At least, if Allura had to be ensorcelled by her father's friend turned worst enemy, he'd decided to turn her into a swan. Swans, she's pleased to almost instantly discover, are very vicious creatures, and Zarkon has left their first encounter with a very impressive bruise.
Of course, that doesn't change the fact that she's a swan, and that she thinks her father must have died, and that no one knows where she is. The royal family of Altea will have just been lost on the road. Victims of bandits, or assassination. Nobody will know what happened to her.
Neither she nor her father had wanted to go on the diplomatic visit to Galra in the first place, but it was necessary, with Zarkon threatening war (and following up with proposals or marriage, as though that were a better option), but they trusted Coran and Shiro and the Holts to keep Altea together in their absence. Now they'll all have only the news that a great purple beast attacked them on the road to Zarkon, killing the king and taking Allura captive.
Allura refuses to give in to despair. So she's far from her kingdom, and she'll only become a woman again if she's at this very lake every night to sit in the moonlight, so she has no way of getting home and breaking the spell. She'll find a solution soon, no doubt. And in the meantime Zarkon made a great mistake in turning her into a swan rather than a songbird.
She might not be giving in to despair, but apparently her anger has her distracted, because when she hears a throat clearing sometime around noon, she jumps and spins to find herself confronted by a frog, a tortoise, and a falcon. It's an odd group to say the least, and only proved to be odder when the frog opens his mouth and says “Hey, princess, you come here often?”
Allura is busy being surprised that apparently she can understand other animals, but the tortoise and the falcon both groan in tandem, and while the falcon starts scolding the frog, the tortoise addresses her. “Sorry, we were going to say something else. Like that we saw what happened with Zarkon this morning. Are you okay?”
“My father was killed and now I'm a swan and likely my kingdom is about to be invaded by those who were meant to be our allies. I am not okay.” She sniffs.
“Yeah, that, uh. Definitely sounds like a bad day.”
“You're a princess?” the frog asks over the last few words. “This is my lucky day! I'm a prince who got turned into a frog and only a kiss from a princess can save me.”
“He's not,” says the falcon. “Wishful thinking.”
“That's good, because I have no intention of kissing him. Apparently I need to be finding a true love of my own.”
“I am volunteering! Look at me, selflessly—”
“Shut up, Lance,” says the falcon. “He's Lance, I'm Keith.”
“I'm Hunk,” says the tortoise.
Allura is hard-pressed to decide which of those names is the most incongruous, but it's not really any of her business. “Thank you for welcoming me to your lake. I'm Princess Allura of Altea, and with any luck, I won't be here very long.”
“Zarkon's bad news,” says Hunk. “We've been living in this lake for a long time, and it's where he and his pet witch do all their experiments. It's why we can talk.”
“Ah. I had wondered if perhaps I understood you because I'm a swan now, but you're actually talking.” That's … certainly something to consider. Something is really going to have to be done about Galra when she figures out how to contact home. “I'm glad you've been here a while, though. We clearly need to talk strategy.”
When she's a swan, though, she can discuss strategy with her new friends. Keith teaches her several very enjoyable flying maneuvers that let her get a handle on the terrain and takes her exploring far enough to estimate just how far she is from Altea. Hunk is always up for a chat, solid and dependable. Even Lance, when he can be convinced to stop angling for a kiss, is sweet and very outraged on her behalf about everything she's going through.
She misses everyone in Altea, though, and can't help but feel that they might all get along, if with some friction. Coran must be out of his mind with worry, trying to keep the castle together. Shiro must be out hunting for her, and no doubt Matt alongside him. Pidge must be doing her own searching, though her brother is likely trying to protect her from the worst of it. Pidge is the smartest person she's ever met, though. If anyone can figure out where Allura is, it's her.
Which, come to that, gives her an idea.
“I can't leave the lake long enough to go home—Zarkon would get suspicious, and they wouldn't believe me without some kind of proof. But Keith, you could fly to Altea and deliver a message if I wrote one, and my friends would be able to come here and we could discuss how to break the spell.”
Keith considers that. “I haven't been that far, but if you tell me what landmarks to look for, and who to look for, I should be able to do it.”
“Of course. I'd say—well, Coran is technically in charge, and Shiro as the head of my knights is second in command, but actually I think my young friend Pidge is the best person to find. She can convince the rest and she's clever enough to know what to do to keep them from running off here half-cocked.”
“I'll steal some paper and something to write with from Zarkon's castle,” says Lance. “Hunk will help me.”
“That's not suspicious at all,” says Hunk, but he doesn't say no, either, just sighs. “No fear, right?”
“At least you can hop,” says Hunk, who's nursing what appears to be a sprained leg.
“Thank you both,” says Allura, and barrels on over Lance when he perks up, no doubt immediately ready to continue his campaign to prove that he's a prince. “I don't have time to write a proper message right now, but I'll do it before Zarkon comes tomorrow night, and Keith, you can take it to Pidge as soon as the sun comes up.”
“I still think there isn't any reason for her to believe a message some bird brings her telling her that you've been turned into a swan.”
“She recognizes my handwriting.” Or at least Allura hopes she'll believe it. Otherwise they're all in a great deal of trouble.
Hunk and Lance keep up their friendly bickering—they, it seems, have been on this lake together since well before Keith came—but both of them seem worried, checking in on her every few minutes. Even Lance forgets to ask her if he can kiss her, which he tends to do far too frequently even if it's turned into more of a joke than anything by this point.
When Keith comes back, around noon on the second day, he looks smug enough to make her relieved. “I would have been back sooner, but I brought Pidge along.”
“You brought her?” says Allura. “Without her brother, or Shiro? They're going to kill her for running off like this.”
“She said she wanted to see you and believe it for herself before she got Shiro's hopes up.”
Allura feels nervous and stupid for feeling nervous, swimming around the lake wondering how to show herself so Pidge believes her at least enough to stay until the moon rises.
Pidge stumbles out of the undergrowth while Allura is trying to settle herself down, and she's swearing at Keith for leaving her at the last minute right until she stops short at the sight of the odd collection of animals beside the lake. “I honestly thought that was code,” she says, “but you're actually a swan, aren't you?”
“Yes, I am,” Allura replies, but Pidge just frowns. “Oh, of course. Every other animal on this lake can talk to humans but not me. I am going to murder Zarkon.”
“She says she's going to murder Zarkon,” Hunk says helpfully, and Pidge jumps. “If that proves anything.”
“It proves enough to make me stay until she can prove it, anyway,” says Pidge, wonderful and practical as ever. “Now, can you explain to me why this lake is populated with talking animals?”
“I'm actually a prince,” Lance starts, and Allura rolls her eyes while the other two scold him and waits for sunset.
“I know. I wish I could have sent word sooner. What do you all know, there? How is everyone? Has Zarkon threatened to invade?” Allura pulls away to lead them both out of the water before they get soaked, and finds that her new friends are shuffling quickly away, giving them some privacy before Zarkon arrives.
“No. He's been suspiciously quiet, but Coran's been trying to get information, since the last time anyone saw you, you were going to see him. As far as anyone knows, you and your father were attacked by something called the Great Animal.”
“That's Zarkon, he's got some kind of witch in his employ. My … my father?”
Pidge shakes her head, but she doesn't offer comfort. Allura is grateful for that. She doesn't have the time to grieve. “We need to get you home so you can get crowned. Coran and Shiro are holding things down, but if Zarkon is trying to get the throne ...”
“I know. But I can't leave the lake until I've broken the spell, I have to be back here every night if I want to be human.”
“How are you supposed to break the spell?”
“Oh, you know. Vow of everlasting love, prove the love.”
Pidge wrinkles her nose. “That doesn't seem like Zarkon's style. It must just be how things work.”
“No doubt there's some kind of catch. I have every faith that now that you're thinking about it, we'll have it solved in no time at all.” Allura clears her throat. “Are you going to let … everyone else know about this?”
“I have to. Shiro's really worried, and he feels like this is his fault even though he wasn't even supposed to be there. So all he does is practice, practice, practice. He'll be glad to have something concrete to do. Or even just to see you.”
Of course Shiro feels this is his fault. He takes too much on his shoulders and always has, the best and brightest of their knights despite how young he is, despite needing to learn to fight with a metal arm after a dirty hit in a tournament battle with one of Zarkon's knights. “Tell him to come here. Coran should stay at the palace, but Shiro might be able to help you.”
“With the vow of—”
“Bite your tongue,” says Allura.
Before Pidge can do more than smile, Zarkon is calling for her, calling her name through the woods. Pidge scowls and moves to stand in front of her. “He's not going to—”
“No. Your brother would never forgive me. Get out of here, Pidge. Stay until he's gone if you like, or start back to fetch Shiro, but you can't take him on alone.”
Pidge looks as though she would like to contest that, but she doesn't argue. She follows Keith and Lance into the woods instead, Hunk ducking into the water to swim away where he has a bit more hope of being stealthy.
“Did I hear voices?” Zarkon asks when he appears out of the woods, thankfully not too close to where Pidge went in.
Allura crosses her arms. “If you did, perhaps you ought to talk to your witch about it. The only person I have to talk to is myself.”
“You know that's not true. You have me.”
She looks away. It's going to be a long night, but Pidge has seen her now, and she's going to get word to Shiro, and between the three of them, and with the help of her new friends, there's at least some hope she'll be able to break the spell before Zarkon grows impatient and tries to invade Altea instead of marrying its new queen.
She bites him again, which gives her endless personal satisfaction, but it doesn't change the fact that Keith and Lance come out of the woods looking sorry for her. “She left to go talk to your other friends,” says Keith. “She said she'll be back in a day or two.”
“Of course.” Allura wishes she could have said goodbye, but time isn't on their side, and sentiment is less important than news of her getting to the castle. “Did she say if she's thought of anything yet?”
“Not to me,” says Lance, who actually seems serious for once.
“Well, we'll just have to think on our own. Someone's got to make a vow of everlasting love and prove it to the world, and it's going to be hard to prove anything to the whole world when I can't go more than a few miles from this lake.”
“Well, you're my whole world, and I definitely love you,” says Lance, in true form.
For once, Allura laughs, because for once, she thinks he might be joking to try to make her feel better, and she's happy to encourage that.
“Where did you even get the idea about being kissed?” Hunk asks, exasperated, and any chances for planning are derailed for an hour, but Allura lets them bicker and tries to think of solutions but mostly thinks about her father, and all the people she loves at the palace who will be hearing news of her, and how they're going to react.
Shiro comes to a halt as soon as he sees her, or perhaps as soon as he sees Hunk's attempts to construct a signal tower they can use to send out news of everlasting love to the whole world via other signal towers. It's perhaps not the most practical plan, but Allura appreciates Hunk's commitment.
“Is that her?” he asks Pidge when Allura swims a little closer, not able to help it. He has a hand on his sword. “I told you, the legends of the Great Animal say that it can shift shapes, and a swan would be easy. Maybe—maybe even Allura would be easy.”
“There are four animals on this lake, I'm pretty sure that no matter how great this animal is it can't be four things at once. Say hi, Hunk.”
“Hi,” says Hunk, and Shiro jumps. “You've got to be Shiro. Sorry, she can't talk. But we can. She's definitely not the Great Animal.”
“The Great Animal is Zarkon, have you even been paying attention?” asks Lance.
“Pleased to meet you,” says Keith, after placing the next rock on top of Hunk's tower. It's not very tall yet, and Allura is going to have to tell them to knock it down before Zarkon shows up and notices it, but she's very glad they're trying. “You should probably get most of your questions out of the way now. She won't have a lot of time tonight before Zarkon shows up—he's not here every night, but you shouldn't take chances.”
“It's never wise to take chances with Zarkon,” says Shiro, just as serious and intense as ever, so predictable it makes Pidge snort. She hadn't realized before how much she missed him, but now that he's right here and they can't talk, she's missing him fiercely. “Tell me everything you know.”
Allura sits and listens while they discuss all the information and strategy they've managed to put together thus far, though Pidge must have told him on the journey over, and Shiro gently mentions that the signal tower is a good idea but not very practical if they're trying to keep Zarkon from knowing that Allura has help, so Hunk sighs and he and Pidge deconstruct it while arguing about how the next iteration should look, if one needs to be made.
When the moon comes out, Hunk interrupts Lance and Keith in the middle of an argument about what exactly proving love requires. “I think maybe they could use a few minutes alone to catch up. Right, Allura?”
“I would appreciate that. Please warn us if you hear Zarkon coming.”
“If you don't mind,” Shiro says at the same time, and frowns. “I hope you were saying the same thing, princess.”
“Similar enough,” says Keith, who's perhaps a little more discreet than the other two.
“Hunk, we can talk about other ways to tell the whole world anything we want to tell them in the woods somewhere,” says Pidge, and she's the one to lead the rest of them into the woods.
That leaves Shiro and Allura alone, Shiro frowning at her while she waits impatiently for the moonlight to touch the lake. It seems to take a hundred years, but it can't be more than ten minutes, and she sighs her relief when no clouds touch the moon and she can wait in its light and transform while Shiro watches, blinking his shock until she's standing before him fully human. She walks out of the water while he's still staring, and finds that she doesn't know what to do with her hands, or quite what to say.
“I trusted Pidge,” he finally says. “I'm just still very glad to see that it's true.”
“I'm just as glad to see you.”
“What are we going to do about this?”
“I wish I knew. It's all well and good to say that someone needs to make a vow of everlasting love and prove it to the world, but it's another thing entirely to do it. What do I love that much that I can be sure of, and how am I supposed to prove it?”
“Could anyone make the vow?” Shiro asks, considering it. “Could … could Coran make a vow of everlasting love for having a competent staff in the palace and prove it by lavishing them with praise? Or does it have to be you, or related to you?”
Allura smiles at the thought of Coran making any such vow, all the more so because she thinks Shiro was in earnest. “He didn't specify, but I don't think it would be that easy.”
“We'll think about it.”
They do, the two of them standing on the edge of the lake, the water sometimes gently lapping at the edge of Allura's skirt since she stopped short just a few feet in front of Shiro, for a few silent minutes, until Lance's familiar voice interrupts them. “Are you two done yet?”
Pidge appears, scoffing down at the ground where Lance must be. “You should write a book. How to ruin moments in five syllables or—”
“I can't write any books, because nobody's going to kiss me so I'll never have opposable thumbs.”
Allura laughs, relieved to have the mood a little lighter, and steps farther from the shore.
They have a glorious two hours, the six of them, before Allura hears Zarkon calling for her. “All of you need to go,” she says when both Shiro and Pidge look inclined to stay and fight. “We don't know how to defeat him, and you'll only get hurt. If he knows I've contacted you, he'll just lock me up somewhere worse and I won't be able to be human at all unless I agree to marry him.”
Pidge clasps her hand. “Matt and Coran have things under control at the palace. We'll stay here a day or two, see if we can figure out a solution and keep you company.”
Allura nods and thanks them both, and all of her friends scatter just in time for Zarkon to arrive.
“Don't get any ideas about escaping, or contacting your old friends,” he growls at the end of the night, when she's refused him for what feels like the hundredth time. “I have my ways of knowing, and it would only end badly for them.”
He storms away then, and she suspects she's supposed to feel terrified, but she only feels relieved. He suspects she has some ideas, but he doesn't know for sure. If he did, he would be doing something, not merely threatening.
There's a little time before dawn, and Allura gets the chance to sit on the shoreline with all of her friends listening to them talk about anything but her problem until the moon sets and she's a swan again.
Shiro and Pidge both look away.
“—thought it would work, I would have done it immediately,” Shiro is saying, quiet and intense. “But I don't think we're close enough, and I don't think that I can prove as much as there is any more than I already do.”
“You could still try,” says Pidge, and Allura knows what they're talking about. Of course she does. She can't say the thought hasn't occurred to her, but like Shiro, she thinks they're not close enough to whatever they may be someday for a vow of everlasting love to ring true.
Keith makes a point of flying higher, and Allura joins him. She wasn't meant to hear that, and she doesn't have anything to say about it either way.
“Lance is going to be disappointed,” he says ages later, when it could be a non sequitur even though they both know it isn't.
Allura laughs. After a certain point, she can't do anything else. “Lance was always going to be disappointed.”
“Honestly, I think he kind of likes it,” says Keith, and starts teaching her an excellent maneuver to help her change directions more gracefully.
“She's still under your power,” says Haggar, as though Allura doesn't have feathers and that isn't obvious.
“I know she's still under your spell, but she's seemed too calm,” says Zarkon. “Can't you tell if she's got some nasty little plan, some help she shouldn't have?” He turns on Allura even though she can't answer him yet. “Some of your little friends have left your palace, I know that, but they haven't found you, have they? I would know.”
He's very stupid to play that card when she's a swan. Beaks and wings don't give away truths as easily as faces and hands, and Allura can easily just keep to her aimless floating around the lake.
“I could become you,” says Haggar. “Know that, Princess Allura. You could stay on this lake forever and I could wear your face, make your pet knight come to heel for me, and there would be no chance of everlasting love then. Altea would be part of Galra within weeks.”
The moon is coming out, but Allura doesn't want to listen to them, doesn't want to talk to them. For the first time, she leaves the lake before the moonlight can touch her wings. Zarkon tries to catch her, but she beats him with her wings until she can fly away. He shouts, swears, calls her names, and even persuades Haggar to try to strike her with lightning, but Allura knows how to fly now. She evades those blasts easily enough, and she finds cover thick enough that her bright white feathers won't give her away.
“He won't like that,” Lance says quietly next to her.
“I don't really care what he likes or doesn't like,” says Allura.
Zarkon and Haggar leave before the moon goes down, but Allura doesn't go out on the lake. She goes up to the shore, and Shiro and Pidge come out and look hopeful, talk like they'd like her to talk back, but Allura is thinking.
“Do you have an idea?” Hunk asks sometime near dawn, when Pidge and Shiro are yawning, not used to the nocturnal life she has to live here on the lake if she wants to enjoy her humanity at all.
“I don't know. I hope so.”
“We all love you,” says Pidge, even though she can't understand what Allura is saying. “We'll make a vow, we'll prove it if we need to. We could try the signal tower again. I think if we get it tall enough they'll be able to see any lights we try to signal with at the Altean border station.”
She takes a deep breath. “I think we need to build the signal tower again, or find somewhere to send messages from, but that's not the message we'll be sending, as kind as it is.”
Hunk is translating as she says it, so all of them are watching for her, waiting on orders, waiting for a plan that she knows has precious little chance of working. It's the only plan she can think of right now, though. If it doesn't work, she'll try again, and again after that.
“You don't like this plan,” she says, even though he doesn't understand her.
“Even if the signal tower isn't enough, even if it can't tell the world, I hope you know it means the world to us,” he says, to her surprise. “Even if it doesn't work.”
“I wish you had more faith in my plan.”
“Shout if you need me. I don't care if Zarkon knows I'm here.”
“What are you two doing?” Keith asks, flying overhead, exasperated, and Allura relaxes. It's not like Shiro could have understood her anyway, and they're only going to talk at cross purposes as long as that's true. “If you're awake, come help us.”
Shiro smiles up at Keith and then at Allura. “Be there in a minute, Keith.” She thinks he's about to say something else to her, but he just jerks his head at the sky. “You should probably fly there. You won't be able to fly much longer.”
That's enough to make sure she's still steady, and Allura takes off, soars with Keith back to the messy signal tower taking shape in the middle of the forest.
Shiro, at his own insistence, is waiting in the woods, within earshot, so he can run out if Zarkon attacks her.
“Are you going to be stubborn again tonight?” Zarkon asks as soon as he sweeps into view. Allura stays on the lake. “If you remain adamant, I'll simply take Altea for myself and you'll have no say at all in how it's run. I'm not going to be nice anymore.”
Allura hopes he's not fool enough to actually think that she believes that he would ever let her have control over her own country. She turns her back on him, since it's the easiest way she has to express exactly how she feels about that. It's what she would usually do. Until she's human again, she just needs to keep him from realizing that anything is different, that she has something resembling a plan tonight.
If it doesn't work tonight, it may need to wait a few days. The moon is only a sliver in the sky, and Shiro says his arm is aching in a way that usually means rain is coming, and she may not be able to become human when the moon is behind clouds whether it's a new moon or not. So it has to work tonight, because patience has never been one of Zarkon's better qualities, and Allura doesn't want to leave Altea defenseless.
She knows very well by now where the moon will first appear as a reflection in the lake, and she goes to wait there, ignoring Zarkon's laugh. He thinks he's won. All she can hope, as she feels the now-familiar moment of discomfort as she regains her natural form, is that he's wrong.
Zarkon offers her his hand, a mockery of courtesy, and Allura ignores it to leave the lake on her own, wet to the knees from going into the reeds to avoid him. She wants to have her feet planted on dry land when they talk about this, no matter what comes.
“After last night,” he begins, “I hope you've reconsidered your position on our marriage.”
“I love Altea more than anything else in this world.” He's still smug, but more confused now. “I would do anything to keep my land and its people safe, and I will spend my whole life doing it, will spend forever doing it if I can. Longer than forever, if there's such a thing.” He thinks she's going to say yes, and something in her stomach curls with revulsion at the very thought, but he doesn't understand anything, if he thinks this is how a princess of Altea would accept a proposal of marriage. “So there's my vow.”
He understands then, and his face goes ugly and angry just as Allura hears wings overhead, the sound of Keith going to tell the others to start signaling from their tower, to send the message that Princess Allura is returning to her throne, that Zarkon is a traitor and a murderer. “You have no way of proving it,” he says. “You'll turn into a swan long before you make it back to Altea.”
“So I'll turn into a swan. You think I would do this without taking that possibility into account? I have ways of proving my identity, and of translating.” She lifts her chin. “My people would rather have a swan on the throne than a monster. But it doesn't matter if I go there. They know I'm coming, and that you betrayed and killed my father, and I have friends. They mean the world to me, and I've proved my intentions to them. If that doesn't count, what does?”
Allura doesn't know if it lifts the spell. If she's supposed to feel different, or if she'll turn into a swan again in the morning. It doesn't really matter right now, because Zarkon's frustrated roar is turning into a much worse one, an animal sort of roar that makes her spine tingle, makes her remember that he's the creature who attacked her father.
But Shiro is there, because Shiro always is, tossing her a knife and drawing his sword, charging Zarkon before he's fully gained his animal form.
The Great Animal lives up to its legendary name, growing so huge as to make Shiro look small, and Allura charges it with him, ducking around sharp claws and teeth. Some lands, she knows, don't train their princesses to fight, but Allura will be queen someday, and she needs to lead her people on the battlefield as well as through the law. She knows how to attack.
Zarkon is a terrifying enough fighter without this magic on him. Now he has claws, teeth, wings, and Allura and Shiro are barely holding on.
“Hey, over here!” shouts Lance, and Zarkon swings his great and terrifying head to find the source of the voice, unable to believe that it's a little green frog hopping by the lakeshore making the noise.
“No, over here!” says Keith, above them.
“What are you doing here?” Allura shouts, because this means Hunk and Pidge are alone in the woods when Haggar could be around or Zarkon could find them if this goes wrong.
Keith glances off Zarkon's shoulder, beak against the thin membrane of wings, and doesn't bother answering, but Zarkon makes a terrible noise of pain and lashes out, and Allura refuses to let him hurt her friends. She jumps in, draws her knife along where Keith's beak just was, while Lance yells and Shiro closes in from the other side.
This isn't going to go wrong. Zarkon is too arrogant to have his witch for backup when he thought Allura was going to grovel and marry him. Pidge and Hunk are letting the world know that Allura is coming back to her kingdom, and Allura is going to make it true.
It's Shiro's sword in his chest, in the end, but Allura is the one to look him in the eye and whisper “I vow this too: the whole world is going to know you're a traitor and a monster and a failure at being both” before she pushes him into the lake in a shower of water and sparks.
There are clouds over the moon, the rain Shiro promised on its way, but Allura doesn't feel the pull, doesn't feel anything but wonderfully, gloriously human.
“I think I deserve a kiss for the heroic distraction there,” says Lance, and Allura lets herself laugh from sheer relief.
Coran and Matt are waiting at the castle gates, watching them return with relief. There's going to be grieving to do, and a hasty coronation while Allura pulls Altea together in case Galra retaliates for their king's death.
She pauses, taking a breath in preparation. It's going to take more courage to go through those gates knowing that she's a queen and not a princess now than it took to kill Zarkon.
“Are we going in?” Pidge asks, ready to prod her if she needs it the same as always, ready to come up with a solution if she isn't ready. On her other side, Shiro is waiting, ready with plans for whatever decision she might make. She has three of the strangest friends and advisers any ruler could ask for at her side, and together they're all going to make Altea safe.
“Of course we are,” she says. “I have a vow to keep, after all.”