The corridors twisted and turned in countless directions. They were dark, lit only by the torches on the walls, and marked from one another by little more than a few decorative tapestries, but Keith knew exactly where he was going. This was far from his first invasion, and with the way things had been going, he doubted it would be his last.
His familiarity with the castle was a damn good thing, too, because there was no time to get lost, not with so many castle guards hot on his tail.
Every time Keith passed a corridor entrance, another two joined the horde he had accumulated, but they were all slow. Far too slow to catch up, and far too clumsy to not be further slowed by the same damn thing every single time.
Without even the slightest drag of his feet, Keith slipped his knife off of his belt and pressed it flat against the wall, sliding it against the paneling as he ran. The tip of his knife slipped behind a gold dragon and hit a switch he must have hit twenty times before.
Hitting the switch activated a mechanism that ran beneath the floor of the corridor that caused a trap door to slide open at the end of the hallway. Keith didn’t need to look back at his pursuers to know how far back they were when he jumped into the passageway anymore. It was all exactly the same every single time, like a well-rehearsed dance. Keith knew where all of the performers stood, how quickly they moved, whether or not they were even looking at him. There was no point in checking while he stowed his knife back into its place on his belt. He saw it all in his mind’s eye. There was no need to spare an instant of concentration before he dove into the chute.
The guards would still follow him, but the chute wasn’t wide enough to permit more than one of them at a time, and by the time they caught up, Keith would be in the throne room.
He’d tried fighting them last time, tried taking them on once he’d narrowed them down to a steady trickle of opponents rather than the mob they had been, but they wore down his stamina and Keith had gotten a reality check, a lesson that he couldn’t help but learn. The only way to survive was to run.
And he needed to survive if he wanted to make it to the throne room.
Unfortunately, there was one thing Keith could never plan for, one dancer who didn’t stick to the choreography.
And that was the man, the Galra, who was waiting for Keith at the bottom of the chute.
As soon as Keith’s arms were freed from the narrow shaft, he immediately reached for the Moon Blade at his belt and unsheathed it.
He just had to beat him down once. Just once. And then he could set the whole damn place on fire and it would all be over with.
Keith aimed his sword directly for the top of the Galra’s head, counting on his weight to push the blade through bone.
The attempt, as always, was unsuccessful. The Galra sidestepped out of the way and elbowed Keith in the back, sending him skidding along the floor of the corridor. It was enough to hurt, enough to make Keith double over, but not enough to unbalance him. He had too much fight left in him.
“When will you learn your lesson, Paladin?” growled the Galra in his warning, bass tones. “You have no place here.”
Keith’s brow twitched as he stood up straight, gripping his sword tight in one hand. “You’re the one who has no place here, Zarkon.”
“Am I?” Zarkon’s expression remained neutral, unimpressed. “Then why is it that I am the one permitted to stay while you’ve been evading Shirogane’s sight for fear of being destroyed?”
Keith spared no time in coming up with an answer. He charged, allowing his sword to answer for him.
Zarkon didn’t need to so much as draw his weapon.
The battle was over as soon as it began.
Keith writhed in Zarkon’s grip, eyes pressed shut, desperately gasping for air that never came. He flipped the sword in his hand to stab into Zarkon’s arm in a delirious attempt to free himself, only serving to knock his own sword out of his hand when it bounced off of Zarkon’s armor.
“Every time you come here, I repeat the same words,” droned Zarkon. “And every time, you ignore my warning.”
Keith clawed at Zarkon, as if his fingernails alone could succeed where his sword had failed.
“Keep your feeble mind away from my kingdom,” said Zarkon, tightening his grip around Keith’s throat so roughly that Keith’s ears began to ring, “before you learn just how easy it is to crush something so brittle.”
The ringing grew louder and louder with the tighter Zarkon’s grip grew around Keith’s neck, like an incoming stampede Keith’s brain refused to process, and then, all at once, there was nothing.
Keith opened his eyes.
Same as always.
Keith didn’t even need to look at his inventory to know it was empty, each and every one of his items lost to Castle Daibazaal. All but his soul-bonded knife.
He groaned and pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes. “Fuck…”
“Lance, I… I don’t know about this,” said Hunk, picking at his clothes. “I mean, I… I didn’t even know Matt. It doesn’t feel like I should be here. Should I wait in the car? I think I should wait in the car.”
“Relax, Hunk,” said Lance, patting his friend’s shoulder in a way that came off as closer to a slap. “I didn’t really know Matt, either. And we’re not really here for him, anyway. We’re here for Pidge.”
“Yeah,” said Hunk tenuously, “but at least you actually met Matt. I don’t even know for sure if his name is short for Matthew or if his parents were weird and just named him Matt. Like, Matt Holt, that’s his whole name. Are there even two Ts or did his parents name him ‘Mat’ like ‘yoga mat’?”
“Could you, like, chill? For five seconds?”
“Oh, thanks, Lance. That’s helpful. All my anxiety is just gone. Out the window. Poof.”
Lance rolled his eyes and ran a jittery hand through his short hair, keeping his eyes narrowed on the road. According to Pidge’s directions, they’d almost reached the cemetery, which was strange to think about, considering they were in the middle of a forest. Lance had never seen a cemetery in a forest. Any funeral he’d ever been to had always taken place in a wide-open lot, someplace that didn’t obscure his view of the sky.
But when Lance reached the point Pidge had marked, he looked through the window. He took in the mourners and how they were arranged, and he took in the vegetation, and he understood.
The cemetery wasn’t in the forest.
It was the forest.
And, judging by the way he grabbed Lance’s shoulder and leaned across him, Hunk seemed to understand at the same time that Lance did.
“Is that— No way. Is that seed-shaped thing attached to that seedling him? Are they planting Matt?”
“Looks like it,” said Lance, cutting off the ignition and reaching for his seatbelt.
“So are all the trees in this forest—?”
“No.” Hunk shook Lance’s shoulder. “No, no, no— Lance, that’s how you get haunted forests. We’re in a haunted forest right now.”
Lance very carefully plucked Hunk’s hand off of his shoulder and patted his knuckles. “You’ll be okay, Buddy. I don’t think anyone would want to attack you, living or dead.”
“What if there are really angry people buried here, Lance?” hissed Hunk, whisper-screaming. “What if they don’t care who they’re attacking? What if they’re just out for blood? I don’t want to be strangled by a murder vine!”
Lance took a deep breath, buying time for something soothing to pop into his head, but, thankfully, before he had to find something to articulate, a knock came at his window.
When he turned around, he saw Pidge through the glass, smiling weakly. They looked...small. Almost demure. Definitely weird for someone like Pidge.
That tiny smile said more about how Matt’s death had affected them than tears ever could.
Lance unlatched his door and pushed it open hesitantly. “Hey—”
Before he could get more than a word out, Pidge jumped in and hugged Lance with all the force of their tiny arms.
Lance sighed and wrapped his arms tight around Pidge’s tiny back, letting both of their formal outfits wrinkle without a second thought.
There was a squeak, and Hunk’s wide arms pulled them both back against his chest, having apparently pushed the center console up and out of the way. It seemed that all it took for Hunk to push his anxieties aside was to see how much Pidge needed them both.
“How you feeling, Pidgey?” asked Hunk, his voice warm and quiet.
“Well,” said Pidge, muffled by Lance’s chest, “I’d be lying if I said ‘great’. But I’m better now that you guys are here.”
They squirmed a little, making Lance release his grip and Hunk soon after, and they leaned back, nearly falling out of the car.
“Come on,” they said, taking Lance’s and Hunk’s hands in their own and tugging. “There’s someone I want you to meet.”
That “someone,” as it turned out, was standing by himself, away from the rest of the mourners.
He ran his fingers down the side of a maple tree, intently focused, watching them rise and fall with every jagged edge of the bark.
“Hey, Shiro,” called Pidge in a sotto voice.
Shiro didn’t acknowledge Pidge at first. He just kept looking at the tree.
Lance looked at Hunk through the corner of his eye.
Hunk looked back at him, just as distressed, and shrugged.
Okay, good, thought Lance, looking back at Pidge. Nice to know everyone’s uncomfortable, not just me. Great.
“A star pine isn’t going to survive in this climate,” said the man at the tree, not turning around. “It’s too cold.”
“Then we’ll just have to take care of it,” said Pidge. “I’m sure I can think of something that won’t disturb the rest of the trees. Even if I have to build some kind of a greenhouse for it.” They put their hands on their hips. “And if I can’t do it on my own, I bet Hunk could help me.”
At Hunk’s surprised outburst, the man at the tree finally reacted. He lifted his head, and slowly, he turned around, revealing a long scar across the bridge of his nose, a long tuft of white hair, and a prosthetic arm Lance hadn’t noticed before.
But more prominent than either of those was the deep, aching melancholy in the man’s eyes. A sadness so stirring that Lance felt his heart break just upon seeing this complete stranger’s face.
Lance didn’t have to know him to know how hard he was taking Matt’s passing.
“Shiro,” Pidge announced, gesturing in Lance and Hunk’s direction, “these are my friends. The ones I told you about. The ones who might be interested in playtesting SoA.”
“Lance and Hunk, right?” Shiro offered his hand. The clearly-man-made one. “It’s nice to finally meet you. I’ve heard a lot about you.”
Lance eyed the metallic hand, hesitating for only a second, before grasping it in his own and shaking it firmly.
Only once Lance had reciprocated the handshake did it finally click whose hand he was shaking.
“Wait, Shiro…” His eyes widened. “Shiro as in...Takashi Shirogane? As in… You were Matt’s—”
“Yeah,” said Shiro, stiffly pulling his hand back. “His partner. I’m sorry you’ll never get to play Shattering.”
“Wait, never get to play it?” Hunk cocked an eyebrow. “Why not?”
Shiro shook his head. “I can’t finish it without him. The programming was too complicated. Most of my job was just design. He was the one in charge of actually bringing it all to life.”
“Come on, Shiro,” sighed Pidge. “You know I’d help you program it if you bothered to ask.”
“It’s more complicated than that, Pidge,” said Shiro, raising his voice.
“Like how?” snapped Pidge, making Lance’s hair stand on end. Things had just gotten a little more heated than he was prepared for, and if he was nervous, he could only imagine how Hunk felt. “Whatever innovative thing my brother did with the coding, I’m sure I can figure it out. I’m just as smart as he is, if not smarter.”
“I know you are, Pidge,” said Shiro, his voice stern, an immovable force. “That’s not the problem.”
“Then what is?!” demanded Pidge, stomping the twigs beneath their feet into the dirt. “What, are you just too sad to touch it without him? He’d want it finished, Shiro! Why can’t you just do that for him?!”
“Why does it matter what he would want?” growled Shiro, turning back to the tree and bracing his forearm against it. “He’s gone. He can’t want anything anymore.”
Pidge inhaled a sharp, deep breath, and Lance was positive they were going to scream. But they didn’t. Instead, they just let the breath go and dropped their tense shoulders.
“I know you’ve lost more than one person this year,” they said, quieter, calmer than they had been before. “And I know that has to suck, and I get that you’re probably feeling really lonely right now. But you’re not alone.” They took another deep breath. “The best thing you could do to honor Matt’s memory is to finish the game. You and I both know he’d want that. Not just for him, but for you. I know it mattered to you, too, Shiro, and he wouldn’t want you to give it up just because you guys couldn’t finish it together. He’d want you to make it work somehow.”
Shiro didn’t answer.
Pidge took a step back, fallen leaves crunching beneath their shoe. “Whatever you need me for, whether it’s to talk about my brother or something to do with your arm or if you change your mind and decide you do want to work on the game...you know how to get ahold of me.”
They took another step back and turned their back on Shiro. Even with their head bowed, their glare fixed to the ground, Lance could still see the red in their eyes. It took everything Lance had not to run up to Pidge and wrap them in another hug.
“Come on, guys,” they muttered, their voice cracking. “The funeral’s gonna start any minute. If Shiro wants to stick around and mope, that’s his problem. Not ours.”
Lance stole a glance at Hunk, who looked back at him, face pale and eyes wide.
Maybe they should have stayed in the car.
Shiro pulled the collar of his jacket higher around his face, trying to shield himself from the cool ocean breeze. The wind tugged at the loose ends of his coat as if trying to pull Shiro out into the cold, unforgiving sea. Seagulls flew across the gray, overcast sky, calling out to one another, ignorant of the storm that brewed in a single man’s head on the dusty sands below.
The long tuft of white hair danced just above Shiro’s gaze as he took a long, deep breath, so deep that it seemed to crack his lungs like dry clay.
He closed his eyes, hoping to feel something, anything, a warmth, a sign.
But there was nothing. Just Shiro and the sand and the waves and the cold, cold wind.
“I guess if I want to talk to you, I’ll have to be the one to break the ice, huh?”
The cold wind was not an answer, and Shiro knew it, but still, he turned his back to the sea and left a trail of deep footprints from the edge of the water all the way to his car.
He walked up the stairs to his apartment, the apartment he once shared with Matt, his feet colliding with the metal steps loud enough to echo. He wasn’t quite sure what he was doing. He was on his way to break his own heart, and he knew that, but he felt hypnotized. Like there was no point in even trying to stop himself.
He unlocked his door and stepped inside, deadbolting the door behind himself. He shed his jacket from his shoulders and dropped it onto the floor as if ridding himself of an old layer of skin. He set a kettle on the stove. He rolled up his sleeves. He took a deep breath.
And he got to work.
He pulled cardboard boxes off of the top shelves of his closet, he got on his hands and knees to plug every computer and monitor back into place behind the barren desks in the living room. Power buttons were pushed. Programs were booted up. Commands were typed out. Tea was poured.
By the time Shiro was ready, he was coated in a thin sheen of sweat.
But that didn’t keep him from reaching for his headset.
He took another deep breath.
It wasn’t real. He knew that.
But it was still something.
And Pidge was right; he couldn’t put it off forever.
He pulled his headset over his head. The sensors identified him.
And he wasn’t in his living room anymore.
Ｗｅｌｃｏｍｅ ｔｏ Ａｌｔｅａ
The grove opened around Shiro like a blossoming flower, blooming into unfinished trees and grass that didn’t move with the wind and a night sky that didn’t look quite right. The ruins were too smooth, the broken bricks too clean, and the statues too immaculate.
But the most unnatural part of it all was the lithe, pale young man snoozing against a statue, his hand loosely wrapped around the staff he’d planted upright in the dirt, his glasses askew.
Shiro willed his hands to stop shaking.
He couldn’t turn back, not after he’d already logged on, after he’d taken that first big step.
And if he was going to finish the game, he’d need the help of the person who came up with the idea in the first place.
Even if it was just a copy.
Lance’s phone vibrated against the tabletop and he looked over his steak sandwich to the short stack of phones in the center of the table.
Then to the man across the table.
“Nope,” said Hunk, looking back down at his plate with an air of disapproval. “Dinner is food time. Not potential-girlfriend time.”
Lance narrowed his eyes. “Psh. I haven’t even met anyone recently. It’s probably my mom or something.”
“Well,” said Hunk, sounding not unlike a disappointed mother himself, “your mom can wait.”
Lance narrowed his eyes further, to the point that they were mere slits. “How dare you.” Without giving Hunk time to react, he snatched his phone from the center of the table with all the swiftness and accuracy of a cat’s paw.
“Lance!” exclaimed Hunk, outraged and personally offended.
“Good news, it’s not my mom.”
“So put it back!”
“But it is Shiro.”
“Shiro?” Hunk’s anger melted away like butter. “Like the guy who was a total jerk to Pidge at their brother’s funeral a few months ago?”
“Mmhmm,” intoned Lance, frowning at his phone. According to Pidge, Shiro had apologized, but Lance still wasn’t entirely sure what to think of him. “He’s asking if we’re still interested in playtesting.”
“Depends on what Pidge thinks.”
“Apparently, Pidge already agreed.”
Lance and Hunk exchanged expressions over the dinner table, both frowning.
“...I’m in,” said Hunk. “I want to see what ‘Earth-shattering technology’ Matt came up with.”
“All right,” said Lance, hitting the light blue reply button with his thumb. “Guess that counts for both of us, then.”
If there was one thing Shiro would remember about that night, it would have been the moonlight.
Lighting effects were one of the last things they worked on. It was purely aesthetic, so it wasn’t really necessary to focus on until the last minute. But Shiro was proud of his work. It made the whole game feel so much more real. Matt did say that a little bit of lighting could go a long, long way when it came to suspended disbelief.
“It looks nice,” said Matt, folding his arms over his knees, his staff tucked loosely between his forearms. “I told you you could do it.”
“Yeah, well…” Shiro leaned back on his hands and looked up at the recently-perfected sky. “You would have done a better job.”
“Guess we’ll never know,” said Matt. “You got it pretty perfect, though. Look at the way it hits the leaves. It makes the whole grove look magical.”
Shiro was looking. The silver glow seemed to ripple from each leaf to the one beneath it, pouring like some sort of otherworldly waterfall.
It was beautiful. It really was. But it wasn’t enough to take Shiro’s mind off of his worries.
“You know…” Shiro tilted his head back and squinted at the moon itself, like it could save him from the words he was about to say. “Testing begins tomorrow.”
“Already, huh?” asked Matt. “Man, time flies.”
“Are you ready?” asked Shiro, lifting his eyebrows and finally turning away from the moon.
Matt didn’t look at him. “I was born ready,” he said, still smiling at the sky. “Literally. It’s kind of what I was made for.”
“...Guess it was,” sighed Shiro.
Matt turned toward him, still smiling. “I know you’ve got a lot on your plate right now, so I just want to remind you—”
“I know.” Shiro’s smile was hesitant, uncertain. He still didn’t agree with Matt’s decision, but it wasn’t his choice to make. “Don’t tell Pidge you’re here.”