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Where the Shadows Lie

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NOW:

“Why are your eyes all red?”

It’s Lance who asks, probably because Hunk is busy cooking. It’s usually Hunk who notices things like red eyes at breakfast, but he’s busy stirring a large pot of porridge made from a local grain that he swears will taste just like oatmeal, even if it is neon pink.

“Guess I didn’t get much sleep last night,” Keith says with an apathetic shrug. He’d spent most of the night either kicking the smothering covers off because he was sweltering, or pulling them back on because he was suddenly freezing. The remainder of the night had involved endless trips to the water dispenser. Even now, he’s never been so thirsty.

“You should probably stop rubbing them,” Hunk says absently, placing the large metal pot in the middle of the table. He grabs a stack of bowls from one of the cabinets and begins spooning generous portions of hot pink porridge into them. He sets them down in front of the other paladins.

“They’re itchy,” Keith says flatly, and also extremely sore to the touch, though he doesn’t say it.

Shiro slides into his seat at the head of the table, his hair wet and a damp towel draped over his neck. “Where’s Pidge?” He asks, taking a somewhat dubious sniff of Hunk’s alien-oatmeal concoction from the bowl in front of him.

Actually, the table is square, so there is no de-facto head. Lance and Keith generally sit on one side, Hunk and Pidge sit on the other, and Shiro sits by himself on the side to Keith’s left.

Since Hunk started experimenting with local ingredients, the paladins have been taking most of their meals together here in the kitchen, ever since Pidge mentioned finding the smell of cooking food comforting. It’s usually just the five of them, Allura preferring to take meals in her quarters and Coran doing whatever it is Coran does when he’s not around.

“She could be sleeping in,” Lance says, poking a spoon at the pink mush filling his bowl. “It was pretty late when I checked on her last night and she was still awake.” With a shrug, he scoops a small amount of space-oatmeal onto the spoon and shoves it into his mouth. “Hmmm not bad Hunk,” he says, licking his lips.

“Thank you,” Hunk says, a pleased smile tugging at his lips. “I didn’t know you did that. Checked in on Pidge, I mean.”

Shiro’s eyes track Keith as he leaves the table for a moment to grab an empty glass from one of the cabinets. He fills it with water and gulps it down while standing in front of the dispenser.

Like all of the common areas scattered throughout the castle, the kitchen is an odd mixture of familiar yet alien decor. The entire room is white, save for the stainless steel sink and stove, or the Altean equivalent of stainless steel anyway. The faucet is a weird shape and there are touch pads instead of handles, but the water comes out the same. The refrigeration unit is shaped like a barrel, but it seems to work on the same basic principles as its counterparts back on Earth, and there are cabinets and drawers filled with slightly odd looking, but functional flatware and utensils.

“She falls asleep in front of her computer a lot,” Lance is saying, “so I just make sure she actually makes it to bed sometimes.”

“Did you do that last night?” Shiro asks, his attention returning to Lance as Keith shuffles back to the table with a second glass of water in his hand.

“No, I fell asleep,” Lance admits.

Keith swallows the water in great yawning gulps that do little to quench his persistent thirst, the bowl of hot pink porridge remains untouched in front of him.

“Not eating?” Shiro asks, sampling a spoonful from his own bowl.

Keith swallows. “Not really hungry,” he mumbles. He’s feeling pretty queasy actually. He grimaces, rubbing his sore eyes, and fitfully tugs at an itchy patch of skin beneath the collar of his t-shirt.

Shiro’s brow knits as he reaches across the table with his flesh and blood hand to lower Keith’s collar. “How long have you had that rash?”

Keith looks down, eyeing the livid scarlet lesions covering his chest and beginning to creep up his neck like scabby vines. “Since…last night, I guess,” he says, blinking stupidly. Where the hell did that come from?

Shiro frowns, pressing the back of his hand to Keith’s cheek. Keith just sighs, pulling away wouldn’t discourage Shiro from mothering him. “Keith, you’re burning up,” Shiro says, his jaw clenching in concern.

“Wait, what?” Lance cries, “You couldn’t have warned me you were sick before I sat down next to you!”

“I didn’t… know?” Keith stammers awkwardly.

“Of course you didn’t,” Lance says rolling his eyes, though his tone is not unkind, “I swear sometimes it’s like you were assembled out of spare parts.”

“Are you trying to say I lack self-awareness,” Keith says, rubbing his eyes.

“I’m trying to say I think you’re the tin-man and you run on gasoline,” Lance says dryly.

“Okay that rash is really gross,” Hunk babbles nervously. “Is this like the Galra flu? Is that even a thing? Do the Galra even get sick?”

“How would I know?” Keith cries in exasperation. “I’m not a Galra!”

“Well, you’re a little Galra,” Hunk says with a shrug.

“Was that some kind of short joke?” Keith asks, scowling at him.

“Honestly no,” Hunk grins, “it was a straight up statement of fact. The joke was just an unexpected bonus.”

Lance snorts.

“You’re not…” Keith’s about to say funny, but he suddenly falters, breaking out in cold sweat when his unsettled stomach turns and bitter bile crawls up the back of his throat. He gags, bolting from the chair.

“Oh no, no, no, not in the sink!” Hunk groans, sighing explosively as Keith vomits green bile into the steel basin. “Oh man, I just washed that.”

Shiro tries to steady him, pressing his cool composite hand to Keith’s sweaty forehead with an expression of growing concern straining his face. “How long has it been since Korvaz?” He asks no one in particular. “Ten days?”

“Yeah,” Hunk says thoughtfully, “kind of sounds like an incubation period doesn’t it.”

“I was just thinking the same thing,” Shiro says.

Completely spent, Keith sags against him, rubbing his burning eyes with trembling fingers. “Shit,” he says with as much venom as he can muster, “fucking Korvaz.”

Korvaz, otherwise known as the tropical jewel of the Mira system, or as Pidge had taken to calling it, Satan’s Gardener’s Butthole. According to Coran, Korvaz was the only known planet to produce the Kalayaan tree, a tree considered sacred to the Kimerik people, an alien civilisation located in a nearby star system.

The Kimerik were miners and forgers of Tyzantium, an essential material used in the making of star drives such as the one powering the castle. In exchange for a healthy young Kalayaan sapling to replace the dying tree currently located in their temple, the Kimerik people had agreed to refit the castle with a state of the art star drive. It was Pidge’s job to retrieve the sapling from Korvaz. Keith was sent along as backup.

From the start, the mission proved to be… problematic. Korvaz was a jungle planet so densely populated with vegetation, the green lion was unable to make landfall. They wound up having to park her in low orbit around the planet while they flew down to the surface using their thruster packs.

Oddly Korvaz was completely devoid of animal life, but what it did have in abundance were insects, huge nasty stinging insects. While Keith and Pidge were forced to slowly pick their way through the dense undergrowth, they were eaten alive by every unfriendly bug within a fifty mile radius. Oh and, there wasn’t any actual land on the planet’s surface either, just mile after mile of shallow swampy, mucky water. Even short distances took hours to navigate. It was dirty, sweaty exhausting work.

By the time they finally got back to the castle with the sapling, they were light-headed, soaked with foul smelling grime and covered in angry red welts. Coran wouldn’t even think of letting them back on board until they’d gone through decontamination. Keith hated decontamination, which then had to be cut short when Pidge developed a bad reaction to the insect bites and had to be whisked off to the healing pods for a few hours. Looking back, is Keith surprised to learn that planet Shit-Swamp may have left him with some alien tropical disease as a parting fuck you? No, not really; he is worried about Pidge though.

“Oh man, Pidge,” Lance says, seemingly reading Keith’s thoughts, “of all the nights to fall asleep. What an idiot!”

“Not your fault Lance,” Shiro tells him, but Lance only shakes his head. He punches a button on the communications console next to the refrigeration unit. “Pidge, come in,” he says, his expression growing anxious when she doesn’t answer. “Come on Pidge, please.” He taps a few icons on the display screen and the image shifts to a map of the paladin’s wing in the castle. “According to Coran’s weird stalker GPS program, she’s still in her quarters,” he says.

Keith shivers, averting his gaze from the cheerful tract lighting stabbing his burning eyes like laser beams. He’s really starting to feel the fever now. His teeth are chattering with a growing chill. Shiro takes off his jacket and drapes it over his shoulders. Keith barely notices, his heavy head throbbing in time with his racing heart. Shiro helps him back to the table. He slumps into a chair, holding his aching head in his hands.

“You and Hunk better go check on her,” Shiro says, his hand on Keith’s shoulder offering what little comfort he can. “I’ll get Keith down to the infirmary.”

“Is that a good idea?” Hunk asks hesitantly, “Lance and I checking on Pidge I mean, not getting Keith to the infirmary, because yeah, you should definitely do that, but whatever this is we’ve all been exposed, assuming it’s contagious, but what if Pidge is okay? What if she’s just sitting in her room listening to her iPod and Lance and I go charging in there and wind up infecting her? Maybe we should send Coran instead to try to limit the exposure?”

“Yeah, but what if she has been infected and we end up unnecessarily exposing Coran to an unknown illness in the process?” Lance asks.

Shiro sighs. “I think we need to work under the assumption that whatever this is, Korvaz is most likely ground zero…”

“Fucking Korvaz,” Keith mutters darkly, his clammy forehead dropping onto the table.

“… In which case,” Shiro continues, with a sideways glance in his direction, “Pidge has already been exposed and you two checking on her won’t change anything.”

“I agree,” Lance says, obviously concerned for Pidge and impatient to see if she’s okay for himself.

“Yeah, Okay,” Hunk agrees a bit more reluctantly.

“Good,” Shiro says, giving Hunk’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “You two check on Pidge and I’ll bring Allura and Coran up to speed on the way to the infirmary.”

 

THEN:

The Kimerik people love to talk. Shiro has reached this conclusion after two hours of incessant nattering from his guide through the city; Calzzir his name is and he’s nearly as annoying as Slav, a feat which Shiro would’ve sworn was impossible. Shiro’s face aches from the frozen smile permanently affixed to his lips as he listens to Calzzir recite the long, very long, interminably long, and very long-winded, story of how the first forgers of Tyzantium ushered the Kimerik people out of the stone age. He nods politely at the appropriate intervals, stifling a yawn and idly glancing around the smelting facility as they continue their tour.

They look a bit like camels, the Kimerik people, if someone were to upend a camel onto two legs and elongate the rest of its body that is. The thick skin covering their bodies is as tawny as the desert sands surrounding their city, the same with the wiry hair covering their elongated heads. Their arms are impossibly long and thin, a shade too long for their bodies, but their legs are all lean muscle and sinew ending in narrow two-toed feet. It makes them fast and sure-footed when navigating the planet’s dry rocky terrain.

Beneath the planet’s arid surface lays a network of naturally occurring caverns where the Tyzantium ore is extracted. There are other less friendly things native to the tunnels as well, Calzzir tells him, but they tend to keep to the shadows and shun the brightly lit tunnels where the Kimerik are working. The last thing he shows Shiro is the tree, a huge brown sprawling thing that looks like a many limbed creature crawling across the dusty earth. The dried leaves in its branches are rust coloured with bright yellow centres. According to Calzzir what makes the tree so unique is its ability to adapt to any climate. The only one like it in all the known universe.

Apparently the Paladins of Voltron arrived just as the tree was nearing the end of its life-cycle, which was seen as an extremely fortuitous sign. The Kimerik people were very into signs. They’d been only too happy to broker a deal, immediately abandoning plans to launch an expedition of their own to Korvaz. They seemed practically giddy with relief actually, though Shiro just chalked it up to a natural aversion to space travel. The timing was fortuitous for the paladins as well, since Zarkon had been strangely absent from the picture lately, which, according to Coran, made it an ideal time for some much needed upgrades to the castle’s systems.

Later, when the black lion is trudging back across the jagged terrain to the castle parked just outside the city, Shiro wonders how he a pilot, got roped into playing diplomatic liaison on this mission. Generally it’s Allura who takes point on these things, though she has been stressing the importance of the paladins diplomatic role lately. That defending the universe apparently includes dealing with mid-level bureaucrats and long-winded political aides is vaguely disappointing, but Shiro supposes, unavoidable.

At the moment, he’s just grateful to be on his way back. He’s sweaty and tired and hungry and all he’s interested in right now is a hot shower and a short nap followed by a hot meal. Keith should be back from Korvaz by now, if he’s lucky maybe they can even share that meal together. Shiro can’t remember the last time it was just the two of them.

He’s stepping out of the paladin’s wing lift from his lion’s flight bay when he runs into Hunk and Lance heading down to the infirmary.

“Why? What’s happened?” Shiro asks, immediately on edge, a sudden rush of adrenaline heightening his senses.

“Apparently the Kimerik left out a few pertinent details about Korvaz,” Lance says sardonically, folding his arms across his chest.

“Yeah,” Hunk says, “Keith and Pidge had a pretty rough time. He’s still in isolation and she wound up in a healing pod. Lance and I were just headed down to sit with her until she gets out.”

“Were they attacked?” Shiro asks.

Lance and Hunk look at each other. “You could say that, yeah,” Lance says.

Keith is standing in the decontamination chamber with his back to the wall when Shiro enters the infirmary. Stripped down to his boxers, his arms are pulled tightly across his chest and his eyes are closed, though they immediately open at the sound of the automatic doors opening.

“You remember all that stuff I said about liking the forest because it was quiet?” He asks as Shiro comes to a halt just outside the glass chamber. “Well, forget it. Nature sucks.”

The chamber is illuminated with pale rose coloured lights, making the swollen welts covering every visible inch of Keith’s body stand out even more. Shiro’s mouth draws into a tight thin line as Keith comes towards him and rests his palm against the glass.

“Is Pidge okay?”

“She’s fine,” Shiro says. “I think Hunk is baking her cookies.”

“Didn’t we use his last batch to open a wormhole?”

“I think he’s tweaked the recipe since then,” Shiro remarks dryly. “How are you feeling?” He asks.

“Like I should be swinging from a bell tower demanding sanctuary,” Keith says flatly.

Here’s the thing about Keith, he’s actually hilarious, one of the funniest people Shiro has ever met, but only when they’re alone together. When anyone else is around, it’s as if an iron gate comes crashing down and he withdraws behind it, becoming wary and taciturn to the rest of the world.

“Well, I don’t think the castle has a belfry, but I could always check with Coran if that would make you more comfortable.”

“Hilarious,” Keith says, smiling wanly. He smiles more when they’re alone together as well, though it’s always been difficult to make him laugh. He stands behind the glass quietly regarding Shiro with those unlikely violet eyes that are somehow too old for his face, as if they’ve seen enough pain for two lifetimes, and Shiro can’t help but notice the lines of tension beneath the livid blisters covering his skin. “Lance is calling me the lord of the flies.”

Shiro has to bite his tongue to keep from laughing. “I’ll talk to him,” he says, somehow managing to keep his voice from cracking.

“Nah,” Keith says with a shrug, “I mean if our situations were reversed, I’d be calling him the exact same thing.”

“No you wouldn’t”

“No, I wouldn’t,” Keith agrees, “but I’d be thinking it.” He raises his hand as if poised to scratch his face, but seems to think better of it at the last second, balling his hand into a fist before lowering it again with a muttered “fuck!”

“Are they painful?” Shiro asks.

“Not at all, why do they look painful?” Keith deadpans.

“Right, stupid question.”

“They got in under the armour,” Keith says, his nose wrinkling in distaste. “We were still crawling when we got back.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Hey, we got the tree,” Keith says, “that’s all that matters right?”

“You know it’s not,” Shiro says a little hotly.

Keith frowns slightly at that. “Coran says the lights are supposed to help,” he says, glancing up at the pale pink bulbs hanging over his head, “something about the colour spectrum accelerating healing.”

“And you’re not in a healing pod because?”

“What? For a few bug bites?”

“Oh here we go,” Shiro says rolling his eyes.

“Maybe if my arm was dangling off,” Keith says thoughtfully.

“Or there was a big gash in your shoulder.”

Keith scowls at that. “Space Ghost, don’t make me kick your ass,” he says flatly.

“It’s a healing pod Keith, not a microwave,” Shiro says, massaging the space between his eyes.

“They weren’t designed for human beings Shiro,” Keith insists. “Where are the quality control studies? I mean for all we know those things could cause Cancer!”

“You’re ridiculous,” Shiro says, shaking his head, “I hope you realise that.”

“I’m cautious, there’s a difference.”

“Right, because that’s the one word that immediately springs to mind whenever I think of you; cautious.”

“Shut up,” Keith grumbles, though Shiro can see the almost smile tugging at his lips.

“So when are they springing you from this thing?” He asks.

“I’m not really sure,” Keith says, pulling a face, “Coran is being pretty vague about it.”

Shiro sighs. “Just tell me you’re okay,” he says.

“I’m okay Takashi,” Keith says softly, pressing his forehead to the glass, “honestly.”

Shiro covers Keith’s forehead with his own, a comforting illusion of intimacy despite the three inches of glass standing between them. “Can I get you anything?”

“Actually, I wouldn’t mind my tablet,” Keith tells him. “If I’m gonna be living here now, it’d be nice to have a book to pass the time.”

Shiro smiles. “I’ll make sure you get it.”

The automatic doors open behind Shiro and Keith springs away from the glass like shrapnel ricocheting off a wall. Shiro sighs and takes a step back, silently watching Keith’s defences go up. His mouth draws into a tight thin line as he crosses his arms over his chest.

“Just thought I’d check in and see how Number-Four is getting on,” Coran says cheerfully, striding into the room. “Eek,” he says, grimacing slightly as he comes to a sudden halt just inside the doorway, “you’re spottier than a Malerbian Weiju.”

Keith scowls at him, appearing to shrink slightly as he draws his limbs closer to his body. “Okay, I don’t know what a Malerbian Wei-whatever is, but I’m pretty sure I’ve just been insulted.”

“Oh, no, not at all,” Coran quickly back pedals, glancing at Shiro for assistance. Shiro just shrugs. “Malerbian Weijus are quite attractive to… other Malerbian Weijus. They mate for life you know.”

“Great, maybe we can find me one to marry,” Keith says tartly, his back once again against the wall.

“Of course the bites would clear up faster if they were all exposed to the light.”

“Not taking my underwear off Coran,” Keith says flatly.

“Well, suit yourself,” Coran says with a shrug, “although the bites closest to your…”

“Do not finish that sentence Coran!” Keith cries, screwing his eyes shut.

“Fine, but they’ll take twice as long to heal.”

“Starting to get borderline creepy now Coran.”

“Coran,” Shiro interjects, “I think what Keith really needs right now is some peace and time to recuperate.” Keith looks up, grateful for the intervention. Shiro nods almost imperceptibly.

“Well, time heals all wounds as my grandfather used to say,” Coran says with a shrug.

“Your grandfather sounds like a very wise man,” Shiro says, placing his hands on Coran’s shoulders and gently manoeuvring him out through the automatic doors.

“Oh yes he was quite insightful,” Coran agrees, “I’ll never forget the last time we saw each other. Coran, he said, if it’s any solace, everybody dies alone. Well, it probably isn’t.”

“Heartwarming,” Shiro says flatly, one eyebrow quirking in bewilderment.

Just before the doors slide shut behind them he glances back over his shoulder, but Keith doesn’t notice. His eyes are already closed.

 

NOW:

Hunk charges through the infirmary doors with Pidge sagging bonelessly in his arms. Lance is close on his heels.

“How is she?” Shiro asks anxiously, helping Keith onto the diagnostic couch rising up from a panel in the floor. Keith immediately rolls over onto his side, pulling his knees up to his chest as if trying to collapse into himself. He groans, clutching his head in trembling hands. Shiro presses his lips together, resisting the urge to caress his clammy cheek.

He should’ve known something was wrong when Keith insisted on spending the night alone in his quarters. He’d said he was just tired, but Shiro couldn’t help but notice how jittery and restless the normally self-possessed paladin had been all that day, as if he was uncomfortable inside his own skin. In retrospect, he supposed Pidge had been acting the same way, though it was harder to tell with her since she was a far more animated person in general.

“Not good,” Hunk answers breathlessly. “She’s burning up and she’s got the same rash as Keith, and her eyes are swollen shut.”

“Yeah, Keith’s are too,” Shiro says, fighting a rising panic at the sight of his swollen eyelids, red and angry-looking and oozing rust coloured tears. The rash has spread as well, crawling out past the collar and sleeves of his t-shirt like spidery red hands.

“What? Since when?” Hunk asks.

“Did you say swollen eyes?” Coran asks, and Hunk startles, turning to notice the floating computer screen hanging in the air behind him for the first time; it’s displaying an image of Coran and Allura from the castle’s control room.

“Yeah, why?” Hunk asks.

Allura lays her hand on Coran’s arm. “Coran it can’t be,” she says.

“Can’t be what?” Shiro asks sharply, “Coran?”

Coran presses his lips together. “Get her onto the diagnostic couch,” he says, tapping the display visible on the screen at his fingertips. Hunk turns to find a couch identical to the one that Keith is currently laying on rising up through an open panel in the floor.

“Cool, space savers,” Lance says, “but shouldn’t we be getting them into the healing pods?” He asks.

Hunk deposits Pidge as gently as he can onto the couch. Immediately she pulls herself into a tight little ball, her head nearly touching her knees. She’s mumbling the same words over and over. Shiro and Hunk exchange a glance, then lean in closer to hear what she’s saying.

“I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay,” but whether she’s trying to convince them, or herself Shiro doesn’t know.

“Unfortunately no,” Allura says, as Coran taps a few icons on his display, and hundreds of little pressure pads come to life on the couches.

“The healing pods are only useful for treating physical injuries,” Coran says. “Simple wounds, broken bones, and internal injuries,” The pressure pads glow with an eerie blue light that travels the length of each couch, tracing a thin blue line of light along the paladins prone bodies. It reminds Shiro of the scanner on an old 3D printer. “They’re ineffective against viral illnesses and infections, otherwise I would have used one when I had the Slipperies.”

“Huh,” Hunk says thoughtfully, “I guess it’s like back on Earth. We can re-generate almost any cell in the body but we still haven’t come up with a cure for the common cold.”

A chime sounds and Coran’s display is suddenly flooded with lines of information, presumably the results of the couches diagnostic scans. He quickly scans it, his face growing paler and more drawn as he reads.

“Coran,” Shiro says, his jaw clenched so tightly it aches.

“It’s Firehead Fever,” Coran says, his voice a stunned whisper.

“Okay that sounds…not good,” Hunk says tensely, “your head doesn’t like literally catch on fire does it?”

“No,” Coran says softly, “it just feels like it’s on fire.”

“Yeah, that’s probably not better,” Hunk says, his brow knitting in concern as he eyes his friends trembling bodies.

“But it can’t be Coran,” Allura says, “Firehead was eradicated ten-thousand years ago.”

“It was eradicated on Altea,” Coran agrees, “but this is an unknown strain. There’s no telling how the virus has mutated in the past ten-thousand years… which reminds me,” he taps an icon on his display and a drawer pops out of the wall next to Lance. There are three small devices inside no larger than the palm of his hand. Lance lifts one out.

“It looks like a barcode scanner,” he says, turning the palm-sized device over in his hand.

“Well, I don’t know what that is,” Coran says, “but you are at least partly correct. It’s a handheld diagnostic scanner. You three need to scan each other for the virus.”

“Like Star Trek,” Lance says. He squints at the device for a moment, pressing buttons until it suddenly leaps to life in his hand with an electric blue pulse.

“So what exactly are we dealing with here?” Shiro asks as the three of them run the scanners over each other from head to toe.

“Ten-thousand years ago Firehead Fever was the scourge of Altea,” Allura tells them. “It took thousands of lives, until a vaccine was developed and the virus was eliminated.”

“So it’s… fatal then,” Shiro says tonelessly, his throat closing up.

Coran and Allura exchange a somber glance. “Usually,” Coran admits.

It’s as if all the oxygen has suddenly been sucked out of the room. Scanners forgotten, the three paladins just stand there in stunned silence, staring at each other. Someone whimpers, Shiro thinks it might be Pidge. His eyes stray to the two glowing couches to see Keith blindly reaching out to her. His hand finds her shoulder, then slides down her arm to clasp her hand. She shudders, her fingers intertwining with his as she curls herself into an even tighter ball beside him.

Shiro can’t imagine losing either of them. Pidge, the little sister he’d always wished he’d had and Keith, his… Maybe there isn’t a proper word to describe exactly what Keith is to him, Shiro only knows that he loves him. He means more to Shiro than anyone ever has and losing him would be like losing a part of himself.

Something crunches and Shiro looks down to find the scanner in pieces in his glowing artificial hand. He closes his eyes, forcing himself to relax until it powers down. “Sorry,” he murmurs to no one in particular.

Hunk grabs his shoulder. “I’m right there with you brother,” he says.

Lance nods in agreement and resumes Shiro’s interrupted scan.

“That was ten-thousand years ago though,” Coran says. “The virus may have weakened since then.”

“Yeah, but, I mean the scans still recognised it as this Firehead thing right,” Hunk says, regarding each of them in turn.

“That’s true,” Coran says.

“And even different strains of the flu have the same basic symptoms.”

And the same potential for fatality, Shiro thinks. He knows the others are thinking it as well, though the words go left unsaid.

The scans complete, Lance takes the two remaining devices and plugs them into the data ports inside the drawer. “Uploading manual scanner results to you now, Coran,” he says.

Coran’s display lights up with several new lines of information. He tenses for a moment, carefully reading the results before finally sagging with relief. Allura sighs beside him. “Thank Alfor,” Coran says, “there’s no sign of the virus in any of you. It seems that humans may actually have a natural resistance. I believe Pidge and Keith only contracted it because their immune systems were so compromised at the time of exposure.”

“How did they get it?” Lance asks, “Is the virus transmitted by space-mosquito, or something?”

“It’s a waterborne illness,” Coran says, shaking his head, “the virus breeds in standing bodies of stagnant water and enters the host’s body through wounds in the skin such as…”

“Bug bites,” Hunk and Lance say together.

“Precisely,” Coran says.

“So where does that leave you guys?” Hunk asks, nodding his chin at the floating display.

“Coran was one of the first Alteans to receive the vaccine after it was first developed,” Allura says solemnly, “and I was vaccinated as a small child.”

“And according to the castle’s scans, there are still active antibodies present in our blood, so we should be safe enough,” Coran confirms.

“That takes care of us,” Shiro says softly, “but what about them?”

Coran presses his lips together, for once at a loss for words.

Shiro closes his eyes, the beginnings of a tension headache wearing on his nerves. “Hunk is right,” he says after taking a deep breath. “We need to treat this strain of the virus as if it were the same one that you and Allura are familiar with. So, assuming that the mortality rate is still the same, how much time do we have?”

“The virus runs its course quickly,” Allura says, and there’s something in her tone that makes Shiro’s heart hammer inside his chest, “no more than four quintents.”

“But there are treatments right?” Hunk asks hopefully, “Antiviral drugs?”

“There were several research trials dedicated to finding a cure ten-thousand years ago, some of them were even quite promising, but all of that was abandoned when the vaccine was developed,” Coran says softly.

Shiro grits his teeth. “Bottom-line it for me Coran,” he says sharply, “what do you need?”

“That’s just it,” Coran says regretfully, “even if I could recreate the research from back then, the compounds used were all native to Altea, and Altea is… gone.”

“What, so we’re just supposed to stand here and do nothing while Pidge and Keith…” Lance says, shaking his head, “No, no way. There has to be something we can do.”

Coran and Allura exchange a glance. “We need to protect their eyes,” Coran says softly. He taps a few icons on his screen and a small platform rises out of the floor beside Hunk.

“Their eyes?” Hunk asks hesitantly, eyeing the contents of the slightly concave platform; four small ampules of amber coloured liquid and two hypodermic needles shaped like tiny guns.

“The virus causes the eyes to over dilate, making them extremely vulnerable to permanent damage from overexposure to light.” Coran explains.

“What sort of permanent damage?” Lance asks.

“In most cases, a complete loss of vision,” Allura says soberly.

Shiro, Hunk and Lance exchange a wordless glance.

“The ampules contain a gel that will form a protective coating over their eyes for several days and constrict their pupils so that the weakened lenses won’t be permanently scarred,” Coran continues.

“Whoah, whoah, whoah,” Hunk stammers nervously, “won’t that blind them?”

“Yes,” Coran says simply, “but only temporarily… I hope.”

Hunk licks his lips, looking for all the world as if he’s about to throw-up. “And these?” He asks, holding up one of the hypodermic needle guns.

“You’ll have to sedate them first,” Coran says grimly.

“Why?”

“Because it’ll feel like torture to them if you don’t,” Coran says, his lips pressed into a tight thin line.

Hunk blanches, his eyes darting to Shiro’s face. “I literally hate everything about this,” he says.

“So do I,” Shiro says tensely, “but it sounds like we don’t have much choice.”

Hunk scrubs his face. “Shit,” he murmurs, grabbing the ampules and the instruments before heading over to the diagnostic couches.

Like every Garrison cadet, Hunk has been taught basic field medicine, but Shiro knows that he also took some advanced courses because his commanding officer discovered he had an aptitude for it. Before becoming the yellow paladin he may have lacked the self-confidence to put those skills to use, but that’s certainly not the case anymore. Despite his natural ambivalence, Hunk has turned out to be incredibly clear-headed in tense situations and Shiro has come to rely on his expertise in a crisis.

“I am so sorry about this you guys,” Hunk is saying as he leans over Pidge and Keith, his big hands gently clasping their shoulders. Pidge shudders and clasps Keith’s hand more tightly at his touch.

Keith grits his teeth. “Just do it and get it over with already,” he murmurs, surprisingly lucid for someone with such a high fever.

Hunk swallows, injecting first Pidge and then Keith at the base of the neck with the hypodermic needle gun. Almost immediately they sag against the couches, their limbs going limp. Hunk presses his fingers to the pulse at Pidge’s neck, then disengages her hand from Keith’s and lays her out on her back. He then checks the pulse at Keith’s neck and rolls him over onto his back as well.

“I am so sorry Shiro,” Coran says softly, drawing Shiro’s attention back to the floating display screen, “It never occurred to me to include Firehead in my scans of the planet. I’d never have suggested this mission if I’d known.”

“There’s no way you could have Coran,” Shiro tells him, as Pidge groans softly behind him.

“Yeah,” Lance agrees, growing more tense when Pidge’s groans turn more desperate, “the Kimerik could’ve warned us before we sent our guys down to Planet Petri-Dish.”

“They certainly could have,” Allura agrees, her turquoise eyes flashing with anger.

“Let’s not…” Shiro starts.

Pidge screams and Shiro and Lance turn on their heels to find Hunk struggling to keep her head steady as she thrashes on the couch. “She’s out, I swear,” he growls through gritted teeth. “Lance! Help me. I only got one of them in!”

Lance hurries over and practically throws his body on top of Pidge to immobilise her, “What the hell Coran!” He cries, “I thought you said sedating them was supposed to make this less painful.”

“I had to keep the dosage weak,” Coran sputters, “anything deeper and they might never wake up again.”

“Yeah, fuck you Coran,” Hunk mutters, discharging the second ampule into Pidge’s inflamed eye with trembling hands. She shrieks, her back arching off the couch as Lance grimly holds her down. Immediately Hunk caresses her face. “It’s done. It’s over. I’m so sorry Pidge,” he says softly, stroking her sweaty brow until her tormented moans dissolve to soft whimpers and she grows still, falling into deeper unconsciousness.

Slowly Hunk and Lance straighten up, their eyes falling on Keith sleeping in relative peace on the adjoining couch. “Shit,” Lance breathes.

It takes all three of them to hold him down. Shiro lays his artificial arm across Keith’s chest, trapping his arms while Lance holds down his legs and Hunk struggles to keep his head steady and dose his eyes with viscous amber gel.

“Lance,” Hunk grunts, nearly spilling the second ampule’s contents as Keith writhes in his grip, “hold him steady!”

“I’m trying,” Lance snaps, “he’s really strong!” His eyes widen suddenly, “Hey, do you guys think Keith’s Galra blood makes him stronger than other humans? I mean for a little guy, he’s pretty powerful.”

“Well, I don’t know Lance,” Hunk grumbles, “why don’t we wake him up and see how fast he kicks your ass.”

“You know, sarcasm is just a lazy form of aggression Hunk,” Lance says flatly.

“Oh, shut your hipster bong-hole!”

“You’re the one wearing the head-band Sunshine!”

“Knock it off!” Shiro snaps, “I realise we’re all stressed-out right now, but fighting amongst ourselves won’t solve anything!”

Lance pulls a face, dissolving into moody silence as Hunk finally manages to administer the final dose to Keith’s inflamed eye. Keith gasps, convulsing in agony, though Shiro quickly takes his face in his hands and starts whispering soothing words to him. He catches a glimpse of the amber gel spreading in a thick layer over Keith’s eye, obscuring completely the violet iris and rapidly contracting pupil before his swollen eyelid slips closed again. Keith whimpers, rust coloured tears slowly sliding down his face. Shiro wipes them away and gently runs his flesh and blood fingers through Keith’s matted hair until he quiets.

The three of them straighten up, completely wrung-out from the experience.

“I’m sorry I snapped at you man,” Hunk says by way of apology, too embarrassed by his uncharacteristic outburst to look at anything but his own feet.

“Dude,” Lance says affectionately, “you rock that head-band.”

Hunk looks up, a wan smile tugging at his lips. Lance returns the smile. “Now what?” He asks no one in particular.

“Now we wait,” Coran says as the three paladins turn towards the floating display screen, “and hope for the best,” though it’s clear from his tone, Coran doesn’t hold out any himself. Beside him, Allura’s face says it all.

“No,” Shiro says softly.

“Pardon?”

“I said no, we’re not doing that,” Shiro says, determinedly squaring his shoulders.

“Shiro, there’s nothing…”

“I sent them there Coran!” Shiro says curtly, cutting him off.

“Shiro,” Hunk says, placing his hand on Shiro’s shoulder, “no one’s blaming you for this.”

“I know,” Shiro tells him, “but as team leader I’m responsible. So here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to go back to Kimerik,” he says firmly. “The people there have been sending expeditions to Korvaz for hundreds of years, so they must know something about its dangers.”

“Nice if they would’ve let us in on it,” Lance mutters sarcastically. Hunk smacks him on the arm to shut him up.

“If they’ve dealt with this illness before,” Shiro continues, with a slightly annoyed glance at both of them, “then it’s possible they’ve developed a cure, or at the very least, some sort of treatment.”

“That’s…” Coran blinks as the wheels inside his head begin to turn, “actually not a terrible idea,” he says.

“It’s the best idea we’ve got,” Allura says, her expression the most hopeful Shiro’s seen in several hours, “and certainly worth a shot.”

“Okay,” Shiro says with a nod. “It’s a plan.” He turns to Hunk and Lance, their jaws set in determination as they nod back. “We’ve got four days to save Keith and Pidge,” Shiro says. “Let’s make them count.”

TBC