“Coran, could it really be true?” The Princess’ eyes sparkled with hope and elation. “Could the Almiri really be alive?”
Coran studied the missive before him, stroking his mustache thoughtfully. “Well, the coordinates attached match the Almiri homeworld, and the electronic seal is unbroken.”
“It’s amazing,” Pidge chimed in from her Paladin seat, where she was busily studying the code behind the message they’d received. “Any hack attempts leave a tiny mark in the code. Genius.”
Allura was practically glowing. “They must have heard about Voltron’s return,” she said, clenching her hands tightly in front of her.
“Who exactly are the Almiri?” asked Shiro. Despite the Alteans’ clear joy, he still looked wary.
“They are Altea’s oldest allies,” Allura explained as she nudged Coran away from the screens. “They were the ones who taught us how to manipulate quintessence, millenia ago, before Altea became the touchstone that it was.”
“The Galra haven’t found them? After all of this time?” Hunk questioned. He was leaning over Pidge’s shoulders as she picked through the code.
“I suspect they may have a quintessence based protection system,” answered Coran. “They were the discoverers of it, they have a far deeper understanding than any other species in the universe.”
Lance, sitting in his Paladin seat, looked bored. “So they, what, invited us to dinner?”
“To put it simply, yes.” A small smile grew on Allura’s lips as she typed the answer to the missive. “We will respond immediately. The Almiri could be powerful allies in the fight against Zarkon.”
Keith chewed his inner lip and cast a glance around the room. He’d been trying to keep quiet lately, trying to fly under Allura’s radar, but no one else looked like they were going to bring it up. So he braced himself for the look Allura was going to give him and spoke up.
“Princess, what if it’s a trap?”
The whole room paused, waiting to see how Allura would react; moments that had become increasingly common in the last few weeks. Allura hadn’t responded yet, she was just standing there, so Keith gulped and continued the thought.
“I mean, you said it was from the home planet. Couldn’t the Galra have taken over and used their technology to send the message to lure us in?”
Allura’s expression turned a bit prim, the set of her jaw shifting in such a way that Keith had learned meant irritation.
“The Galra aren’t in the habit of adapting to systems other than their own,” she said tightly, not looking at him. “They’re more the conquer and destroy type.”
She sounded like Keith personally had engaged in conquering and destroying. When he looked around for support, all he found on the faces of his teammates was the thing he hated the most: pity.
All, that is, except for one.
“Keith has a point, Princess,” Shiro said, and Keith let out his held breath as the attention passed from him to the Black Paladin. “It might be best to approach this with caution.”
“Fine,” she answered, tone verging on a snap. “Coran, please set us a course for Almirin.”
“Right away, Princess.” He hustled off to his own console, while Allura remained at hers, scrolling through something or another. Probably to avoid acknowledging Keith’s existence any further.
Across the room, Pidge excitedly pointed something out to Hunk. Lance wandered over to bother them, and the team meeting seemed to have ended.
So, after murmuring a soft excuse to Shiro, Keith slipped off the bridge.
A couple vargas’ travel and a wormhole later the Castleship was arriving at Almirin. It reminded Keith of Earth with its clearly defined oceans and continents, shadowed by white clouds. Across the land sparkled buildings of gold, which was the only detail discernable from their distance.
And then there was the bubble.
The whole planet was locked behind a pale green bubble, like some sort of force field. The readings they got from it made Coran’s jaw drop.
“The field is made from quintessence,” he informed them, gathered on the bridge in their Paladin armor. “Nearly indestructible! Ah, if only Altea had the chance to finish our quintessence research. We could have done amazing things.”
Allura stepped up to her console, her eyes shining down at the planet like she was seeing Altea itself.
“I’ll send a message informing them we’ve arrived.”
While they waited, the Garrison trio stood close to each other, Pidge pointing out interesting things on the planet below while Hunk speculated about the welcome they would receive and Lance, as usual, found some jokes to crack.
Keith merely hung in Shiro’s orbit, not saying much. He hadn’t been since they made contact with the Blade of Marmora. No one had brought it up, besides Hunk on their trip to the Weblum, but Keith could feel it hanging over his head like a stormcloud. Or a neon sign, flashing brightly and labelling him GALRA TRAITOR.
Shiro nudged him slightly. “Looks a little like home, doesn’t it?” he said in a soft voice.
Keith’s first thought was to wonder if he could really call Earth home anymore. Then he noticed Shiro’s sad, longing smile and felt guilt build in his throat.
“Yeah,” he replied, swallowing back his doubts for Shiro’s sake. “It does. Reminds me of the Amazon with all the trees.”
“Paladins!” Allura chirped to get their attention. “We’ve been granted access through the field. Please get to your Lions. Shiro, if you would mind taking Coran and me?”
“Not at all,” Shiro answered, polite as always. One by one the Paladins headed for their individual Lion hangers. Keith left last, hoping to stay out of Allura’s way, but instead found her waiting for him in the hall.
“Keith,” she said curtly as she stepped in front of him. Once again he found himself holding his breath. “I have a request for you.”
The way she said it made it very clear that it wasn’t a request. So Keith nodded, waiting for her to continue.
“If you could, please refrain from mentioning your… heritage while we’re on Almirin. It could make discussions difficult if they knew.” She said the word heritage like a curse, like something disgusting that had to be spat out.
Keith looked down and away, the only indication he gave of the shame bubbling in his gut.
“Of course, Princess.”
She gave him a stiff nod before turning smartly on her heel and marching away. Keith stood there for a moment, letting the sick feeling dissipate. Then, letting out a breath, he continued on his way.
He joined the other Lions outside of the Castle. Just as he arrived the quintessence field around the planet began to shift and ripple, a hole opening in the center. It unfolded enough for the five of them to fly through, then closed again behind them as they flew over the planet.
Up close the planet seemed to be almost entirely jungle. The buildings of the city sparkled with gold and emerald, many of them topped with towers that soared into the heavens and ended in thin points.
The other four Lions followed Black to the grand palace. The massive golden building sat in the center of a sandstone plaza, carved in intricate designs visible from the air. That led Lance on a bit of a tangent about aliens visiting Earth.
“I mean,” Hunk said, interrupting him in the middle of a thought. “We don’t need to theorize about it. Keith is living proof of alien contact.” He, Lance, and Pidge laughed at that.
Keith muted his comms, and didn’t turn them on again until they landed.
The minute Keith stepped out of Red he felt that something was wrong. The air felt… heavy. Like it was pressing down on him, like layers of earth over a coffin, like he was being buried alive.
But he could already see the crowd of greeters waiting for them. So he took a deep breath, geared himself up, and resolved not to say anything.
“Greetings, Paladins of Voltron!” called one of the aliens as they approached. They stood on a pedestal, a step above the crowd around them, clothed in bulky, emerald green robes. They looked vaguely Altean with their pointed ears, but their skin was the colors of gold and bronze, and their marks made intricate designs on their faces and running down their necks. “And a most humble welcome to the illustrious Princess Allura!”
The crowd burst into cheers and applause. Allura smiled and waved. Keith rolled his shoulders against the weight on them and tried not to look too awkward.
“Come!” exclaimed the greeter after a few minutes of this. “Let me escort you to our King and Queen.”
At this the crowd parted, allowing the Paladins and the Alteans to approach the palace’s entrance.
Allura headed their procession, regal and stately. Coran followed, waving jovially at the crowd. Then Shiro, who marched looking straight ahead, never wavering. Then Lance, preening under the attention, and Hunk and Pidge, who gave a few shy smiles and waves. Keith ended the line, feeling his breathing start to stutter under the gazes of so many people.
And maybe it was just his anxiety getting to him, or the weird weighted atmosphere, or cultural difference, but he could’ve sworn the aliens’ faces changed as he passed by. Their expressions seemed more closed off, less happy, more suspicious.
But, like everything else, he did his best to ignore it. The last thing he wanted was to cause a scene with such an important ally.
After climbing a long set of golden steps, they finally reached the grand doors of the palace. They slowly swung open, and with a flourish from their guide, they walked inside.
Shiro couldn’t say he was a fan of the Almiri’s love for gold. It gleamed so brightly; without his helmet he could feel a headache building.
Even so, the palace was impressive. It reminded him of the Castle of Lions, but with the opulence cranked up to eleven.
The throne room they were led into was crammed to bursting with Almiri nobility, aliens everywhere bedecked in brightly colored cloth and jewels. At the far end was a set of conjoined thrones, in the ever popular gold, with two figures sitting upon its two halves.
The one on the left had eyes that glowed silver, teal hair falling over her shoulders in elaborate braids. Marks in a matching shade curled around her cheekbones and back towards her hairline.
The other’s hair was ruby red and slicked back from his face. His marks were like blades, plunging from his eyes all the way down his neck until they disappeared under his gleaming white collar.
“Paladins,” said the King as he rose from his seat. “Princess Allura.”
Allura beamed up at him, clearly elated to be finding this scrap of Altea that still remained, small and tangential as it was.
“King Hadris,” she said, sinking into a curtsy Shiro had never seen her do before. “Allow me to introduce the new Paladins of Voltron.” She turned and beckoned to them, asking them to line up. Normally Shiro hated being put on display, but her eyes were shining with such pride that he couldn’t hold it against her.
So he got in position and didn’t cringe when she gestured to him, proclaiming grandly, “Shiro, Paladin of the Black Lion.”
The crowd of nobility cheered. It took everything Shiro had not to flinch, memories of the arena flashing in his mind as the King and Queen inclined their heads to him.
Next was Pidge, who gave a shy smile. Then Lance, who though he did strike a pose, didn’t wink at any of the noblewomen or be otherwise suggestive, which Shiro appreciated. Then Hunk, who waved a little and blushed.
Then Keith, and although Allura’s voice didn’t waver in the least, the expressions on the faces all around them abruptly dropped.
Keith, singled out in the pointed silence, folded his arms and shifted from foot to foot. He looked to Shiro, who tried his best to look reassuring despite the dread beginning to build.
“Princess,” the king said gravely, still standing. “You did not have the opportunity to complete your training with manipulating quintessence, did you?”
Allura’s expression turned strained, but she answered, “No, unfortunately I did not.”
The king nodded to himself. The Queen squeezed his hand, then released it.
“I fear this is the reason you’ve been led so terribly astray,” said the Queen in a sympathetic tone. “But our people are so sensitive to quintessence. We can see what you do not. We can sense what is unseen.”
It was with a sickening chill that Shiro realized her eyes were locked on Keith.
The King took over again, narrowing his eyes as he spoke. “I’m afraid, Princess, that Voltron has been infiltrated by a Galra spy.”
All of them froze. Almost unwillingly Shiro felt his eyes drawn to Keith, the same as everyone else’s. He’d gone pale, flicking his gaze from Allura’s face to the King’s, not moving a muscle.
Allura exhaled through her nose, long and slow, and Keith’s shoulders dropped a centimeter.
“Your Majesty,” she began, and Shiro shifted a step closer to Keith. Something was brewing in the air and he didn’t think it was going to be good. “We have already been informed of the Red Paladin’s Galra heritage. While it is… undesirable--” Keith’s spine tightened. “-- We are assured of his loyalty.”
The Queen shook her head sadly, while the King’s expression grew ever more grim. “Of all people, Princess, you should be the first to understand the dangers of trusting the Galra.”
There was a moment of tense silence. Allura’s face was unreadable. Shiro wanted to step forward and defend Keith, but for the moment reined himself in. Allura was the diplomat, after all.
Eventually she simply said, “The Red Lion has chosen him.”
Keith’s head didn’t move, but his eyes turned to the upper corner of the room.
The Queen stood alongside her husband. “As the Black chose Zarkon,” she said, and Shiro felt a rock settle in his stomach.
Something bad was going to happen. He could feel it, and so could the other Paladins. Pidge’s eyes numbered off escape routes, her hand at her side, ready to summon her bayard. Lance seemed tense, just as on guard as Pidge, and Hunk had a concerned, anxious look on his face.
But Keith didn’t reach for his bayard or his knife. He didn’t shift into a fighting stance or unfold his arms. He just stood there, waiting for whatever was coming.
“We cannot allow Voltron to be corrupted by the Galra a second time,” the King declared, his voice echoing through the throne room, his eyes flushed with emerald flames. Adrenaline was seeping into Shiro’s system-- he was ready to leap into action at any time, to run or to fight, but Allura’s face was made of stone. Keith just stood there, looking like the thirteen-year-old Shiro had bailed out of juvie all those years ago.
The King was still speaking. “Let him serve as an example to all the Galra,” he said, hatred burning in his eyes, mirrored on the face of every Almiri in the room. “The Almiri are not gone-- and we have not forgotten!”
With that his raised hand began to glow a familiar, magical silver. Keith let out a gasp and Shiro turned to see him surrounded in the same aura.
Then the King clenched his fist, and Keith crumbled to the floor, screaming.
For a second Shiro froze in utter horror. He’d never heard Keith scream like that. Even during the Blade Trials, when Antok’s sword had gone clean through his shoulder, he hadn’t screamed like that. This wasn’t just a cry of pain-- it was a wail of suffering, long and loud and ragged.
As soon as he snapped out of it he was at Keith’s side, kneeling and wrapping an arm around his shoulder. He couldn’t see any visible wounds, but in the middle of a magic space war, that hardly mattered.
Keith was on his knees, bent double, still screaming, deafening in Shiro’s ears. Tears poured down his cheeks.
Shiro looked up and around, wildly searching for anything to help. The rest of the team all just stood there, just as stunned as he had been. But not for long.
Pidge whirled on the rulers, bayard clenched in one fist. She didn’t raise it… yet.
“Stop it!” she cried, barely audible over Keith’s agony. “He’s one of us, you idiots!”
“Yeah, leave him alone!” Lance chimed in. He glared fiercely at the Almiri; more fiercely than anything Shiro had seen from him before.
“This is so messed up,” said Hunk. “Allura, make them stop, we can’t just let them hurt Keith like this, he’s our friend!”
Even Coran, who had thus far remained a neutral party in the whole debate around Keith’s DNA, urged, “Princess,” in a strained voice.
Still Allura stood there, watching with wide eyes as the King did whatever he was doing to Keith and the crowd went wild in the background.
Keith’s voice cracked painfully and his screams fractured into whimpers and gasped breaths. He keeled forward even more, until Shiro’s hold was the only thing keeping him from collapsing entirely to the floor.
“Please,” he heard, a whisper on an explosive exhale, and Shiro snapped.
“Allura!” he shouted, and the Princess visibly startled. “Stop this! You have to stop this!”
Outside, he could hear a Lion roaring. He could guess which one.
Thankfully, Allura seemed to come to her senses. Turning back to the King, she threw her shoulders back and proclaimed, “Enough!”
The King didn’t stop immediately, but after seeing something on Allura’s face, reluctantly let his fist fall open. The glow faded, and almost instantly Keith’s consciousness faded with it. He slumped into Shiro’s side, out for the count.
Shiro was so angry he could barely breathe.
“He is a Paladin,” Allura continued, voice as strong as ever, hiding any doubt. “And unless the Red Lion decides to choose another, he will remain a Paladin.”
“You are foolish and naive, Princess,” said the queen in an icy tone. The other Paladins fell back around Shiro and Keith, making a barrier between the raging crowd and them. As gently as he could, Shiro leaned Keith’s head against his shoulder and gathered him into his arms, staggering to his feet.
“Would you refuse an alliance for this?” Allura questioned. Her voice was steel, but so were the expressions on the King’s and Queen’s faces.
“We will not expose our people to the Galra threat,” said the King. “Regardless of your belief in the halfbreed’s loyalty.”
Shiro bristled. Before he could go after the King for his word choice, Allura turned away from them.
“Very well.” She held her head high, but her eyes were sad. “Come along, Paladins.”
Shiro followed her out of the palace. The others maintained their protective formation, and Coran jogged at his side, trying to ascertain Keith’s condition.
The crowd outside had dispersed. Probably frightened by Red, who prowled back and forth behind the other Lions, letting out dangerous growls.
Shiro held Keith a little more tightly against his chest.
By the time they reached the infirmary Keith was beginning to stir. Shiro set him down on one of the cots as the others crowded in, Coran going to fetch his medical scanner while the other Paladins hovered in a nearby corner.
Allura sank down onto the edge of the cot, eyes full of remorse as she watched Keith’s face contort into a grimace, the pain returning as he woke.
“Oh, Keith,” she breathed, not stirring an inch even when Coran waved his scanner over Keith’s body and through her line of sight. “I’m so sorry.”
“Oh, my,” murmured Coran, instantly hooking Shiro’s attention.
“What? What is it?”
Coran’s face crinkled up, distressed. “His quintessence. It appears to have been…” His expression darkened even further. “Twisted.”
Shiro’s stomach dropped out and several gasps came from the other Paladins.
“Can you fix it?” he asked Allura. To his relief she nodded, and judging by her behavior, he wouldn’t have to talk her into it.
Ever so gently, Allura leaned forward, touching her fingertips to Keith’s temples.
Keith turned his head away. His whole body had stiffened up in fear-- he probably thought he was going to be hurt again.
“I’m sorry,” Allura repeated, and more firmly put her fingers on him.
Keith tossed his head, a rough distressed sound escaping his throat. Shiro took one of his hands and squeezed, trying to give some sort of comfort. Allura began to glow and Keith made another noise, louder this time, and barely a second later the clank of armor had Shiro looking up.
Pidge had knelt on the other side of the cot. As Shiro watched she took Keith’s other hand.
Soon the whole group was gathered around the cot as Allura worked. At first Keith remained stiff, breathing heavily through his teeth, but gradually his muscles lost their tension.
After about half an hour Allura sat back, sweat beading her brow, but with a smile on her face.
Keith blinked his eyes open. For a second his face was blank, but then he blinked again and frowned.
“Princess?” His voice was hoarse from screaming, and Shiro felt a quick pulse of his earlier rage. This never should have happened to him.
“Are you in any pain?” Allura asked gently. Keith looked confused but shook his head, and Allura sighed in relief.
Keith looked down, and his expression only grew more confused when he saw everyone gathered around him. He tugged his hands away from Shiro and Pidge, and Shiro let him.
“What happened?” he asked, sitting up gingerly and rubbing the back of his head. “With the Almiri? Did we get an alliance?”
“No, we didn’t,” Shiro answered, his heart giving a painful pang when Keith’s face fell.
“But who cares?” said, surprisingly, Lance with a condescending scoff. “Those guys weren’t worth our time, anyway.”
Keith openly stared at him. Until Hunk chimed in, saying, “Yeah, Voltron is supposed to be a symbol of peace, right? Nobody would take us seriously if we allied with people who hurt our teammates.”
At that Keith looked away, a certain tiredness coming over his face. “You guys shouldn’t refuse allies just for me,” he said. “I’m not--”
“If you say you’re not worth it I will punch you,” Pidge broke in. She had that determined, intense glint in her eye. “You’re the Red Paladin. You’re our right hand. We need you.”
Keith looked taken aback. That wasn’t helped when Coran joined the conversation.
“Besides, lad, being Galra isn’t something to be ashamed of. Nor something you should be hurt for.”
That was a surprise to all of them. This whole time Shiro had assumed he agreed with Allura and was simply too polite to say so.
Apparently that wasn’t so, and despite his words not technically being addressed to anyone in particular, Allura looked ashamed.
“Keith,” she said, and winced when he instinctively tensed up at the sound of her voice. “I… I would like to say that I’m sorry for how I’ve acted.”
Keith twisted around to look at her, amazed. She continued, though her eyes were fastened on her lap, her shoulders curved with exhaustion.
“I… haven’t really had the opportunity to mourn for Altea properly. So I turn it into hatred for Zarkon, and the Galra, and when I learned you shared their blood I wanted to hate you, too.”
Finally she looked up. Keith was frozen, like a deer in the headlights. Shiro felt a bit like he was intruding, but not enough so to make him leave. Not after all of that.
God, he would hear those screams in his nightmares, for sure.
“But I shouldn’t have. I was wrong to treat you so badly, and I’m sorry. I’m sorry that it took something like this to make me realize.”
“I’m sorry, too,” Hunk said suddenly. “I shouldn’t have made fun of you or made all those jokes.”
“Me too,” said Pidge.
“Me three,” Lance tossed in, looking genuinely apologetic.
“I…” Keith was floundering. Probably still out of it from the pain, and unused to getting apologies or remorse. “I don’t… I mean, it’s not a big deal, you guys don’t have to…”
But it was a big deal, and they all knew it. Luckily for Keith, Coran took the opportunity to get back into the conversation.
“Now, now, everyone; Number Four needs his rest. Messing with someone’s quintessence can be very nasty indeed.”
Keith didn’t even try to argue, which was how Shiro knew for sure that he was exhausted.
“I’ll walk you to your room,” Shiro said, offering Keith a hand to help him to his feet. His legs still seemed unsteady, so Shiro walked a bit closer than he normally would have, just in case.
For the first leg of the journey there was silence between them. Then, about halfway to the Paladin’s quarters, Shiro stopped and pulled Keith into a hug.
Keith didn’t question it. He just relaxed, letting Shiro hold him up for a few seconds, letting himself be just a little vulnerable.
“I don’t know how to describe it,” he mumbled into Shiro’s shoulder. “It felt like… my DNA was unspooling. If that’s considered a painful experience, I guess.”
Shiro squeezed him tighter. He didn’t try to apologize, even as an act of sympathy, knowing Keith wouldn’t see the point in it. Instead Shiro just held him until he started to pull away, then let him go and continued towards Keith’s room.
Then they arrived, Shiro indulged in asking one more time if he was ok, if he felt any lingering pain. Keith shook his head, but hesitated before going into his room, so Shiro waited patiently for him to get his thoughts together.
“Do… do you think I can believe her? Allura, I mean.”
Now that was a heavy question. This would be a hard thing for Keith, he knew, whose natural defense mechanism was to shut things out before they had the opportunity to hurt him. Believing that Allura meant what she said and opening up again would be a risk. A very big risk.
But when Shiro thought back to Allura’s face in the infirmary, he couldn’t help but feel sympathy. She was a lot like Keith-- lashing out to keep herself from hurting more. Her grief had made her blind to friend and foe, which was where Shiro had found Keith when they first met.
“Yeah,” he answered with a smile. “I think you can.”