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The Highest Honor

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The prisoner was talking again.

Well, Yuldak should rephrase that. The prisoner was talking at him again as he had barely stopped prattling since Yuldak had arrived at his post almost two varga ago.

“—call you grape since you’re purple. Although,” and the prisoner laughed, “grapes come in all sorts of colors. You know, why is grape considered to be purple? It could be black or red or green — those are my favorite, by the way. I mean, it’s not like people go ‘oh, strawberry red,’ it’s always cherry. Maybe apples sometimes? Oh! Or tomatoes. Although my sister Rachel insists that those are actually a vegetable since they go in salads, but—”

Yuldak’s grip tightened on his staff and resolutely kept facing forward, back to the cell.

Rule number two of guard duty (only behind do not leave your post for any reason) was under no circumstances were you to engage with the prisoner, not even to taunt them (and although Yuldak had seen several senior guards break that rule during his training he was brand new to the job and could not afford to do so and risk his supervisor’s wrath). He both needed this job and wanted to serve his Empire and for a Galran such as he, smaller in stature than his kin, lacking any real offensive or technical talents, this was the closest he could get to serving in the Galra military.

It was not the most glamorous job but it was a necessary one and he was proud of it and he absolutely was not going to mess it up, not on his first day.

Especially when they had given him such a high profile prisoner to guard.

Yuldak straightened, puffing out his chest and the armor rose painfully at the action but he didn’t mind. His first day on the job and he had been assigned to guard the Red Paladin of Voltron.

It was an assignment of the highest honor and he would not mess this up.

He hadn’t been there to start, rotating shifts with two other guards, but he’d heard that the Paladin had been captured by their ground forces when he’d surrendered. Yuldak’s nose wrinkled with disgust. For the Galra it was honor or death and surrendering without even firing a shot as he’d heard was the highest dishonor.

It still didn’t diminish though of what he’d heard of the Red Paladin’s feats and how dangerous he was and hence why Yuldak would not lower his guard for an instant.

Even if he really didn’t think the Paladin looked very dangerous.

He’d caught a glimpse of him when he’d arrived for his shift before resolutely turning his back on the barred cell and facing forward without breaking stance now two varga later.

The Paladin, an alien called a human he’d been told, was shorter than even himself, maybe a few rites under six nomics, and very slender. He was lacking in any type of fur and instead had a dark brown patch of hair atop his head but otherwise his skin was a smooth light brown where it was visible beneath the prison uniform; a black form-fitting top and bottom with a large purple shirt thrown over all of it. Unlike most of the prisoners Yuldak had seen though the Paladin had been barefoot, which he supposed made sense as he would not be fighting in the arena or being exported to a labor camp, and energy cuffs were wrapped about his wrists although had not been activated to hold them together.

The young Galran had caught a glimpse of blue eyes surrounded by white, a complete contrast to his own pupiless yellow, and the Paladin’s lips had turned up, revealing white teeth that lacked any real fang, his mouth had opened…

And it had barely shut since.

Yuldak had to admit both a certain level of amazement and annoyance. At least, he figured, the Paladin’s voice was not grating and, to his surprise, not hurling any sort of insult at him or demanding his release.

He did wonder if he ever was going to stop though.

Six varga later he was still wondering.

“—makes the most amazing lasagna. It’s the cheese ratio and whatever he does to the sauce. Don’t tell my mamá but hers is always just a bit too salty but I mean, it’s still delicious too, but it has nothing on Hunk’s—”

Did humans not need to breathe? He had thought they were also an oxygen dependent species but the constant chatter with only a few pauses longer than a couple minutes made Yuldak think that may not be entirely so.

A clanging of a metal door from down the corridor that led to the dead-end cell of the Paladin had Yuldak straightening somehow more than his ramrod posture had been for the last eight varga and the sound of footsteps echoed.

He realized a tick later as to why the steps were so loud.

The Paladin had stopped talking.

Guard Zhao came into view then, a hulking figure with large sideburns and eyes more gold than yellow. He was one of the elite and one of the cruelest that Yuldak’s trainer had warned him not to get on the wrong side of.

It was why he had made it through the training program so quickly as Zhao had permanently disfigured several now former guards and they were on short supply.

Yuldak resisted the urge to gulp.

“Anything to report?”

Yuldak clicked his heels together. “No, Sir.”

“You are dismissed.”

Yuldak hurried, but not too fast, away.

The strange ringing of silence after vargas of ceaseless chatter followed him down the hall.

xxx

When Yuldak reported the next day promptly at 1400 hours it was to an enthusiastic, “Hey, Grape,” and the flash of a smile before Yuldak turned his back once more on the prisoner.

No engaging.

The Red Paladin was still talkative but not quite so much as the day before, the silence stretching sometimes for nearly a half varga and the human’s words being interspersed with a dry sounding cough.

Yuldak wondered if he was getting sick. It didn’t make much sense as his cell was clean and the temperature was moderate and for all his talking about himself the Paladin had never once indicated that he was overly cold or hot or feeling unwell. Perhaps he was just tiring of talking to Yuldak’s back?

He resolutely kept facing forward for the eight varga.

xxx

“Hey, Grape?”

The Paladin’s voice was a mere rasp and the tone was so different from the cheerful upbeat rambling of two days before.

Yuldak did not allow himself to turn. No engaging with the prisoner, rule number two.

“I hate to ask this, but…”

Yuldak’s hands tightened on his staff. Here it came. He’d been warned of this, of prisoners trying to barter or plead with the guard. He could not respond, acknowledge and most definitely not act on the request.

“Is… is there any chance,” the Paladin cut off with a cough. “Any chance of some water? I’m,” another cough, “starting to feel a little woozy.”

Yuldak felt his eyes widen.

Water?

Had the Paladin not been given water? At all?

That was…

No.

His expression hardened. The Paladin of Voltron was the enemy. He was dangerous. This was an attempt to garner sympathy, attention, and Yuldak would not be fooled.

He squared his shoulders and remained facing front.

The Paladin did not speak again.

Going on three varga of silence Yuldak, for the first time, shifted his stance, armor creaking.

There was no response from inside the cell.

Yuldak told himself the quiet was nice.

His shift dragged along.

The Paladin coughed intermittently, whispered out a scratchy, “Grape?” once but otherwise was silent.

Yuldak refused to turn around.

When Zhao arrived and asked if there was anything to report Yuldak went to respond in the negative as he had but he found the word stuck in his throat.

Was there?

“Has the prisoner been causing you trouble now, guard?” Zhao asked, leaning down and there was something dangerous in his tone.

Something excited.

“No, Sir,” Yuldak shook his head.

Did he say something?

No.

“Nothing to report, Sir.”

“Dismissed.”

xxx

Day four was the quietest one yet. Yuldak did not even get a greeting and based on the shallow, breathy sounds coming from the cell the Paladin may have been asleep.

He listened to those hoarse breaths for over two varga before he cautiously shifted his stance.

No reaction.

And although he knew he shouldn’t, knew this could be seen as engaging with the prisoner, Yuldak ever so slowly pivoted, gazing sideways into the cell.

The human was lying against the back wall on the cot, legs tucked up to his chest and arms and hands wedged between them. His eyes were closed but they were flickering rapidly, almost in time with the quick breaths as though the prisoner had been running and his lips, even from here, appeared cracked.

The request for water echoed in Yuldak’s mind.

His gaze moved about the cell. He’d seen many in his training and they had all been identical with a low metal shelf disguised as a cot jutting from the wall with a thin blanket, a small hole that served as a toilet in the far corner that was whisked directly into the incinerator, and a water bucket that the morning jailer was supposed to fill.

The only thing in the cell besides the Paladin was the toilet hole. No blanket. No water.

Yuldak licked suddenly dry lips as the realization sank in.

The human had not been given any water going on four days now and he doubted it was because their species did not need it. One of the other main rules of being a guard had been, no matter who they were, that prisoners were to be treated humanely while in their cells (once in the hands of the interrogators or Druids though it was anything goes) as their honor code would allow for nothing less.

And this?

This was not right.

Was it because he was a Paladin of Voltron? Yuldak understood that high-profile prisoners should be treated differently, the same with dangerous, violent ones. But this…

This seemed cruel.

He looked again at the human, all long limbs and…

And young.

Yuldak could not say he knew anything about human species but he had seen images of Champion and compared to him this figure was younger. Not a child, he didn’t think so, but still young.

But still old enough to be a Paladin. Still old enough to kill his kin.

Yuldak pivoted on his foot and faced forward.

The Paladin did not deserve any kindness.

He’d brought this on himself and it wasn’t Yuldak’s place to question the treatment.

Not even a varga later though Yuldak heard shifting, metal cuffs clanking against the bed, and then a whispered, scratchy, “Grape? That you?”

He did not respond.

There was a soft sigh mixed with a huff of laughter. “Yup. That’s you.”

Another varga went by although the prisoner did not return to the breathing sounds that indicated sleep.

“Hey, Grape? Thanks for… for listening. And not… yeah.”

Yuldak frowned.

Listening?

He hadn’t responded to any of the Paladin’s words or the one request so he must have meant the fact Yuldak was just standing there and hearing him talk.

Why would he thank him for that?

What was the other part of the sentence meant to be?

His lips pursed and he mentally shook his head. No. This was what the Paladin wanted. A response. He was trying to trick Yuldak, finding him the younger guard and therefore more inexperienced. Well, that was true but Yuldak had proven immune to bribery (a test he hadn’t known he’d passed until many others had failed) and his sense of honor and duty to the Empire would hold him fast.

But…

The human let out another dry cough followed by a shudder that Yuldak could hear from even here as the manacles vibrated against the cot.

The Paladin did not sound well.

When Zhao came that evening (and who Yuldak learned from the guard gossip only stayed for about a half varga before another was brought in) and asked, not expecting any real answer, if there was anything to report, Yuldak had swallowed and said yes.

“Oh?” and that glint was back in Zhao’s eye.

Be calm, Yuldak told himself. Be firm. In control. It was not pity driving him to this, it was honor and responsibility. He couldn’t very well have the prisoner die during his shift, right?

Right.

That’s all this was.

“The prisoner has developed a cough,” Yuldak said, eyes trained over Zhao’s spiked armored shoulder plate. It gave him direct line of sight into the cell where a pair of blue and white eyes were staring at him with a flicker of something Yuldak did not want to identify. “I believe it may be due to a lack of water and I would like to request permission to—”

“Denied,” Zhao cut in.

He turned then towards the cell, golden eyes narrowing and a cruel, fanged smile pulling up his lips. “You know the rules. Not a drop until you beg for it.”

Yuldak watched as blue met gold and the prisoner’s eyes narrowed as well with something Yuldak recognized this time easily as defiance.

Zhao growled low in his throat.

And then the prisoner screamed.

Yuldak had never heard such a sound, raw and high.

He traced the source to the cuffs about the human’s wrists, lit up purple, and a small remote in Zhao’s hand.

The prisoner fell off the cot with a jarring thump.

Closer now and lit by the energy, Yuldak could make out faint burn marks extending just along the line of the cuff.

This had happened before.

It had happened a lot (it had only been four days).

He pressed his lips together. It was not his place to say anything. The Paladin deserved this. He was an enemy, the enemy, and they could not afford to take any undue risks.

Even though…

The prisoner had stopped screaming, the air broken now by his harsh breaths as he trembled on the floor from the aftereffects.

“Do you have something you’d like to say, filth?” Zhao asked.

And while the human’s eyes could not be described as glowing, that was impossible, Yuldak could feel the cool fire as the gaze lifted to land on Zhao.

That was not the look of someone who had been beaten, cowed or intimidated whatsoever.

“Quiznack y-you.”

The cuffs activated again.

“You are dismissed,” Zhao said over the ragged screams.

“Yes, Sir.”

The sound of the Paladin’s cries followed him down the hall.

xxx

Grape didn’t come the next day.

Lance hoped nothing bad had happened to him. He let out a silent huff of laugh at that, curling up on the cot even though it was no more comfortable than the floor. Dios, what the others would think if they knew he was worrying about a Galran, one of his guards, in this situation.

But while Grape had not been kind he had been the only one who had not been cruel.

His wrists, burned and bleeding beneath the shock cuffs, attested to that. The other guards, a rotation of two in near eight-hour shifts and the one in charge that Lance was calling Spike due to his armor that showed up twice a day, had taken full advantage of the cuffs and made no qualms to hide it.

They weren’t interrogating him. Spike had told him that was the Druids’ job and they were just there to make sure he was “comfortable” until they arrived.

Comfortable.

Right.

That clearly meant something else in Galran.

But even with the treatment now, no food, no water, and the shock cuffs, Lance knew it was going to get worse.

He prayed his team found him before then.

He was starting to lose hope.

He told himself he couldn’t think like that. He had to remain optimistic.

He also told himself there was a limit to optimism when faced with reality and reality had a very different outlook.

He had been captured in his casual clothes so there was no armor to track. He hadn’t yet formed a bond with the Red Lion, not like what she and Keith had where he could be expecting the Lion to swoop in and rescue him. Lance couldn’t help but wonder if it had been Blue on the planet with him if she’d have intervened, would have done something, when the Galrans had surrounded him with guns trained on both him and the innocent civilians Lance had gotten involved.

He’d debated fighting for all of a second, his bayard in his jacket pocket, but the commander of the battalion had pulled a little alien girl from her mother and pressed a blaster directly against her head.

Lance couldn’t risk it.

He couldn’t.

He’d surrendered without fight and the only thing the Red Lion, parked on the outskirts, had done was put up a particle barrier. He tried not to feel hurt by that, but even now, days later, it made his chest clench and the too familiar feeling of not being enough, not being good enough, tighten.

Or that could be just the cramps now from the lack of water, but Lance knew that was a lie and one he didn’t really believe.

Lance had been bashed over the head with the butt of a blaster and he’d awoken in this cell, stripped out of his clothes and put into the prison uniform (he tried not to think about that part and who had undressed him and was grateful they’d left his boxer shorts intact), bayard missing and what he’d originally mistaken as just energy cuffs on his wrists.

He told himself it was going to be fine. The team knew he’d gone to the planet to restock food supplies as they had been hunting for Shiro for the past week without stop (two months, two months and no sign of him and where was he?) and their stores were low and when he didn’t return they would investigate.

Although again, there were no leads. The Galrans weren't stationed there, having arrived just as he had to get supplies (although Lance knew they would be taking it rather than purchasing), and no doubt had left without a calling card. The planet inhabitants could certainly tell his team it was Galrans but…

But that only left the entire universe to search.

For one person.

Just like Shiro.

They would never find him.

Lance didn’t even know where he was. A ship, maybe, he thought, but it could just as easily be a base. Wherever it was it was not easily accessible by the Druids and hence why they’d thrown him into this cell for going on five days now to wait.

Lance had already paced it on his first hour inside, looking for any sort of opening. But the bars were too narrowly spaced for him to squeeze through, barely a hand’s width, and the cot was firmly bolted to the wall. The toilet hole, he still winced at it, was barely a half foot wide and offered no escape either.

The only positive was there seemed to be no camera, or at least one he could see. That was negated though by the fact he had an armed guard stationed a few paces away from his cell at all times.

The first one he’d encountered, Scowl, had, true to his moniker, spent his shift scowling at Lance and making snide comments about how weak Lance was to have been captured so easily.

The first time Lance had responded back, calling the Galra the weak ones to have to use a hostage, he’d been shocked by the cuffs, the reaction so swift and painful he hadn’t even had a second to brace himself.

He’d kept silent then, entire body aching from the residual energy, although his glare had not lessened.

He’d guessed that was the night guard as although the lights of his cell, purple of course, had not dimmed, he’d felt tired enough and since he’d been captured mid-afternoon it made sense. Lance did his best to sleep, ignoring the guard, the pain in his wrists and the beginning pulse in his throat and stomach.

The morning guard, Jowl, named for his huge cheeks and flabby, furred throat, had been similar to Scowl. He’d prodded at Lance with end of his staff to rouse him and delighted in thrusting it through the bars throughout his shift, able to reach Lance no matter where he went as the cell was only about four feet wide (including a foot and a half lost thanks to the slab called a bed) although about eight in length.

Lance would take the prodding though after Spike had arrived.

That Galran was…

Cruel.

He had been the one to tell Lance of his situation, giving him some answers at least although telling Spike that he knew nothing important and interrogating him was a waste of everyone’s time had yielded a sharp smile and then an activation of the cuffs.

Spike really liked the cuffs.

He had been the one to deny water and food as Jowl had come back bearing both and been told to return it. Nothing until Lance begged for it, Spike said.

Five days now.

His stomach had finally stopped growling but his throat… Dios, it hurt. Not only that but he could feel his thoughts becoming muddled, his chest hurt from the harsh pants that had taken up residence, and he felt jittery and tired at the same time but trying to sleep yielded little success and when he did he often awoke with a gasp to either a nightmare or the prod of a staff or shock of a cuff for the Galrans’ entertainment.

It was why Grape was practically a balm.

He was the afternoon into evening shift, Lance figured, and although he had come into the corridor with his shoulders thrown back and staff in hand and face pulled into an impassive countenance when they had made eye contact for that brief moment…

Lance had seen nothing cruel in that yellow gaze.

And while he couldn’t expect to find an ally in the guard, doubted he was a Blade either and doubted any of them were on this ship/base/place, it also couldn’t hurt to at least try.

It might be his only chance.

He’d taken a breath and then started talking, whatever came to mind.

And the guard… he had done nothing.

He hadn’t even turned around from his guard stance. He just stood there, not reacting to Lance’s chatter.

It was as close to a positive as Lance could find.

It was why he’d gifted him the beautiful name of Grape because someone that didn’t actively want to hurt him didn’t deserve to be nicknamed for a less than flattering appearance, although the only thing Lance could really come up with was “short dude” as compared to the other guards this one had just a few inches on Lance and made him pretty small for a Galra.

Lance had kept it up nonstop that first day, drawing comfort in both the sound of his own voice, his stories, and the fact that the Galran had not made any sort of aggressive movement or comment.

And if someone could put up with Lance chattering at them for hours then they were either deaf or had the patience of a saint and therefore could not be too terrible of a person and Lance doubted a guard was allowed to be deaf.

Lance had clammed up when he heard the sound of what he’d determined was a door clang open and he was glad he had as Spike had shown then.

Lance didn’t want to talk to Spike.

And Spike only wanted to hear him scream.

Apparently Spike had been assigned to the wrong department as he wasn’t guarding so much as he was torturing although unlike an interrogator he didn’t ask any questions.

Lance had never been so relieved to see Scowl show up by his rough estimate thirty minutes later.

That pattern had continued and Lance found relief where he could in sleep but he woke himself far too often with a dry, painful cough of both the dehydration and the constant screaming, and he felt fuzzy.

He’d tried reaching out to Grape on day three even though he knew it wasn’t likely to yield results and tried not to be too disappointed when he was proven right.

To his surprise the next day the Galran had advocated for bringing him water and he’d seemed surprised to be told why Lance hadn’t gotten it. Apparently that wasn’t a normal behavior in the prison. It had gone unanswered though and instead Lance had gotten an extended zapping.

But…

But around the pain Lance had seen something more than surprise on Grape’s face.

A flicker of horror, of disgust.

He held onto the hope that those sentiments had been aimed at Spike and the cuffs, not his screams and retort.

It was what had gotten him through that night and morning, through the dizziness and pain and shudders and shivers although he felt like he was burning up rather than freezing.

But it was Grape’s shift now and a different Galran had taken his place, tall but slender and wearing a full helmet that obscured his face. He hadn’t said or done anything though other than to tell Lance “there better be no trouble,” and Lance hadn’t bothered to respond, curled up on his metal bed.

Scowl hadn’t shown that night either.

It had been a relief, actually, as if both he and Grape were gone… then maybe it was their day off? And Grape hadn’t gotten in trouble?

Jowl wasn’t there when Lance awoke from his haze, going on seven days now and the panic that should have been there as his body felt like lead and his eyelids even heavier was dampened by the sheer exhaustion and hum of tightness that had taken up residence in his chest and made every breath feel like a battle.

He’d thought they wanted to interrogate him, but…

But he wasn’t sure he was going to make it to that point. Death by dehydration. Not the way he thought he’d go.

His eyes squeezed shut tight, stinging even though there were no tears.

Dios.

He never even got a chance to say goodbye.

Hunk… Pidge… Coran and Keith and Allura… and his family back home.

They’d never know what happened to him.

He’d almost fallen back into whatever sleep was these days when there was a different clanging sound.

His cell.

Lance forced open his eyes although he could do little else. His limbs refused to move.

A Galran in some sort of robe crouched next to him. He reached out, something flashing in his hand.

A needle.

Lance could do nothing as the needle, connected to a bleary syringe, depressed into his wrist just below the cuff.

And then his arm felt like it was lit on fire.

He screamed.

Another Galran was there then, holding him down as he writhed.

Dios.

Dios, make it stop.

Before the flames had even died down he felt the prick of another needle and the torment began again.

And again.

And again.

He lost consciousness on the fifth prick.

xxx

Lance woke up with his body cringing with pins and needles and a cramp low in his stomach and throat still ravaged and dry but for the first time in at least a couple days the press of dizziness had vanished.

He slowly opened his eyes, wincing at even the dull purple light of his cell.

He was stretched out along his bed, arms in front of him and his right sleeve pushed to his elbow.

Bruises and small pricks dotted all along his right arm.

Lance blinked at them.

Twelve in total.

They’d injected him with something, he remembered. Some sort of IV drip without the drip part? He felt more aware, his body sore and achy but he could move it again.

He guessed he wasn’t going to die of dehydration after all.

He sat up with a groan, the room spinning for a moment but focusing within a few seconds.

Grape’s back greeted him.

Lance felt his lips pulling up into a smile at the familiar sight. “Grape,” he whispered, the word sounding as rough as it felt up his throat.

The Galran stiffened.

He didn’t turn around.

Lance more carefully angled himself on the wall, dragging cold feet up and tucking them as best he could beneath his legs and cradling his hands in his lap, his right arm pulsing with every movement.

“Thanks for trying to get me water,” Lance said quietly into the silence. “That… that was kind of you. I,” he licked still chapped, cracked lips. “I hope you didn’t get in trouble.”

Silence still.

“I’d tell you some more stories, you’re a really good listener, but…” Lance let out a cough. “Gotta save my voice for screaming, yeah?”

Still nothing.

“‘course I bet that’s nothing compared to what the Druids have got planned for me, right?”

Not even a twitch from Grape.

Lance twitched though, biting his lip to keep in the groan that resulted from it.

He was not looking forward to that part.

The only consolation he had was he really didn’t know much of anything important. That responsibility belonged to Allura and Shiro and… and he guessed now Keith. Coran too. And Hunk and Pidge would have been useful for castle and weapons and codes and…

Huh.

So he was the only worthless one to glean information from.

Lance felt a twinge of both relief he had nothing to say and then hurt that that was the case.

Always just the goofball.

At least this time it would save his team, his space family, from any harm.

What it meant for him though…

He shuddered.

Best not to think about it.

“I’m still feeling a bit tired,” Lance told his silent guard, easing himself back down from the sit to curl up on the slab. It was more a mental exhaustion than anything though and despite the fact there was someone right there Lance felt so…

So lonely.

Not that being cut off from his team and taken prisoner was enough, but other than being shocked by his cuffs or prodded by Jowl’s staff no one interacted with him. No one said anything to him unless it was a cruel taunt and even those had faded.

It was isolation.

Lance didn’t like it one bit.

He’d never liked the quiet, still found himself unnerved by the castle’s silence after his crowded family home and then, even when at the Garrison, he’d had Hunk’s snores and the soft buzz of Hunk’s humidifier.

There was nothing here, not even the hum of an engine, but more than that it was that he had no one to talk with, not a single gentle touch to be had. Lance wrapped his arms tighter about his middle despite the pain the action caused.

He wondered if this torture was intended or not.

He wasn’t sure if it hurt more or less than the shocks and the painful fluid injections.

He let out a soft sigh and pressed his nose against his shoulder.

“Um, good night I guess, Grape. And… and thank you again.”

Lance fell asleep to the silence pressing in.

xxx

It had been ten days.

The Druids were arriving tomorrow.

Yuldak was glad he was not the only one who seemed on-edge from the news. The Druids may be loyal to Emperor Zarkon but that didn’t make them or their abilities any less terrifying, especially as Yuldak knew fellow Galrans had been on the receiving end of their power and experiments more than once as punishment handed down from higher up.

But they weren’t here to punish anyone in Commander Trazak’s ship.

They were here for the Red Paladin.

The Red Paladin who had grown near silent over the last few days even though Yuldak had learned he was being given injections to keep his body hydrated and somewhat sustained so he could survive the Druids’ tortures. He didn’t think the silence even had anything to do with the pain serum being fed with the injections that Zhao had bragged about in the common lounge because why not make the Paladin suffer more?

Yuldak’s stomach had turned as the announcement had been met with cheering and different guards actively volunteered to be there to hold down the writhing Paladin when they were administered.

Yuldak had not.

This…

This was not the Empire he wanted to serve.

The Empire was trying to spread their glory, their prosperity, and bring order and rule to a lawless universe. Yuldak understood sacrifices had to be made to do that, he understood that some aliens resisted the change and had to be eliminated for the greater good.

But to so happily torture a defenseless prisoner? If it had been for interrogation Yuldak would have understood, but his fellow Galra did not want answers.

They just wanted to hear the human scream.

It was a sound Yuldak heard even in his dreams.

He hated it.

He hated that he could do nothing about it. This was the way things were, the way they had to be.

That’s what he told himself. The Paladin was the enemy and this had to be done.

But in the few glances he allowed himself sometimes, when the human had fallen into those deeper breaths of sleep, he did not see an enemy curled up in the cell.

He saw softness and hurt and pain and now that fluids had been restored he sometimes saw the trickle of tears that crept out in the defenseless of dreams and nightmares.

And although Yuldak had been present a few times when Zhao had activated the cuffs, for sport and nothing else, and while the Paladin had not begged for mercy the sharp edge of his glare had lessened and he no longer retorted or spoke.

It had been two days since the human had even said the word “Grape” that was apparently Yuldak’s moniker, merely curling up on his slab and the only sounds being that of his breath and the clink of his cuffs.

The figure lying there did not look like an enemy to Yuldak. He looked hurt and tired and sad (although not scared, never scared and Yuldak knew he shouldn’t be impressed by that but he was because Zhao terrified him and the idea of being tortured was terrifying too and yet this human refused to give into that fear) and so, so young.

Yuldak was halfway through his shift when he heard the prisoner awaken, the breathing picking up in pace before it culminated in a gasp followed by a dry cough. They may have been providing his body sustenance but there was no comfort in it.

The cough kept going.

And going.

Finally it abated and Yuldak heard the prisoner let out a shuddering breath before shifting, likely sitting up.

Yuldak’s right hand tightened on his staff…

And his left wrapped around the item he’d brought. It wasn’t treasonous if he gave it to the Paladin. Not even close.

But…

But it was an act of kindness and if Zhao knew about it the young Galran knew he would be punished.

He swallowed thickly…

And turned to face the prisoner.

He wasn’t sure who was more surprised as the human’s white and blue eyes widened as their gazes met.

“Um, hi, Grape,” the Paladin said, raising one hand in a wave. Bruises and claw marks and dried blood from the forced injections and holding greeted Yuldak’s eyes.

His stomach turned again.

He took one step forward and then another, metal boots clanking.

The human’s throat bobbed, eyes darting to Yuldak’s staff, before landing back on his face.

Yuldak reached the cell bars.

His hand trembled.

And before he could think on it anymore he thrust his fist through the bars and then uncurled it.

Five small yellow orbs, slightly warm from how hard he’d been clutching them but fortunately not sticky, rested there.

The Paladin did not move from where he was sitting on the bed.

“They’re… they’re dagiko candies,” Yuldak said softly.

It still sounded like he was shouting.

“For your throat,” he continued when the Paladin remained on the bed, something unidentifiable flitting across his face.

“...why?” the human asked just as quietly, eyes going from the candy to meet Yuldak’s gaze.

Yuldak gave a slight shake of his head.

He still didn’t entirely know himself.

He just knew that it felt right.

The human eased himself off the bed, steps cautious. His hand reached out and smooth fingers brushed against Yuldak’s palm as they scooped the candies up, both of his smaller hands needed to hold them all.

He didn’t pull away, fingers curled around the candy but resting on Yuldak’s palm.

The human’s hands were warm.

“Thank you,” he whispered, before taking a few steps back.

Yuldak straightened and inclined his head.

“What do they taste like?” he asked, depositing them on his bed where they attempted to roll before he corralled them against one hand.

Yuldak gave a shrug. “Sweet,” he said after a moment. He had no idea what a human’s palate was in comparison to a Galran.

That seemed to be enough as the human scooped one up and popped it in his mouth without any further hesitation.

Yuldak couldn’t explain why such a sight warmed him.

It increased as the human’s face lit up and a smile, so soft, pulled up his mouth and his eyes brightened.

“It tastes like butterscotch!” the human exclaimed, at a volume Yuldak had not heard since the second day. “Vanilla and butterscotch!”

“They are my sister’s favorite.”

Yuldak’s eyes widened as soon as the words were out.

Why had he just said that?

The human’s smile widened. “You have a sister? I have two! And two brothers. Is she your younger sister? What’s her name? I’m… I’m Lance, by the way.”

Yuldak swallowed thickly.

What did he do now?

“I… I can’t talk to you,” he said, backing further up although he didn’t turn around.

Rule number two: don’t engage.

Don’t engage don’t engage don’t engage.

The human seemed to deflate in front of him. “Oh. Right. You’re the guard, I’m the prisoner.” He mustered up a smile. “I get it.”

Yuldak gave a stiff nod of his head and turned around to face the hallway.

“Um, do… do you mind if I talk still?”

Yuldak gave the barest shake of his head.

“And um, can I know your name?”

He shook his head again. No. That was dangerous.

“Are… are you okay with my name for you? Grape?”

That was the fruit that Lan— no, the human, even knowing his name Yuldak could not use it, not even in his own mind — had first mentioned. Yuldak inclined his head.

Gracias, Grape,” the human said softly and while the word did not translate — perhaps some dialect of his species — Yuldak could hear the sincerity behind it. “They’re…” and the human’s voice sounded choked now. “They really are sweet.”

He didn’t say it but Yuldak could hear it.

“So are you.”

And while the human did not talk much for the remainder of his shift, Yuldak could hear him sucking on and then chewing on the candies to eliminate them before Zhao arrived.

Yuldak couldn’t wipe the smile off his face the entire time.

xxx

Yuldak was not needed for his next shift. The Druids had taken the prisoner to their interrogation room and he would not be returned to his cell until later in the evening. He’d been told to enjoy the day off that he would still be paid for.

He couldn’t.

All he could think about was what the Druids were doing to La— to the human.

He knew it was necessary. The Paladin had information that the Galra could use. He just… he hoped that the human was talking, was telling them what they wanted to know to spare himself the pain.

But…

He remembered the defiance, the lack of fear, and he knew that the Paladin would do no such thing.

He told himself the Paladin had brought this upon himself, that he was an enemy and he deserved whatever pain the Druids bestowed. This wasn’t the guards abusing their power, this was a prisoner of war and they were in a war and this was necessary.

The memories of the prisoner’s screams haunted him that day.

xxx

The prisoner looked awful.

He was sprawled on the floor, both purple and black shirts missing and long red marks — magic whipping, Yuldak faintly noted, a Druid favorite — criss-crossing over his back and wrapping about his torso. His skin was a few shades paler and he was shaking, head pressed into his upper arm and muffled breaths echoing in the cell.

His feet, already bare, were now sporting the same red marks on the bottom and they kept twitching intermittently.

Yuldak turned around and took up his post.

His mantra of ‘this was necessary, this is just, this is the enemy,’ was interrupted when La— the Paladin let out a weak cough and then a stuttered, “Gr-grape?”

He sounded so young.

How old was this Paladin? Fifty deca-phoebs, maybe? Sixty? Yuldak had no idea what the lifespan of a human was but this one had to be young.

Too young to be subjected to Druids.

Too young to be fighting in a war.

But no. He had been the one to don the armor, to become a Paladin of Voltron. He knew the risks.

He had chosen this.

The prisoner let out another weak sounding cough and it was followed by a whimper along with the sound of a body shifting on the ground.

“Grape?”

Yuldak chomped on his lip to keep silent.

A soft sigh.

“Sorry. I… I know you can’t. I just…” the human let out a low laugh that didn’t sound humorous at all. “Sorry. I’ll… I’ll be quiet.”

Quiet consisted of a few more whimpers and a low breathy sob along with the sound of a body hitting the ground and then a sharper cry.

Yuldak turned.

His eyes widened.

How had he missed it?

The Paladin’s left arm was broken, twisted the way he knew it shouldn’t go at the elbow. He’d been attempting to lever himself up, likely for the bed, but the limb had collapsed below him.

The human was curled up around it, face pressed into the opposite shoulder to muffle any further sounds.

Yuldak’s feet were moving before he gave them permission.

Within a breath he was kneeling at the Paladin’s side, cell door swinging wide open behind him. He knew this could be a trap, knew that he would be more than fired if another came by and saw this carelessness, but…

He did not care.

The Paladin did not make the break for freedom either, his wounds and exhaustion keeping him grounded.

He stiffened as Yuldak placed a hand along his raised shoulder and tear-rimmed eyes lifted free from where they’d been hidden.

“Gr-grape? What are you—?”

He broke off with as gasp as Yuldak slipped his other hand and arm beneath the human’s legs, tightened his hand on the shoulder and lifted him up.

Yuldak almost dropped him at how light the human was.

How breakable.

He held the slender figure for all of a moment before he gently lowered him back to the bed on the human’s right side and then gave him a nudge to push him fully onto his stomach.

The angry wounds stared up at him.

There was nothing more he could do though. Any treatment would easily be noticeable as well as any comforts he provided — a blanket, even, as the human trembled.

There was only one way to spare the human pain.

“You must answer them,” he said softly.

His hand was still resting on the Paladin’s shoulder — why? Why had he not removed it? Why had the Paladin actually leaned into his touch? — so he felt the entire body stiffen and then the shake of a head against the slab.

“You must,” Yuldak insisted. “Otherwise they will…”

This was only day one. Yuldak was terrified for the fragile human what more his body could endure.

“I can’t,” came the muffled whisper. “They… they want to know about h-home,” and the human’s voice broke. “And my team. My f-family. They’ll hurt them. I… I can’t.”

Loyalty.

Honor.

Sacrifice.

Something twisted further in Yuldak’s chest.

He knew of those things well. All were of the highest importance to a Galran.

And this alien… he upheld those ideals moreso than his own kin on the prison ship. Zhao and the others had no honor.

There was still nothing he could do.

He’d lingered far too long already.

He stepped back, hand falling away from the human’s shoulder.

A pair of bright white and blue eyes followed him. “Stay?” the human whispered and Yuldak felt something even more intense take root in his stomach.

Fear.

The prisoner had somehow grown attached to him, trusted him to a degree… If the others found out they would use that connection, they would expect Yuldak to go along with it and he should be honored to do so and serve his Empire.

He felt his stomach twist thinking about it and the feeling intensified when he realized that he did not want to.

That was a treasonous thought.

He practically retreated from the cell, door closing behind him with a violent clang. Yuldak forced himself not to look at the human for the remainder of his shift.

He felt sick.

xxx

Lance had stopped trying to count the days. They blurred together now, no routine even to be found in sleep or injections as the Druids summoned for him at all times and he’d arrive back to find Scowl again and no idea if he’d been gone for eight varga or twenty-four.

All he knew was he hurt and there was no relief.

There would be none because he would not say anything.

The Druids had tried bribery after shattering his kneecap (not running, no escaping, as though he ever had a chance) had yielded only the same, ragged screams of before. Water, they offered. Food. A healing session.

All he had to do was talk.

Lance kept his lips pressed together and only shaken his head.

No.

Never.

He’d resolved to say nothing because as the sessions grew longer and the pain more intense he could not trust himself to say something that could be used against him.

He began to forget what his voice sounded like aside from the noise it made when he screamed.

Peace only came when he was brought back to his cell and dumped there. He spent those hours or minutes, whatever they were, huddled on the floor as he had no strength left to pull himself onto the bed and really, why bother when it was the same as the floor?

He wondered how long it would take for them to kill him.

He wondered if they’d tell the others.

Would they wave his death in their faces? At least then they’d have closure, he supposed. Unlike with Shiro.

He wondered if Shiro was undergoing the same thing he was.

He tried not think about it.

It was getting easier each day as his thoughts ran in circles, there but not so tangible anymore.

He was breaking.

It couldn’t be much longer until he fully broke.

The soft clank of his cell door opening didn’t even draw a wince this time. There was no point. He knew what was coming.

A clawed hand descended on his arm…

And gave it a squeeze.

What?

He found himself being hauled to sitting then, another hand looped about his chest, and he let out a whimper as fire erupted in his chest from where one of the Galrans — the Druids had been inviting them to participate in interrogation turned torture sessions — had kicked him with a spiked, booted foot.

He was pretty sure he had multiple broken ribs.

Even with his eyes closed the world spun dizzily as he was maneuvered to a sit against the cell wall.

Something cold bumped against his mouth and Lance couldn’t help but flinch that time.

Poison?

Acid?

“It’s water,” came a soft voice.

Familiar.

Lance cracked open his eyes and Grape’s visage stared back at him.

What?

“Drink,” the Galran said, pressing what Lance realized now was a cup against his lips.

Water.

He hadn’t had it in…

In a really, really long time.

This had to be a trap.

But it was Grape.

Lance felt hot tears pricking his eyes.

He didn’t know what to trust.

“Drink.” He heard Grape swallow. “Lance,” his name was barely a whisper. “Drink.”

His name.

No one else here knew his name.

Grape had said his name.

Lance parted his lips and water, soothing and cold, trickled into his mouth.

“Easy, easy,” Grape murmured as Lance whined lowly as the cup was pulled away after barely a mouthful. “You don’t want to choke.”

Lance supposed that was accurate as his throat contracted as he swallowed, the sensation almost foreign.

The cup was lowered several more times, each sip a little burst of relief.

“Tell them something,” Grape said. It sounded like a plea. “Anything.”

“I…” Lance shuddered as his first word in a while passed his lips. “I can’t.”

Grape let out a sigh.

“You will die.”

“I know,” Lance whispered.

He’d accepted his fate. He would die before he endangered anyone he cared about. He would not take them with him.

He felt himself being lowered then, only Grape’s arm about his shoulders having kept him upright, although with far more care than when he was tossed into his cell.

“Rest,” Grape said softly. “I am on guard for six more varga.”

Meaning six varga of whatever could be called peace and rest.

“Thank you,” Lance whispered.

He fell asleep for the first time since the Druids arrived without a nightmare.

xxx

“Do you know why you are here, Guard Yuldak?”

Yuldak resisted the urge to gulp, keeping his heels clicked and his salute steady.

“No, Commander Trazak, sir.”

He couldn’t know about Yuldak’s kindnesses towards the Paladin over the past several weeks: water and a few more candies and a heat pack a number of times that had almost hurt Yuldak more than the Paladin to take away, and smuggled pain relievers to take off at least the edge from the torture, and, even more telling, the moments he would sit at the human’s side and hum old lullabies his mother used to sing for him or brush his thumb in small circles on an uninjured patch of skin as he’d seen the way the human leaned into the kind touches. Yuldak had been careful, or so he thought, and he knew that La— the prisoner had said nothing and would say nothing.

“You are the only guard aboard my ship that has not participated in the interrogation of our number one prisoner. And,” Trazak leaned across his desk, “that is just not right for one of his regular guards.”

Yuldak did not like where this was going.

“Report to the interrogation chamber immediately to assist the Druids. Dismissed.”

Yuldak swallowed down his protest that would only cast suspicion upon him and Yuldak did want to serve the Empire, he truly did.

Just…

Not like this.

Heavy steps carried him to the glorified torture chamber, heart thumping in his ears and palms sweating. He wiped them on his armor, hoped the shine wasn’t too visible, and pushed open the door.

Ragged screams greeted him.

The human was hanging by his wrists — not a care shown for his still badly broken left arm — from a chain in the ceiling and his feet were held down by a matching one. One Druid was behind him, a whip of crackling black energy in hand that was raining down blow after blow while the other was by the human’s front, likely the interrogator.

“Ah, guard,” the interrogator noticed him. “Come here.”

Leaden feet brought him to their side, features obscured by a mask. “Say hello to our precious prisoner,” the Druid sneered. “Paladin, say hello to a familiar face.”

The human’s head jerked up at that.

Yuldak hated the way those blue and white eyes widened as they caught sight of him and then his head slumped down.

Resignation.

A shudder shook the bleeding shoulders and Yuldak just knew it was a silent sob.

He’d caused that.

“I will ask the questions,” the Druid said. “And you,” the other Druid came over with a whip, a real one, but the strand spiked with small barbs, “will administer a strike for each answer that is not to our satisfaction. Understand?”

Yuldak forced himself to incline his head.

“Not much of a talker, are you?” laughed the former torturer. “It is a good thing it is not you we are trying to get answers from.”

Both Druids laughed then, a high cackling sound that made Yuldak’s fur prickle.

“Let us begin. Human, again,” the word was said with a sigh, “what planet do you and the other Paladins hail from?”

Silence.

Yuldak’s hand tightened on the handle of the whip.

“That is your cue, guard.”

Yuldak sucked in a breath, said a silent apology, and flung the whip forward.

The barbs sank into tanned flesh and then pulled themselves free as Yuldak drew back.

Crimson splattered the air, the ground, and Yuldak’s armor and face and the Paladin let out a choked cry.

Yuldak did his best not to shudder.

“And again,” the Druid said, dark joy in their voice. “Let’s have some fun now.”

xxx

“I’m sorry.”

The apology hung in the air, stagnant and stiff. Yuldak knew it was not enough. The bleeding, raw wounds facing him on the prisoner’s back, marks he had made, told him it wasn’t.

The Paladin had been suffering them for varga, Yuldak reporting to his barracks for the remainder of the afternoon before his actual shift started, and the few cleaning cloths and pain relievers he’d brought would do little.

He’d done that. He’d made those wounds because La— the prisoner had not answered a single question. He’d passed out a few times but to Yuldak’s horror the Druids revived him with a modified adrenaline shot and now he knew why sometimes the human would shudder and tremble even when he’d told Yuldak there hadn’t been shocks that day.

“‘s not your fault,” came the mumbled response. “You… you had to.”

The human’s understanding made something warm bloom in his chest, how despite all that he had done, all that had been done to the Paladin in the name of the Empire, he could still hold such forgiveness. It just made the ache that had taken up near permanent residence hurt more.

“I am still sorry.”

He carefully lowered one of the damp cloths to the flayed open skin, another apology leaving his lips as the human let out a choked cry. He pushed on, wiping up the worst of the blood and following with a salve that would not do much in terms of healing but would numb the wounds for a little while.

“Gr-grape? How… how long have I… have I been here?”

“Just over two phoebs.”

“Oh.”

The response was small.

“I just… I thought…” A sob was held in the human’s voice and his body trembled. “I’m… I’m going to die here, aren’t I? S-soon?”

Yuldak didn’t answer.

He couldn’t.

The silence was telling enough.

“Oh,” the Paladin said again, this time heavier.

Resigned.

Young.

“How old are you?”

The question came before Yuldak could silence it. He’d made a point to not ask the Paladin anything personal, that could be seen as information seeking. He… he didn’t want to lose the human’s trust and he still didn’t know how to explain that feeling.

That treason.

“Seventeen,” came the whispered response without hesitation. “Maybe eighteen. I… I don’t know how long we’ve…”

Yuldak waited for the unit, something cold overtaking the warmth in the silence. The human couldn’t mean deca-phoebs… right?

“Eighteen...?” Yuldak prompted as the quiet stretched.

“Um, years. I… I think that’s… that’s deca-phoebs? M-maybe?”

Yuldak sat back with a thump on the floor.

A child. That’s what this human was, a child, a kit.

“Grape?” the human’s head turned on the floor. “Are… are you okay?”

No.

No he was not.

He had tortured a child.

Children were beyond treasure in the Galra Empire, the conception of them incredibly difficult and his mother had been considered blessed to have had two. They did not join any sort of war effort or training until they were nearly three hundred deca-phoebs and even that was young. And while no doubt humans lifespans were not half as long…

This was still wrong.

But the Druids couldn’t have known. Yuldak tried to comfort himself with that. They did not know they had a child here. If… if he told them then they—

No.

His blood ran cold.

No, they would not stop.

It was as he’d observed earlier: this Paladin, no matter how young, was the enemy. He had killed Galra. He had information to assist the Empire.

They would not stop.

The human, this child, who had more honor and loyalty than most Galrans Yuldak knew of, would die here.

Alone.

With just Yuldak to silently mourn.

His hand clenched around the jar of salve, cracking it.

No.

He would not allow it.

He wanted the Empire to succeed. He truly did.

But…

But not like this. There was no honor or glory in this.

He needed to return the human — return Lance — to his team.

It was treason of the highest order.

It was also the honorable thing to do.

“Lance,” the human’s name rolled strangely off his tongue and he felt the figure stiffen beneath his other hand. “I… I need transmission codes. For… For Voltron. I…” he swallowed thickly. “I… I want to… to help,” the last word came out a breath.

Yuldak knew what it sounded like. He knew he could be seen as a plant, as a trick, and all of this kindness had been leading to this moment. It would be like the Druids to do so, to use means of lies and deceit.

Lance’s head shifted again, blue and white eyes meeting Yuldak’s yellow. Yuldak felt like he was the one being questioned then as they stared him down although without any malice.

After a moment the Paladin gave a weak nod.

“I… I trust you,” he whispered and with those simple words Yuldak felt the ice replaced once more with gentle warmth. Somehow that trust, that show of support from an enemy, meant more than all the praise and accolades he had ever received before.

This felt right.

Lance whispered out a string of numbers, an encrypted channel that only Voltron’s allies knew of, and that a message could be left there.

Yuldak hurried for the communication room once his shift ended, heart in his throat.

It was time to commit treason.

xxx

“You are… Grape?”

The name sounded strange coming from someone other than Lance especially in the strange, accented tone, but Yuldak inclined his head at the address and to the four cloaked figures standing before him.

“A map,” he held out a datachip and the smallest figure took it. “Showing where your Paladin is located. Wait two varga, attack me, his guard, and make your escape. But,” he met the jewel-toned eyes of the lead figure, “do not delay. He does not have much time.”

It had taken nearly another movement to coordinate this meeting at a refueling base. He’d given the coordinates to it in his message, identified himself as solely Grape and said he wished to help them retrieve their Paladin. He had not dared include anything else, except for a single word the human had insisted he include: mullet. It would tell the others that it really was him, Lance said with a small smile tugging up his lips; the first one Yuldak had seen in movements.

Yuldak did not know what this code word meant but knew how dangerous it was that he was privy to it and promised himself that he would never let it fall into the Empire’s hands. They would win this war still against the Paladins of Voltron, but they would do so with honor.

Honor was not the tortured, abused child that faded a little more every day as the Druids became more ruthless as they too saw that answers were not forthcoming.

“Thank you,” said the largest figure, voice thick. “We’ve… we’ve been searching and searching a-and…”

Yuldak inclined his head, the thanks making him uncomfortable, and turned on his heel. “Two varga,” he reminded them.

In two varga everything would change.

xxx

“They are coming,” Yuldak said quietly as he stood at Lance’s side, staff firmly in hand. “Any dobash now.”

The human gave him a watery, wavery smile.

“Thank you, Grape,” he whispered. “I…”

“No,” Yuldak shook his head. “Do not thank me. Not… not for this.”

“You’re… you’re risking everything,” Lance countered. “For me.  The… the enemy. I, just… gracias.”

That word again, that meant thank you and yet something even more.

“You are not my enemy,” Yuldak said softly and he lowered his free hand to Lance’s less-injured shoulder.

He didn’t realize how true it was until he had said it. The Paladins of Voltron may be the Empire’s enemy but…

But this human was not his enemy.

There was a hissing sound then, a heated circle being cut into the ceiling above them.

The Paladins had arrived.

“Take care, Lance,” Yuldak squeezed the human’s shoulder.

And the ceiling crashed down.

Within the moment there was a streak of a reverse bladed sword coming to knock him out as requested.

But before that he saw Lance’s smile, white and blue eyes as light as they had been that first day, and heard the word “Grape” whispered one last time at him.

And then darkness as the strike connected, unforgiving and cold.

Yuldak felt only warmth and peace.

He had thought the highest honor he had could have ever achieved was standing guard over a Paladin of Voltron.

He had been wrong.

Freeing a Paladin of Voltron, freeing Lance, from his imprisonment was the highest honor.

And Yuldak had never felt more proud.