanked him to the side, against the wall, right as the first ship in the hangar went boom. 

Well, more like BOOM.

There were screams and panicked voices from beyond the airlock. A few seconds later the next bomb ignited, another BOOM, and the shockwave made Keith’s ears ring and made the doors tremble.

“The last one’s gonna be big,” Hunk said, sounding far away and muffled. “We need to move back.”

Keith got to his feet. He was a little jelly-legged still, but he let Hunk pull him further down the hall.

BA-BA-BOOM.

The floor shook beneath their boots, dumping both of them to the floor. He felt a little deafer now than he had been before, but still Keith was pretty certain that the shouts from beyond the airlock had stopped. Now there was just silence. 

For a few seconds the two of them just laid there, stunned. Then Keith turned onto his back, and looking up at the smooth metal ceiling, began to laugh. 

 

<><><><><>

 

“They’re coming up,” Matt breathed into Pidge’s ear. “Is your trip wire up?”

Pidge nodded in return and licked her lips. This wasn’t quite as scary as breaking into that Galra base had been, but it was a close second. Especially with the huge trash compactor churning away beside them, making the metal tremble under her feet, with only a thin guardrail between them and terrible, crushing, squishy death. 

“Trip the first, then I’ll shoot the next while you get your gun ready, then we both lay on ‘em. Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

They’d heard the explosions from above them. Pidge wasn’t quite sure what to make of them, but she would bet good money that Keith had something to do with it. She just hoped he hadn’t done too much structural damage to the station while he was at it. That wouldn’t go well for anyone.

The boots were getting louder as the Garrison troops advanced, and Pidge adjusted her sweaty grip on the wire. It was designed to catch on the buckles of their boots, so that she could yank to the side and hopefully drag one of them over the edge into the compactor. An efficient fighting technique. Brutal as all hell, but efficient.

Finally they turned the corner. The Garrison troops were covered head to toe in body armor, including face shields, and held submachine guns out before them in trained posture. Pidge felt her heart sink-- they were massively out matched-- but all the same she held her breath and stuck to the plan.

The foremost soldier stepped into the wire, letting out a sharp cry of surprise when he tried to move forward and found himself caught.

“Now!” Matt hissed, and Pidge pulled. 

The soldier dropped his gun, which swung wildly around his torso on its strap, and his arms pinwheeled in an attempt to gain back balance. One of his comrades reached out for him, but it was too late-- he was already toppling.

With a terrified scream the man plummeted into the machine. Pidge would never forget the sound his bones made as they were ground into powder. 

Matt, as planned, pulled his weapon and began firing. Pidge quickly reached for the gun she’d been given. Luckily she had steady hands, had to, to be an engineer, but she still didn’t like holding guns, so big and bulky. 

Matt dropped one. Pidge unloaded all six bullets from her revolver into the next’s chestplate, and he crumbled to the floor. Matt took out another, then another, while Pidge scrambled to reload. But there were so many of them, and they were moving so fast, and--

“Pidge!” 

While she’d been loading the soldiers had gotten much closer. Rushing directly at them, one man grabbed Matt by the lapels and slammed him against the wall, gun to his head. The one behind him was almost upon her, and she couldn’t get the damn hammer to click!

“Fuck fuck fuck,” she babbled under her breath. His shadow was leaning over her now, and when she looked up she saw the most smarmy smile she had ever seen painted over his lips. 

Her chest burned with rage.

Without thinking, Pidge dropped her gun and her weight onto her hands and spun, one leg extended. The strike worked. The soldier teetered and began to fall over the railing, but just as he was falling, his gloved hand flashed up and grabbed onto Pidge’s ankle. 

He was taking her down with him. 

And jeez, was this dude heavy. His weight immediately yanked her sideways, down towards the edge, and although she flailed she couldn’t catch hold of anything. 

Her foot slid over the side of the platform and Pidge shrieked. 

“Katie!”

There was a flurry of gunshots over her head, and in the split second before she slid into the maw of death, she felt a hand fasten around her wrist.

Matt hauled her up and back, then back back back. He was taking them back to the doors to hide. 

Hopefully, they’d bought enough time. 

 

<><><><><>

 

“They’re moving up,” Lance heard through the radio. “Hunk and I are headin’ back to the control room.”

“Roger that, same with me and Pidge,” Matt responded. “Lance and Allura, you’re the only ones still out.”

Lance took a breath and lifted the radio to his lips. “Copy that.”

Allura pulled the hammer back on her weapon. Lance, kneeling behind a lightweight armchair that decorated the hall, settled his rifle against his shoulder.

“You ready, Princess?”

“As I’ll ever be.”

As the impending firefight raced ever closer, Lance grew more agitated. He did not like this position, not one bit. The walls were all glass-- if the cruiser deployed gunships and they fired, the whole thing would shatter and they would be starfood. 

“Allura, keep your eye on the left window. If you see a ship, call it. We’ll have to get the hell out of dodge.”

“Got it.”

The door at the other end of the hall beeped, the light above glowing blue.

Lance held his breath. The moment he could see the navy blue of Garrison uniform, he pulled the trigger.

Boom. Headshot. Right through the faceshield, meant to protect from random shrapnel, not a direct gunshot. 

Allura shot next. The bullet hit a soldier’s shoulder but didn’t go through the body armor. 

The soldiers advanced through the hail of bullets. The chair Lance was using as cover had been turned into Swiss cheese, and his ears rang with the echoes of gunshots. 

Movement caught his eye. His worst fear had been realized-- gunships were soaring towards their fragile bridge. 

“Allura!” he shouted, already scrambling upright, “Move!”

He lunged up and grabbed Allura’s arm, and both of them took off, sprinting for the safety doors. Bullets ricocheted all around them-- one shard caught Allura across the cheekbone, leaving a burned streak behind it. 

They were only a few feet from the finish line when Lance felt a bullet tear through his leg. He yelled as he hit the floor (he’d never get used to the sudden burning pain of bullet wounds) but Allura didn’t so much as falter.

She dropped, grabbed his wrists, and pulled him the last few feet. 

“We’re on our way up,” he heard Allura say to the radio over the screech of the doors closing. His head was spinning from all the adrenaline, too wobbly on his feet to be useful, but Allura just wrapped an arm around his waist and held him up. 

“It’s gonna be fine. Everything is gonna be fine.” Her voice was terrified. 

Lance only wished he could be afraid. 

<><><><><>

Everyone was back. Lance was the only one hurt, being tended to in a corner by Coran. The safety doors in the corridor had been closed, the trap doors were open, and they had six guns pointed at the door, waiting for the breach. 

“How much longer?” Shiro called over his shoulder.

“As long as it takes!” Slav shouted back at him. “How can I be expected to work with these constant interruptions?!”

Shiro ground his teeth. They were almost out of time, the Garrison bearing down on them. Trapped. Outnumbered. Outgunned. 

How did he keep getting into these situations?

From outside the door there were the sounds of metal clanking and men shouting, orders being given. 

“Building bridges,” Matt said tensely at Shiro’s side. “To get over the trap doors.”

“Those doors won’t hold. They’re gonna get in.”

“What do we do then?”

“Fight.”

“To the death?”

“If we gotta.”

Matt sighed and flexed his fingers. “Well, it’s been nice knowin’ ya.”

All of them jumped nearly a foot in the air when something heavy rammed against the door. Even from across the room Shiro could see where the metal had dented from the strike, and the dent deepened at the next. 

“Everybody up,” Shiro called to his crew. “We’re outta rest time.”

Keith had pressed himself against the wall beside the door, poised and waiting, tossing his knife from hand to hand. Shiro, Matt, Pidge, and Hunk settled into a loose ring around the door. Pidge’s shoulders jumped at every impact against the metal. 

Clang. Clang. Clang. 

Allura hung back by Lance and Coran, Lance’s rifle on her shoulder. The position gave her a good angle to shoot directly over Pidge’s head. 

Clang. Clang. Clang. 

“Slav?” Shiro’s hand was sweating. 

“Almost there!”

Come on, come on, come on.

Bang!

The doors tore open. 

“Fire!” Shiro shouted.

Instantly the air was full of smoke and gunpowder as they all fired at once. It was deafening, and after that, everything fell into chaos. 

Shiro saw things in snapshots. Muzzle flashes. Screams. He saw a waterfall of blood as Keith slit someone’s throat. Allura went down in a splash of silver hair. Hunk roared. Pidge swore like a sailor. 

Shiro was in a fist fight, up close and dirty. His pistol had been knocked away. The soldier he was fighting had lost his helmet. Shiro nailed him in the face, felt his nose shatter under his knuckles, but his follow up swing was blocked by a beefy arm. There was a flash of black in the blue tinted room before the stock of a gun smacked into his temple. 

Shiro stumbled as his vision blurred. The soldier struck him in the gut, forcing bile into his throat, then tackled him to the floor.

He couldn’t hear exceptionally well at the moment, nor see, but he could tell that the battle was over. The gunfire had stopped. A heavy boot between his shoulder blades kept him pressed to the floor, but he was able to turn his head enough to see the blurry outline of Slav’s chair. A Garrison officer (probably Iverson) had just stopped behind it. Shiro blinked rapidly and was able to clear his vision a bit before Iverson spun the chair around.

Blood. There was blood all the way down Slav’s legs, dripping to the floor from his dangling feet, smearing across the keys on his keyboard. At some point in the fight he’d been shot. Shiro curled his flesh hand against the floor and bit his tongue until it bled.

Please, he prayed to he wasn’t sure who, please don’t let it all be for nothing. 

“Was it worth it?” Iverson asked snidely, his voice muffled from all the combat noise a few moments before. “Helping them?”

Slav wasn’t a corpse yet. He tilted his head back and gave Iverson a big, bloody grin. 

“Yes,” he said, far too haughtily for a man who was bleeding to death. “You’re too late. The signal got out. You can’t stop it now.”

“What in the hell are you talking about?”

Ah, right. Iverson didn’t know about Altea. He was chasing them because of Callum. God did it seem silly now. 

Slav didn’t answer, at least not coherently. Head lolling to the side, he said, “You can never stop the signal.” He was fading, and fast, but Iverson didn’t call for medics. He just stood there and watched as the light faded from Slav’s eyes. Shiro imagined he could hear Coran crying, but it might’ve been someone else entirely. 

Slav took a gasping, gurgling breath, and with seemingly the last of his strength, he struck a single key. He went limp, the keyboard clattered to the floor, and then--

Everything exploded.

Well, it felt like everything exploded. In reality it was only the central computing tower that went off, though the force was enough to toss Iverson’s body against the far wall like a rag doll, and a piece of shrapnel or something must’ve hit the soldier standing over Shiro, as the weight on his back disappeared. 

In this one case, it would seem, being pinned to the floor was actually useful. 

As quickly as he could Shiro staggered upright. Half of the lights had been blown out and the computers were on fire, casting the room in a strange mixture of blue and flickering orange. Slav’s chair, as well as his corpse, was burning. Strewn all over the floor were Garrison soldiers, some still as death, others writhing and screaming, others pulling themselves pathetically in whichever direction they could. 

For a long moment he couldn’t breathe. The smoke stung his throat and his eyes, and at his sides his hands shook like leaves. He could feel the rain on him again, the mud sucking at his boots, the exhaustion in his muscles-- if he looked down, he fully expected to see the remains of Adam’s body, intestines splayed--

“Shiro!” Someone grabbed his arm and pulled, dragging him back to the present battlefield rather than the past one. “We gotta go!” It was Keith hanging off of him, a wild look in his eyes, and that cemented Shiro back in reality enough to look around for a headcount. 

Matt and Pidge were already out in the hall. Allura was half-hugging, half-hauling a distraught Coran along with her. Hunk was helping Lance hop out on his one good leg. 

He counted again, just to be sure. Then again, and again. 

Keith lost his patience and pulled him suddenly, hard, nearly sending him back to the floor. 

“Let’s go!” 

Shiro shook his head to clear it. “Alright,” he tried to say, but choked on smoke and had to try again. “Let’s move, back to the Lion!”

Even as they fled towards the hangar he knew it was a pointless motion. They’d taken out some soldiers but there was still the whole cruiser lurking outside that had all of their files and information-- even if they got out this time they’d only be hunted down again. Truth be told Shiro hadn’t been expecting to come out of this alive. 

But what could he do, except play along?

Despite the cloud of doom hanging over his head, Shiro still felt the familiar well of relief when he spotted the Lion. She’d been protected from the various blasts going on in the station and so far looked unharmed. Two by two the crew scuttled inside, all of them making a beeline for the cockpit without being told.

Shiro leaned heavily against the dashboard as Keith threw his body into the pilot’s seat and initiated the launch sequence. It was only through sheer luck that his eye managed to land on the green light blinking above the vid screen, indicating an archived message. 

Probably not a good thing to open, probably just the Garrison, probably probably probably, but Shiro opened it up anyway.

“Hello, Captain Shirogane!” Slav’s awkward voice filled the tense air of the cockpit, nearly making Shiro swallow his tongue. “If you’re hearing this, I expect I’m already dead.” Dimly he could hear his own voice in the background, as well as Coran’s-- Slav had recorded this while Shiro thought he was just talking to himself. 

“I’m afraid I don’t have time to get overly emotional, but I want you to know that I’m grateful to you for taking the risk of going to Altea. Since I’ve already hacked into the Garrisons network to distribute the files, I took the extra liberty of erasing all of the Garrison’s files on the eight of you.”

Everyone froze at that, even Keith for a moment as he was guiding the ship out of the hangar, nearly clipping the Lion’s wing against the door before jerking back into position. No one said anything about it, too busy staring at each other with wide eyes. 

“According to the paperwork, none of you are in any legal trouble with the Garrison. And in this business, paperwork means everything.”

There was a break in the recording, some rustling and shouting, then Slav returned more quietly. 

“They’re here. I suspect this will be over soon. Good luck, Captain.”

The video ended. Shiro stared uncomprehendingly down at the dark screen. The only sound was the heartbeat of the Golden Lion underneath them as she carried them away, into the safety of the Black. 

They all wound up slumped on the floor eventually, unheeding of the uncomfortable metal. 

Lance had a makeshift bandage wrapped around his leg. Hunk was covered in soot, tear tracks leaving trails through it. Pidge and Matt clung to each other with all of their strength. Allura had a burn on her cheek, but against all odds she was smiling. And Coran just sat and stared in utter disbelief at the opposite wall.

“It’s over,” he murmured after an indeterminable amount of time. “It’s… done.”

“We made it out alive,” said Keith. “Who woulda thunk?”

Allura pulled her tangled hair over her shoulder. “Everyone knows, now.”

Shiro looked up and found Matt’s eyes. Exhausted, but somewhere in there was a feeling of content, the same one he was feeling. After all of these years, after all the death and suffering and running away… they’d finally done it. 

They’d won.

“What now, Cap’n?” Matt asked with a twinkle in his eye. Shiro gave him an exhausted grin. 

What now? Well, the only thing they could do. 

And that was…

“Keep flying.”