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Stars and Scars

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People had teased him for saying it too often in the past. Pointed it out, taken bets -- “five seconds, it counts!” -- about how quickly he would work it into a speech.

Optimus says it, he had argued.

Optimus doesn’t say it whenever he wins a chess game, they had argued back.

It was still a damn fine chess match, Rodimus thought as Minimus Ambus strapped him into the device. His chestplate was exposed, cradling his empty half of the Matrix, and briefly, he remembered the last time he’d had this experience:

He’d stolen the Ultra Magnus’ ship -- Minimus’ ship, though he hadn’t known that little detail at the time -- and broken into the Decepticon base in space. He’d made it to Starscream and with luck and daring, stolen the Matrix from his very hands, only to bump into Megatron around the next corner.

He didn’t remember much about being dead, and probably, that was for the best. He didn’t know what being One With All felt like. He didn’t have a vision of the Primes of old. No one had come to him to tell him that his time was not yet over. He’d just been dead, until he hadn’t been.

He’d woken up as a battery, with the Matrix embedded in his chest, to be used by a group of organic aliens to get their ship moving again.

I don’t know what that says about me, Rodimus mused. If it means that I was never supposed to get the Matrix, and it just needed a sturdy pair of legs and a flashy set of wheels to get itself back to a real Prime or what.

He’d escaped, in time. He’d found his friends, in time. He’d returned the Matrix, in time. It had stuck with him, though, the time he’d spent as nothing.

Why do you always say that? people had asked him. Do you think you sound like Optimus Prime?

He knew he didn’t. He knew he never would. He’d made too many mistakes, screwed up too many people’s lives to ever be Optimus, but perhaps, if he survived this, he could make amends. He could turn over a new organic leaf. He could be better than he was.

Then he truly would be like Optimus.

“Are you ready?” Minimus asked, and it was almost unsettling to hear Magnus’ booming voice from such a small frame. “You understand the risks, don’t you?”

“I am and I do,” Rodimus confirmed. “But look, I hope I survive this. Dying, self-sacrifice, is cheap. I made mistakes and I understand that. I want to make amends.”

Minimus looked over at the Autobot drones, writhing on the ground in pain. Chromedome, Getaway, and countless others, out of sight but never out of mind. “You usually do.”

Rodimus smiled thinly. “I’ll see you on the other side. ‘Til all are one.”

~ * ~

There was no light in the Afterspark. No spirits waiting for him, no promise that his life was not over, that he could still make amends, still find his best friend, still be someone others could admire.

All were one, in the darkness.

End

Chapter Text

Every year, when the flowers of the meadow faded to grey and brown, and the winds blew cold, Allura visited her mother’s memorial. She was not old enough to remember when they’d brought her to the Balmera to be taken into it and returned to her father as a crystal. That crystal had passed to her as soon as she was old enough to carry it with her.

Her mother had held her when she was very young, but it had been her mother’s best friend, Kara, who had held her when she was older. Her father had told her, in grave, gentle tones, about her mother’s deeds, but it had been Jax who had sat her on his knee and told her the funny stories, the good ones.

In the books, her story went something like this:

Astora of the Silver Blade was a great duellist in her youth. Trained in the arts of the sword from childhood, she rose rapidly through the ranks of the Altean military, attaining the rank of General at a young fifty-three summers. It was there that she led the King’s Swords in countless battles against the forces of the Maw, killing sixteen Galra champions and two sorceresses in single combat, earning her the gratitude -- and the attention -- of Prince Alfor.

As the seasons passed, and Alfor became king, it fell to him to choose a co-ruler to continue the royal line. Smitten by Astora’s prowess in combat, he asked her to become his queen and Fist Sword, and she agreed. To them was born a single daughter, Allura, before the Battle of the Purple Roses.

Leading her force, Queen Astora locked swords with one of the great monster-kin of the Maw, a creature with a thousand maws, a thousand eyes, and ten thousand tentacles. Countless soldiers had fallen before its might, but from atop her mechano-chariot, Astora ordered the final charge. Might in battle, Astora fought the creature for three days and nights, keeping the creature busy while the mighty Voltron moved into place.

While the Legendary Defender finally put the beast down, it was not before Astora was slain, her sword bared and bloody with the viscera of her greatest -- and final -- foe. King Alfor retrieved his fallen wife from the battlefield and brought her to be memorialized by the greatest of the Balmera, Ulnas, that she might live forever as a shining monument to Altean courage.

~ * ~

“Hello, Mother,” Allura said softly, speaking directly to the memorial. “Lovely day for a picnic, isn’t it?”

She liked to imagine her mother agreed. Carefully, she removed her necklace and set it against the stone, and opened the basket she carried in one arm. One handed, she retrieved the blanket, then set the basket down, using both hands to shake it out and place it over the grass. A moment later, she sat down, and opened the basket again.

Inside were two containers, clear as glass and sturdy as steel, each sealed to preserve the warmth of the hearty stew that settled within. Once Allura set them down, she retrieved a pair of multi-tools that she adjusted until they used the spoon extension and placed each next to a container. Then she retrieved two glasses and set them on the base of the memorial, making sure they were kept entirely flat. Finally, she took out a bottle, smiling faintly at the label.

“Your favourites,” Allura said as she opened the bottle and three quarters filled each glass. “Moonberry wine, hallat stew, there’s-- oh, I almost forgot the shila bread!” Allura dug into the basket, and set out a warm loaf, wrapped in napkins. “Perfect.”

The wind picked up, chill against Allura’s skin, and she shivered as it ruffled her dress. “I’ve been practicing my lunges every day. They’re a bit tricky, and I’m not as fond of it as fencing practice, but I’ve been working at it. I spend the afternoon with the Channeler’s Circle, assuming that there isn’t a battle to be fought. There are fewer battles now. Voltron has beaten them back, again and again.”

Allura lifted one of the containers and set it close to her, cracking the seal and used the spoon to stir it, letting it cool a little. “Father thinks that I’m doing an excellent job. That my life force is strong, vital even. I need only use a minute or two here and there to activate the wormholes. He’s quite pleased, but I know he still worries. He always worries.”

Allura set her container aside, and unwrapped the bread. The fragrant scent of herbs filled the air and she sniffed appreciatively. She tore off a piece, and then further separated it into bite-sized pieces to dip into the stew, making a soft, delighted noise. “The cooks did a wonderful job today. We managed to clear out the trade route between Altea and Xallianne. You should have seen it, Mother. A half-dozen Maw ships sliced in half. I thought Kalas was going to explode from pride. You would like him, I think. It’s hard on him, sometimes, being Silvanosti, but he’s a wonderful pilot.”

She reached out to pick up the glass and let the scent drift to her nose, enjoying it before she took a small sip, and let the flavour roll against her palate. “Definitely a fine vintage. Jax -- you remember Jax, don’t you? -- recommended it to me. He has good taste.”

The only answer was the wind, and the silence. She let the smile fall from her lips, and busied herself with her meal. In time, the glass was drained, the stew finished, and half a loaf of bread remained. The sun of Altea moved lazily across the sky, and she fidgeted, tugging at the fabric of her skirts.

Allura looked around, then closed her eyes. Please. Please. I don’t want to be alone. I don’t want to be the only one here, so please--

“Allura,” called a voice, and her eyes flew open. She looked over her shoulder and saw her father hurrying along the path. “I’m so sorry I’m late, Daughter. The meeting ran over long.”

“Father,” Allura said, and rose, letting the crumbs fall from her skirts and be carried off by the chill winds. “It’s quite alright, though I fear that the bread has gone cold.”

“Ah, but the company will keep me warm instead.” Alfor kissed his daughter’s cheeks lightly, and lowered himself onto the blanket. “A fine feast, but I don’t see the yalla balls. Did you remember them?”

“Of course!” Allura smiled brightly. “But I didn’t want to have them without you.”

“Then just let me partake in this fine meal you’ve brought, and we can share the dessert. Shall I pour you more wine?”

“No, Father,” Allura replied, and blinked against the bright light of the setting sun. “I can take care of it. What was the meeting about?”

“Well…”

~ * ~

“Princess?” Shiro called softly, standing at the doorway of the memory chamber. It had been a week since they’d been forced to purge King Alfor’s memory core, and Allura still visited it. Most of the time, she simply stood there, staring at the space where the crystal had once been, but today, she had brought things with her:

A basket. Glasses. Containers filled with green goo. A bottle of water, filtered and recycled from the Castle’s systems.

“Shiro, come in,” Allura said. “I’m sorry, I’m simply performing a ceremony.”

“Were you expecting someone else?” he asked as he stepped inside. “Coran, maybe?”

“No,” she replied, and placed a glowing stone on the platform, and then a fragment of pink crystal. “It was just… habit, to bring two of everything.”

“Would it offend you if I stayed?”

Allura’s expression, closed and still, softened. “No, Shiro. Please, sit. There are some people I’d like you to meet.”


End

Chapter Text

One of the hardest things for Jaina Proudmoore to do was make friends. People had been whispering about her since the day she was born. She didn’t look like much of anyone in her family; not like her father and brothers, who had dark hair and dusky skin, nor like her grandmother and grandfather, though the latter had passed away before she’d been born.

Even her mother, who shared her pale features and light hair didn’t quite look like she did, all haughty aristocracy from Gilneas instead of the practical, hard-working Tirans the rest of her family resembled.

Jaina’s eyes were ice blue and as bright as the summer sky, and her hair was pale blonde. Her skin never seemed to, no matter how much time she spent in the sun, darken or even burn. It was as though, some people claimed, the sun itself was shunning her.

It was hard for her to find playmates. No one wanted to be friends with the girl who left puddles in odd places, as though she’d never properly been trained out of diapers, or had odd turns or starts when she looked out windows or played on the shoreline of Tiran beaches.

So it had been, in effect, something of a miracle when, at age ten, she’d met Jack. Jack was her age, or a little older, and he was a dock urchin. Not that it mattered where he came from, not when he was willing to look at tide pools on the beach or play tag. Not when he would sit on the docks with her and share a piece of greasy, paper-wrapped fish with her, even if he didn’t have the money for it himself most days.

It’s fine to share with a friend, Jaina thought happily as she skipped along the street. It was an overcast day, not raining yet, but who knew when that would change. One didn’t spend their life in Boralus, or anywhere else on the Tiran islands, without getting used to a little rain.

Jaina loved rain, though she never shared that with anyone. No one was a good enough friend yet.

“Aww,” she heard as she turned a corner. “Why’s it have to be Jaina? Don’t you know she’s weird?” Instinctively, she froze as she recognize the laugh. Jack. You tell ‘em--

“She sure is,” Jack said, sucking on a gob of taffy. “Twice as weird as you’d heard, but she’ll buy a feller a fish most days, an’ that’s worth a little weirdness.”

Jaina felt herself grow terribly cold, as cold as winter, as cold as the Frozen Sea. As cold as snowflakes and blizzards and ice. How could… he’s not… aren’t we friends?

“Not ter me,” said the other person. “Fish ain’t worth it ter get cursed.”

“She ain’t gonna curse me,” Jack bragged. “She don’t have a clue. She--”

Jaina flew at him with a shriek, hands extended to shove him. Ice. There was ice everywhere. She felt so cold but her temper burned white-hot and the moment her hands touched his chest, the dockside froze over, and Jack skidded away, falling with a crack.

“Witch!” Jack’s companion cried, and a handful of others took up the cry. “Cursed!”

Jaina whipped her head from side to side, eyes wide with fear. At her feet, Jack groaned, and there was a dark stain against the wood. What… what did I do?!

All at once, the depths of her crime hit her, and she ran back the way she came, but instead of going home, she fled along the beach, sobbing icy tears.

As if waiting for that very opportunity, the sky opened up and it began to rain.

End



Chapter Text

“Kogane, you’re a wash-out. Just give up now and stop wasting everyone’s time.” His instructor looked down, and Keith’s fingers twitched. It took everything he had not to snap at the older man, his nostrils flaring with each quick breath. “You’re disrupting the other students. You’re--”

“Instructor Sampson, is something the matter?”

Standing at the door was a tall, muscular Japanese man dressed in a pilot’s uniform. His family name, Shirogane, was visible on his name tag and he had an oddly calm look on his face. Mild, even.

Or maybe it’s because he’s not the one getting a strip torn off of him.

“Shiro--” The other man cleared his throat lightly. “Pilot Officer Shirogane, this is a disciplinary matter. There’s no need for you to concern yourself.”

Recognition filtered back to Keith, cutting through the mists of rage: as one of the youngest to ever graduate from the Galaxy Garrison Academy, Takashi Shirogane had performed countless flawless missions, sometimes getting his charges out under heavy fire. He was a genius, gifted beyond fairness or reason, and he had overheard Keith’s all but assured removal from the place that Shiro had left as a hero.

Well, I didn’t think my day could get any worse, but it just did.

“--the contrary, it sounds like I should be very concerned,” Shiro said. “Keith, you’re here as part of a special program, aren’t you?”

He started, surprised to be recognized. “Yes, sir.”

“You address a military officer by their rank, Kogane,” Instructor Sampson snarled, and raised his hand. Shiro reached out, grasping his wrist, and tugging the arm just slightly.

“Sir is fine,” Shiro said mildly. “Keith, do you want to be part of Galaxy Garrison? Answer in your own time.”

Keith thought back, to the foster home he’d been with until he’d been accepted to the program. To the dagger he kept wrapped in cloth and hidden in case one of the other students went through his things -- and they did, from time to time, to see if he had anything embarrassing. To his father, while he still lived, speaking vaguely, drunkenly, about his mother and that she’d return someday. That she had gone to the stars -- which probably meant she was dead -- but Keith still held out some faint hope that he could find her and… What? Convince her to take in her son who failed out of everything he ever tried to accomplish?

“Yes, sir,” Keith said. “I want to be a pilot.”

Shiro ignored the snort from Keith’s instructor and looked him over, his expression serious. “You’ll have to work very hard. It’s going to be difficult. No one was born being able to fly. Even birds need to learn.”

“...but aren’t you the best pilot out of the Garrison?” Keith asked. “Shouldn’t you be motivating me?”

“People often tell me so, but I did have to work very hard, and I struggled at times.” Shiro smiled briefly. “Sometimes, people don’t notice others are struggling until they start to do poorly. If they do well, no one notices at all.”

Keith inhaled sharply, glanced at Instructor Sampson, and felt his pulse quicken. There were things he could say -- wanted to say -- to Shiro, but not in front of a man who would see his weakness and tear into him with it like a tiger’s claws. He had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep quiet, and Sampson crossed his arms over his chest

“Pilot Officer, clearly we’re not going to get anywhere. Kogane has the dreams but nothing to follow up with it. He’s just a waste of time; yours, the Academy’s, mine.”

“People are never a waste of time,” Shiro said, his tone still calm, almost kindly. “Still, if you need to be somewhere else, by all means, go. I’ll make sure Keith gets back to the dormitory.”

“You--”

“Dismissed, Instructor.” The words were quiet, but held a core of steel that made Keith’s eyes grow wide, and Sampson take a half-step back. The older man said nothing as he turned on heel and left. “That’s actually against policy,” Shiro said to Keith, conversationally. “Leaving a student -- a minor -- with an unauthorized adult. I could hurt you. I’m not going to, because that would be a crime, and very wrong, but it’s something to remember.”

“...so, what are you going to do?”

“Let’s take a walk,” Shiro said, and gestured, though didn’t touch him. “Ever been out to the track fields?”

“All the time,” Keith said, and fell into step with Shiro. “Sometimes, running is the only thing I feel like I’m good at.”

“That’s a good start, you know you’re good at something,” Shiro noted. As they walked, people took notice. Some of Keith’s year-mates stared at them, first at the Pilot Officer, and then at Keith. For the former, they had only adoration, but for Keith, there was contempt, anger, disbelief.

Why is someone like Shiro wasting their time with someone like Keith?

Keith’s hands balled into fists, and Shiro touched Keith’s arm briefly. “Ignore them, talk to me. Why do you like running?”

“I don’t…” Anger welled up inside him. “I don’t know, maybe I don’t like it at all. I’m just good at it. Maybe I’m not. Maybe I…”

“We don’t have to talk about running,” Shiro said gently. “I liked going out to the track not so much because I enjoyed running, but because it let me be alone with my thoughts. Everything else could be quiet. Do you like it when things are quiet?”

Keith’s nostrils flared as he tried to calm himself, and his success was limited. “Yeah, I guess. Quiet is good.”

“It is good,” Shiro agreed. “One of the reasons I like flying. It’s very quiet, peaceful even. Once you get off the ground, that is.”

“Not to get somewhere?” Keith blurted out, and he felt his cheeks heat. “Never mind.”

“Getting somewhere can be very important,” the pilot said. “Sometimes that’s what your goal is. You’re in one place and you need to get to another. Sometimes, it’s about how you get there rather than where you’re going.”

“Wouldn’t you want to take the fastest way?” Keith asked. “The surest way?”

“Sometimes, if there was an emergency,” Shiro said, and opened a great glass door that led outside, and held it open for Keith. The younger boy walked through and waited for Shiro to let out two others before letting it go.

One of the people Shiro let through kicked her foot against Keith’s scuffed Academy boots, and he snarled at her, but said nothing.

“Inappropriate, Cadet Cariss,” Shiro said. “Warning.”

Cariss stopped, swallowed heavily, and saluted. “Yes, sir, Pilot Officer.”

“Go on now,” Shiro said, and for a brief, absurd moment, Keith was grateful that Shiro hadn’t scooped her up too for his odd display of attention. “In an emergency, you want to take a fast, sure way to be certain you get there on time, but there are lots of times where you want to take your time, explore, learn things about yourself and the world around you.”

“...but won’t that take a long time? What if you don’t have a lot of time?”

“Is it an emergency?” Shiro asked, sounding genuinely curious. Keith looked into the distance, his fingers tightening and loosening. Shiro didn’t press him, but instead led him out to the near-empty race track, over the crunching red-brown dirt, and towards the grass and sat down, gesturing for Keith to sit with him.

Instead, Keith stood, pacing like a great cat in a cage, and Shiro didn’t snap at him. Didn’t order him to sit down, didn’t tell him to stop moving. Didn’t tell him to calm down, merely let him move, let him pace, and in time, Keith found himself becoming calmer.

“There are people who live their lives trying to be efficient,” Shiro said slowly, and Keith looked at him. “They live strict, regimented lives. They move quickly from place to place, never looking around, never considering what their life is like. They struggle, but they keep moving until they fall… or they fly.”

Keith squatted down on the track, watching him. “What did they do to you?”

“Excuse me?”

“Your parents. What did they do to you? Happy people don’t look like that.”

Shiro blinked a few times. “My parents were good to me. They didn’t hurt me. They were strict, and had strong ideas of what they wanted me to do with my life.”

“And you said no?”

“I said yes. My mother is Marshal of the Air Force Tanaka. She’s retired now, but she was respected, regimented. Failure was never an option, as far as she was concerned.”

“So, she did hurt you.”

“No,” Shiro insisted, a little too quickly. “She’s very proud of me. What about you?”

“My mother left. My father drank himself to death. I was part of the foster care system even before that. They accepted me into the Academy because someone needs to fill out the grunt ranks.” Keith rocked back and forth a little. “Why did you stop him?”

“Yelling at you wasn’t going to help you improve. Tearing you down wasn’t the way to build you up.” Shiro took a breath. “You carry a lot of anger inside you.”

“I have a lot of reasons to be angry.” Keith stared at him, challenging, tense even as he rocked. “Not all of us are perfect.”

“No one is ever really perfect,” Shiro said, sighing. “Though some people set the bar very, very high. You have the right to be angry, Keith. You have the right to feel hurt when people are hurting you. I’m not telling you that you can’t be. If you tell me the reasons you’re angry, we can find ways for you to be less angry.”

“What if I want to stay angry?” Keith asked. “Forever.”

“You can be,” Shiro said. “But you won’t get very far. If you try to hurry from place to place without knowing where you’re going or how to get there, not only will it take longer, but you may never get there at all. You have to be patient.”

“Patient?” Keith snorted. “With people who yell at me? Who say I’m worthless?”

“No,” Shiro replied. “You have to be patient with yourself.”

Keith froze, and let himself fall forward, onto his knees. “I don’t know how to do that.”

“I can teach you,” Shiro said. “I won’t be around forever, but I’ve been rotated to the Academy for six months to give lectures to the pilot classes. We can work together while I’m here, see how things go. What do you say?”

“...what if I still fail? I can’t… none of the stuff they teach is important. I can’t concentrate on it at all.”

“You can’t concentrate because you’re angry; with yourself, with your teachers, with the other students. It makes sense, considering how they treat you, but there are other options. There are other ways to learn. You just have to be patient. Patience yields focus.”

“Patience… yields focus,” Keith murmured, rolling the words around in his mouth. “So if I’m patient, I’ll be better than what people say?”

“You’re already better than what people say,” Shiro said. “If you’re patient, you’ll start to see it for yourself.” He offered Keith his hand, and, on hands and knees, he moved towards Shiro and grasped the older man’s hand as though it were a lifeline.

Shiro squeezed his hand and smiled, then tugged him over to the grass and urged him to sit. Keith did, cross-legged, and looked out towards the Academy buildings, following Shiro’s gaze.

The pilot said nothing, merely let Keith have his quiet as he chased his thoughts around and around in circles. In the future, Keith would recognize that first day as a day of rebirth. The day when Keith, the delinquent who couldn’t pass a class if it would save his life, died, and Keith, the talented, clever pilot was born.

It was a golden day, a halcyon day. It was the perfect end to what had started out as a terrible day.

End

Chapter Text

 

Dear Roxy,

Look, I know we stopped talking a long time ago, and I know that we both said some things we regret, but I don’t think it’s fair that you’re so distanced from Dave. You need to be a part of his life, if not mine.

Reply to me and we’ll discuss the best way to get this done.

Yours, Dirk.

Reading over the email, Dirk “Bro” Strider frowned to himself, and scrolled his mouse over the Send button. All that was left was to wait for it to send, and he picked up one of his smuppets and examined the stitching. It was nearly invisible in places, but in the areas where they were meant to tear as part of a greater composition were too visible, and that offended his sense of perfection.

Seventeen minutes had passed by the time Dirk received his reply.

dirk --

F U

F U F U F U F U F U F U F U F U F U

eat a fking dick

-- RoLal

Immature, Roxy, Dirk thought sourly. You could have just said no. Before he could stop himself, he began to type, rapidly, densely, using words as rapier-sharp as his sword.

Roxy.

There is no point in us being estranged from one-another. We exist for the same purpose and there’s no reason to oppose each other. You are being unnecessarily stubborn, perhaps fuelled by alcohol or some other equally poor decision. Rose will require extensive training for her future purpose, just as Dave will require your knowledge of the secret machinations of this situation.

I strongly recommend that you rethink your eloquent, elaborate response to my correspondence and get your head in the game.

Dirk.

With a decisive, angry click, he sent the email.

Waiting proved to be difficult; rather than being able to sew or examine his smuppets, he got up and sorted through some of the cupboards in the kitchen. Empty boxes listed to one side from the breeze of his flashstep, and he managed to catch a few before the rest tumbled off the pile.

Recycling. I need to get some recycling done. What am I going to do with all of these boxes? He lost himself in the task for a few minutes, before the chime came from his email client, and he abandoned all pretense of trying to clean.

DiStri --

DAVEY IS RED
JANEY WAS BLUE
U TOLD ME U DIDNT WANT UR KIDS
SO FUCK FUCKING FUCKC U.

-- R.

Dirk inhaled sharply. He exhaled. He did it again a few times, and found that he wasn’t getting any calmer. He wasn’t getting any better ideas.

Fine.

Be that way.

Dave will be the greatest champion the world has ever fucking seen while Rose stands befuddled in her gin-and-olive scented living room because she had the ultimate fucking misfortune to have *you* be her parent.

He knew it was a mistake the moment he hit send. He knew it would hurt her. He knew that, if his overture had been sincere, that this would set him back massively in his attempts to reconcile. If his ability to correctly assess his actions had come a little sooner, if he had simply deleted his message and started over, been more sincere, perhaps he could have avoided it.

Instead, he could only try to ask forgiveness.

Roxy, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. I shouldn’t have said that. You’re right, I did say those things, and I shouldn’t have. We lost Jane. We lost Jake. Maybe we can still make things right.

Please, talk to me. I need you.

The reply back was immediate, but discouraging.

[Message cannot be sent. User has blocked you.]

“No,” Dirk whispered softly. “Roxy, no. Don’t--” Don’t, what? Don’t avoid someone who is screaming at you? Don’t take the words of a gigantic asshole seriously? Don’t leave me all alone except for a child I’m not prepared to raise and never have been? “Don’t.”

He slumped in his chair and pulled off his sunglasses, throwing them against his monitor. They bounced lightly against the keyboard. He buried his face in his hands, grinding his palms against his eyes, as though scratching his corneas could somehow solve things.

“Bro?” Dave’s voice was soft, curious. Cautious, wary. “What’s wrong?”

A visceral feeling of self-loathing and anger went through him in a wave, and ruthlessly crushed them, though he’d promised he never would again. Never stop himself from feeling, take chances with his heart when he’d long forgotten how.

Bro Strider looked up at his younger sibling, only eight or nine by his reckoning, and gestured. “Come here, lil man.”

Dave peered at him, curious, and then climbed into his lap. He wasn’t quite enough of a cool kid not to squeak when Bro hugged him tightly, and stroked his hair a little.

It didn’t count as crying if no one could see you doing it.

End

Chapter Text

“Daughter, I’m doing this for your own good,” Alfor said to Allura’s still form. She had grown so much since the first time he had cradled her in his arms. She had only been a baby then, beloved in his sight, though he had not known then she would be his sole heir.

It wouldn’t have mattered, she was still precious to him. Too precious to lose. Too precious for her to meet her mother’s fate.

Outside, Altea burned. Fields full of flowers were blackened and dead. Beautiful, bountiful orchards were reduced to char and ground beneath Galra boots -- such as they were. Even if, some how and some way, the Alteans could push Zarkon’s forces back, their homeworld would be unlivable. The self-proclaimed Emperor had struck a mighty blow, hammering them for all they were worth, but that was of little surprise to Alfor.

After all, he already knew the way in.

He carried Allura to the stasis chamber personally, waving off his bodyguards.

“The defenses will need you,” Alfor told them. “We must hold until launch.”

While they were both brave to have stayed, brave to have volunteered after the evacuation ships had been sent off -- some of which hadn’t even made it past the blockade, representing thousands of lives, extinguished in a hail of laser fire -- now they exchanged looks of deep concern.

The Castle of Lions would not be remaining on Altea and it would not carry the remaining military forces to safety. It was carrying two, just two, and one very special being of magic, science, and hope.

It was Coran that met him within. Coran was not the best mechanic they had. No, she had died, and sent her Lion far away, somewhere safe. He was not the oldest mechanic either, many of them had either been evacuated or remained behind to repair the defenses. Coran was, instead, the mechanic that knew the Castle the best. His grandfather had helped build it, and spoken to his grandson about it at length.

That Coran was a highly specialized and well trained weapons engineer probably didn’t hurt either.

“Your Majesty,” Coran said, and saluted crisply. “Two cryo-pods are ready for you, just as requested. Shall I be going, then?”

“No, Coran,” Alfor said. “I’d like you to come with me.”

Alfor brought Allura to the cryo-pod and eased her into it. The pod made a soft squeaking noise, which caused the king to frown, and look over at the mechanic.

“Double and triple-checked,” Coran promised. “She’ll be safe as houses.”

“Good, this pod must not fail,” Alfor said. He gazed at his daughter’s still face, the stubborn lines that reminded him all too much of his wife, and activated the suspension protocols. Once it had iced over, and the pod descended into the floor, Alfor turned away. “There’s a primary databank, isn’t there? Take me.”

“Right away, Your Majesty. This way.” Coran turned on heel, and marched stiffly towards one of the lifts. Alfor followed. While they descended, he closed his eyes.

In his mind, Altea was burning.

In his mind, Kara was dying.

In his mind, Zarkon’s hands were covered in so much blood that it crusted and dripped at the same time.

It didn’t need to be like this, Alfor thought bitterly, and opened his eyes again. It never needed to be like this.

Coran led him to the memory chamber, and briefly demonstrated the pods that would copy his memories, allowing for another to view them. Allowing Allura to view them, because there would be no Balmeran crystal for her to hold. No ceremony to attend. No time and place to weep or mourn or rage.

Alfor, like Altea, would burn.

As the machine recorded, the memories flashed before his eyes. His own parents, proud and joyous to have their son, and later their daughters, though his sisters had since been lost to war and time. His friends, Jax and Kara. His love, Astora, brave and fierce and stubborn. His own daughter, precious, unique, special.

The Lions. Zarkon. The betrayal.

To you, my daughter, I leave one final message: you were right. I shouldn’t have sent the Lions away. We should have fought. We should have made our final stand. We should have reached out to our allies to find another Black Paladin, a more steadfast one. One that would form the heart and soul of Voltron after too many had been torn asunder.

I love you and I always will. I know that you have the strength to stand against Zarkon, despite all that has happened, despite your own broken heart. I ask only that you be willing to open it again, to love, to hope. Believe in the new Paladins, and they will lift you up and be the sword in your hand.

Goodbye, Allura.

Alfor signalled to Coran, and he turned the machine off. The king stepped out of the machine, sighing deeply. “Make sure this is integrated with the memory core, and then I’ll see you off.”

“Of course,” Coran said briskly. “Right away.”

“It does need to be soon,” Alfor said softly, and something twinged in the back of his mind. Something familiar, something cold, something raw and terrible. He ignored it. Hurrying things would solve nothing and place his plans in jeopardy.

Coran hurried to the Castle’s main AI and set the memory crystal in place, entering the code necessary to integrate it. The work was slow -- Alfor’s life had been long, and there were plenty of memories to share -- but once it was completed, Coran nodded.

“So that’s it then.”

“One more thing, Coran,” Alfor said. “We’re going back to the cryo-pods. They take two to use, after all.”

“Ah, of course,” Coran said. “Back this way.”

They retraced their steps, and Alfor looked at the pods. Considering, he beckoned up the pod that was across from Allura’s. “This one.”

“Very good, sire,” Coran said, and inputted identical instructions to those that came before. “All ready.”

“You’ve done a fine job, Coran,” Alfor said, and clapped him on the back. Immediately, Coran’s eyes rolled back and the king caught him before he could fall. “Allura needs a mechanic more than she needs me. My memories will do.”

He eased Coran into the pod, sealed it, and sent it down into the holding chamber. He looked around the room once, then went to the navigation. In ninety ticks, the Castle would depart Altea forever, carrying precious cargo and hope for the future.

“For the good of all,” Alfor whispered as he set the final location into place. Arus was a primitive world, full of lush jungles and open plains. If Allura would find hope anywhere, it would be there.

Alfor made his way out of the Castle, alone, now, and exited it. After a moment, the Castle sealed itself off, and only a Lion would open that particular lock. Four Lions, all dispersed, the final one sealed inside.

The remaining military forces, seeing the Castle depart, stood in formation around him as the Galra came, destroying everything they could find.

I’m glad Allura will never see this, Alfor thought as Zarkon, former Black Paladin, former Prince-Consort to the future Queen of Altea, strode forward, killing as he went, spilling Altean blood with his bayard.

“I thought you would have run, Alfor,” Zarkon said, his lips peeling back in a feral smile. “Just like a leg would. You must know you can’t win. Why not give me what I want? You might even live for a time.”

“It’s not good to give people what they want all the time,” Alfor said, and drew not his bayard -- that would be for the next Gold Paladin -- but the sword of his father, and his father before him. “I’m doing this for your own good.”

Zarkon laughed harshly and leapt at him, while all around them, Altea burned.

End

Chapter Text

Rain pattered against the large, high windows of Jaina Proudmoore’s tower. It sounded like pebbles being thrown against glass, as though trying to get someone’s attention. He forced himself to ignore it, because of all the things that could have his attention, the Lady of Theramore’s actual words were the most important.

“So, Rhoe Mattiasson,” Jaina said, lacing her fingers together over top of the stack of documents in front of her. The young man tried not to glance down at the pages -- which he had painstakingly written, rewritten, and had approved by his mother and sisters -- that he had left with the Lady’s chamberlain two weeks ago. He had his list of traits and experiences, along with his education and skills, on the first page, and the second, a list of all those who promised to speak for him. He hoped that being called here to speak to the Lady directly meant something. “Tell me why you want to be an adventurer.”

“Well, Lady Proudmoore,” Rhoe began, and swallowed hard. His stomach fluttered with nervousness and he hoped -- rather vainly -- that his long, curling, chestnut-brown hair had not frizzed up from the rain. “I believe in the Theramore League. I believe in peace with the Horde and our expansion into Dustwallow Marsh. I have valuable skills that can serve the League and you.”

“It says here you’re Tiran,” she said, tapping lightly at the sheaf of papers. “When did your family come to Kalimdor?”

“After the, um, invasion, My Lady,” Rhoe said, swallowing hard. “But we came with the intention of starting over in Kalimdor, not to start any trouble. My parents, my family, we aren’t soldiers. In fact--”

“You fish,” Jaina interrupted smoothly. “Do you understand that things are different here? That there is no war between the Theramore League and the Horde, nor is there one between either of us and the Kaldorei?”

“Yes, My Lady,” the young man said. “No trouble at all. I only want to help.”

A soft, almost inaudible sigh escaped her lips. “Have you been a scout before?”

“No, My Lady, but I’m a fast learner. I will undertake any training you feel is appropriate.”

“I see,” Jaina said, and moved her hands to peer down at the papers, considering. Rhoe did everything he could not to fidget. “What would you consider your greatest strength, and greatest flaw, to be?”

Right now, my greatest strength isn’t messing myself from fear, Rhoe thought desperately as he gathered himself up. And my greatest weakness is that I still may. “Well…”

The questions continued for fifteen minutes, when the Lady’s clock chimed the third bell. This time, the sigh was more audible.

“Thank you for coming,” Jaina said, and rose. Rhoe rose as well, bowing as he’d practiced, and managed by a narrow margin not to smack his head on her large desk, nor did he knock any papers off of it. “I have other candidates I wish to interview, but I will contact you when I make my final decision.”

“Thank you,” Rhoe said. “Please, call on me at any time if you have more questions.”

Jaina nodded to him slightly, and he beat a hasty retreat. On his way out, he spotted Jaina’s chamberlain, a young woman only a year or two older than himself.

“How did it go?” Ariana Harringdale asked, her bright green eyes sparkling with amusement.

“...I don’t know,” Rhoe said. “Well, I think? She said she’d contact me.”

“And we will. Good luck, Master Mattiasson. Wish your parents my best.”

“Thank you, Miss,” Rhoe said, and hurried off, and even the fact that the clouds chose that moment to really open up couldn’t dampen his hopeful nature.

~ * ~

“I should be doing this,” Thrall said, his voice a soft growl. “How is it right or fair for me to ask others to do something for me that I can’t do myself.”

“Warchief,” Garona Halforcen, former assassin, and current Spymistress of the Horde, began, and plucked a hide scroll from the top of the basket sitting on Thrall’s lap. “You are not a coward, nor are you lazy, but right now you are being just the smallest bit an idiot.”

Thrall growled. “What’s wrong now?”

“You want to do too much and you don’t have the time for it all. You helped construct nearly every part of this city. Your city. You’ve looked into countless important, delicate affairs personally. The mystifying movements of murlocs is not a diplomatic crisis.”

“It could be,” Thrall muttered, slumping back in his great, hide-draped throne. “The thunder lizards were.”

“True,” Garona conceded, and gestured with the scroll. “And this could have something to do with the undead, or the wreckage of Tiran ships. Or, it may just be…”

“Murlocs.” Thrall sighed. “I wish Rexxar were here.”

“Rexxar is busy being your champion, speaking of people who have more urgent things to consider,” Garona reminded him. “That, and he dislikes cities. You need someone to help out. Many someones, frankly. You can’t keep sending officers and council members off to deal with problems. You need them here.”

“So my alternative is sending inexperienced children off into the wild to get lost and potentially die?” Thrall’s voice cracked a fraction. “That may have been the old Horde’s way, but I’ll be damned if it’s the new one’s.”

“Thrall.” Garona reached out, and put her hands on his arms. The Warchief remained very carefully still, not out of fear, but because of Garona’s own sensitivity to sudden movements. She leaned in, and rested her forehead against his. The muting softness of her presence had a calming effect, even as the bubble-crackle-grumble-whisper of the spirits became inaudible.

“What should I do?” Thrall asked softly. “Advise me.”

“What you want is volunteers,” Garona said, and drew back from him. “People who are eager to please their Warchief and take on potentially dangerous missions. As they survive, the experience they gain from their travels will allow them to take on more and more difficult tasks. They may not all become champions like Rexxar or Rokhan, but they’ll have prestige. Bragging rights. Orcs of all kinds love bragging rights.”

“Very well,” Thrall said, taking a deep breath. “Do you have a suggestion?”

“Yes, actually,” Garona said. “I may or may not have let it be known that those without duties or responsibilities can petition the Warchief directly for work. They will come to you and you -- or one of the others -- can speak to them and assess if they will serve you well. Different people may need to take on different tasks.”

“You’ve put a lot of thought into this,” Thrall said. “Are you certain you don’t want to be a more prominent part of the council? Your voice would be welcome.”

“No, it wouldn’t,” Garona said softly. “The scrolls for the first candidates are in there, but may I suggest Arka. She’s young, but she will serve you well if you treat her right.”

“I’ll take a look, certainly.” Thrall peered at her curiously. “Why this one?”

“She’s Halforcen, though not the same sort as I am,” Garona replied evenly. “If she’s shown favour, she will be fanatically loyal where others might look to different options.”

“...that’s terrible, I could never buy someone’s loyalty,” Thrall rebuked her, but considered. “How do you know she’s Halforcen? Have you spoken to her?”

“No, but I can tell by the way she looks.” Garona made a soft, amused noise that was nearly swallowed by her aura of silence. “Can’t you? You know that I am.”

“Only because you told me,” Thrall noted. “It was one of the first things you told me about yourself. Mostly, I remember about your eyes.”

“Yes, I’ve noticed you’re easily lost in people’s eyes,” Garona said, her tone only slightly mocking. Thrall frowned at her. “There are several factors most Halforcen have. Their ears are rounder, less pointed. Most people think to look for smaller tusks, but that’s not the case. It’s a softer jaw, less angular. Finally, their eyes are softer, often rounder or more expressive.”

“Yours glow,” Thrall said. “They’re luminous.”

“Poetic, but that’s just because my heritage is different from theirs,” Garona said. “Call for her. Speak to her. Make your decision.”

“I feel as though going against your advice would be foolish, but I will speak to her,” Thrall said. “One more thing… this report, she’d have to travel outside of our territory, closer to the Marsh. That might be considered a violation, wouldn’t it? Of the agreements. I couldn’t authorize that. Not again.”

Garona raised her eyebrows slightly. “Well, then she’ll just need a Theran escort, won’t she?”

~ * ~

Arka had never been to Theramore before. Not for the invasion, not for any celebration. Some of the warriors told stories about it. That it was big and made of white stone. That it had been conjured from the sea as a gift from the spirits. That it was so close in that you could smell every other person around you and it could make you dizzy.

None of them had mentioned the rain.

It wasn’t as though she hadn’t experienced rain. Durotar wasn’t hot all the time, and during the Winter months, the rains came down, driving and hard, to fill the Southfury and its tributaries, to grant much-needed moisture to the swine farmers and their pigs, and to relieve the scorching heat for a time.

That, Arka knew, she was supposed to stay out of, but this, fresh from the boat between Orgrimmar and Theramore, she had not expected.

I wonder if they were trying to humiliate me, since they knew I wouldn’t get seasick.

“Ah, there you are,” called a voice, and Arka looked up. A dark-haired human woman in a long, draping coat held out an umbrella. “You must be Arka, come with me.”

“Throm’ka, Lady Proudmoore,” Arka said immediately, saluting fist to chest, the firm gesture more of a soft, soppy thud.

“Not quite,” the woman said. “My name is Ariana, and Jaina sent me to fetch you. We thought you might be caught in the wet. At least it’s not snowing. Not yet.”

“I was… unprepared,” Arka said stiffly, and made her way across the dock. Her attempts at a firm, purposeful stride were hampered by the wet on the docks, and her leather boots skidding and slipping every two or three steps.

“So is everyone not from Kul Tiras, I think.” Arka took shelter under the umbrella, and Ariana took her arm, guiding her off the dock and towards the rain-slicked streets. “I used to live in Hearthglen. At least when we had six feet of snow, we could predict we would have six feet of snow.”

Arka smiled, very faintly, feeling her mood lift. “I remember. We would build huts out of blocks of snow, and hope that no one would stumble into them in the dark.”

“Snow cabins, we would do something similar. How was your journey? Any ill effects?”

“No,” Arka said. “I never get seasick.”

“Then obviously the Warchief made the right choice to send you,” Ariana said, cheerful. “We’ll just get you a rain cape and you’ll fit right in.”

Arka nodded, feeling a little overwhelmed. It was true enough that the human city was made white stone, or at least, what she could see through the rain and misting fog. Ariana seemed to understand the route they needed to take, however, and Arka let her lead.

She sniffed, experimental, and found that she smelled of rain, which smothered most, but not all, of the scent of soap, ink, and book dust.

“What is it you… do, for Lady Proudmoore?” Arka asked, curious.

“I am her chamberlain,” Ariana said. “Which is a fancy term for her most senior secretary, at this point. I make sure messages get to where they need to go, and if something needs doing, I find the person who’s going to get it done, whether that person is Jaina, or someone else.”

“...and that includes making sure I’m not swept out to sea?” Arka ducked her head. “I apologize.”

“Actually, I often make sure people aren’t swept out to sea, it’s part of my charm.” Ariana patted her arm, releasing a stream of water behind them. “It’s fine. Once we get you settled, you can meet your escort.”

“...I don’t need an escort.”

“Ah, but you do,” Ariana said. “You require a resident of Theramore to vouchsafe your presence in Dustwallow, and it just so happens we take applicants for explorations and adventuring now. Very fortunate for all of us.”

“The spirits look out for us,” Arka said, her enthusiasm diminishing again. What are the chances I’ll be given some fool who wants to show off for his Lady? she wondered to herself. Someone who will take all the credit?

“They do, and the Light too,” Ariana said, and let the conversation drop off, simply focusing on guiding Arka to the great tower that stood at the heart of Theramore.

Staring up at it, Arka shivered, and it had less to do with the way the rain had chilled her and was more about the sheer size of it. No one could have made a tower of this size, or at least, no orc. Not even the barracks at the Camp had been this large, nor had it been so nicely constructed.

There were rumours, whispers among the young ones, that Jaina Proudmoore had conjured her tower from the sea, and for a moment, Arka could believe it.

“Stay in the lobby and drip for a few minutes,” Ariana said, pausing at the tower’s doorway to shake out her umbrella before opening the door and stepping inside. “I’ll be along presently to bring you dry things, and then we can introduce you to Rhoe.”

“Rhoe?” Arka repeated. “Is that my escort’s name?”

“Yes, and he’s waiting for you,” Ariana said, and frowned when Arka shivered. “I promise you, we’ve been thorough with the interviewing process. There will be no trouble between the two of you.”

Arka pressed her lips together, and refused to flinch away from the pain of her tusks biting into flesh. Ariana patted her shoulder in squelching sympathy, and then divested herself of her rain cape, hanging it on one of a series of hooks on the wall, then hung her umbrella next to it.

“What…” Arka said, hesitating as Ariana made to begin the climb up the stairs. “Is he like?”

Ariana considered. “Entertaining.”

~ * ~

The worst part about the rain, Rhoe felt, as he waited in one of the lower lounges, staring out the window into the mist, was that it was probably going to destroy his lute if he wasn’t careful.

Mother would probably tut at me for bringing it at all, Rhoe thought, his gaze following the trickling rainwater. Didn’t we get you that to place nice songs after dinner? We might as well have thrown our gold straight into the Great Sea.’ Well, proper bards don’t stay in just one place. We’re adventurers, explorers. There’s not much to explore in our sitting room.

He sighed. Escort duty was not high on the list of exploration experiences he looked forward to, especially not when it was going to involve investigating fish, murlocs, or fish that murlocs ate. As he knew from all of his seventeen and three quarters years experience, fish were not in any way remarkable. They did not stand out. There was nothing of interest to them, they simply, and relentlessly, were.

Rhoe’s fingers itched to unwrap his lute from the special waxed canvass he had protected it with on his way here, but it would be too much trouble to unpack it, then immediately repack it when his fellow adventurer arrived.

I hope she’s interesting, Rhoe thought to himself as he shifted a little on his seat. You probably would have to be, if you were halforcen. I mustn’t stare. I mustn’t fuss about it, no matter how curious I am. She’s likely to be sensitive about it. I wonder--

The door of the lounge opened, and Rhoe sprang to his feet, hoping nothing of his outfit was out of place or rumpled. He had dressed for both style and practicality, his brown trousers as resistant to rain as a poncho, but neatly designed to go with the long, flowing white shirt he wore, with its wide sleeves in not-quite coincidental mimicry of his employer.

The Lady of Theramore smiled slightly, and nodded once. “Very quick. Let me introduce you to your new compatriot, Arka, of Orgrimmar.”

Rhoe immediately bowed, missing the initial entry of his partner, but he could not do so on the way up: whatever her heritage, she looked like an orc, with a mostly shaved scalp save for a tight braid of purple-black hair that looked as though it had been recently soaked in water, though it left no puddle on the floor. Her trousers, vest, and shirt seemed practical, though they lacked the style of Rhoe’s own dress and fleetingly, wondered if she’d borrowed them, considering they were dry. Jaina cleared her throat lightly, and he felt his cheeks heat.

“Miss Arka,” he said. “My name is Rhoe Mattiasson. Of… Theramore. Pleased to meet your acquaintance.”

“...hello,” Arka said, her Common low and a tad rough. “May we travel far together.”

“Sit, both of you, and I will explain the situation.” Jaina gestured, and Arka sat on one of the other couches, while Rhoe returned to his seat. The Lady waited for what Rhoe hoped was Arka’s rapt attention, though he would settle for any attention at all. “Warchief Thrall has received reports of diseased fish being taken in by his people. Mottled scales, bloated, often dead before they hit the nets. Owing to the type of fish and its spawning patterns, he believes that the source of this illness originates from Dustwallow Marsh’s coast.”

“Warchief Thrall wishes for me to investigate,” Arka added. “He says that you have an expert to send with me.”

“And I do, Rhoe’s family has been fishing and living on the coastline for many generations. A different coastline, but a coastline nonetheless.” Jaina’s smile became faintly strained. “He has my confidence in all matters oceanic.”

Arka made a soft, derisive noise, and murmured under her breath. Jaina raised an eyebrow, speaking to her directly in Orcish. After a few moments, the halforcen hung her head.

“Well,” Rhoe said, trying to pretend as though no one was discussing him behind his back. “Shall we be off?”

“Ariana is making sure your supplies and gear are all in good order,” Jaina said. “She’ll come fetch you when she’s ready.” The Lady rose from her seat. “Please, get acquainted. You’ll be spending quite some time together. I don’t know how complex this investigation will be, but I will remind you, remind both of you, that the work you do here will leave a lasting impression on Kalimdor and this alliance. Good luck.”

After Jaina swept out, and Arka remained silent, Rhoe gave into the impulse to unpack his lute and began to tune it. He’d need to loosen the strings before they started to travel, but he couldn’t stand the silence much longer.

He closed his eyes and let his fingers wander, picking out a tune. As he played, and let the notes carry his concerns away with the rain, he liked to believe he could hear Arka humming along.

Yesterday had been anticipation, today was in motion, and tomorrow.... well.

Tomorrow was an adventure.

End

Chapter Text

The night was dark and full of shadows. The day was cold and barren in the sunlight. It seemed as though noone or nothing could stop the terror that stalked them all.

Standing at the foot of a ruin in the Churning Mists, Noire Iceshadow, Warrior of Light, and elite member of the Maelstrom, had to wonder: why in the name of the Deepest Hell was she here?

They could not press the advance at Baelsar’s Wall. Y’shtola and Krile still had research to do, that they might undo or neutralize the damage done by Ilberd’s ill-considered actions. Others, like Yda, needed time to mourn. Noire herself was restless, itching to do something, fight someone, right some kind of overwhelming wrong.

Of the summons she’d received, this one, the one from ‘Bahrr Lehs’ seemed to be the most convenient to an Aetheryte crystal. She had made her way to the ruins, which is when she learned the truth of the matter.

It was then she spotted the Moogles.

Noire had liked the diminutive beast tribe well enough in Eorzea. They did their best to hide from others, save the Seedseers of Gridania, and they delivered mail. Occasionally, they required aid, such as the dispersal of Good King Moogle-Mog and his Mogguard. They were good humoured enough, and even if they were new to her, they had made her smile.

Not so much so with the Moogles of the Churning Mists. Oh, they had been clever at hiding too, but they were not helpful, cheerful Moogles of the Black Shroud. Instead, they were obnoxious, lazy, foolish, and helpless in turns.

Also, they insulted my name. My parents gave me my name. It’s a good name!

As she looked around, she saw an Ishgardian trader, as angry and frustrated as she was. Noire turned and waved towards him. He glanced at her and sighed in relief. “Does my vision show me true? Someone who isn’t one of these idiot flying puffballs?”

“No fear of that,” Noire said, smiling reassuringly, even as her chocobo attempted to nibble on her hair. “What happens in this place?”

“Moogles,” the man said with disgust. “We’ve been set to restore this place to its former glory, a monument to the cooperation between Man and Dragon. The Moogles claimed to have a whole faction of crafters, the Mogmenders, who could help… except that they have done little and less to actually accomplish that goal.”

“I feared as much,” Noire said, a dire frown stealing across her lips. “The Moogles are not known for their… competence in many matters.”

“Surely, they’ll see a great hero like you and listen?” the man said, nearly pleading. “I’m going back to Ishgard, I can’t stay here any longer.”

“I understand,” Noire said. “I will see what’s going on.”

“Thank you, Warrior of Light,” the man said. “I’ll take my leave of you.”

Noire nodded to him, watching him walk off, muttering to himself, and then steeled herself to speak to the Moogle she had been directed to in the summons, one Mogek the Mogmender.

“Oh… Pom-flutter,” the Moogle said. “That’s another one gone… oh! Hello! Have you come to help us?”

“I am,” Noire said, a note of warning in her voice, “the Warrior of Light, and I am here to answer a summons for aid. I understand you’re restoring this building.”

“This whole area, yes.” The Moogle waved a tiny paw. “But there’s… so much work to be done, and my Mogmenders are having a difficult time of it. We were to have help, but the Ishgardians will not stay. We have done all we can to make them feel welcome, but they always leave.”

Noire watched the creature spin, her face impassive. “...and do you have a plan for this project?”

“I… well… no, but we were to have help!” Mogek said. “You’re a great Warrior, surely you’re an expert in crafts as well. Please, will you help us?”

Noire considered. She considered the peiste spines and bird nests, the task of finding just one more Moogle in the mists, of doing the patrol work for the Mog Squad, of rescuing them from dragon after wyvern after menacing creature. She gazed over the assembled Moogles, all of whom fluttered gently in the air.

Noire leaned in, and Mogek moved in closer, anticipatory. “Yes?”

“Piss off, kupo,” Noire said, her voice shaking from anger. “I’m not going to waste my time here, not when there’s a war going on. An invasion of sovereign territory and all we hold dear. You can’t even avoid alienating your allies for more than a few minutes and you want to ask for help? Again?”

“O-oh,” Mogek said, looking startled, and hurt. “I… I understand.”

“Good,” Noire said, and for all the feeling was unworthy of her, there was visceral satisfaction in refusing such a trivial task. “Now, the great dragon Vidofnir requires aid. I’m certain her task is far less trivial.”

With a flick of her great, thick tail, Noire turned on heel and marched off towards her chocobo, which had taken to chasing around another of the Moogles, and trying to eat its pom. Performing the last task for a Moogle that she intended to do, Noire wrangled her faithful steed and mounted up.

As they rose into the sky to fly towards Sohm Al’s summit, Noire thought she could feel the reproachful, mournful stare of Mogek at her back.

Good.

~ * ~

“‘Shtola,” Noire said, murmuring in the darkness. “Are you awake?”

The Mi’qote Scion muttered against her shoulder, and raised her head a little to peer over in the darkness. “I am now, what is it?”

“I said no, today,” Noire said. “I told someone I wouldn’t do their pointless task.”

“I’m very proud of you,” Y’shtola mumbled. “Now, go to sleep.”

“Do you think I did the right thing?”

A sigh gusted across Noire’s night-dark skin as her lover contemplated the question. “Did you want to do their task?”

“No.”

“Was their task necessary to the greater betterment of Eorzea?”

“No.” Noire considered. “I don’t think so.”

“Did you have something more important you could have been doing?”

“...I did revisit Sohm Al and clear out large, dangerous pests because Vidofnir was too large to fit inside its crevasses?” Y’shtola snorted in amusement. “...I believe she’s recovering well from her injuries. Also, egg-bearing.”

“Then I believe you did the right thing.” The Scion reached out a hand to take Noire’s, and the Au’ra grasped it tightly. “Now, go to sleep.”

“Thank you, I love you,” Noire said. Y’shtola’s breathing slowed, evening out, and Noire stared at the ceiling. “But what if--” Pain flared on her bicep. “Did you just bite me?”

“That was a warning strike,” the Mi’qote grumbled. “My next move will be kicking you out of bed if you don’t let me sleep.”

“...yes, Shtola. Good night.”

“Good. Night.”

End

Chapter Text

Lavinia Latinium, by far, was the worst person in existence at taking vacations. If one was willing to blaspheme -- and many were not -- they would say she rivalled the God-Emperor himself in her vigilance. To many who did not know her well, this was admirable, laudable even.

To those who knew and loved her, it drove them more than a little crazy.

Inquisitor, her staff would say, numbering as they did at less than ten, shouldn’t you be resting to gather your thoughts? You should meditate on your findings.

No, was her reply, terse as though she did not care to spare more of her attention on her tasks than she had to. There isn’t enough time.

For many years, her staff believed there was some kind of terrible disaster that she was preparing for, some kind of ultra-secret task she had been set upon.

Instead, she was just frustratingly, impossibly stubborn.

Lavi, her friends had urged, trying to take her hands and catch her attention. You’re exhausted. Do you even sleep? Rest, surely you have vacation days accrued.

No, she said, and pulled away. Vacations are a waste of time. I don’t need them.

In her dreams, she saw her mother’s death, the death of her world, over and over, until her throat was raw with screaming, and her mind too dull to resist.

Lavinia, said High Inquisitor Aeneas Romana. You need to rest. That is an order.

I don’t, she insisted. Aeneas, please. I have so much work to do before I can rest. Let me finish it.

Death is not an acceptable time to schedule your vacation, he said sternly. I know you still have the nightmares and I wish you would look into some kind of more permanent help than sleeping aides to fight your terrors. I know you don’t eat properly most days, despite the fact you’re the most brilliant doctor the Imperium has even known. I know you think you can keep yourself going on caffeine and sheer stubbornness--

And spite, she added, lowering her gaze. Don’t forget the all-powerful motivation of spite.

Come here, my dear, he said, beckoning to her. She moved forward, and he kissed her gently, between her eyes. I’m suspending you from service for one month. Go on vacation. Read terrible romance novels. Attend operas. Visit beaches. For the love of the God-Emperor and your mother’s spirit, find some way to sleep properly.

I don’t-- Lavinia stared at him, the violet of her eyes muted by the smudges of darkness that seemed to be permanent parts of her face. I can’t stop, Aeneas. I can’t stop working. I only have so much time. Even with the juvenats, I’ll only live three hundred years at most, and I’ve already wasted enough time as it is. I have to fight back, I have to stop them. Vacations, resting, it only closes the window.

Oh, he whispered. My little girl. You can’t save the Imperium in three hundred years. We’ve spent ten thousand years trying. The best you can do is act with integrity and courage and help those who call out to you for help.

No, she insisted. I can do it. I know I can. I just need to work harder. I just need to try. No one will ever die like Mother did again. I know I have it in me, I just need more time.

Time is never on our side, Aeneas said, and hugged her. Now go and enjoy yourself for a short time. Eat, drink, and be merry…

For tomorrow we may die? Lavinia suggested, hugging him in return. You’re a tyrant.

I know, Aeneas said, smiling. Rest well.

Within three days of Lavinia’s departure on vacation, the world she visited was invaded by tyranids, and her request to have her status as active Inquisitor restored was approved by High Inquisitor Aeneas Romana.

End

Chapter Text

“Coran,” Shiro called. “Do you know where the Princess is?”

“Allura’s gone to visit the pool,” Coran said, bent over a console. “What is it that you needed?”

The… pool? Shiro thought. Didn’t Keith complain about it? That it wasn’t a ‘real pool’? “Nothing urgent, I just wanted to talk to her.”

“Don’t trouble her too much, she’s supposed to be resting,” Coran warned. “Take care, Number One.”

Shiro nodded, and made his way to the lift. He tapped in the appropriate floor, and stood quietly as he waited. I hope she doesn’t mind me intruding on her private time. She so rarely gets to rest. Half the time she’s told to go to sleep, I think she stays up talking to the mice. That can’t be good for her.

His thoughts drifted to Allura’s expression, and how often she seemed solemn and withdrawn, and how rare her smiles -- bright, brilliant, even beautiful -- were. Lost as he was in thought, the chime of the lift drawing even with the appropriate deck startled him, and he hurried from it before the door closed on him.

“Allura?” Shiro called out. “I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I just.. wanted… to…”

Princess Allura, last of the royal line of Altea, sat on a small marble platform in the middle of the room. The so-called ‘broken pool’ was floating around her in bubbles of water as large as her head. Droplets glistened on her brown skin, caressing their way across the smooth plain of her back, gathering along her spine and sliding down to the curve of her rear. She tossed her white hair back, causing it to cut through the moisture that surrounded her.

The globe of water scattered and separated out into smaller spheres, crowning her in a full constellation of stars. She laughed softly, sweetly, as she scooped up some of the water and spread it over her legs. She half-turned, and for all Shiro had been arrested by her appearance before, now he felt as though he had even forgotten how to breathe.

Allura’s eyes were the blue of Earth’s upper atmosphere, the blue of the freedom of flight and the excitement of exploration. They were round and expressive, whether she was glaring at an unruly Paladin or wide with the joy of seeing one of her mice’s tricks. He had seen them alter their shape when she was sad, angry, happy, tired, or simply just at rest. Her nose was small, slightly pointed, and straight, drawing attention to the stubborn set of her narrow chin and her high, soft cheekbones.

Shiro’s gaze slid down to her mouth, with beautiful, full lips, quick to give orders, slower to smile, it seemed, though she was smiling now, hinting at a dimple he wasn’t quite sure he remembered being there before. As she completed her turn on her seat, Shiro admired her legs, long and slender, but muscular. He’d seen her fight before, seen her run and kick, but also kneel with great humility and tender care. It was one thing to see her in the same close-fitting armour that he and his fellow Paladins wore, but another to see her bathing.

Having dropped his gaze down, he raised it again. She was naked -- a useful thing that Coran could have mentioned, considering it was a pool every Paladin knew about -- and water beaded down the smooth expanse of her stomach and along her abdominal muscles. Clustered around her bellybutton was a series of glowing pink marks, identical to the ones on her skin. The idea of putting his mouth on them, kissing them, flitted through his mind and he felt his cheeks heat.

He should look away, act in a way that befitted a member of the Voltron team, and found that he could not. Allura’s breasts were small, round, and looked firm, with nipples surrounded by wide, very dark areola. They rose and fell, just slightly, with each breath, though he couldn’t help but notice that she had a scar that ran along her side, from just below her shoulder to her hip, as though someone had tried to cut her in half long ago and failed.

It was to her neck he looked next, slender, with a throat that worked, and then he was back to her face.

“Shiro,” Allura said, even as the great fall of her hair settled around her shoulders, damp and curling. “What are you doing here?”

“I… ah… well I just…” Shiro was staring, he realized, trying to press the image into his mind so permanently that even another year of time with the Galra couldn’t erase it. With a start, he turned, looking over at the wall. That seemed to help him find his voice. “I wanted to talk to you. I didn’t realize what Coran meant by a ‘pool’.”

“I see,” Allura said. “Are you… disappointed by what you saw?”

“No!” he said quickly, and flushed again. “I couldn’t be, really.”

“Then…” Allura seemed to be thinking hard, though Shiro didn’t dare look back. “Would you care to join me? I can show you how to properly enjoy an Altean pool.

Now he did look back, daringly. “Yes, I would very much like that.”

Allura, in a sight to inspire a thousand Paladins, smiled.

End

Chapter Text

Once upon a time, many, many years ago, I believed in peace. I believed in freedom. I believed in justice. When the law failed me, I stopped believing in it. When my government failed me, I stopped believing in it. When my friends stopped supporting me, I renounced them and called them my enemies.

There was only one peace, and that peace was through tyranny.

When I worked deep within the mines, my task had been twofold: to destroy, and to collect. I destroyed rock to get to the energon, and I collected energon that I would never consume, never enjoy, never revel in. When I broke free, when I destroyed my oppressors and became mighty beyond all comprehension, I began to create.

It was not the poetry of my naive past; it was the creation of a moment, of the greatest movement to ever grace Cybertron. The Autobots were incidental. A slight shift in an already existing regime. My Decepticons were something new, something great, born of anger, of outrage, of one hundred thousand crimes against the lower castes perpetrated and perpetuated by the upper.

I consumed as well. I consumed knowledge. I consumed loyalty. I consumed hopes and dreams and desires for those who were just as I was, just as hungry, just as angry, just as desirous of true change, not the mealy-mouthed promises of politicians who spoke out of both sides of their intakes.

I was the stone that began a revolution. I was the stone that shattered a window. I was the stone that would hurtle from the sky like a mass-reactor drive and shatter Cybertron into a million glimmering pieces and then put it back together in my own image, spilling enough energon to turn it Decepticon purple.

I had a plan and for many, many years it succeeded, until one day it failed.

It failed because it was not over just because I said it was over. It failed because I never achieved my final goal. There was no peace, but there was still tyranny.

I have recruited many Decepticons in my time. Some personally, many not, but the desire was always the same: find a mech that will kill for you. Find one that will die for you. Find one that will obey you. In some cases, two out of three wasn’t bad. Occasionally, one out of three was acceptable. If they failed at all three, that was for another, very special, group to take care of.

Once the end came, they would never make it out alive. How could I keep such monsters around? Such fanatics, such killers. They would tip the balance of peace into anarchy. I had plans to deal with them when I succeeded.

I had no such plans if I failed.

I kneel now at the site of their latest massacre. The dead lay littered everywhere. Tortured, violated, murdered. The work, which may have started with good intentions -- Overlord was a mistake, and I should have realized it far sooner -- fell to bad. Why kill one traitor when you can kill two? Why kill two when you can slaughter a whole ship full of those who harboured them both. When you can test this technique for extracting pain or that one for demonstrating the superiority of your intellect or that other one for being good at ambush positions, or these all of these, for just inflicting such grievous ham that people physically recoil to avoid your gaze, only to crush them anyway.

Here, I see the shattering of glass. There, I see the ruination of art and poetry. Everywhere, I see friends laying down their lives for friends. Something had been created here: community. A family, vast and dysfunctional and strange, but still good, still worthy, still valid.

What did I know about creation on such a scale? What did I know about the genesis of joy, when I had brought only sorrow? What did I know about hope when all I did was end it? I had created nothing. I had saved nothing. I had learned nothing.

No. I created one thing, and one thing only.

I created this. This slaughter, this mess, this disaster to end all disasters. In the face of something that was not peace, but not quite tyranny either, I had created a threat to all that sought peace, that sought freedom, that sought to create. This was my doing, and I will put an end to it.

I vow that, should I meet Tarn and my Decepticon Justice Division again, I will end them in any way I can, but I do not fear them.

For they are not the worst monsters I have seen, nor encountered.

The worst monster of all is the being I see in the mirror of my room that is not a cell, in the reflection of the fear, disgust, hate -- and bizarrely, fondness, affection, loyalty -- that glints in the optics and chrome of those who look upon me.

Some see a visionary. Some see a murderer.

All see Megatron.

End

Chapter Text

She had been born during one of the worst snowstorms that Alterac Valley had ever seen, and from those winds she had learned his name. The howling gale had carried it to her, small and uncertain as she was, snug in the cave under her mother Snowpaw’s vigilant eye.

She had tried to go to him when she was old enough, her little paws scrabbling to find purchase in the snow, but to no avail. By the time she was old enough, he was gone. She had howled for an entire day and night, her mother comforting her through the terrible time.

Seasons came and they went, with no sign of his return, she began to despair. She grew older, and the pup that was alone became Snowsong. She watched as others found their chosen partner, their great loved one, and grew unhappy.

Her people told her that she was not at fault and not to blame, that the choosing could happen again. That she could be partnered with someone who lived. She had considered it, but ultimately, she could not. She could still feel him, the one for her, somewhere on the edges of her senses. More than once, she had tried to leave to find him, to bring her chosen one home, but they would not let her.

It was winter again when the visitor arrived. He smelled strange, was strange, sounded strange… but in the end, he was hers.

When he appeared, when she knew without doubt, she ran to him, leaping and licking and marking him as unmistakably hers.

Her chosen one had not been given a name before he had left her, but now, she knew his name, without doubt, and it was Thrall.

End

Chapter Text

You will light our darkest hour.

That was what the voice said to him when the Matrix chose him. He wasn’t alive for it, but he heard it nonetheless, the words from everywhere and nowhere, echoing through his mind and his soul and his Spark. He hadn’t told Optimus about the words. He had taken Rodimus’ account of the Second Ignition hard enough that he didn’t want to ask the older mech what his words had been.

Time had passed since then. People had died, others had been discovered, and a quest had come to an end. Cybertopia lay within their grasp.

There was simply one problem: the planet was dark. There was no power here, no energon, no life.

Rodimus thought Drift was going to collapse from a broken Spark right then, even as Perceptor and Brainstorm pushed their way out of the ship to take a look.

“Well,” Megatron muttered. “I don’t think the Knights are going to be in much of a state to judge me.”

“Funny,” Rodimus said, and stepped off the ramp. The moment his feet touched the surface, part of it lit up. “Woah…”

“Just like Luna I,” Ratchet said. “But I didn’t think you had the Matrix any more.”

“I don’t,” Rodimus said. “It must be… me?”

“You were a Matrix bearer, but so was Thunderclash,” Megatron said, and indicated the large mech. “He’s not lighting things up. It just appears to be you.”

“...then maybe there’s something I can do.” In the distance, he heard a soft voice, barely on the edge of his perception. “Does anyone else hear that?”

“No?” Drift said, forcing himself to stand firm. “What do you hear?”

“I don’t know,” Rodimus admitted, and started to walk, the planet brightening and darkening as he followed the sound. “I’m just going to find out what that is. I’ll be back.”

“At least take someone with you,” Megatron called, and made a grinding noise. “Deadlock, go with him.”

“I’m not Deadlock, and you don’t give me orders,” Drift said, but hurried after him.

Rodimus ignored them both, following the sound and let it guide him. There was a pathway that cut into the world, taking him deeper and deeper, and then deeper still. Every footstep was another brief flash in the darkness.

At first, Drift had tried to get his attention, to get him to slow or explore, but Rodimus’ Spark was following the sound, needing to find its source, or even assign in some meaning.

Just when Rodimus thought he was chasing nothing, he realized that the sound was someone speaking, just softly enough that he couldn’t understand the words.

“Come on,” Drift said, finally catching up to him. “Let’s go back. We need to figure out how to wake the planet.”

“Someone’s talking to me,” Rodimus said. “Maybe I’m having a vision? Or an… audition?”

“...an auditory hallucination?”

“Hey, I believed you when you had visions, now it’s my turn.” Rodimus looked over at him, his bright blue eyes a bare pinprick against the overwhelming darkness. “But you can go back. I’ll understand.”

“No, you’re right. This was what you were meant for, I’m sure of it.” Drift reached out and took his hand, holding it tightly. “Follow your audition, I’ll be here.”

Rodimus nodded to him, and continued to walk. Down ramps, down stairs, along catwalks that creaked softly as he walked until, finally, he thought he could almost hear it.

“I need to get closer,” Rodimus said, releasing Drift. “I can almost hear it.”

“Be careful,” Drift warned. “I don’t know how stable this area is.”

“It’s fine,” Rodimus assured him, and moved forward. Close, so close, just a little closer…

Rodimus took another step and his foot hit air. He flailed his arms out, but there were no railings to catch, and while Drift lunged forward to grab Rodimus, his fingers closed on nothing.

As he fell, the planet began to light up, and instead of fading, with each passing metre that he tumbled, everything grew brighter.

“Rodimus!” Drift cried as the young Prime hurtled out of sight.

Just before he struck the inert core of the planet, just before the entire world burst into magnificent, brilliant life, he finally heard what the voice was saying:

You will light our darkest hour.

End

Chapter Text

Shiro, in many ways, reminded Allura of her father. There was a kindness to him, a thoughtfulness and a gentleness when he spoke to his fellow Paladins that, as a mere observer, outside the circle of gifts and bonds, Allura could only admire and -- though she would never admit it -- sigh over. There was pain behind his eyes, crinkling at the corners when a memory of a distant -- or not so distant -- time came to the fore.

Shiro, she was certain, had seen darkness and survived. He never withdrew himself as a result of it, the way Keith did, nursing old wounds. He never pushed it away, the way Lance did, behind wide eyes and a manic smile. He didn’t wear it, as Pidge did, her shoulders slumped and her gaze distant with thoughts of those she wished desperately to save. He didn’t fear it, the way Hunk did, staring as he did at the darkness between the stars before turning his attention back to what was real, what was present, what was in front of him -- food, mostly, or his friends. Shiro worked with it, used it, mastered it.

He had not frozen in combat for some time, because whenever Allura watched him practicing, his movements were fluid, uninterrupted by fear or pain, and confident. He was there now, and even as she watched him on the monitors, she saw the sweat bead down his face, and wondered if his hair was slick, if his chest was heaving, if his organic hand was trembling from effort, if he--

“You know, Princess, you could go down to the training area,” Coran said, out of nowhere, and the bridge’s consoles all flickered from Allura’s surprise. “I didn’t like to mention it, but… there’s no reason for you not to practice your hand-to-hand combat. A healthy body leads to a healthy mind.”

Allura did practice hand-to-hand combat regularly. When the Paladins were sleeping, or someone else could watch the bridge, she fought with the training dummies, bringing her Altean gifts into focus through staff training. She knew that. Coran knew that.

Perhaps the young Paladins of Voltron, who curled up in chairs and were occupied with their consoles or their own not-entirely-quiet chatter, did not.

“You’re right, of course,” Allura said, and tapped the security feeds to automatic scan. It wouldn’t do for someone to espy her time on the training decks. “Thank you, Coran.”

“It’s my pleasure, Princess,” the mechanic said, a twinkle in his eye. “Enjoy your exercise.”

“I will.”

Allura stepped down from the control platform and walked towards the elevator. As she turned and entered the correct deck, she thought she saw movement from where Hunk was slumped at his console, and caught sight of his thumbs up moments before the door closed.

~ * ~

When Allura entered the training deck, Shiro was breathing hard. He fought without his armour, though she could see where it had been left to one side, discarded piecemeal until he was only fighting in his bodysuit, and with his biomechanical arm.

The sight of Shiro, his normally calm, and often sad, face screwed up with exertion, with effort, with anger left her breathless. As of this moment, his eyes were narrowed with concentration as the training dummy came at him, fast and low. Shiro brought his arm up and it flashed purple along the outside. His kine blade, similar and yet different from the Paladin bayards, flashed twice, scoring hits that illuminated the front and side of the robot.

“Increase--”

“Cease exercise,” Allura interjected, and the robot went still, then sank into the ground. “Shiro.”

“Princess Allura?” Shiro blinked the sweat from his eyes, straightening up so abruptly she expected him to salute. “I’m sorry, I didn’t see you there.”

“I was being quiet,” Allura said, and walked closer. “Did you intend to keep sparring?”

“I need to keep in shape for the fight against Zarkon,” Shiro said, and wiped a closed fist across his forehead. “You never know when he might strike next.”

“I agree,” Allura said, and gestured to herself, indicating the bodysuit she usually wore. “But there’s only so much you can get from a programmed machine. Would you like a live partner?”

“You?” he asked, and smiled. “Well, I wasn’t feeling quite outclassed by your machines. How is it you prefer to fight?”

Allura unclasped a cylinder from her belt, and activated it, extending her staff until it was her height, each end glowing with blue light. “I generally prefer staff training.”

She felt Shiro’s gaze move along her weapon, following the length of her arm until he met her gaze, and bowed. She returned the gesture, careful as she watched him, but there was no sneaking strike coming, just the shift into a defensive stance.

Then I will be offense, Allura thought, and twirled her staff, striking towards his head. He lifted his arm, deflecting and coming in, trying to get under her guard with his left hand. Allura spun away, pulling back and away. She circled around him, and noticed that Shiro’s eyes, hard with focus, never left her. She moved in, feinting towards his dominant hand, and then jabbed towards his other side.

Shiro grunted at the impact, but swung hard, and his fist crashed into her shoulder. She cried out as numbness shot through her arm, but her fingers clenched tight. She broke away from him again, and passed her staff from her right hand to the left, and tried to shake feeling back into her dominant arm.

“Are you hurt?” Shiro said, intensity giving way to concern. “I didn’t mean--”

“It was a good shot,” Allura said, smiling. “Very clever, taking that hit to try and disarm me. I certainly can’t do the same for you.”

“Not unless you can hack my arm on the fly,” Shiro said, and now it was his turn to attack, jabbing while Allura was off balance. She dodged to the side, but it was hard to find an escape from his blows.

This close, her advantage of reach wasn’t quite an advantage, and she was likely to be tangled in her staff. Perhaps I should be… disarmed, Allura considered. Shifting, Allura lobbed her staff at Shiro, and watched as he became tangled in it, losing his balance for a moment. She lunged in, using momentum and the staff to knock him clear onto his back.

“What the--?!” Shiro asked, even as he landed on his back, knocking the wind for him, and in moments, Allura was on top of him, grabbing at his wrists to force them back onto the floor.

“Arm, hacked,” Allura declared, looking down at him, even as she fought to trap his legs.

“Not quite,” Shiro said, flexing his thighs and jerking hard. Allura cried out as she found herself on her back, quickly pinned down by Shiro. She stared up at him, the battle of mere minutes  feeling like an hour’s struggle with the way her heart pounded and her breathing felt loud to her ears. This close, she could smell him, the scent of his exertion, so strong that it filled her nose and mouth until she was certain she knew what he tasted like.

Don’t do that, she chided herself even as he stared at her, silent, or perhaps searching. Don’t fantasize, it’s--

Shiro closed the final distance between them and kissed her, so softly at first she thought she was imagining it, but his lips were on hers, for one heartbeat, then two. Suddenly, he pulled back, cheeks dark and heated with embarrassment. “Princess, I shouldn’t have-- forgive m--”

Allura pushed up against his grip and kissed him, firmer than he had kissed her, and nearly rammed her nose into his for the bargain. She felt his fingers relax on her wrists, and pulled free, wrapping her arms around him. Startled, his weight pressed down on her, and she could feel heat pooling in the places they touched.

This time, when their kiss ended, Shiro didn’t go far. “We can’t… not on a floor. If someone comes in…”

“Only Keith spends much time in here,” Allura said, and rubbed her cheek against his, then wrinkled her nose at the moisture. “Though, perhaps you’re right.”

“I must stink,” Shiro said, drawing back carefully, but guiding her to sit up as he did so. “We should hit the showers.”

“It’s--” Allura considered very carefully. She considered Shiro, naked, water curling over his form. She considered his hands running over her soapy skin. “--a very good idea, I think.”

Shiro smiled, and that made her want to kiss him all over again.

When he stood, the hand he offered her was steady, and not trembling at all. Allura, who was, took his hand and grasped it tightly. He guided her to her feet, and tugged her in for another kiss, cupping her cheek and stroking along it with one thumb.

Allura clung to him, and let the universe spin around her while he had her safe in his arms.

~ * ~

The training decks had large shower areas, clearly meant for multiple soldiers -- or Paladins -- to bathe in a simple, utilitarian manner. It was not meant for a pair of lovers, giggling, unable to stop themselves from touching each other, to stand under the same shower head as the water beat down on them as though it had something against their skin.

“Not quite what I expected,” Allura admitted, teeth chattering as air hit her dripping backside. Shiro murmured an apology, and moved back, back resting against the tiles while Allura stepped under it, sighing. “It seemed more clever out there.”

“We’ll manage, I’m sure of it, just finish rinsing your hair,” Shiro encouraged. His own ablutions had taken considerably less time, and now they were forced to dance in and out of the water.

“Assuming I have any hair left,” Allura grumbled, but bent her head. She ran her fingers through the mass of wet, lifting parts of it to get the slimy feeling of conditioner out of it. After a moment, she felt Shiro’s hands on her head, copying her motions with gentle care. She swayed a little, leaning forward to lean into his chest -- which took her out of the water again, but his hands kept moving. “Shiro…”

“I can’t help but want to touch you, Princess,” Shiro murmured, and adjusted the shower head a little more. “You’re so beautiful, especially when you’re beating me up on the training deck.”

“I’d like to try it again, when we’re both fresh,” Allura said, water spattering against his chest with each word. “I think it would be a good time.”

“I think I’d be lucky to survive.” He smiled down at her, and moved his hands to her shoulders. “Just a little more.”

“Your diligence is mostly welcome,” she noted, but ducked under the water, washing away the last of the soap before stepping away. “There.”

Shiro turned the water off, and for a moment, they simply stood there, naked and dripping, gazes roaming over each other. Then Allura shivered, and sneezed the drop of water from her nose. Shiro laughed, and she made a face at him. “The air dryer should be just this way, and neither of us are light enough to be blown away by it.”

“It’s not the decontamination module,” Allura chided him, and smacked his chest lightly with the back of her hand. Shiro’s skin was warm under her touch, and she rubbed along it. “But you’re right, we’re both adults.”

“I certainly feel like an adult, because I was about to warn you not to engage in horseplay on wet tiles.”

Allura turned, and without looking, grasped his hand, tugging him towards the booths at the back of the showers. “That definitely sounds like something you’d say,” she said. “But what’s a horse?”

“It’s… well.” Shiro allowed himself to be led, and watched Allura turn on the fans before stepping into their warmth. “A horse is a four-legged animal with hooves, a mane, a tail, a short coat of fur. They’re a mammal, like humans are.”

“Interesting,” Allura said, speaking over the fans. “Do horses often engage in play in dangerous areas?”

“I don’t… know, actually,” Shiro admitted, and lifted his arms, rubbing them as the fans spun warm air towards them. “It’s just a saying. Horseplay is fooling around, pushing, shoving, not being very violent, but a little bit. It’s usually friendly.”

“So, no pushing?” Allura asked, her solemn expression hinting towards a rather calculating smile.

“No,” Shiro said. “No running in the pool area.”

Allura pushed him back against the far wall, pressing the length of her body into him. He groaned softly, muffled by her lips on his. She ran her hands up both arms, careful with the bumps and seams of his biomechanical arm before pinning him.

Sweetly, yieldingly, he kissed her back, letting her take control, even as his legs bent slightly. When Allura was out of breath, when Shiro seemed on the verge of collapsing, she let go. “I want you. I want to be with you.”

“...but not inside a giant blow dryer?”

“No,” she laughed. “Not inside a blow dryer.”

“Then I’m afraid, Princess, you’re going to need to let me up,” Shiro murmured, and she felt the way he spoke her title shiver through her, and pool somewhere between her legs. “As it stands, we’re going to be lucky not to get caught.”

“No one’s paying attention to us,” Allura said, putting aside Hunk’s thumbs up. “We have a few hours, I’m sure.”

“I would want you for longer than that,” Shiro said. “I would want you for…” He trailed off, and Allura let him go. “Come on, we should make sure your hair is dry.”

“There are better things to be done in that time,” Allura said, but stepped back. Shiro moved with her, and gathered her to his chest. She leaned into him and they rotated. He lifted her hair, just as he had in the shower, letting the warm air do its work. He stroked his fingers over her again and again. “Shiro?”

“You’re a little damp, but that will do,” he said. “See if you can find us some towels while I finish up.”

“Of course,” Allura said, and stepped out, hurrying as she went to the storage unit. As she hunted, she angled herself so she could watch him, noting the way he examined his arm, testing its range, and frowned. “Was your arm damaged?”

“No,” Shiro called back, and ducked a little to dry his own hair, though this was a work of moments. “Nothing ever really seems to. It’s solid.”

“It wasn’t what you wished, but at least it’s something you can rely on.”

“I wonder about that some days too,” Shiro said, and stepped out. Allura met him halfway, offering one of the large towels to wrap around himself, while she took the second for herself. “But not right now. I have more important things to think about. More important people.”

“I’m glad of that,” Allura said. She glanced over his expression, and couldn’t help but see the scar across his nose, as though someone had tried to blind him and missed. He had others, along his chest, where he’d lost his arm, in far too many places to count. She used one hand to secure her towel, and reached out the other to him. He took it, squeezing gently. “Let’s go to your room.”

“It’s nothing special,” Shiro warned. “Nothing like yours, I’m sure.”

“I’m not worried about that,” Allura chided him. “...but I want to be in your room, in your bed, with you.” With your strong hands touching me gently, with your kind eyes telling me how beautiful I am, with your smile that you use so rarely.

“Then who am I to argue with a princess?” Shiro asked, and led her out of the bathroom, past the training floor, and walked into the lift. He tapped in the floor of his room -- not far from his fellow Paladins, but distant from Allura’s -- and drew her close as the door slid closed.

On the command deck floor, the lift opened, and Keith stared, uncomprehending, while Allura and Shiro dove for the door close button in the same instant, bumping against each other before Shiro jabbed the door closed.

“...I think the jig is up,” Shiro said. “If he says anything…”

“Does it matter?” Allura asked. “Is it shameful to be seen with me?”

The question hung in the air a moment, as Shiro stared, slightly stunned. “What? No, I would never--”

“Then let him say something, anything, nothing,” Allura said, and pressed against him. “Nothing Keith can say will be of concern.”

“They’re just going to tease me about it, that’s all,” Shiro murmured, and kissed her softly, then firmer. Allura wrapped one arm around him, and tried with vain hope to hold onto her towel. When the lift chimed, he lifted her into his arms, cradling her against him for a moment before moving through the opening.

“Are they frightening with their teasing?” Allura asked, and let the towel go. Loose, it dipped low, baring most of her breasts. “Do they cut you to the quick?”

“Pidge is surprisingly mean at times,” Shiro replied mildly, and carried her to his room. The knot of his towel -- and other things, pressed against her. It made what she hoped for seem just that much more real. “Keith is easily flustered.”

“I thought as much,” Allura said. “Will you be able to manage the door?”

“Of course,” he promised, and once they arrived, he opened the door. He moved sideways, fitting the pair of them through the doorway with ease. Shiro’s room was simple, small and plain with little adornment. On one shelf, Shiro had souvenirs, reminders taken from missions on distant worlds.

That knife must have come from an Arusian, Allura noted as Shiro set her down on the bed. And is that part of Father’s crystal? He saved it, even after all Sendak did, he--

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Shiro asked, and her attention fell to him and only him. “We don’t have to rush this. A kiss isn’t a contract.”

“I want to make love to you,” Allura said, her voice solemn. She brought her hand up, stroking his cheek, thumbing gently near his eye, near the wrinkles that came from intense stress. “I want you inside me, on this bed. I want you. That is a promise. What do you want?”

“To kiss you until I can’t breathe. To touch you until I’ve memorized the way your skin feels against mine. To hear you call out for me, over and over.” Allura felt her pulse quicken. “I want to take care of you, my Princess. That’s my promise to you.”

“Then take this towel off, and we’ll get started on that.”

Shiro leaned in and kissed her, kneeling on the bed as his hands moved down, pulling open Allura’s towel. For a time, that was all there was, touch and muffled breathing as he ran his hands over her, stroking faintly damp skin with thumbs that felt different but worked in harmony. Allura’s hands came up, stroking his sides, fluttering briefly before moving down, tugging Shiro’s towel from his hips and depositing it thoughtlessly on the floor. Then, her hands wandered down, and as she touched him, she felt the first of his groans against her lips.

Soft, she thought, as though there was some alternate outcome. No spikes, no hard bumps, just a long, slender length for her to stroke, massaging between fingers and palm. His hips dipped briefly, and he was forced to brace against the bed until he regained his focus. Then, he braced on his mechanical arm, using it to bear his weight as he skimmed his hand down, along her stomach until he was palming her mound. This time, it was her turn to moan, muffled by Shiro’s mouth.

“Perfect,” he mumbled against her lips. “Open a little?”

“More than a little,” she breathed, and shifted her hips wide. His hand creeped down, exploring her entrance with gentle, teasing fingers, circling and brushing against the nub of her sex with each rotation. “Tease.”

“I’m just being careful,” Shiro said, and circled again before pausing. “ Have you done this before?”

“Yes,” Allura said. “I’m not afraid to say that something’s wrong, either. You don’t have to worry.”

“I wasn’t worried,” Shiro said, though tension seemed to bleed from his shoulders. “I’m not new to this either.”

“I trust you,” Allura murmured. Shiro kissed her nose, and before she could make more than a squeak of protest, he nudged a finger inside of her. Immediately, her toes curled, and she squeezed him. “More.”

“More?” Shiro repeated, pushing inside her carefully. Slowly, he stroked his finger inside her, working steadily, even as he was rigid in her hand. Moaning didn’t seem to hurry him, nor did writhing under him, or breathy intreaties.

“Shiro, please,” Allura insisted. “I need you.”

“T-that’s an easy enough request to fulfill,” Shiro gasped out. “Because I need you too. Just like this?”

“It’s fine for the first time,” Allura promised. “Please.”

Shiro withdrew his fingers, and lifted them to his mouth, licking them, tasting her. Briefly, but very vividly, she imagined his tongue inside her, and released him to tug at his hips. Carefully, slowly, he sank into her, listening for her soft, long moan of appreciation.

At first, there was only movement as they learned how they fit together, the crease of hips, the interlocking of legs, the touch of hands, of lips, of skin flush against skin. Shiro’s lips pressed against her throat as her head arched back, and her fingers drummed out a steady beat along Shiro’s back and spine, encouraging him to move faster.

“Allura,” Shiro whispered into the curve of her ear. “Allura, you’re so beautiful. My princess.”

“Shiro,” she called out, with each deep thrust. “Shiro, oh…”

He dug his toes into the foot of the bed, using it to press himself deeper into her. Allura cried out, clinging to him, fingers digging into his shoulders. As he rocked, he felt her shudder under him and, with his own name ringing in his ears, he released.

I love him, Allura realized in the frantic movements of twinned orgasms. I love him and if he doesn’t love me back, I’m not sure what I’ll do.

“Princess,” Shiro said breathlessly, speaking the word as a caress, an endearment. “Allura. I think -- no, I know -- I love you. Stay with me here.”

“I will,” Allura promised, and kissed him again and again, until sleep numbed her body and mind, though never her heart.

~ * ~

As it turned out, Keith’s mind, too full of annoyance at Lance and Hunk’s needling, did not register what the presence of his leaders, clad only in towels, had meant when he saw them, and simply assumed that the laundry that day had been slow.

Coran, wisely, did not argue with that assumption, but he did, as the humans did, flash Shiro a thumbs up the next time he saw the Paladin, and let Allura deal with Shiro’s minor head injury from walking into a wall as a result.

Love, of course, did funny things to one’s concentration.

End

Chapter Text

They had been aboard the ship for two weeks when it exited what Selene had called the Webway. During those two weeks, they’d had little time to speak to one another, and while he’d seen her -- seen all of the crew of the Spirit of Uthlwe -- without their helmets, he never had the chance to ask the questions that burned in his mind.

Who are you?

What are Eldar?

How did you find me?

What happened to me?

Why are you the moon?

Of all of them, the last is the one that stuck out as bizarre, even in his own mind, but he couldn’t help it. The mysterious woman, whoever she was, made him think of a full moon, bright and silver in the sky, from his visions and dreams.

If it hadn’t been for the others, he would have been driven to distraction.

He had asked for all three gangs to be brought onto the Spirit with the best of intentions, but it had quickly become something of a severe inconvenience. Never friendly at the best of times, the Luna, the Silver, and the Shadow were forced to remain in close confines for the trip.

People nursed their injuries as they healed, and with them, their grudges. Sejanus had done his best to keep the Luna away from the others to protect them, while the Shadow had moved among the other two gangs, attempting to convince them or convert them to Targhost’s way of thinking.

Aximand, for his part, sulked.

“Hsst,” Eleanor said, sidling up to him. “Hsst, Horus.”

“You don’t need to keep doing that,” Horus said, and looked up. He was sitting in a corner of one of the rooms that had been opened to them. Their hosts avoided the rooms and, on the edges of his perception, he could hear them complaining about the smell. “You can just say hello.”

“Why would I do that?” she asked, and sat down in front of him. “We need to talk.” Eleanor’s appearance, to Horus, was always striking. Her hair was dark and long, pulled up into a tight black tail. She had explained once, long ago, that warriors from other cultures wore top-knots, and she had tried to style herself similarly. It was not in shining armour that she clad herself, instead wearing a dark, shapeless shirt with the sleeves ripped off, showing off her tattooed biceps, and a threadbare zip-up hooded sweater over top. Her trousers were loose and battered, and covered in pockets that either zipped or buckled.

The Eldar had taken her prybar, and she was still annoyed about it.

“Of course, what is it?” Horus said, and hesitated. “Is it Sejanus? Is he sick again?”

“No,” Eleanor replied. “But it is about him. He wants to know what we’re going to do about the other gangs. You invited them onto the ship.”

“I couldn’t…” Horus looked away, and then back. “I couldn’t leave them. Aximand’s an ass, and Targhost is… weird, but what was I supposed to do, leave them to starve? Cthonia Primus was falling apart. Someday, we’ll go back for the rest, but right now… it’s all of us, together.”

“That’s noble of you, and pretty much what I expect to hear, but it’s not practical, Horus,” Eleanor said. “You can’t expect people who used to hate each other to live together peacefully in this tin can. There are going to be fights. If they’re bad enough, someone might get killed. Then we’ll all be ejected into space.”

“They’re not going to eject us into space,” Horus said, though anxiety stabbed through him. “They can’t.”

“It’s why they put us all in the area of the ship they don’t care about,” Eleanor said gloomily. “It’s why they took my prybar.”

[We took your prybar because we didn’t wish for you to cause damage to the ship,] sounded Selene, and both of them started. The strange woman approached them, still clad in white wraithbone, though she had left her helmet elsewhere. [It will be returned to you when we exit the Webway and you are safely on a world that might sustain you.]

“Thank you,” Horus said sincerely. Abaddon rolled her eyes, but Horus and Selene both ignored it. The Farseer took his breath away every time he saw her, with her long, silver-white hair and blue-green eyes. She was pale, and the blue tattoos on her forehead and cheeks felt oddly out of place, as though imposed on her by a hostile force. “Eleanor was just telling me that Sejanus is worried that the gangs will come to blows if kept in close confines for much longer.”

[They will not,] Selene said, and gestured with one hand. [Before that happens, we will neutralize the threat. Out of respect to all of you, we do not use our psychic gifts except to communicate, but we will not hesitate to preserve harmony. The Warp-Singers must not be disturbed.]

“We are very grateful for that,” Horus said, and put his hand on Eleanor’s arm. “How do you intend to deal with it?”

[Imposed slumber is proper protocol,] Selene said. [They would not be harmed. They would simply sleep until we reached our destination.]

“What is our destination?” Horus asked, realization dawning on him that they could speak now as he’d wished to for two weeks. “You’ve said little--”

[You will see when we get there,] Selene said. [I must go, there is work to be done. I urge you to encourage your comrades to cooperate and resolve your differences.]

“Well I encourage you to--” Eleanor snarled, and lunged up. Selene didn’t move, nor did she look away from Horus, but simply crooked the first finger of her right hand. Abruptly, Eleanor fell bonelessly, and rolled slighty. Horus knelt at her side, only to hear the first, loud sounds of her snoring.

[I did warn you,] Selene said, and her expression became shuttered, closed. [She will wake in time.]

“I’m sorry, Eleanor tends to be short-tempered,” Horus said. He removed his overshirt and draped it around her shoulders, baring muscular arms and a long, broad back covered only by thin cloth. “She meant you no--” He glanced up, and found himself alone with his sleeping friend. “--harm.” He sighed, and moved to sit back, resting his head against the wall. Well, so much for that.

~ * ~

[Cousin, why do you persist in spending time around those mon-keigh?] Yvain asked as Selene returned to the bridge of the Spirit. He was the sort of person who walked around with a perpetual sneer on his face, and despite the lightness of his tread, he left a heavy mark wherever he went. [We should simply deposit them on one of their filthy worlds and be done with it.]

[If you recall, I am one of those mon-keigh,] Selene replied, her tone deceptively mild. [And wouldn’t it be a shame if we were forced to duel, and risk disturbing the harmony of this vessel when throwing you into the Webway would be so much more efficient?]

Yvain laughed, though a muscle in his cheek twitched. [Such violence, they are a bad influence on you.]

[Enough,] commanded Ghislaine. [Yvain, you may ignore it at your own peril, but one among them is not as the other mon-keigh are. He is special, as is Selene. They are both different from other mon-keigh, just as we are from them. Do not ignore facts simply so you can feel superior about yourself.]

[Apologies, Archon,] Yvain said stiffly, and bowed. [I will be mindful in the future.]

[Good.] The Archon shifted her gaze to Selene, boring into her with great emerald eyes. [And you are easily provoked. What troubles you?]

Selene considered, taking a moment to wet her mouth. [They are… very primitive, Archon,] she began. [But intriguing. I would have liked to speak to them more.]

[You know that we can speak of nothing to them that is private,] Ghislaine admonished. [Not without authorization from your father. We agreed to bring all of these mon-keigh out of respect to you, but not to reveal the Craftworld’s secrets. It is for the best to keep to yourself for now.]

Is it truly? Selene wondered, but bowed as Yvain had. [Then I will take my leave of you to meditate on these matters.]

The Archon made a dismissive gesture, and Selene turned, wending her way through the Spirit’s corridors until she reached her own room.

Like much of Eldar aesthetic, it was simple and yet elegant, constructed of long, elegant lines that combined the organic feel of Maiden worlds with the realities of living on a space-faring vessel. Much of the room was white, trimmed in the darkest green before black and accented with dark greys. Slowly, Selene removed the pieces of her armour, finding them yielding outside of combat. Once each piece had been placed onto an arming stand, she slipped out of her bodyglove and dressed more comfortably in long, flowing white robes. She toyed with her hair, staring into her mirror as her fingers moved automatically.

I have never felt so much like an outsider in all my years.

It was strange to feel envious of the Cthonian gangers; they were desperately poor, and one meal away from starvation by Selene’s reckoning. She had forced herself to be absent from their meals, lest they sense the pity and anxiousness that rolled from her psyche in waves. Even their leaders had hollow cheeks and dark eyes that had seen too much for their limited years.

Only Horus seemed healthy, and he was starved in other ways.

Where is his gift? Where is our psychic power? she wondered, and not for the first time. Why does he not speak mind-to-mind with me? I know that he is different, I know that he has strength. So where is it? What is it?

She finished braiding her hair and tied it off, then sat on her bed, scooting until her back was pressed against the wall, and she could let her head fall back a little while she toyed with her braid. She had felt something from Horus when they’d first met, when he had stood up for the other mon-keigh -- humans -- that had been with him. There had been a flare of strength, of purpose temporarily fulfilled. She had felt it in the skeins of fate itself, which is why she had agreed to Horus’ request to bring them to the ship to begin with, despite knowing her father would not care for them.

So where is that purpose now? Where is it hiding? Was it anchored to Cthonia? Did we forget someone in our haste to be gone from such a filthy, ruined place?

If Selene were honest with herself, if she put aside childish visions of a solar warrior clad in green and gold, of a hand offered to her to lift her gently from the kindly, but primitive origins she’d had before her family -- her true family -- had found her on Arcadium, she would have seen it again the moment she had put Eleanor Abaddon to sleep.

He… he cares for that uncouth girl. He protects, defends. He cares for those others too. The smallest ones and the oldest one, the violent and the hollow-eyed. Those he does not call friend, but instead enemy, he was unwilling to leave behind. His gift is tied to the people he cares for, and you, Moon Child, are not one of them.

Selene let a hand drift under her robes, resting her fingertips lightly against her skin. Horus was handsome, larger and more solid than the Eldar she had grown up with. He had muscle, despite the perilousness of his upbringing, and there was an attraction there, raw and primal as the humans themselves. It left her wondering what he thought of her, if he believed her too pale and strange to bother with.

We two may be the only beings of our kind in all the galaxy, but I do not believe so, Selene thought, and began to stroke, just gently. It would be unfair to impose my ideas on another for any reason, and the chances of mutuality are… insignificant at best.

She closed her eyes and sighed, her fingers creeping upwards, attempting to push away the idea of a moon pursuing a sun through the sky, reaching for it and never quite managing.

There will be time enough for pining later, she thought to herself, and slid her hand upward. For now, we must simply get through this journey and speak to Father on the Craftworld. Once we know more of them, there will be time to talk.

As her fingers wandered, she sucked in a breath, and imagined the hand reaching out for her once more. This time, she embraced it, and let her mind drift towards happier thoughts.

End

Chapter Text

Dance.

Dance in circles on the tiled floor of your mother’s kitchen. Dance in the shower area of the Garrison. Dodge the incoming towel snap. Fire back and skip away with a grin. Slip and fall. Slide into your best friend. Feel your ears burn when everyone laughs at you.

Clumsy. So clumsy.

--

Sing.

Sing in the morning when you wake. Sing in the evening before you sleep. Sing when you go to the training deck to work with your team, your friends. Whistle while you snap off shots. Hum when you deflect a shot to clip Keith in the ass because he was making fun of you.

Loud. Too loud.

--

Smile.

Smile when you destroy those fighters inside the turret. Be slower than Keith on the draw, but better at aiming. Smile when you activate your sonic cannon. Smile when Shiro calls you sharpshooter. Smile when Allura might be dead, when hope might be dead, but go down swinging.

Smile now. Cry later.

--

Dance. Sing. Smile. Be joyous. Be confident. Be cool. Remember the songs of your mother. Remember blue skies and cool rain. Remember sun-drenched fields. Remember that home is always a place worth fighting for.

Remember that home is not just places, but the people you love.

End

Chapter Text

The Dragonsong War was over.

Waking up each day with one arm draped over her lover, knowing that simple fact, made facing the thin morning light of the Holy See just that much more pleasant. Slowly, Noire stretched, reveling in the warmth of the sheets and the feeling of soft skin against her own.

Today was another good day, and she had plans.

Those plans did require her to get out of bed, though, and as she rolled over, Y’shtola stirred. “What… what time is it?”

“By the look of it, the third hour past dawn,” Noire said, and ran her fingers along her lover’s bare spine. “You can return to sleep if you like. I can take care of my tasks on my own this day.”

“Tasks?” Y’shtola repeated, and pushed herself up a little, resting on her forearms. “Surely you have no pressing tasks at present.”

Noire blinked, her wide violet eyes searching the Scion’s expression in the pale light. “Well, no, I suppose not, but still, I--”

“Then why not stay in bed a little longer?” Y’shtola urged. “I’m certain the others will get back to us in good time.”

“I can hardly refuse you,” Noire murmured, and drew her lover into her arms, kissing her softly and sweetly. “We can have a late breakfast, just this once.”

“Or, more than once,” Y’shtola suggested, running her fingers along Noire’s side. In reply, the Warrior of Light kissed her beloved, and pushed aside thoughts of future tasks for the immediacy of her present.

~ * ~

“It is good to see you,” Noire said to Aymeric, ex Lord-Commander of the Temple Knights and leader of the new Ishgardian forum. “But I confess, I do not know why you have asked me to see you.”

“Ah,” the elezen said, a smile on his lips. “There is something I would ask of you, a favour, if you will.”

“Of course,” Noire said, straightening immediately. “What is it would you have me do?”

“There are rumours,” Aymeric began. “In the Brume. Trouble stirring. Hilda is looking into it further, but I know that you are greatly gifted and I hoped… you would find something before things get out of hand. You have a more delicate touch than most of the Knights at my disposal.”

“I see,” Noire said, though the faintest hint of disappointment dogged her heels. It is not a Primal to combat, nor is it a matter of serious import. Anyone could do this, but I suppose… “I will turn my attention to it immediately.”

“Thank you, Noire,” Aymeric said, and the relief that flooded into his voice made Ishgard’s champion squirm with shame at her own unwillingness to help. “Ishgard is ever in your debt.”

“I only ask that you ever be a good friend to your allies and neighbours,” Noire said, immediately. “Peace will not last forever -- the Garleans, the Ascians, the Primals and their kin  -- and so we must be wary, but not paranoid. Not isolated. Peace requires dedication, vigilance, courage.”

“Wise words from a wise woman,” Aymeric said. “I will leave you to it.”

Noire nodded, and as she turned to go, the Lord-Commander’s second, Lucia, entered. She gave Noire a grave nod, and stepped past her to address her superior -- and close friend -- directly.

“It is done,” the ex-Garlean said. “We have done all that you have asked. Will it be enough?”

Aymeric glanced at Noire, and said simply, “we have to hope so.”

~ * ~

The Brume was miserable and cold. Even Noire, who had trained a thousand days against heat, cold, wind, and rain, thought so. Certainly, Hilda, representative of the Lower House, and her recruits -- be they bribed urchin or close friend -- thought so too.

“Colder than the Snow Witch’s tits,” one of the urchin’s complained. Noire raised an eyebrow, and he looked away. “...meanin’ no offense to Iceheart’s memory.”

“It is cold,” Noire agreed. “Leaving aside anyone’s specific anatomy.” She closed her eyes briefly, remembering Ysale’s final battle, and the final flight of the flagship she had given her life to destroy. “Hilda, have we found anything yet?”

“Nothin’,” she said, shaking her head, even as she stamped her feet to keep warm. “A whole lotta nothin’. We might find more if we stayed out longer.”

“...but it’s freezing,” Noire said. “Gather your recruits, send them all home. We’ll find nothing here this day but illness. We’ll have another go at this when it’s a little warmer. It… does get warmer here, does it not?”

A few of the urchins laughed and scampered off, but Hilda nodded. “Sometimes, it snows, and it warms up.”

“Sometimes it snows, or sometimes it warms up?” Noire queried and now it was Hilda’s turn to be amused.

“Both,” she replied. “Are you stayin’ for one more go?”

“No, I have other things I must do,” Noire said. “Be well, Hilda. Try not to freeze.”

Hilda nodded to her, and as Noire jogged to the aetheryte crystal that glimmered in the dim of the Brume, she overheard the Mongrel tell one of her runners to send word to ‘him’.

Hm, Noire thought as she was whisked away. Surely, she must mean Aymeric?

~ * ~

“Noire!” cried out Cid Garlond, waving an arm. “It’s been an age!”

“Is that clever word-play involving the task of Alexander, or did you mean something else?” Noire asked, her voice a trifle sharp. She took a breath -- cold, even near Skysteel Manufactory -- and tried again. “Hello, Cid. It’s good to see you again. I have been busy, especially of late.”

“Understandable,” Cid said, nodding sagely. “We’ve been busy with our manacutters. They sell like hotcakes, we can hardly keep up with all the orders.”

“Then you must be doing very well for yourself,” Noire said. “Never a bad thing.”

“It’s true, though… I do confess that I miss being out in the field,” Cid said. “Alexander’s inner  workings were interesting, weren’t they?”

“Very,” Noire agreed. “It’s also much warmer in the Hinterlands than it is here, so I intend to return home. My chores will need to wait for another time. Please, keep in touch if--”

“Wait,” Cid said, hurriedly. “I know we’ve been somewhat distant of late, but there’s something I have to ask of you. A favour.”

So long as it doesn’t involve me freezing my tail off, or Moogles, Noire thought, keeping her smile pleasant through gritted teeth. “Of course, what is it?”

“Well, you see,” Cid began, “there is a small matter of some materials going missing from my shop…”

~ * ~

“No,” Noire said, four hours before sunset. “No. I will not solve your problem, I will not chase your rumours, I will not mollycoddle your spoiled, selfish heirs, I will not stand out here any longer and freeze!” Around her, the prominent members of House Fortemps stared at her with something very like dismay. “Enough! I am going home.”

“But, Lady Ice--”

“I said enough!” Noire flexed her fists, but there were no more arguments forthcoming. She turned on heel, and made her way towards the guest residence where she had been staying, courtesy of the noblemen she’d just yelled at, and the combination of guilt and annoyance twisted through her.

She stomped up the stairs, uncaring whether or not she was being discourteous. All I wanted to do was visit the Jeweled Crozier this day. Now the merchants are gone, and I will have to wait another two days to find something suitable. Why did all of this ridiculously petty business have to happen today?

Noire reached out to open the door to her suite, and found it locked. She let out a low, angry noise of frustration, and rattled the knob for several moments before forcing herself to calm, and think.

My suite has several doors, she reminded herself. They may not all be locked. My arming chamber, as an example. I’ll try there.

Pacing away from the door, she walked down the hall. The rooms on the right hand side of the upper floor adjoined one another, granting her the ability to care for her own arms and armour without fear that they would be mysteriously unavailable when she needed to be ready most. Since leaving her home in the warm, green and gold valleys of Doma, she had spent much of her time camping, if that’s what one called huddling in a tent, or finding some small, spare corner of an over-full Adventurer’s Inn.

I will apologize to the Count, Noire thought, sighing, and slowing her steps. They are… used to asking me to perform tasks. It’s unfair to yell and stomp my feet simply because my time is ‘better’ served elsewhere. Am I not a daughter of Hydaelyn? Do I not owe my service to others? Did I not perform countless petty tasks for Gridania, Ul’dah, and Limsa? I must be patient in times of peace, lest I invite war.

Taking a deep breath, Noire tried the door she stood in front of, and it opened. Her armoury was surprisingly dark, as though even the curtains had been drawn tight. She left the door wide, and made her way to the sideboard, seeking candles.

There were none. Noire frowned direly. It was not impossible for her to see through the darkness, but it was not easy, either, or pleasant. Carefully, she threaded her way through the room, using the light from the corridor to guide her.

“Y’shtola?” Noire called. “Are you there? Do you know what has happened to our candles?”

“I am here,” her lover replied. “I admit to having not much thought of them, owing to my… condition.”

“Of course,” Noire said. “I am sorry. I’ll need to get more.”

“The merchants will have gone to their rest,” Y’shtola replied. “Come here, you must be quite chilled.”

“It has been a long, cold day,” the Warrior of Light admitted. She made her way to the door, and opened it, just as a thought occurred to her. If Y’shtola was in our room, why was the door locked?

As she stepped out, into the bedroom, the room was filled with soft, warm light. She gasped softly to behold the display of candles lining the room, banishing nearly all of the shadows. Inside the room, their small dining table was not empty, as it rarely was, nor was it covered in documents, crystals, or other small artifacts.

It only had one object on it, and it was a box.

“Y’shtola, what--”

“Open it,” she said, gesturing. Her tail flicked back and forth, nervous despite the calm of her tone. “Let mine intent be known.”

“You’re behaving… oddly,” Noire said, but went to the table and picked up the box. Immediately, light burst behind her eyes, as she began to See:

“Please, Lord Aymeric,” Y’shtola said. “I require only a few hours at most. I have few excuses to keep her here, but you have many. She must remain within Ishgard but not at the Manor, nor go to the Jeweled Crozier. Can you think of something for her to do? Anything?”

“It seems uncouth to use the Warrior of Light so,” Lucia said, frowning. “But something might be done, nonetheless.”

“Send her to the Brume,” Hilda suggested. “Damn near impossible to find things for a stranger, and she still is, even after all that’s been said and done. I’ll be down there too.”

“Very well, but be cautious,” Aymeric warned. “It will be cold today.”

Noire gasped. “But you… why--”

Flash.

“A delay?” Cid said, frowning. “Lady Y’shtola, wouldn’t it be simpler to simply explain your intentions? You are… close, are you not?”

“It is precisely for that reason that she must suspect nothing,” Y’shtola said crisply. “I had believed you were a man of wisdom. If that is not the case, I will seek elsewhere.”

“Now, don’t be hasty,” Cid said. “I can think of something, just… this seems a bit convoluted, doesn’t it?”

“Please,” Y’shtola said, her quiet voice strong in its intensity. “Open it.”

With hands that shook, Noire opened the box, and nestled within a piece of white silk cloth, was a ring. “Shtola, is this…”

“We have grown very close since our first meeting, foiling the plans of bandits and Primals. We have fought side by side many times. We have been… separated, and reunited. It was in this time that I turned my thoughts towards serious matters. To matters of… permanence.”

Y’shtola made her way to Noire’s side, and took the box from her hands, cupping it gently in her sure hands. Noire could see the shadow of her vision, and knew she was drawing on her very life force to look upon Noire’s face. “Y’shtola…”

“I would ask of you but one thing,” the Scion said, her voice quavering just slightly. “You who have been so noble, so brave, so… patient. I believe that we share a bond, you and I, and on this day, with the Dragonsong War ended, and the future yet to be written in the stars… would you make that bond permanent? Would you marry me?”

Noire was silent at first as emotion swelled within her breast. All her frustration at the day’s duties and her unfinished tasks melted away under the sheer force of love she felt for the powerful, brave, beautiful woman before her. She held her hand out, offering it to her lover.

“Yes, I will.”

There would be no joy that matched it, no feeling of greater excitement that she felt at that moment when the ring slid onto her fourth finger… save, perhaps, the promise of a ceremony of Eternal Bonding in the Chapel of the Twelve.

“I am… very glad,” Y’shtola said, and Noire trapped the Mi’qote’s hand and tugged her into her arms for a long, happy kiss.

End

Chapter Text

Denying the lying
A million children fighting
For lives in strife
For hope beyond the horizon
--

The first time he saw the Galra homeworld, it was exploding.

He’d screamed, voice high and thin and hysterical, like a child. His father had slapped him then to silence him and he’d subsided, but not before he’d felt the power surge within him, crackling with impotence.

“If you weep for Galra, you will shame it,” his father said harshly. “If you want to express some emotion, be angry. Hate. Seek blood and vengeance for our fallen world. Do not snivel. Do not whine. Do not be weak.”

“Why..?” he asked, holding his cheek. “Why did this happen?”

“Betrayal from our allies,” Zarkon, Emperor of the Galra, warrior of all, declared as though he was passing judgement and the sentence was death. “From Altea.”

~ * ~

Prince Lotor of the Galra wasn’t like the others. He knew this better than anyone else. Some seemed to think that if it wasn’t being addressed directly, if he wasn’t being explicitly told that he was different, he would somehow be oblivious to his own appearance: he wasn’t fully furred, so parts of his skin seemed smooth, though a deep shade of purple, like a burn victim that had healed in full. He had yellow eyes, with the faintest smudge of something under both of them, like war paint worn away.

He had dull, useless claws, and weak hands, though proper Galra feet that felt like they didn’t quite meet his ankles in the right way, or his knees. When the time of battle came to him, as it came to all Galra youths, most believed he would die. He intended to prove them wrong.

Young Galra lived, from the moment they were conceived to the moment they completed their trials -- living or dead -- on the Seeder ships. There were thousands of them -- hundreds of thousands -- scattered throughout the Empire, kept away from the front lines of combat.

You are precious, the captain of the ship told them. Our enemies would give much to destroy you. Prove to them their error. Be strong. Be powerful. Be righteous.

For one who was supposed to be precious, Lotor didn’t feel that way. Not with how the others treated him -- not like a Prince, but like a stranger, and a burdensome one -- and the fact that, in moments, many of them would be dead. The trials were meant to demonstrate the superiority, the strength, of the Galra over others, and their first competitors would be those who hoped to join the ranks of the Emperor’s army. -- and all Galra wanted to join the ranks of the Empire’s soldiers.

Well, almost everyone. The thought had come to Lotor unbidden as he and the other youths were gathered together in the great arena at the heart of the ship. Some had grouped into twos and threes and were whispering conspiratorially to one another. Others, like himself, stood apart and alone, evaluating and considering. Some looked nervous, but most were elated. This was the purpose that their parents had created them for, their very reason to exist.

Then why can I hear someone crying?

The arena was mostly unadorned, save for the repeating crest of the Emperor that was displayed on the walls, and there were four pillars that went from floor to ceiling, useful for cover, or cowardice, and it was from behind one of these that he heard the sound. It wasn’t one he was accustomed to hearing -- fear, distress, and unhappiness had long since been drilled from him -- but this was new.

Following it, he found a girl. That was less surprising than it could have been -- plenty of the youths here were female, and more than a few looked as though they wanted to tear a piece from Lotor and not bother to chew -- but what was surprising was that she was like him. She had smooth purple skin and patchy fur, ears that were pointed but wide, and furred, and long, curling white hair. She was curled up, face pressed into her arms, and even though he could not hear her, he knew exactly what she sounded like. He knelt, and put his hand on her shoulder.

“What is it?” he asked, keeping his voice soft. “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t want to be here,” she sniffed, muffled by her arms. “I don’t know how to fight.”

“Did no one teach you?” Lotor wondered, and he felt her tremble. “I won’t hurt you.”

“But you will hurt me, as soon as they make us fight,” she whispered. “Can’t you feel it? All of the pain here? All of the hate and fear and suffering? They’re so loud, I can’t shut them out.”

Lotor looked around. There were no injured, not yet. Not until the overseers declared combat to be nigh. Discipline was as important as ferocity at such times. “Not everyone has to die in these trials,” he said slowly. “We may not lose anyone this day.”

“They want us to kill each other,” the girl said, her voice shaking. “They want us to die because there are too many to feed otherwise. They want us to suffer and bleed.”

“No,” Lotor insisted. “We are of value to them. I swear that it is so, in the name of my father. What’s your name, I haven’t seen you before.”

“...I was in the nursery before now,” the girl said. “And my name is… is Romelle. Who are you?”

“Lotor,” he replied. “Join with me, fight and we will win.”

For the first time, the girl looked up, and Lotor saw eyes as golden as his own, with the same kind of smudges. “You’re… like me,” Romelle said wonderingly. “Are you my brother? Did Father create you too?”

“I don’t--”

An alarm sounded, and every one of the youths looked up and around, ears twitching as they searched for the source of the sound. Briefly, Lotor wondered if they were being attacked, if the dread Alteans and their allies had found them, hoping to destroy a generation of soldiers with one fell swoop.

Romelle whimpered, and with the swell of emotion that followed, Lotor realized he was wrong.

“Fight for the Empire!” boomed a voice. “Fight for Zarkon!”

The alarm sounded again, and then the trial began.

“Stand up,” Lotor hissed, and grasped Romelle by the wrist, pulling her up and forcing her behind him. He backed towards a wall. Already, he could see his peers tearing into one another. This close to the girl, he could feel what she was feeling, the terrible upswell of violence, of hate, of desperation to prove oneself worthy.

It moved through him in a wave, touching his own ambitions like a match to a fuel-stained rag.

There was power inside him; power that made him different. Power that drove him to curl up on his cot at night and scream into a pillow as it moved through him, like the pain of growing limbs or aching joints but somehow worse than both. Power that made him want to lash out in anger.

Power that was fed by pain.

“No,” Romelle whispered, face pressed against his shoulder. “Don’t. Don’t hurt them. They don’t know. None of them know.”

“They will tear us to pieces,” Lotor told her tersely. “Even you must see that.”

“There is a way,” she insisted. “There is hope.”

“Hope died the day our home did,” Lotor said, and raised his hands. “Bury it and move on.”

No,” Romelle cried, and wrapped her arms around Lotor’s waist. As power surged out of him, he felt it twist in his grip. Pain flared and faded as he called on it, the wellspring of darkness and light. A voice whispered in his mind, guiding his power along new paths that clashed with the old.

Lightning sprouted from his fingertips, doubling and redoubling every time it touched one of his peers until the room was filled with crackling static and the sounds of heavy breathing -- his heavy breathing.

“There… is always hope,” Romelle managed before she fell behind him and he turned. He knelt, touching her neck, her cheek, trying to find some sign of life. Within his mind, something pulsed, throbbed, and ached. The girl was still, but breathing, and Lotor finally looked up.

“...the winner, Prince Lotor, son of Zarkon,” said the voice that had begun the contest, mere moments ago. It seemed subdued, awed even. “Speak the fate of your peers, Your Highness. They fell before you like chaff in the whirlwind.”

There is always hope, Lotor thought, and stood. “They will all live,” he declared. “They are all mine.”

--
Save yourself a penny for the ferryman
Save yourself and let them suffer
In hope
In love
Mankind works in mysterious ways

Welcome down to my Planet Hell
--
End

Chapter Text

Jane Crocker, on the occasion of her thirteenth birthday, sat at her computer and stared at the blank email page. Good manners dictated that she offer thanks to those from whom she’d received gifts, and indeed, that she had managed.

For Roxy, it had been a simple keysmash of joy. She loved her wizard rabbit with all her heart, soft and fluffy and clever. She knew that Roxy, not she, was the one who loved wizards, but it was because Roxy loved wizards that she loved her rabbit. Roxy was her best friend, after all.

For Jake, it was a curious thing, an upswell of emotion difficult to qualify. She liked Jake. He liked her back, or at least, enough to send a rabbit of his own, with help from ‘a friend’, though he was mysterious enough about who the person in question was.

She had already thanked her father for his gifts, and written a polite-but-vague letter to her grandmother, which left her with the most problematic of her thank you letters to complete: the one for Dirk Strider.

She had been friends with Dirk for some time now, and there were times she found him as unfathomable as the darkest parts of the ocean, and other times, as bright and obvious as the sun at noon. He had clearly collaborated with the others, because he too had sent her a rabbit, though rather than an heirloom, this rabbit had been a small robotic construct, wearing the same pointed Kamen Rider shades that Dirk himself wore, and, improbably a katana.

She had named the rabbit Little Sebastian after a character from a well-loved television show, but frankly, it didn’t quite seem to suit the robot. After all, Lil’ Seb was a pony, not a robotic rabbit ninja.

Still, it was the thought that counted, and now it was her duty to return that thought, like gently lobbing a birdie back over the net. Not that she did much with badminton, nowadays. Or even got out of the house.

Absently, Jane rubbed at her shoulder, and began to write:

Dear Dirk,

Thank you for your birthday gift. I love my rabbit, and he seems to be adapting well to the house. He’s definitely run around it a few dozen times at this point, and he’s certainly adept at subtlety. I had to warn my father so he didn’t wonder about him. He would like to thank you as well. He also wanted to offer you cake, but I had to explain to him that you lived too far away to send a cake to. He suggested that I should invite you to visit some time, and that we could show you the sights here. Can you imagine?  I must admit, I rather like the idea myself. It would be nice to show you around.

In any case, thank you for making my birthday memorable.

Sincerely,

Jane

~ * ~

Dirk Strider, on the occasion of Jane’s thirteenth birthday, sat in front of his computer, his shades resting gently on his keyboard. Within the dark depths of his rad fashion accessory, there was sentience. There was a being that was a fragment of his very psyche.

He had created life and no one knew about it.

Well, that wasn’t strictly true, depending on how you looked at it. He had taken a snapshot of his own mind, through methods best left undescribed -- but they involved a camera and shenanigans -- and now he was considering the significance of what he had done with the air of someone who raced ahead and repented at his own leisure.

[You have mail,] floated up from the shades. [Do you want me to reply to it for you?]

“Who is it from?” Dirk asked, frowning slightly. It’s all well and good for it to be responsive, and helpful, but if someone figures it out before I’m ready... “What do they want?”

[It’s from Jane,] it replied. [She wants to thank you for the gift you sent her. She wants us to visit her in Seattle.]

“By ‘us’, you mean me, correct?”

[Affirmative. You have not shared knowledge of my creation with others. What do you want me to say to her?]

“Nothing, I’ll do it personally,” Dirk said. “Filter my incoming messages while I deal with this.”

[There is an eighty-one percent chance you intend to tell her about the Batterwitch,] it said. [That won’t go well.]

“Why not?” Dirk snapped. “She needs to know, it’s coming soon.”

[There is a ninety-seven percent chance she will flip her wig if you try to convince her that kindly Betty Crocker is an evil alien from outer space, and that you live in Troll Water-World.]

“Jane is smart,” Dirk said. “I’ll show you.”

Taking a breath, Dirk moved the shades to one side and began to type.

Dear Jane…

End

Chapter Text

Drip.

Drip.

Drip.

Water dribbled down the wall, sliding along decaying walls and plinking into a slowly spreading puddle on the ground. Slowly, carefully, Lavinia Latinium, member of the Imperium’s most holy Inquisition, crept around it. She kept her needle pistol in one hand, the poison in the capsule bubbling softly, deadly in its container.

“Log File X-1935, Inquisitor Latinium recording. My pursuit of the organ thieves has taken me deep into Hive Stattan. Cooperation has been minimum. I do not believe the Adepts of the Mechanicum on this world want the Inquisition to be involved. They will find themselves regretting that.”

“Inquisitor, you might want to come take a look at this,” called her pilot, Neals Beauverie. He held a pistol in his hand, and Lavinia approached him, her footsteps tap, tap, tapping in opposing rhythm with the dripping water. He gestured. “Look.”

Lavinia leaned in, the gloves she wore rasping against the stone walls. Through the crack in the door, she could see it, the creaking, groaning, whizzing of machinery. Within the room, a handful of Adepts scuttled from one container to the next, robes whispering and joints wheezing as they checked on the bubbling liquid and the dark shapes within.

[On three,] Lavinia gestured, and held up three fingers, lowering each one. [Three… two… one!]

Neals blasted the door in, shots spanging and echoing in the gloomy corridor. The Adepts stopped, clicking and whirring with distress.

“Inquisition, freeze!” Lavinia cried, and flashed her badge as it buzzed and sparked to life. “Cease your operation immediately!”

Robes fell aside, flumping along the floor, revealing las pistols whining to life.

“They never do things the easy way, do they Inquisitor?” Neals said, his voice amused, and took aim.

“No,” Lavinia agreed, and her solid round chamber clunked into place. “But then, neither do we.”

End

Chapter Text

“Hey, Gunderson,” called Lance McClain. “You going home for Christmas?”

Katie Holt, alias Pidge Gunderson, forced herself to look over at her teammate, and kept her voice as neutral as possible. “Christmas isn’t a big deal at my house. I don’t think I’m going to bother.”

Already, she was composing the email in her head, the excuse to her mother that her time in Europe was too important to disrupt it to go home for the holiday. ...she’ll be alone for Christmas, but Mom’ll understand once I have Matt and Dad back.

“What?” Hunk Garrett, the third of their trio, exclaimed. “Lance, did you hear that? Isn’t that the saddest thing you’ve ever heard?”

“It’s not,” Pidge muttered, even as Hunk slung an arm around her shoulders, nearly knocking her flat. “It’s really not.”

“It sure is,” Lance said, his voice solemn with mock-sympathy. “Obviously, we’ve gotta save our buddy from being stuck at the Academy over the holidays.”

Being able to poke around and run my scans without being bothered, you mean, Pidge thought. “Look, guys, you really don’t have to--”

“I’ve already called my mom and told her I’m bringing a guest,” Lance said. “She can’t wait to meet one of my Academy buddies!”

“...great,” Pidge said, forcing her teeth to clench into a smile. “Thanks, Lance.”

“Don’t mention it!” Lance said, and Hunk gave her a squeeze. “Now, just so you know, Hunk and I have known each other since we were kids--”

“Smaller than you, even,” Hunk interjected, cheerful even as Pidge snarled at him wordlessly.

“--so obviously, we live close to each other. So you’ll get to see my family and his. Great, huh?”

“Fantastic,” Pidge noted sarcastically, and considered. “How, uh, how many people are we talking here? Five, ten?”

Lance’s expression lit up, and Pidge knew she was going to have a terrible time.

~ * ~

I am going to murder every last one of them, Pidge thought grimly. I will open my mouth and sing the song that ushers in the apocalypse.

As it turned out, Lance and Hunk both had immense families, and all of them liked to speak in languages Pidge didn’t understand. Lance’s family gathering consisted of over thirty people, a ‘small gathering’ according to his grandfather, a man with dark grey hair, a thick mustache and beard combination Pidge tried to imagine on his grandson and failed, and a twinkle in his eye that made her think she was going to get punked at any moment.

Lance’s two older sisters, Rosa and Carla, had brought their husbands and children along with them. They were sitting at the kids’ table, where those under the age of fifteen were relegated, while Pidge was crammed between Lance and one one of his aunts, also named Rosa.

Rosita, is what they call her half the time, and the other half it’s Rose or Rosala or Ro-Ro, does no one just have one name any more? Pidge felt cramped, constricted in ways that even an ugly Christmas sweater couldn’t explain away.

Holt Christmases were quieter. Both her parents were only children, and she’d grown up with no cousins. Her small number of aunts and uncles were her parents had been friends with over their careers. The only family she had was her brother, who had half moved out after he’d joined the Garrison, and so only been around for holidays, sometimes bringing a friend with him.

Once, it had been Takashi ‘Call me Shiro’ Shirogane, and they’d spent the entire time talking about fuel calculations. That had been the year before they’d gone for their mission, and in retrospect, Pidge found the whole thing so skin-crawlingly uncomfortable that she wondered if that might not be the reason she didn’t want to go home for Christmas.

No, I’m supposed to be looking for him, looking for all of them, Pidge thought, and clutched at the glass of water in her hand. So my mother doesn’t have to worry and they can all be safe. That’s all it is.

It wasn’t that she knew her mother would be alone. The last of her grandparents had died a year or two before, which had delayed the initial launch to put her grandmother -- small and stubborn until the very end -- to rest. It wasn’t that when she’d told her mother she was going to Europe that her mother hadn’t really responded, hadn’t seemed to see or hear her. It wasn’t that Aunt Liddie, her mother’s best friend since high school had shaken her head and gone back to trying to interest her mother in breakfast.

It wasn’t that. It wasn’t.

“Pidge, was it?” a voice asked, rich, warm, and kind. “Did you hear me?”

“N-no, Mrs. McClain,” Pidge said, shaking the dark thoughts from her mind. “What was it you were asking?”

“I was just asking,” the woman said, a warm smile on her face, “if you wanted something a little stronger than water.”

“Uh, I’m under age,” Pidge said. How far under age is for me to know and you to never find out.

She laughed, and Pidge was struck by the roundness of her cheeks, the way the cheery lights that were hung around the room and outside the windows glinted off her brown skin. “So long as you’ve got adult supervision, it isn’t anything to worry about.”

“Yeah, Pidge, that’s the unspoken rule.” Lance nudged his glass forward, and was rewarded with a light slap on the hand. “Aw, Mama, por qué ?”

“Guests before brats,” she scolded. “Behave yourself, or this nice boy won’t come back.”

“If you don’t poison him first, eh?”

“Scandal!” Mrs. McClain declared, and moved around the table with the bottle, pouring out generous measures for each. “What an ungrateful child!”

“I’m surprised he didn’t bring Keith along with him,” teased Franco, Lance’s younger brother, from across the table. “Used to be we couldn’t go a visit without hearing about him.”

“Keith?!” Lance cried, and Pidge winced. “Why would I ever bring Keith home?!”

Porque estás enamorado de él, obviamente,” Franco replied, and Lance half-rose.

“No fighting at the table,” proclaimed Lance’s father, and set a hand on his son’s shoulder. Daniel McClain looked like a mountain to Pidge, huge and broad-shouldered, bigger even than Shiro or her father. “Franco, don’t tease your brother. Lance, don’t be so easily provoked. He is joking. Joking. Entender?”

Sí papá,” Lance and Franco said, sullen and unrepentant in such perfect unison it made Pidge dizzy.

“I’m sorry, my sons are little heathens,” Daniel said, and ruffled Lance’s hair, and then reached across the table to do the same for Franco. “Thank you for joining us, despite that.”

Pidge wasn’t sure what to say, and just nodded.

“So Lance!” called Lance’s uncle, Carl, from the other side of the table. “Tell us about the Academy! Have you flown a real ship yet?”

Immediately, there was excited clamouring, and Pidge leaned back with her cup of water, regretting briefly that she’d turned down wine.

~ * ~

“Here, this looks to be about the right size,” Rosa said, later that evening. “Did Lance not say you’d be spending the night?”

“I hadn’t… thought about it,” Pidge admitted, reaching out for the pyjamas. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, and we’re happy to have you.”

Dinner had been… well, it depended on how you felt about it. The food had been good -- rich, spicier than she’d expected, some of the dishes very different from her parents’ staid tastes -- and the McClains hadn’t seen any reason not to offer her food until she thought she was going to be sick, then have dessert afterwards. They had talked throughout the whole meal, asking constant questions, sometimes not waiting for a full response before another one was asked.

Some of those questions had been directed at her, and she’d answered dutifully, in accordance with the history she’d given Pidge Gunderson, and a little bit of Katie Holt thrown into the mix. Most of them had been directed at Lance, pointed questions about his grades and his classes, and those had segued into stories from his aunts, uncles, and grandparents.

It’s so weird how much personal business they’re willing to air in front of a stranger, she thought, waiting for Rosa to leave. Did Lance seem embarrassed? It didn’t feel like it, but I probably would have been in his place.

“Do you think Lance stands out?” Rosa asked, and Pidge looked startled. “He talked a lot about how he was doing, but do you think he stands out?”

“Uh,” Pidge said. “Sometimes. Mostly when he screws up.”

“Ah, for shame,” Rosa said, shaking her head. “Lance is special. He will go far and do great things. He will be like, oh, what was his name. The smuggler from Star Wars. The one who captured the heart of a princess and became a general.”

“...Han Solo?” Pidge guessed. “Well, he’s… yeah, okay. Sure. Lance is going to be just like Han Solo.”

“He even has a best friend, big and a bit hairy,” Rosa said, her dark eyes glinting with the same mischief as her grandfather. “Hunk.”

“Hunk isn’t Chewie,” Pidge said. “They have nothing in common, except for size.”

“Size and loyalty,” Rosa corrected, and shrugged. “Anyway, you’ll be spending time with the Garretts tomorrow, so rest up. You’ll need it.”

“...thanks,” Pidge said. “Good night.”

“Good night,” Rosa said, and tossed over her shoulder, “little robot.”

“I’m not a robot,” Pidge complained, rolling her eyes. “I’m definitely not a protocol droid.”

“I was not thinking of the gold one. I was thinking of the little angry one, the one that hides things inside,” Rosa observed, and stepped out of the guest room, closing the door behind her.

Pidge stood silently in the darkness, contemplating the pyjamas in her hands, and Rosa’s enigmatic words. I wonder if she knows.

~ * ~

Aboard ship, it was almost impossible to know how much time had passed since they’d left Earth. Lance wondered if anyone at the Academy had told his parents, told his family, that he’d gone missing.

I wonder if anyone even noticed I was gone.

Lance sighed, sitting in the lounge alone. Last he’d checked, Keith and Shiro were sparring on the training deck, practicing maneuvers meant for melee fighters and not snipers, not heavy gunners. Hunk and Coran had disappeared somewhere and Allura was on the bridge, standing like a sentinel, never seeming to waver or smile.

Pidge was… who even knew, really. Pidge had always kept to himself -- herself, he corrected mentally -- more at home with machines than people.

Which leaves me alone, Lance thought, and sighed again, almost missing the sound of the lounge door hissing open.

“Hey,” Pidge called, voice muffled. “Lance. Give me a hand.”

He looked up, and saw the Green Paladin carrying a massive pile of… things. He got up and took one of the boxes, the most perilously placed one, and set it down on the table, then another. “What’s going on?”

“Don’t you know?” Pidge asked. “It’s Christmas.”

“Wait… it is?” Lance asked. “Has it been that long?”

“Well… probably not,” Pidge admitted. “But it could be.”

“Pidge, what are you doing?” Lance asked, and started poking through the boxes. “Where did you get half of this stuff?”

“Spare LEDs, some stuff I convinced Coran to let me borrow so long as I gave it back,” Pidge said. “Come on, I have to limit my decorating to two rooms, and this is one of them. We’ll put up the tree over there.”

“Is that what this green stuff is?” Lance asked. “A tree?”

“Well, sort of. Obviously, we can’t go back to Earth for one, and it’d be unfair to just go visit a planet and take a tree, so this’ll do. It’s the thought that counts.” Pidge smiled confidently. “It’s about symbolism.”

“Yeah, okay, sure,” Lance said. “But why now?”

“Because you need it,” Pidge said, her voice serious. “Because you almost got blown up, because Shiro almost went crazy, because Allura lost her father twice. Because we’re all sad, and sick, and lonely. When I was like that, you took me home for Christmas. So I’m doing this for all of you. Well, with Hunk’s help. Between you, me, and the security cameras, I don’t think Coran actually knows how to use the food replicators.”

“I’m pretty sure all that goo is a good indication of that,” Lance said, and sighed. “It’s not the same.”

“No, it’s not,” Pidge said, and set her box down before going over to him. She put her hands on his arms and looked up at him through the false lenses of her glasses. “You stand out. You matter. You’re Han Solo.”

Lance stared at her a moment. “Oh my god, did my sister tell you about that? I was seven, okay. A child. She shouldn’t have--”

“We’re your crew. Your Chewie, your Obi-Wan, your Threepeeoh. I know all your family’s not here, but we are. We’re your family too.”

Lance’s expression softened. “Thanks, Pidge. You’re not a bad Ewok.”

“You’re such a jerk,” Pidge muttered. “Obviously, I’m Artoo.”

“I want to know who’s Leia, because I mean, there’s only one Princess…”

“Dream on, considering how we met up, Allura’s like the whole Rebel Alliance,” Pidge said. “The obvious choice for Princess Leia is Keith.”

“I am going to murder Franco,” Lance grumbled, and moved to go look through the boxes. “As soon as we get home.”

Pidge smiled, “Yeah, Lance. As soon as you get home, you can strangle your brother.”

End

Chapter Text

Garona Halforcen had trained to be an assassin from the time she was six summers old. She had killed her first target when she was ten. Since that time, she had ended many lives, sometimes silently, other times not. The blood on her hands could never be cleansed, never be entirely removed, and the stains would darken her fingers and palms forever.

Those who had taught her to kill had not taught her how to hide in the shadows. That was something she had learned on her own, how to disappear, how to be quiet, how to conceal herself in darkness. It had kept her alive countless times, kept her safe, kept her isolated from others.

Later, when Medivh had instructed her personally, she had learned that what she could do was called Shadow Walking. To walk in shadow was to slip sideways into a plane that was lying next to the material one, and was a cold, dark place where the dead whispered and oblivion beckoned. She had used it to cross between locations any number of times, to save lives and to end them. Few understood what she did, or why.

She had learned so many things: how to track and how to survive. How to speak and read a number of languages, including the Common alphabet from Khadgar, and the tongue of same from captured prisoners. She had learned to speak elven from spying and reading books, and dwarven from the Dark Iron dwarves that had shared Blackrock mountain with the orcs.

She had learned patience. She had learned friendship. She had learned what it meant to be trusted, what it meant to be betrayed, and to betray others in turn. She had learned what it felt like to be truly alone.

She had learned, from the time of her childhood, how to forge knives.

She had learned to mix her own blood in with the forging process, giving each of her knives a distinctive silver-grey sheen unmatched by heat, materials, or cold. She had learned how to make them sharp, the perfect weapon for a perfect killer. She had learned how to hide them on her person just so, that no one would see them until it was far too late.

She had not, as it happened, learned how to let go.

~ * ~

“I thought I would find you here,” Thrall, Warchief of the Horde, said as he approached Garona. She was sitting in the empty forge. There was no great fire going, the blacksmiths had gone for the day, and she sat alone, draped in shadow.

“How could you have possibly known where I would be?”

“I could tell you that I know you so well that I can anticipate where you goes in quiet moments, but in truth, I listened for the places the spirits couldn’t go, and went there. What’s wrong?”

“These,” Garona said, and gestured to the blades she had laid out. “I should destroy them.”

Thrall’s bright blue gaze took in the sight of the tapered, grey-blue metal. “These are your daggers. The daggers.”

“Yes,” Garona replied, her voice soft, hushed with sorrow. “The instruments that destroyed a kingdom and laid a good man low.”

“They’re tools,” Thrall said, and picked one up. Garona hissed, but didn’t dare jostle him. “You could use anything to kill another person. Anyone with the will to perform the deed could.”

“No,” she insisted. “You’re not a killer. You’re not--”

“I killed Blackmoore and I will never regret it,” Thrall said. “I participated in the death of Daelin Proudmoore, and while I regret what had to happen, I do not regret defending my people. I killed in the arena. I’ve killed my own people. I’ve killed humans too. Just because I’ve killed people with a sword instead of a dagger, or a bolt of lightning, or a hammer, doesn’t make them any less dead.”

“You’re trying to make me feel better,” Garona accused, and held out her hand. Thrall placed the dagger in her hand and she tucked it away, then picked up the other to do the same. “I wanted to make others, so I wouldn’t carry the taint with me, but I will. I always will.”

“You’re one of the wisest -- and cynical -- people I know,” Thrall said. “So when I learn that there’s something you don’t know, it makes me sad.”

“Spirits forbid you be sad,” Garona muttered, though it was without rancour. “What don’t I know?”

“How to forgive yourself,” Thrall said softly, and kept his hand outstretched. Garona stared at it for a moment, then put her hand in his. Carefully, he guided her into a hug, gentle, without trapping her. She leaned against his shoulder. “Until you do, you should know that I do. I forgive you your mistakes. I know that you are a good woman, a good sister, and a good friend, and I will always love you.”

Garona closed her eyes, and let the warmth of her little brother’s voice drive away the shadows of her mind.

End

Chapter Text

When Selene had lived on Arcadium, on a world that was civilized in only the barest sense of the world. People lived in homes, not in caves, and had domesticated cattle, though it was more a case of living near where the sheep lived and hoping that they didn’t stray too far from their idyllic pastures.

When she had come from the moon, she had brought order with her. She had brought the idea of cities, of shared buildings, of roads, of fences. She had brought the moon, silver and bright, to Arcadium, and from the moon came gifts.

Those gifts, however, did not come without a price.

~ * ~

Selene stared at the tally marks on her scrap of hide, and blinked a few times, trying to hold the numbers in her head. I love numbers. Numbers are wonderful. Numbers are one of the gifts of my mother, so why am I finding this so hard?

“Daughter, when was the last time you slept?” called Glinda Werner, Selene’s terrestrial mother. She looked up, staring over at her, silent for several seconds. “If you cannot think of it, it means you haven’t done it recently enough.”

“I am busy with many things,” Selene replied, gesturing to the hides. “There is so much to be done to make Paradisium great.”

“Too busy to sleep?” her mother chided. “Too busy to eat at home with your father and I? Too busy to visit your flock and lay under the stars?”

“Yes, Mother,” spoke the Moon Child. “I will sleep when there is time. I will eat when there is time. I will love you always, with each rising and setting of the moon, because I will always have time for it.”

“My beloved one,” Glinda said, and went to her, wrapping her arms around her daughter and squeezing tightly. “She would not wish for you to wear yourself to the bone. Please, come with me.”

But I am not tired, Selene thought, moments before her eyesight blurred again. Well, perhaps I am a little tired. “Very well, I will rest, but then I must be at it again.”

Glinda only smiled, and offered her a hand to stand.

~ * ~

“I don’t envy the Primarchs,” Tarik Torgaddon commented, a little too loudly to be subtle about the remark. His friend, Garviel Loken, rolled his eyes. “When offered the choice between dealing with the Administratum or being shot at, well, I have more faith in my armour than I do bureaucrats.”

“I can’t imagine how you became a Captain of the Luna Wolves with that kind of attitude,” murmured Konor D’Arsineau, Chief -- and only -- Librarian of the XIVth Legion. “Maybe it was for another skill.”

“Maybe you can shove your power sword up your--”

“My nephews, please,” Selene said. Immediately, all three Astartes straightened and saluted sharply. Konor reached out to take several of the dataslates she held, stacked precariously on top of one another. She smiled at him and set the others down. “Don’t quarrel. The Administratum is very important. Without their hard work, you would have no ammunition for your bolters, no polish for your armour… no serfs to tend to the task, because the Administratum is as much about people as it is about things. Civilized society is a series of complex moving parts.”

“Give me a bolter and a chainsword any day,” Tarik declared. “Why do you put up with it? My Lord Horus shoves it off onto mortals whenever he can. He hasn’t the patience for it.”

“I believe,” Konor said, voice carefully neutral, “that Primarch Guilliman takes a personal approach to bureaucracy as well, though he has numerous experts that keep things running smoothly while the Legion is on crusade.”

“My honoured brother also specializes in bureaucracy,” Selene said lightly. “While my love does not. Still, it’s the price one pays for civilization. Not just in credits. Not just in blood, or ammunition, or lives. We also pay in time. It needs to exact such a price, lest it fall into chaos and ruin.”

“It’s hard to imagine civilization when you’re wading knee-deep in blood,” Loken put in quietly, frowning. “It’s hard to imagine anything but the next step.” Selene touched the young Captain’s arm gently.

“You fight, and struggle, so that we might all live peacefully and well in the future, and to do so takes work, hard work. It takes from us sleep and meal times and opportunities to lay out under the stars with our flocks. Civilization is designed to be extremely jealous of your time.”

End

Chapter Text

The Alteans never understood how much he despised them.

Everywhere he looked, he saw decadence and weakness, and it disgusted him. He saw fields of endless green, dotted by pink that could have housed a thousand Galra families, fed them, clothed them, kept them from the state of near-starvation that was simply a way of life on Galra Prime. Their cities were gleaming and white, a far cry from the dirty, muted Hive Primaris that he had clawed his way to the top of in his youth.

He saw children playing fearlessly, innocently, their parents indolent in their care, and it filled him with such a blinding rage that it was everything he could do not to lay into them with spiked chain and claws.

The Alteans, he knew, found the Galra to be quaint, primitive, and curious. The Galra found their condescension enraging.

The exception was perhaps not their leader, but the heir.

King Alfor of Altea was an older man, a warrior -- how could he not be, as one of the Paladins of Voltron? -- but he was very much a politician too. He had come to Galra Prime with sweet words and genuine enthusiasm for the project, and Zarkon, as the leader of Primaris, had been the one to greet him.

He had spoken of diplomacy, and he’d been disinterested.

He had spoken of alliance, and he’d been contemptuous.

He had spoken of the weapon, of Voltron, and that had been at least a little intriguing.

He had brought his only child with him, his daughter Allura, and that was where things became interesting.

Allura was young and raw-boned. She had thought herself poised and Zarkon found that to be mildly amusing. She had thought herself to be well-trained in martial arts -- though, who in their right mind picked a blunt weapon when you could use a sharp one? -- and that was a little less amusing. She had, under her father’s watchful eye, dispatched half a dozen of the promising Galra youths of her age, and then a few more adults when some fool had proclaimed the young to be too stupid to beat an alien in combat.

When Allura had sealed the wounds she had taken -- fewer than many would have liked -- by magic, that was something again.

“You’re a sorcerer?” Zarkon asked, as impressed as he was betrayed by Alfor’s feigned confusion. Or perhaps, not entirely confused.

“I am a Channeler,” Allura said. “Alteans channel their personal quintessence into different forms and shapes.” She kept her hand on her staff, gold and gleaming, with strips of blue metal on either side. “That gift runs more strongly in the nobility, and in the royalty, higher still.”

“So as heir to the throne, you are the second most powerful Channeler?”

“I wouldn’t say that,” Alfor said, moving towards his daughter and placing his hand on her shoulder. “Allura far outstrips me. She will be the most powerful Queen Altea has ever known.”

“Father flatters me,” Allura said, and suffered to be kissed on the forehead. “But I will bend my gifts and my skills towards helping my people, and our alliance of free people, for all of my days.”

The sentiment is noble, but naive , Zarkon mused, but one thing echoed in his mind: She will be the most powerful Queen Altea has ever known.

~ * ~

Standing in the laboratory in the bowels of the Capital, Haggar eyed her experiments with a sigh. The dead corpses of small mammals hung suspended within clear, violet liquid, bubbling slightly as they decayed. Other, desiccated specimens lay on tables, some of them flayed open and pinned to boards.

All the power in the universe, ready and waiting if I could simply access it, she mused. It’s a shame Alfor is such a short-sighted fool.

The royal family of Altea was, collectively, an entity of immense power. Allura was an only child, true, but Alfor had not been. His sisters had married and had children. Before them his own mother had had brothers and sisters both, with children of their own. While the power waned the further it drifted from the primary branch, the core was still strong.

Life and time are intertwined, Haggar mused as she worked, examining her samples and considering. A minute here, a second there, such tiny increments to surrender for such vast power. Such can be reversed, too. To draw the remaining time from a healthy being, infusing oneself with it. Enough quintessence could make one immortal, a god. All it takes is one little push.

It also required a looseness of morals that great Alfor claimed he did not possess. It required the deaths of those he could not countenance, at least publicly. How then was Voltron created, if not through the lives of billions? She was not privy to its secrets. She had never been permitted inside such hallowed halls, and her own bloodline was weak and thin compared to that of royalty.

Still, she would find it. Still, she would unlock the secrets of quintessence manipulation and on that day, Alfor and everyone else who stood in her way would rue the day they had thrown her from the Chamber of Channelers and that she had landed here, damaged but alive.

Morality in the powerful disgusts me, she thought, nudging the dead animal lightly. It’s a sign of weakness, of small-mindedness that I will never understand.

~ * ~

Hive Primaris had little in the way of gardens. Every inch of space was put to use, either militarily or otherwise, and so it was difficult to find quiet, private places to take Allura. He was in uniform, as he always was, and his instinct to remain at rigid military readiness was at odds with the gentle courtesy of giving her his arm to hold.

“It’s so different from Altea,” Allura murmured. “But there is an… elegance to it, I think. Are all your cities like this?”

“The hives, yes,” Zarkon said. “Though there is space between them, there are few that live there.”

“Farmland?” Allura guessed. “Or private estates?”

“Wastelands,” he corrected. “Places where beasts roam, preying on the unwary, those who leave their safe havens. There is nothing worth fighting over there.”

“I… I see,” Allura said. “That seems like such a shame.”

“We don’t live soft,” Zarkon said, half-snarling. “We fight for everything we have.”

“Voltron is not a weapon of peace,” Allura said, her ire rising to meet his. “It was forged for war and we fight one. You will need to learn that not every battle is in a wasteland, and that preserving that which lives is just as important as inflicting casualties.”

“You speak as though you understand us.”

“And you speak as though we are already a lost cause and beneath your regard.” Allura paused, looking up at him. “Altea is a paradise now because we put in countless centuries of hard work. Not because flowers and wine were handed to us by the gods.”

“Another difference between us,” Zarkon said. “You still believe in them.”

“It’s true, we still possess faith,” Allura agreed. “But we have constructed faith with our own two hands.”

“Faith, and Voltron.”

“They are intertwined. The Lions of Voltron represent guardians of Altea, fire and water, forest, desert, and sky. Individually, they are powerful. United, they are so much more.”

“A secret you have yet to share with us,” Zarkon noted, not without reproof. “Like your magic.”

“It’s one in the same,” Allura said, and guided him to keep walking. He kept his steps slow, measured as they wove between steel and stone architecture, red and purple lumen strips splashing colour along her armour, her helmet tucked under her left arm. “Magic allowed us to create Voltron, along with countless hours of work, petitioning the Balmera for crystals… dozens of expeditions to the Weeblum fields. As valuable as your meteorite was, it was only one step of many, some of which started before I was even born.”

“My people don’t have magic.”

“No.”

“Is that something you keep from us too?”

“Zarkon…” Allura sighed. “No, it’s not. Altean magic is different from the magic of others. Some races have none at all. Gifts are not handed out evenly, or fairly.”

“Says the one who has the most of it.”

“It is my blessing and my burden, my joy and my duty. I was born into power and so I must use it responsibly, to uplift others, regardless of cost.” Allura looked away, across the vast sea of light and shadow. “I think about it often enough.”

“You are such a strange little thing,” Zarkon murmured. “I can’t imagine--”

At his side, Allura’s skin shifted tones, towards the dusky purple of the Galra. His eyes widened as she grew larger, the hand on his arm growing firmer, and he could feel the prickle of her claws against his fur. “I may be strange, but I am not little,” she said, and he found her bright blue eyes level with his gold ones. “Or do the Galra only condescend to those who are smaller?”

“Impressive,” Zarkon said hoarsely. “I’m impressed.”

“Good,” Allura said and leaned in, pressing her lips to his with a surety that took him entirely off-guard.

There is so much weakness on her world, but so much strength in front of me. He wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled Allura to him. Perhaps I do not despise all Alteans. Not the right ones.

Allura made a soft noise, and dug her fingers into his arms. Against her lips, he smiled.

End

Chapter Text

The day was bright, the sun shone overhead, and Lance McClain knew that it was going to be a wonderful day. He had woken with the dawn, greeting his mothers, fathers, and the youngest of his siblings with a smattering of kisses. Breakfast was an endless parade of food -- for when one sibling was fed and scuttled off to do something else, another one quickly took their place and required more eggs, more bacon, more kippers -- and when he’d had his fill, he’d kissed his mothers goodbye before taking his own leave.

Outside, grass drenched in morning dew gave way to the heat of a clear day. He looked up, shading his eyes from the glare of the sun while examining the blue sky. Only the faintest wisps of clouds meandered their way across the sky.

It’s going to be a great day. He smiled, and started to run. His clothes were tight, fitting around his form like a second skin, and his feet were bare -- all the better for swimming. His dark brown skin, tinted with green and blue, gleamed warmly in the sun, over arms that were slim but muscled, and shoulders that were broad but toned, meant not for the heavy work of blacksmiths or haulers, but for cutting through waters both rough and gentle.

McClain stead had a stream running through it, and while one moment, he was running along side it, and the next he was swimming in it, and Lance felt his body shift in subtle ways as the water flowed over him and his tight clothes clung more closely. The stream widened as he went, leading away from his home and towards a nearby village. He felt the shadow of the small footbridge as he swam under it, and even underwater, he grinned.

There was a second shadow that fell across the water, and Lance leapt up, out of the water. “Hiya Hunk!”

“Aaahhh!” The ample Jarzoni man clutched at his chest and staggered back. “Lance! I’ve told you not to do that!”

Lance laughed, and shook water from his hair. “Aw, come on, big guy. You know you love me.”

“Not enough to let you hug me when you’re soaking,” Hunk warned, and sighed. Dressed in brown and gold, the Jarzoni was a head taller than Lance, and about twice as broad, both in shoulder and belly. His skin, dark and ruddy brown, glistened with sweat as he wiped at his brow, and his rounded features, slightly creased from time in the sun, smoothed into a smile. “I was just taking a look at the bridge here, making sure it hadn’t been damaged. You could have helped me.”

“I just finished breakfast,” Lance argued, though he knew the complaint was good-natured. “It’s not my fault that I take the time to enjoy my mornings.”

“I doubt that,” Hunk teased. “You probably got distracted by a pretty dolphin.”

“Rude,” Lance said, but grinned. “So, what do you have lined up for today? Anything exciting?”

“I’m supposed to be checking on the waterwheel in an hour or so. Master Elegis said he heard it squeaking pretty badly, so I promised I would make sure it’s working smoothly.”

“Master Elegis is the one with the cute son too, right?” Lance winked. “I bet he’ll be around too.”

“Not all of us think about girls, Lance,” Hunk said. “Or boys. It’s my duty here, and I’m proud to do it.”

“You’re so boring,” Lance complained. “Take some time, look around, enjoy life. Enjoy the sights.” As they walked, he looked around, spotting someone approaching the village. They were horsed, which marked them as wealthy, and small figure, almost hunched, wearing a cloak with a hood despite the hot weather.

“Not all of us are restless explorers at heart,” Hunk insisted, following his line of sight. “I’m steady, I’m dependable. I’m stable. I’m not going to get distracted by a pretty--”

As they spoke, the stranger pulled their hood back, revealing a pale, narrow face, framed by soft brown hair, short and almost puffy. Hunk stumbled sideways, and slipped on the stream’s bank, tumbling into the water.

“Hunk!” Lance called, and dove back into the water, grabbing him quickly. Hunk, more startled than incapable, sputtered and coughed, letting Lance haul him up. “So, not distracted, huh?”

“Shut up,” Hunk muttered, cheeks burning. Maybe, no one noticed…

The other villagers had stopped to stare, some of them hurrying to help Hunk from the water, while others, seeing him entirely unharmed, stifled laughter without much success.

The pale stranger had pulled up their hood, and moved further into the village.

“Oh, quiznak,” Hunk muttered, and tried to sink further into the water.

~ * ~

She watched them from the darkness of her hiding spot, eyes gleaming bright. It’s him, she thought, eager. I know it is. I can’t believe it!

She had traveled such a long way, through the dark forests of the Weald, across the plains and  skirting near the Marsh. It had been dangerous, and she’d needed to dodge patrols, hunt in places where delicious edibles were scarce, but finally, after all this time, she made it.

...it’s a shame he’s all wet, though. Carefully, she crept forward on her paws, watching as he hauled his big companion from the water. I wonder if I should wait for him to dry off before I approach him. He seems to like water an awful lot, though.

In her mind, she could remember the vatazin woman speaking to her, her azure gaze sad and solemn. “Cyanna, dear friend, seek out your Rhy-bond with one of the five Chosen who will strike back against Warlord Zarkon. There is little time, for if Zarkon succeeds, all of Aldea may well fall. Call out to them, reach out to them, and bring them to me.”

“I must be strong,” she said aloud, though none could hear her. “I must be brave.”

“Shh,” spoke a voice, so close to her own that she yowled. “Be quiet! I am stalking.”

Cyanna’s eyes widened and she craned her head around, trying to find the source of it. Finally, she saw it. “You--!”

The shadows had eyes, and they too were watchful.

~ * ~

Well, that was certainly weird, thought Pidge Gunderson as he dismounted from his steed, and staggered a little. Oh, Gods, my legs. Maybe I should have listened to those envoys two towns back. I don’t think I’ve ever ridden so far… ever!

“Easy, lad,” said one of the villagers. “Never spent much time ahorse before?”

“No, sir,” Pidge replied, sighing gratefully as someone took his pack. “I’m from the Capital, and I spend most of my time walking, or not moving around all that much. This is my first great journey.”

“Ah, you’re lucky you’re saying that here, and not in a nastier place,” the first villager chided. “We’re a friendly bunch, but not everyone is. So do be careful.”

“...or I’ll slip and fall into a stream?” Pidge asked, gesturing behind him. “I’ll be fine.”

“Ah, young Hunk probably just became overbalanced. He spends a lot of time with that friend of his, Lance. They’re both good lads, though. Hard working, kind. Well liked, even if Lance isn’t… well…”

“Well, what?” Pidge looked over at the pair of them, and while he couldn’t hear what was said, the smaller of the two elbowed the larger one, and the larger one laughed, and slung an arm around the smaller one. Hunk was the one who fell, so the other one must be Lance.

“All human.” Pidge looked back, and raised an eyebrow. The villager spread his hands. “Well, he isn’t. He’s part sea-folk, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Not here. Across the Marsh, things would be different.”

“This is a Jarzoni village, isn’t it?”

“We’re immigrants, so we’re of Aldis, but that’s where our parents were from.” The old man sighed. “We do what we can to adapt, and having the sea-folk as neighbours has helped, but it’s not as though we can forget the words of the Hierophant overnight.”

“I must admit that I don’t understand, but then, I’ve always lived here,” Pidge said, but nodded. “I’m not here to pass judgement, just to rest while my horse does. I’ll be on my way soon enough.”

“Then the wayfarer’s Inn is just this way,” the man said, smiling broadly. “Come with me, Master--”

“Adept, actually,” Pidge interrupted. “Adept Gunderson.”

End

Chapter Text

It is said that when the Moon Child died, Horus wept. He held her ruined body in his arms and he wept while Sanguinius looked on helplessly. That Fulgrim was in such shock that he was like a statue of marble and amethyst. That her other brothers and sisters mourned or raged or questioned the sadness of her death.

...but that is not how it would end. Not this time.

Instead, she would live. Instead, she would heed the warnings of others, of Curze and Mortarion, and when Horus left to speak to Sanguinius and Fulgrim, she would flee from the apartments she had on Terra to her room on the Vengeful Spirit.

She would teach her nephew to use his psychic gifts when no others within the Legion could help him, and listen to his woes as love, duty, and loyalty gripped at him and pulled at every turn. She would guide those who felt lost, and advise those who needed answers.

She would research. She would throw herself at the study of her own genetic inner workings, and when that ran up against an impassable wall, she would turn towards other pursuits, other goals, mastering scholastic knowledge with the efficiency and skill of a true Primarch.

She would not have her own Astartes. She would make friends amongst them, those who loved her more than they loved their own gene-parent, and gather them as closely as she dared.

When the lodges reared their ugly heads, she spoke against them. She warned of the darkness that swarmed beneath the surface, and Horus agreed with her. When Horus declared war on the Emperor -- but not that Emperor -- she was there to help guide them, and Sejanus -- and so many others -- lived.

So many lived, because she lived.

When there were those in pain, those who clung to it like safety blankets, she eased it. When there were those who would go to war, she found peace. When Horus became Warmaster, she dug into the depths of the Imperium’s Administratum with the full intention of helping him, assisting in his ventures.

Instead, she found how deep the rabbit hole plunged. She saw the costs of what they did, steeped in blood and prometheum and tears. She saw the shape of the Warp as it bucked and changed.

She saw what was being drawn to Terra.

There was no need for the demons to point out the corruption and the inconsistency of the Emperor. No need for Davin, no need for cults, no need for monsters. She was there to lay down fact after fact, to ask question after question.

What will happen to us when the Crusade is over?

What role will we play, what purpose will we fulfill?

There are too many of us, too many Primarchs, too many Astartes, too many Fleets to be sustained outside of a footing for war. Where will we go? What will we do?

Her questions had rung out, not as the querulous words of a frightened elder or a panicking child, but the strident demands of one who had survived, one who had lived and kept living far past expectation. She would not be stopped, not be silenced, not be held back.

She would be defiant. She would inspire those around her. With no Legion, with no Fleet, with no Astartes, without anything but her wits and her heart and her tongue, she would call for a war to shake the very heavens.

Because she lived.

End

Chapter Text

Greetings to you all. It’s likely you know who I am, but should you not, I will tell you now:

My name is Optimus Prime, and I am -- or rather, was -- leader of the Autobots, and the last of the Primes. Once, I was an Enforcer by the name of Orion Pax. I did my duty and I had many friends. I lived a simple life and I was happy to serve my function.

Still, I saw what was around me and I wondered. I wondered what it would be like to be greater than I was, to visit others. I wondered what it would be like to have a permanent relationship with a loving partner. I wondered what it would be like to be a Caretaker, and have a Sparkling of my very own.

I did not wonder what it was like to be a Prime, because there had only ever been two. Zeta and Sentinel, powerful and permanent. The tales of Malleus were old when I was young, and I was grateful that I had not been born into an age of darkness.

I was foolish, naive. I ignored what was in front of me for a long time, but not long enough.

A friend revealed a terrible truth, a friend that has passed into the All-Spark before I have, and it was from that event, that re-Ignition of my Spark that I became the next Prime, the third to be born into the Age of Twin Suns. Out of not precisely fear, but caution, I fled. I traveled to Kaon to find one who might help me.

You will all recall who I found, and perhaps, this is a memorial for as much his memory as mine. After all, no one will remember him quite as I did. I remember when he was noble. When he cared for the plight of those who suffered. When he… believed. I contributed to his failure in belief, I believe, and that saddens me, even as I record this.

I will spare you the details of the war, but I remember little things. I remember meeting Sunbeam. Her smile, the beauty of her finish. The veils she wore, claimed as she was by Sentinel. I remember her anger most of all. Anger at the Primes, anger at injustice. Anger at a system gone wrong, expressed through artwork and the flick of digits. I remember how she took her energon -- warm, with cobalt flakes.

I remember the day Sunbeam lost her smile and her sheen, and perhaps it was my fault too.

I remember meeting Ultra Magnus for the first time. I remember thinking him terribly stern, but he possessed a sense of honour and a desire for justice that none have matched since that day. I remember the gentleness he had for those who were very small, or very fragile. I remember  that he rescued a disgraced senator for no other reason than his own nobility.

I remember the Joining ceremony that he and Pharma had, as elaborate as any state event, simply because of how many loved them. I was there, and it made me happy, even though I was  never to have one of my own.

I remember the youngest ones, the littlest. I remember the day he returned to us, exchanging the Decepticon identity of Deadlock for the Autobot, Drift. I remember Tailgate and Cyclonus, so very different but so very much in love. I remember so very many.

I remember Hot Rod.

I remember countless years of pain and suffering, and doing all I could to stop it, but never quite managing. I remember locking myself away to consider strategy and watch the ebb and flow of  battle like the tides on an organic planet.

I remember Earth, and the way the war was finally won.

As I think on my own death, my own mortality, I want to say this: I am sorry. I am sorry that the war took so long. I am sorry that it hurt so many, that we lost so much. That Cybertron was shattered and so slowly rebuilt. I am sorry that the Decepticon message was lost amid so much pain and suffering. I am sorry that the Autobots stood more for the Prime than they did for what was good and right.

I am sorry to be leaving you, my dear, beloved friends. My family. My home.

Some might wonder, what has happened to the Matrix? Will it emerge? Will it choose another?

The simple answer is, no. The Matrix is empty, its use done. I will never again allow it to be used. Your destiny is up to you, and while I have said much today, let these be the last words of mine you hear: goodbye, and good luck.

End

Chapter Text

Thrall had been nearly twenty years old the first time he’d seen the sea. It was said that, on Draenor, the orcs had feared the sea. Things lived within it, dark and terrible, and the water burned those that touched it. It had instilled a terror in them so deep that it passed from one generation to the next, until the race as a whole had an aversion to all but the tamest of journeys over water.

Except the Warsong, who have always been a little crazy, or so Garona always says.

His early experiences had not been positive. Sailing through storms had torn their stolen ships to shreds, forcing them to take refuge on an island so close to the Maelstrom and its howling spirits that Thrall had nearly bowed under the weight of it.

On clear days, if he was high enough up, he could see all the way to it, though only by virtue of the sheer size of the great storm and the rift that ran deep, to near the very core of Azeroth.

Once they’d arrived in Kalimdor, on the flotsam of ruined ships, it had seemed like a sign: they would never go back to Lordaeron, back to the humans that had sought to contain them, back to the demons that had enslaved them for too long.

He had never thought much about the smell of the sea, not until Jaina had pointed it out. He had remembered the scent of road dust, of the dead he’d found along the way. He had remembered the kodos, their sweat and their stink. He had not remembered the salt, or the scent of fish, of wet wood and soaking sails.

For Jaina, the sea was everything. It was on her mind at all times, from the time she had been very small, a child reared by a family that had salt water in their veins and the snapping of sails in their hearts. While for the orcs, the journey to Kalimdor had been a trial, and a terrible one, for Jaina and her fleet, it had been an adventure. Sailing the high seas was the Proudmoore way, embracing it as strongly as anything, which was why when they had founded their respective homes, Jaina’s had been on an island, while Thrall’s had been close to the sea.

Perhaps the scent of salt doesn’t suit us, but it suits her, and while it’s such a little thing, I think I would miss it if I didn’t smell it in the morning. It’s so unlike what it was like to live in Lordaeron  that it reminds us of how far we’ve come, and how far we have yet to go.

Thrall inhaled, and the sea air tingled across his senses. Orcs had a particularly strong sense of smell, and it was as much a part of their memory as sight or sound was.

When he closed his eyes, he did not see the Maelstrom or the ruined ships. He didn’t see the road through Kalimdor.

Instead, he saw Jaina, standing on the deck of her ship, blonde hair whipping in the wind, blue eyes sparkling, pointing towards the horizon. She mouthed words, but in his memory, he hadn’t heard them, because he had been too taken by the sight of her.

Softly, to himself, he smiled.

End

Chapter Text

When Takashi Shirogane was very young, he used to look up at the stars. It wasn't always easy: the sky at Torii Station was often stained with light pollution, and the moon tended to block what pale starlight remained. He had learned of them primarily through stories, songs, and Garrison satellite scans.

Before there was Galaxy Garrison, before there were great magnification telescopes, before there were cars or trains or bright city lights, there were stars, his father had told him. There have always been stars, and so they will remain. Stars are eternal, and that is how they guide our way through life.

Takashi thought he might like to visit them one day, and told his father so. His father was not very tall or broad, but he looked up to him, and they looked much alike, with short black hair running to premature grey and twinkling grey eyes. He often wore dark grey slacks and grey and brown pullover sweaters.

You will have to work hard to do that, he had laughed, and lifted him up. His father was a teacher, or he had been before Takashi had been born. Now he stayed home, caring for him and helping him with his lessons. At six years old, his father seemed like a great man.

How hard? he had wondered. They seem so close, and very beautiful .

As hard as anything, his father had said. As hard as life. As hard as anything your mother does.

Takashi’s mother was a giant to him, stern in her grey-blue uniform, forbidding when she had time to be home. Everything about her, from the lines around her dark brown eyes and thin mouth, to the sharply drawn back ebony of her hair, intimidated him.

It was common in Japan, he learned years later, that woman gave up their careers when they had children. That men carried their families on their shoulders. That was not the case with Noriko Tanaka and Akio Shirogane. A teacher wasn't as important as an Air Commodore.

He had ventured the notion of visiting the stars to his mother the next time she had been home, and she had fixed her stare on him, as cold and flinty as stone.

Do you want this? she asked, her expression unreadable. It was impossible to tell if she was pleased or displeased, and that made Shiro nervous. Is this something you would dedicate your life to, your heart to, your very soul to?

For lack of anything better to say, Takashi had said yes, and his mother had said nothing more. Not to him at least, but later, when he was supposed to be in bed, he had heard his parents talking -- or perhaps, arguing. He had never heard his father raise his voice in anger, and he was startled to hear it now; frightened and upset.

“He is too young,” his father insisted. “I will not let you do this. Not to our only child.”

“You coddle him,” his mother said coldly. “He wants this. If he expects to get anywhere with his career, he needs to start his work now.”

“Takashi is six years old!” His eyes widened, and stuffed a fist into his mouth to keep from crying out. “Today he wants to be an astronaut, tomorrow he may want to train horses, or plant rice in Sawara or paint! You don’t have the right to take his childhood from him so swiftly.”

“And you do not have the right to keep his future from him because you have never possessed ambition or a spine.”

I didn’t... I didn’t mean… He had gone back to his room then, to cry into his pillow and hope no one heard.

Later, his door opened, and his father came in. He sat on the edge of his bed and rubbed Takashi’s back gently, murmuring to him over and over.

“I am sorry, my little one. I am so sorry.” He hadn’t known what to say, and back then, he hadn’t ever figured out the right words.

Takashi had spent the next four years being prodded and tested by his mother, and gently encouraged by his father to remain unafraid in the face of even the most surprising of circumstances. He hoped that he would remain worthy of his father’s regard, and deserving of his trust.

When Takashi was ten years old, he was packed up, sent to a private boarding school, and told to learn. His father had been there to send him off, to wave goodbye when Takashi did, but his mother had not.

~ * ~

When Takashi was fifteen, he had received -- and given -- his first kiss. It had been in the back of the library, at the table furthest from the librarian’s prying eyes. It had been awkward and rather nearly misaimed. It had been with Hoshi; her lips had tasted like candy and she smelled like book dust. They had gone there to study for Advanced Calculus, a subject that he struggled sometimes, and Hoshi had promised to help him with it.

“Takashi,” she murmured. “Kiss me again.”

“We’re going to get caught,” he breathed, but did as she asked. This time was better, warm and firm. Her hands reached up to grasp at the dark, starched lines of his lapel tightly, trying to pull him in closer.

“No one comes back here,” Hoshi said softly, half-laughing. “No one will figure it out.”

Takashi reached out, cupping her hips with his hands. The pleats of her skirt pushed up against his palms and he smiled, eyes bright. “I’m still going to need help with my calculus.”

“Then it’s a good thing we’re going to spend so much time together, isn’t it?” She grinned up at him, and he couldn’t help the way his heart flipped over. Her gaze was warm, and it heated him to the core.

Could this be--

The end-of-period bell rang, and Takashi pulled back hurriedly. “Sorry, we can--”

“See each other later.” She reached up and tugged at his tie. “I’d better see you later.”

“Of course.” He leaned in, kissing her once more, softly, and then straightened when she released him. “See you soon.”

Hoshi nodded, and Takashi waited for her to stand, smooth her skirt, and leave. It took a little longer for him to gather himself together and head out, precious moments between classes unspooling as he headed to the next one.

“Did you have fun with your study buddy?” asked a voice, and Takashi started, then smiled. Sora had been a friend of his since his first year at school, and even now, his question was teasing and knowing at once. “Must have been some tutorial.”

“It was, it was very informative,” he replied. “You won’t-- you won’t tell anyone, will you?”

“What? No, of course not.” Sora smiled. “Though if you manage to find time to actually do anything, I’ll throw you a party. You know we have exams coming up.”

“I can’t possibly forget.” Takashi’s smile faded a little. “If I don’t do well…”

“No one’s going to throw you out of the school if you get eighty-nine percent instead of ninety,” Sora chided him. “Relax.”

“I have to do well if I want to move on to Garrison Academy for officer training,” Takashi reminded him. “They only take the top percentile of students for their early education program. If I miss it, then I need to wait.”

“I still say you’re crazy,” Sora said, shaking his head. “Joining the military?”

“Visiting the stars,” Takashi corrected. “I’ve always wanted to see them. It’s my goal in life, to visit other worlds, explore space. It takes a lot of hard work, though. I need to be ready.”

“Well, if you’re spending time with Hoshi, you’re already seeing stars.”

“Stop,” Takashi insisted, and flushed. “I don’t want to get her into trouble.”

“With the most upright person in class? I doubt it. Unless she’s into that.” Sora elbowed him, and Takashi felt like he was going to spontaneously combust, cheeks first.

“We should… we should just focus on going to class,” Takashi said. “Don’t be difficult.”

“Difficult, me? Never.” Sora laughed. “But fine, you’re so easily ruffled. Like a little bird.”

“Tweet, tweet.”

Sora laughed again, and the two of them went to class. Takashi forced himself to focus on his teacher’s words, but his mind kept drifting towards Hoshi, the way her mouth curved when she smiled, the sparkle of her eyes, brown and bright.

Class can’t end soon enough, he thought, staring out the window. I wonder when the best time to see her will be. Maybe--

“Shirogane, are you there?” the teacher asked, and he sat up abruptly. His cheeks darkened as his fellow students laughed softly, and then subsided when the teacher rapped the side of her desk. “The principal wishes to see you.”

“He… why?” Takashi asked. Am I in trouble? Did someone see Hoshi and I?

“I believe that is for him to know and you to learn,” his teacher said. “Go.”

Takashi stood hastily, and felt the chair tip backwards, teetering until it fell, clattering to the floor. Feeling as though he might combust from embarrassment, he picked up his chair, set it upright and pushed it in, then picked up his books and hurried out of the room.

Once the door was closed, he took a deep breath, then two, before walking towards the principal’s office. He had rarely been to the older man’s office, having done his best to keep out of trouble. Until now, at least.

If I explain that it was all my idea, maybe Hoshi won’t get into trouble. I have to protect her, no matter what. With that in mind, he approached the principal’s secretary, and announced himself.

“He is waiting for you,” the woman said, gesturing. “Go right in.”

Takashi nodded, and went inside. “Sir, I--”

“Shirogane, I want to start off by saying that we have enjoyed having you as a student here at Shogaku.” Principal Goto peered down at him, and Takashi felt cold, as though his veins had been flushed clean with ice water. “Your performance has been excellent and your participation in school activities head and shoulders above others. Which is why it’s a shame to lose you.”

“Lose me, sir?”

“Yes, your transfer papers have arrived.” He tapped a sheaf of documents, and Takashi looked down. “You’re going to Garrison Academy.”

In the middle of my year? I’m going to be behind either way, I’ll have to struggle and-- what about Hoshi? What about Sora? Am I ever going to be able to see them again?

As Takashi’s mind whirled, the principal went on, informing him of the need to pack immediately, not to worry that he had assignments due, and that the Garrison was a primarily english-American institution, but his grades had always been high in foreign languages, so he was sure that his -- now former -- student would do well.

I’m transferring schools away from everyone I know, to a different country in a different language? This is going to be… The word impossible came to him, swelling up in his mind, dark and terrible, like the vast space between himself and his goal.

“Don’t worry,” the principal told him, and Takashi looked up at him, eyes wide. He was an older man, always dressed in a suit, but somehow, he couldn’t help but think of his mother, staring down at him as she declared his life’s course decided based on a single childhood declaration. “You’ll be fine.”

~ * ~

Takashi -- or Shiro, as he had been dubbed in his first week -- stared at the results of his test and wondered if he would be thrown out of the Academy. Once, Sora had teased him about worrying about getting results above 90%, but as he stared at the ugly 39 written in uncompromising red on his test, he felt as though the last five years had been wasted.

“Ouch,” said one of his fellow students. “That’s rough.”

He glanced up, and saw Matt Holt, one of his yearmates, peering at him through big, round glasses. “I… I failed.”

“Yeah, that happens sometimes,” he said, and then noted the stricken look on Shiro’s face. “...not to you, I guess?”

“I don’t… I don’t know what to do,” Shiro confessed. “I thought-- it’s too hard. I studied, but I don’t understand some of the words.”

“Well, you’re from Japan, aren’t you?” Matt asked. “You’ve learned this stuff before, just not in the testing language. It’s going to take you some time to adapt.”

“What if I don’t have time?” Shiro demanded, and reached up, clutching at his head. “What if I fail now and I lose my place?”

Matt was quiet a moment, and then said, “come with me.”

“What?”

“Come with me. Pack that away and let's take a walk.” Shiro blinked, and then stood, rolling his test up tightly, hiding the shame of it, before following him out. Matt led him down the big, open halls, and Shiro dared to glance around. “So, I’ve been here for a long time. My dad’s an officer -- a Commander, actually -- and even as kids, Katie and I spent a lot of time poking around.”

“That’s… very fortunate for you,” Shiro said slowly, struggling to understand. “In Japan, I… my mother is an officer as well. It’s been a long time since I lived on base, though.”

“See, we’ve got that in common,” Matt said. “Did you have to move around a lot?”

“When I was young, but not recently. I was sent to school when I was ten. I’ve been there since, until I was transferred here.”

“So you haven’t had the chance to look around, meet any of the professors yet,” Matt said, and stroked his chin thoughtfully. “I thought you hadn’t.”

“...and you asked me to go for a walk to confirm a theory?” Panic was starting to rise in Shiro’s chest, or perhaps hysteria. I can’t waste more time wandering around when I could be studying. I’m going to fail. I’m going to--

“No, I want introduce you to someone,” Matt said. “It’s just… here.” He paused at a door and knocked. “Professor?”

“Come in,” a man called, and Matt opened the door. Nerves jangling, Shiro followed him inside, and made a soft noise of wonder: the office was simple, and very neat, with book filled shelves on two walls, a simple desk that took up much of it, and a rug on the floor that looked like traditional Japanese flooring. “Ah, you must be the new student. Welcome.”

“Professor Hashima,” Matt said, gesturing. “This is Shiro. He’s having a hard time with some of his studies.”

“I wasn’t…” Shiro hesitated, and when he spoke next, it was in Japanese. “I feel as though I’m a child again. I don’t understand half of what’s being asked of me. I thought I was good in English, but this--”

“You do know, you just need to get used to thinking in English. I’ll help you, I promise. Just be a little patient, and allow yourself the time to make mistakes and learn from them. It will allow you to focus on what you truly do not know.”

“Patience… and focus?”

“Yes,” Hashima said, and smiled. “What’s that you have there in your hand?”

“It’s the last test I took. I… failed, very badly.”

“I see, I see… come, sit down and let me take a look.” The professor gestured, and Matt moved so that Shiro could take the other seat at the desk, then handed the rolled test to Hashima. He unrolled it and smoothed the page out. “Hm, yes. This must have been very distressing to see. Did you not speak to anyone of this?”

“...I barely know anyone here,” Shiro said. “How could I ask strangers for help?”

“Technically, you’re doing it now.”

“Matt knows you, and he… is a force of nature.” Shiro spread his hands, and Matt grinned.

“I can’t tell what you’re saying, but I’ve figured out it’s about me, and you’re welcome.”

“I… yes,” Shiro said, switching back to English. “I was just saying that I had a hard time asking strangers for help, but you weren’t one. Not really.”

“I’ve known a lot of people over the years,” Matt said, shrugging slightly. “Neighbours that moved in and out, officers and their kids moving through the base. I’ve learned to make friends quickly, because if I don’t… well, I won’t get to make any friends at all. So I’m laying my claim to you now.”

“Young Matthew is like a dragon with a hoard of treasure,” Hashima joked. “Be careful, he will not let you go easily.”

Shiro glanced between the two of them, from Matt’s grin to Hashima’s twinkling eyes and slightly curved lips, and flushed. I think, I think I would die for so good a friend. Surely there could be no worthier cause.

End... for now.