Keith awoke from a shallow sleep to the sound of Allura's voice over the intercom.
“Keith! Lance! I need you both in the control room immediately.”
He could hear the urgency in her tone, and he hoped this didn't mean an attack was happening. Of course, if that was the case, why would she only summon him and Lance?
With a groan, he turned over and reached underneath his pillow for his dagger. Just in case. He'd fallen asleep in his clothes again, so he needed no further preparation before he dashed out of the room.
He had no idea what time it was, but judging by how groggy he felt, it was probably the very early hours of the morning. Yawning, Keith stepped into the hallway and the doors to his bedroom slid shut behind him.
The doors to Lance’s room, he noticed, were still closed––and when he paused next to them, he heard no sound of movement from within. He knew Lance had a tendency to drag his feet in the morning, and for about half a second Keith considered knocking to make sure he was actually awake. But he ignored the impulse and kept walking, hands balled into fists at his sides.
As it turned out, it wouldn’t have been necessary anyway––because as Keith turned the corner, he saw Lance already walking down the hallway. He was moving at a leisurely pace, hands crammed into the pockets of the sweatpants he was wearing.
It took Keith a second to realize that Lance wasn’t in his pajamas or his usual outfit but was dressed in some kind of workout clothes. Sure enough, when he turned around at the sound of footsteps, Keith could see a dark patch of sweat around the collar of Lance’s gray T-shirt.
Lance raised his eyebrows, but otherwise his face remained relatively neutral. Keith felt something stir behind his sternum––a strange, electric buzz that spread from his chest all the way to his fingertips.
It wasn’t an unfamiliar sensation, but the nature of it had shifted lately. A few months ago, it had always been followed by a fiery rush of adrenaline that exploded into an irresistible urge to pick a fight. Somewhere along the way, though, that furious sense of rivalry had died down to a simmer, dulled by the exhaustion of endless battles. They had more important things to worry about, now.
Keith realized he was still staring, and he cleared his throat. “Hey.”
“Oh. Hey, Keith,” Lance answered casually, and then turned back around as he kept walking.
Keith picked up the pace a little until they were side-by-side, although he maintained a couple feet of distance between them.
“Any idea what this is about?” he asked.
“Don’t know.” Lance stretched his arms above him. “Are we in trouble or something? I feel like I’m getting called to the principal’s office.”
“Brings back memories, huh?” Keith could feel a slight, teasing smirk curl up one corner of his mouth.
Surprisingly, that earned him a half-hearted smile. “Yeah, I guess we both know a thing or two about that.”
Suddenly, Keith’s smirk faded and he had to look away. He didn’t expect Lance to know what his “disciplinary issues” at the Garrison had really been about, but it was definitely not a topic he wanted to discuss right now.
They walked in silence for a few seconds before Keith peeked at Lance out of the corner of his vision, noticing the dark circles under his eyes and the way his hair clung to his damp forehead.
“Were you … training?”
“Huh?” Lance blinked as if he’d been broken out of a trance. “Oh. Uh, yeah. Why?”
“Nothing. You’re just usually not up this early.”
For some reason, Lance seemed offended by that––his eyebrows knitting together into a frown. “Didn’t realize you had my schedule memorized.”
That old instinct to start a fight flared up in Keith again, but he tried to keep it in check. “Lance,” he said calmly, “there’s only seven people on this entire ship including me. So yeah, I do have everyone’s schedules memorized.”
Lance’s shoulders relaxed. A second ago he’d looked ready to argue, but now he suddenly seemed to … deflate. He looked down at the floor as he continued to shuffle forward.
“Yeah, I don’t know. Couldn’t sleep, I guess.”
For some reason, Keith felt like he was treading on the edge of something personal, although he didn’t quite know what it was.
"Well, we should probably hurry up. Allura sounded kind of worried."
They both walked faster.
When they reached the control room, Allura was pacing nervously in front of some kind of hologram. Coran stood close behind her, frowning at whatever was flickering across the display––what appeared to be some kind of code. Shiro was also there, standing at a slight distance with his arms crossed.
"There you are!" Allura exclaimed upon seeing Keith and Lance enter the room. "What took you so long?"
"Sorry. I was asleep," Keith answered lamely.
"And while Keith was snoozing, I was busy working out," said Lance, flashing a grin. But as soon as he saw the worried expressions of the three others in the room, he immediately sobered. “Is everything okay, princess?”
"Not exactly," she sighed, stopping in front of the controls. Her gaze flitted over the flashing messages one more time before she turned to Keith and Lance again, her hands steepled in front of her.
"I'm afraid I have a difficult task for both of you."
Without even thinking, Keith looked at Lance––to find that Lance was glancing back at him.
"Okay. What is it?" Keith asked.
"Late last night, we received a distress signal from a planet called Tethra," said Allura.
Her hands darted over the control panel, and images surfaced in the air around them: strange landscapes, tall hills and deep valleys made of some kind of spongy material, tall trees with glowing pods sprouting from their limbs.
"Whoa, looks like a pretty cool place," Lance commented.
“At one point, it was,” said Coran, stepping forward. “As you can see, Tethra is a naturally beautiful planet––well-known for its breathtaking bioluminescent flora and fauna.”
He linked his hands behind his back, as he looked over the holographic images. The fond glint in his eyes dulled, and his tone was tinged with nostalgic lament. “It was once very peaceful. In fact, I have wonderful memories of traveling there as a child. Unfortunately, it is not the same as it used to be.”
“It appears that over the past ten thousand years, Tethra has become a very war-torn planet,” Allura said. “I don’t know if I’ve interpreted the entire story correctly. My knowledge is only based on the message we received, which Pidge and I spent the past few hours decoding. Along with a bit of my own research, I’ve gathered that there has been great turmoil on Tethra in recent times.”
With a wave of her hand, she dismissed the hovering images, and the messages appeared on the screen again. Keith squinted at the symbols as if staring hard enough would bring their meaning to light.
“A group called the Khagia rose to power several decapheebs ago. They allied themselves with the Galra in hopes that Zarkon wouldn’t overthrow their government or destroy the planet. In return, the Galra provided them with weapons––mainly drones and sentries, from what I understand––in order to spy on and take out any rebellion groups.”
“Jeez,” Lance breathed out, and then crossed his arms. “Uh … you’re not asking me and Keith to take down an entire corrupt government by ourselves, are you?”
“No. That is a greater task that we will have to postpone until the entire team can go to Tethra. You two have a more immediate emergency to take care of.”
“Which is what?” Keith asked.
“The distress signal we received was from a Tethran rebellion group,” said Allura, looking over the message again. “Their village was invaded by soldiers. Most of them managed to escape, but many were captured by the Khagia.
“The rebel group began receiving messages that those captives are being held hostage. They …” She hesitated for several unsettling seconds. “They’re being tortured for information. The Khagia are sending out public threats, saying these prisoners will continue to suffer until they divulge the location of other rebel groups or until those groups step forward to turn themselves in.”
Listening to the story, Keith started to feel dizzy. A sour taste crawled up the back of his throat.
Allura let out a shaking breath. “One of the hostages is a child.”
Lance gasped. An ill feeling curdled in Keith’s stomach. They’d dealt with dire situations before. But this...
The princess held a hand to her forehead and swayed a little, and Coran grabbed her elbow.
Shiro stepped forward at the same time. “Are you alright, princess?”
“Yes. Just … very tired.” Her hand dropped again, and she sighed. “Normally, I would send the entire team on a mission like this, but I’m afraid that’s not an option. The castle is low on power after recent battles, so I’m sending Coran and Hunk to the Balmera to collect more crystals. I need to be here to guard the castle and decode the Tethrans’ incoming messages with Pidge’s assistance. I’ve also asked Shiro to stay here, so we’ll have both the Green and Black Lions in case anything goes wrong.”
Keith glared at Shiro, hoping maybe he’d say something––but he only received a bewildered look in response.
“So, you want us to go in and save the hostages,” Lance said. “Right?”
“Yes,” Allura answered. “The rebels were able to send us some of the messages the Khagia have been sending out. Pidge helped me to track the signal and locate where the hostages are being held. I’ve managed to find a map that you can download to your paladin suits.”
She brought up the map to demonstrate: a holographic series of pathways marked by strange symbols. A pulsing light hovered over one area of the map, presumably showing their destination.
“Okay,” Lance said slowly. “So, we’re just going to land on the planet, get in there, and free the hostages. I think we can handle that.”
Allura chewed her bottom lip. “I’m hopeful that you can. However, I must warn you that it will not be as simple as it sounds. Since the Khagia are loyal to Zarkon, they consider Voltron to be their enemy.
“Besides using your lions to journey to Tethra, you may not be able to use them on your mission or you may risk them getting captured or damaged. The planet is teeming with drones and other weapons that may fire at your lions on sight.”
“What are you saying we should do, then?” Keith asked. “Just leave our lions in the woods somewhere and do the whole mission on foot?”
“I’m afraid we don’t have another option. If you leave your lions somewhere inconspicuous with their shields activated, hopefully no harm will come to them. And you wouldn’t be leaving them unattended for very long, perhaps a day at most. Shiro and I can check on their locations to make sure they stay where they are, of course.”
Keith crossed his arms, looking over at Lance to try and gauge his reaction to all this information. He was looking over the map with a determined frown on his face, and Keith couldn’t discern what he was thinking.
After a moment’s hesitation, Keith cleared his throat. “I don’t know if this is a good idea, princess. This mission seems pretty intense, and I don’t know if we’re prepared to handle it––especially if it’s just two of us and without the help of our lions.”
“I understand that,” Allura said. “Of course, I wouldn’t be sending you to Tethra if I thought it was a suicide mission, or if I didn’t have faith you would be successful. But it is, ultimately, up to you.”
A heavy silence descended, as the princess waited for an answer. Out of the corner of his eye, Keith saw Lance shift his weight from one foot to the other, but he said nothing.
Finally, Keith shook his head. “I feel like this is only going to end badly. And if it does, you’ll be short two paladins. It’s not worth the risk.”
“Are you serious?” Lance blurted, finally speaking up. Keith turned in surprise to see the other boy facing him in a fighting stance––eyes narrowed, fists at his sides. “Of course it’s worth it! We risk our lives every day––that’s kind of part of our job description. How is this any different?”
As much as Keith wanted to avoid an argument, he felt a familiar heat rush through his veins at the challenge.
“Because it’s just a handful of people,” he shot back. “We’d be going to an extremely dangerous planet just to save a small group.”
“Yeah, and one of those people is a kid. We have to go down there. They need us.”
“A lot of people need us, Lance. The universe is kind of a big place, and we can’t save everyone in it.”
“Maybe not,” Lance said. “But it doesn’t mean we can’t try.”
Shiro––who had been strangely quiet until this point––cleared his throat. “Keith, Lance. We need you both to focus.” He shot Keith a warning look, which Keith tried not to roll his eyes at. “It’s a difficult decision. We all realize that. But you have to make a choice now. Do you accept the mission?”
“Yes,” Lance said almost right away. “I’m going.”
Keith glared at the floor.
“Keith?” Shiro prompted.
He could feel the weight of everyone’s eyes on him––especially Lance’s––and his face burned. He didn’t know what Lance was trying to do here. Was this supposed to be some kind of challenge? A dare?
But, no. It was more important than that. Lives were at stake, here. And as much as Keith hated to admit it to himself, maybe Lance was right. It was only one small group of people, and Keith knew that shouldn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, but they were defenders of the universe. As risky as it was, maybe this was what they were meant to do.
“Okay,” he muttered at last. “I mean, yes,” he corrected himself when Shiro glared at him. “I’m going, too.”
Allura gave a terse nod. “Then it’s settled. I’m afraid there isn’t much time to prepare, so please change into your armor and return here within half a varga.”
“You got it, princess.” Lance yawned and stretched his arms above his head. “Think I’m gonna hit the showers first, say bye to Hunk and Pidge.”
“Very well. Just be sure to get back here on time.”
“Don’t worry, I will.” He winked at her. “Try not to miss me too much.”
Keith rolled his eyes and Shiro warningly said, “Lance …”
Allura’s expression remained neutral, although there was a flicker of amusement in her eyes. “I think I’ll manage.”
“All right. Be back in a tick,” said Lance, and he dashed out of the control room.
As soon as he left, Allura and Coran fell into a murmured conversation that Keith couldn’t quite hear. Shiro moved over to the window, where he stared out at the stars with his arms crossed.
Keith had started to back away, but then he hesitated, before he walked over to where Shiro was standing.
He cleared his throat. “Hey, uh. Shiro?”
At the sound of his voice, Shiro turned his head. “Yeah?”
“Can I talk to you for a second?”
“I guess so. But shouldn’t you be getting ready?”
“It should only take a second. It’s just, I’m …” Keith glanced over his shoulder, but Coran and Allura seemed too engaged in their own discussion to hear him. Nevertheless, he lowered his voice a little. “I’m kind of … worried. About Lance.”
Apparently that wasn’t what Shiro had been expecting to hear, judging by how his eyes widened.
Keith’s face suddenly felt like it was on fire. “That’s––that’s not what I meant. It’s just … I don’t know if this is a good mission for him.”
“Because …” Keith trailed off. Now that he was confronted with the question, he wasn’t sure how to answer it. His jaw clenched as he struggled to come up with the right words. “I feel like he’s been different lately. More … withdrawn? I don’t know. But I feel like something’s up with him.”
“So, you are worried about him.”
“No! I mean, maybe. I’m just saying he’s been acting weird, that’s all.”
“Hmm.” Shiro scratched his chin. “Do you think it’s that he’s been acting differently, or are you just starting to see him differently?”
Keith nearly choked. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Shiro put his hands up defensively. “It’s not ‘supposed to mean’ anything. I’m just saying, maybe there’s more to Lance than you initially gave him credit for. I know he might not always act like it, but he takes this whole ‘defending the universe’ thing just as seriously as the rest of us.”
Instinctively, Keith wanted to protest, but the urge died down as he considered what Shiro had said. He found himself thinking about his encounter with Lance in the hallway––how he’d been so quick to brush off Keith’s questions, how there’d been a certain, unnerving hollowness in his expression. There was a mystery there that Keith hadn’t solved yet, something that made his skin itch.
“I don’t know,” he said at last, crossing his arms. “It’s complicated. I’m not saying I doubt that he takes this whole thing seriously, but I don’t know if I trust his instincts.”
“Meaning what, exactly?”
“Well … you saw him just now. He’s always willing to throw down his life without giving it a second thought. You know how he is. He has some kind of hero complex.”
Shiro smirked at that, to Keith’s surprise. “I think that’s something you two have in common.”
“What?” Keith sputtered. “But I’m not––I don’t––”
“I’m just saying, you both have a tendency to take risks, and it can get you into some hairy situations. But, listen. Lance is smart. He’s got some good skills. Plus, he’s observant and level-headed in battle. I think there’s a thing or two you could learn from him.”
This really wasn’t how Keith had been expecting this conversation to go. The offense must have shown on his face, because Shiro continued with a sigh.
“He could learn some things from you, too. Like you were saying, he doesn’t always see the bigger picture. He doesn’t always choose his battles well. I get it. But what I’m trying to tell you is that sooner or later, you’ll have to let the rivalry go. You’re teammates, and you need to learn to balance each other out.
“And this mission in particular is going to be challenging––so you’ll need to keep your head, and you’ll need to watch Lance’s back. I can count on you to do that, right?”
“Yeah,” Keith grumbled, but straightened when he saw the stern look on Shiro’s face. “I mean … yes, sir.”
Shiro smiled. “That’s more like it.” He cuffed Keith’s shoulder, almost too hard for it to be friendly. “Now suit up, cadet.”
Keith hated wormhole jumps.
Even though he’d experienced them countless times by now, he had never quite overcome the surreal sensation of all the molecules in his body being torn apart and thrown back together again. It always caused his stomach to plunge, like he was diving from the peak of an intense rollercoaster––except it was about a hundred times worse.
As the disorienting shock of the jump faded, Keith blinked his eyes open. His fingers tingled for a few seconds as he gripped at Red’s controls before the sensation faded.
Through the windshield, a dazzling display met his eyes, and he had to take a second to process what he was seeing. At first glimpse, it looked like a city stretched out far beneath them––an array of colorful lights scattered over the landscape like stars, glowing with hues of violet, blue, and green. Then he remembered what Coran had told them about the planet being bioluminescent, and he realized that these weren’t artificial lights, but light being produced by the planet itself. Two small suns hovered in the sky, shedding their rays over the peaks and valleys below.
“Whoa,” Keith heard Lance murmur over the comms.
Then there was a faint crackling noise before Allura’s voice came through.
“Keith, Lance. Do you read me?”
“Read you loud and clear, princess,” Lance answered.
“Same here,” said Keith.
“Good. I can see the wormhole jump was successful and that you are now flying over Tethra. You should be relatively close to your destination. Do you see the coordinates on your maps?”
A holographic map materialized over the control panel slightly to Keith’s left. His eyes scanned over the unfamiliar markings and scrolling Altean text, trying to make sense of it. At the very least, he could see the blue and red lion heads moving towards the pulsing white light that marked their destination.
“Yes, we see it,” Lance said.
“You should be moving directly towards it,” Allura continued. “Just be sure to land your lions somewhere safe. You don’t want to risk being spotted, and the Khagia have very high security.”
“Roger that,” said Keith. “You heard that, Lance?”
“Yeah, I heard.”
Lance sounded slightly irritated, and Keith tried not to let his tone grate on his nerves. They hadn’t even been on this mission for a whole minute yet, so now probably wasn’t the best time to start arguing.
They glided over the planet in silence for a while, with Allura checking in on them every few minutes. Otherwise there was no sound except the white noise over the comms, and the faint beeping and deep rumble of Red’s machinery all around Keith.
Occasionally Lance would start humming to himself, or make some remark to Blue about the landscape scrolling underneath them. It was a habit of his that Keith had once found annoying, but at some point––he couldn’t remember when––he’d started to find it strangely comforting. It at least distracted Keith from his worries and the overall severity of the mission. He found himself gazing idly out of Red’s windshield, to see Blue floating not too far ahead, almost ethereal in the glow of the rising suns and the sparkle of lights below.
Keith didn’t realize he’d been spacing out until Red jolted and growled. The sudden movement made Keith surge forward, almost banging his head on the controls.
“Whoa, hey!” he complained. “What was that for?”
Red only continued growling. The symbols along the edge of the windshield flashed, and Keith had a bad sense it was a warning.
“What’s wrong, Red?” Still no answer. “Uh, hey Lance?”
“Red’s acting weird. I think something’s off.”
“I feel like Blue is trying to tell me something, too. Allura, are you there?”
“Yes, I’m here,” Allura answered. Her voice sounded tight with concern, and it was more muffled than it had been before. “I’m trying to sort out what’s going on. It seems there’s some kind of interference coming from the area around you … something trying to block communication.”
“Both our lions seem to think something’s wrong,” Keith said. As if to illustrate, Red growled again, her windshield flashing crimson.
“Trust your lions,” Allura advised. “I don’t know what’s …try to …” Her words dissolved into static.
“Princess?” said Lance. But there was no answer this time.
Keith held more tightly onto Red’s controls. “This isn’t good.”
“No kidding.” Lance scoffed. “Hey … do you see that?”
Almost as soon as the question left his mouth, Keith saw what Lance was talking about. Or rather, Red saw it, and a flashing indicator appeared on her windshield, locating the object flying towards them.
Whatever it was, it was moving very fast and leaving a thin trail of smoke behind it.
Adrenaline surged through Keith’s veins. “Shit … Lance, that looks like some kind of missile! Get out of the way!”
He yanked at Red’s controls, roughly veering her to the right––and too late, realized there was yet another missile shooting right towards him.
Time froze and Keith couldn’t feel or do anything in his state of panic. He was dimly aware of Lance yelling something, and then he felt a jolting impact shudder through the cockpit. Some huge weight had crashed into Red’s side, with such ferocity that it made Keith’s teeth rattle. They were thrown off-balance, and Red spun around rapidly a few times before she righted herself.
This had all happened in about five dizzying seconds. As Keith regained his bearings, he lifted his head to look out the windshield and saw Blue floating close by. All at once, he realized what had happened: Lance had pushed him out of the way.
The missiles exploded.
They went off in rapid succession, one after the other. Even through Red’s protective walls, the sound was so loud that Keith’s eardrums sang with pain. A wall of flame went up in front of the windshield. Keith cried out and closed his eyes against it as Red spiraled out of control.
They flew back, nearly flipping over from the force of the blow. Keith held onto the controls for dear life, as he was pressed painfully against the back of the seat and then thrown forward again, smacking his helmet against the dashboard.
He groaned, easing himself into a sitting position. The back of his neck was sore from the whiplash, and he rubbed at it and winced as he looked up again.
A cloud of dark smoke dissipated in front of him, revealing the soft glow of the planet underneath.
Red rumbled in questioning concern.
“Yeah. I’m okay, Red,” Keith assured her, although his heart still pounded fiercely. “What about you?”
Her diagnostics flashed across the corner of the windshield in response. Keith couldn’t quite make sense of them, but he couldn’t see anything that looked radically different than usual.
The relief only lasted about half a second, though, before he realized that the comms had gone completely silent.
Only a faint crackling came back in response.
Suddenly unable to breathe, Keith wheeled Red around to look behind them.
And that’s when he saw Blue plummeting towards the surface of the planet with smoke pouring out of her side.