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Metal Heart

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The outpost’s security chief had told him often that he was too clever for his own good. He’d always laughed it off; Riven was usually saying it in frustration anyway, after they’d gotten away with something or he’d found out they’d been sneaking out to poke at the primitive locals by catching them bringing the skiff back into the hangar.

He’d never thought of it as a thing that applied to his nominal job, the anchor that’d been tied to his family’s ankles since before the locals had figured out how to build cities. That wasn’t something where he’d really been trying to outsmart anyone, except maybe Zarkon’s ridiculous obsessions.

Nothing they had in the outpost had much range; he’d already hooked what he could build with their resources up to a skiff and checked every single place in that system and a couple nearby ones that might be likely.

Every single uninhabited predominantly water and ice object large enough to hide a Lion was empty.

If he could prove that his system worked, and then get a better array to project it, going off the data he already had, he could prove the Lion was nowhere in that area, and maybe the Emperor would finally give up on the wild goose chase that’d had the outpost exiled past Imperial borders for the entire history of the Empire.

The requests for that were handled by the outpost’s administrator. He didn’t need to talk to Central Command himself.

In spite of the possibility that it would solve their entire situation, Tav still somehow found himself hoping Central Command would ignore it, as Central Command tended to do for centuries at a time. It wasn’t that any of them liked being the laughing stocks of the Empire, but anyone Central Command was likely to send would be guaranteed to be terrifying and essentially a hostile audience.

When the response was that someone was being sent, he adjusted it to “Anybody but Sendak”; Sendak had already been out to the outpost recently, was always a terror, and had been testy enough about ‘wasting his time’ after he’d taken seriously someone’s comment about ‘have you tried the planetoids on the edge of the system’.

Then the battlecruiser came into orbit over the tiny moon, and the ‘request granted’ transmission was allowance for him and two others to assist. That was when Tav concluded that he hoped there wasn’t actually any kind of real higher power orchestrating the universe, because if there was one, they were an unconscionable asshole.

Sendak met them at the hangar. Tav wished he could’ve drug Riven or one of the senior technicians or anybody to stand behind, but no, he was the one that’d come up with the idea, so he was the one being given responsibility.

‘Which means I’m the one who gets Sendak’s temper if anything goes wrong’, he’d complained before they got to the cruiser, and neither of the others could come up with anything comforting to that.

And he was getting questioned by Sendak as soon as they’d been acknowledged in the hangar. “How much do you need to confirm that it works?”

“Uh.” He pulled out the main device, hooking it to his own personal computer on his wrist; considering what he’d heard of one of Sendak’s assignments lately, even its sensors should be enough. “Well, if the Red Lion’s been on this battlecruiser for an extended length of time, then even my personal device should have enough oomph behind it to pick up on the indirect effects on the battlecruiser’s power system.”

It was half nervous rambling, and after it was out of his mouth, he regretted it - it was one of the rules of technical work even when dealing with people more forgiving than Sendak that you quoted worse than your actual expectations, so that you didn’t get accused of making excuses if something went wrong and you needed more than you’d planned for initially to get it working.

And Sendak was watching with skeptical interest.

He brought up the program, and started the scan, thinking as hard as he could at the device to please work as if it’d actually impact the results any.

The readout lit up all over, and he let out a breath in relief, turning the screen to Sendak. “There, see? Changes in the energy signature of the battlecruiser’s power system. Of course it’ll light up the entire body of whatever the lion is on, since it’s diffuse absorption into the local quintessence structures, but it can tell us whether or not there is a lion on any given planet or moon.”

Sendak nodded, and he dismissed the screen. “I was able to already check both the moon we’re stationed on and every other large enough structure within every system in skiff range that was sympathetic in composition and a likely hiding place, with no signs of the Blue Lion, so we can finally conclusively say that it isn’t on either of the moons we’ve been looking at or any of the outer system planetoids here. This entire region of space was probably a decoy after all.”

Two water and ice moons, a large list of lesser moons and planetoids that were entirely ice, no lion.

“How much range would your device have if it were run through the battlecruiser’s arrays?”

His mind went blank for a moment, and he actually brought up to check his notes; he probably could’ve done it in his head if he weren’t on the spot with Sendak’s complete attention, so it was a small blessing that he’d actually calculated it out before he’d reported it. “Within almost any given solar system.”

“Then your first order is to make sure your system is functioning with this ship’s sensor array. Come to the bridge when it’s complete.” Sendak looked up to one of the drones nearby. “Take them to engineering.”

The lead engineer was curt, busy with their own work, and still less threatening than Sendak. The battlecruiser was also huge, and the three of them ended up needing to split up to calibrate things in different parts of the ship, a process that took a few hours.

Tav had Selkor and Levok on a comm headset when he brought the system up. Of course, the first thing it noticed was the battlecruiser itself, thanks to the Red Lion in the hold; the rest of the sensor system required a command override.

He set an exception flagging the Red Lion’s energetic affinities as already known and to ignore it. Technically he could’ve restricted it to the variation in background energy that would come from the elemental affinity of the Blue Lion, but that would mean Sendak’s technicians hounding him more for how to recalibrate it to find the others later.

Not that it wasn’t tempting to make their lives more difficult, but he liked his skin intact.

They met up before heading to the bridge; Tav could monitor the device and the rest of the system from where they were, and while it would’ve been easier to stay split up in case something went wrong and one of them had to run to tend to it, familiar faces close by were about the only comfort they had on a ship full of drones and armored soldiers.

There was an odd chill up his spine walking into the bridge, and something to the side of the room caught his eye -

It wasn’t one of the command staff; it was just floating off to the side of the platform Sendak was on, a ragged black cloak and robe with a five-eyed, pointed mask, long, thin, pale, clawed hands, and no other sign of what might be under the robe.

Druid.

There was a Druid on the Battlecruiser.

One of the things that’d always just been distant stories to everyone on the outpost, a source of jokes about critiquing the reality of bad horror movies, the inscrutable monsters that served in the heart of the Empire, the things that even the upper commanders treated with at least cautious awe if not fear.

Central Command was taking them seriously, for the first time in ten thousand years, and he wasn’t sure if it was worth being on the same ship with a Druid.

A Druid whose mask had turned slightly, the creature visually tracking him.

Sendak made a short, pointed rumble, and Selkor elbowed him in the back with a quiet hiss of “stop looking at it.

He tore his eyes off of it, forcing himself to look up at the commander. By all logic, facing Sendak should’ve seemed like a relief cast in perspective to the Druid not far away, but in reality, it was just one big rolling lump of knotted dread growing like some kind of twisted pearl.

He knew the Druid was still watching, too.

“Well? Is it ready?”

“Y-yes sir. It’s functioning, and I’ve added an exclusion for the Red Lion’s affinities.”

Sendak entered in the beginnings of overrides, bringing up part of the main scanner’s console, and motioned with his good hand for Tav to walk up.

Selkor and Levok stayed put; Tav didn’t look back, and honestly would’ve rather stayed back with them.

The cruiser had systems he’d only ever studied in textbooks, schematics, and tutorials; it was surreal seeing something of his making in among the interface’s list.

He brought it up, and Sendak gave the authorization command.

The cruiser’s computer brought up a model of the solar system that included every object with potentially enough size to fit one of the lions in it.

The scan ticked outward from their location in orbit around the fifth planet in the system. It spread slowly, blank on everything.

A few more ticks and he’d have proven that the old Blue Paladin had decoyed Zarkon off course, and that there was nothing in the system at all.

The system chimed, the third planet lighting up blue; the planet had a much larger quintessence signature, but was showing much larger levels of influence than the battlecruiser’s smaller system, the background wobble on its energy pervading through it, a slow diffusion that had to’ve been going on for ten thousand years. Tav stared at it, leaning forward on the console, muttering to himself in one of the local species’ languages.

The local species that happened to live on that third planet, who were just taking their first toddling steps out into space.

The species that lived on the third planet where the original Blue Paladin had died in what everyone had assumed was an attempt at leading Zarkon away from the lion that Zarkon had believed hadn’t gotten incredibly far. “God no, you flamboyant stupid bastard, did you seriously fake him out with something that completely fucking idiotic…”

And he’d been one of many on the outpost over its history to have made fun of Zarkon for his insistence that it had to be in that area of space, too. It was at least some small, cold comfort that Zarkon had assumed the lion would’ve been on one of the parts of the system more suited to its affinities, which was the reason their little outpost of exile was on a frozen moon made of ocean.

Until Tav got too clever for his own good.

“Can you narrow the location?”

He closed his eyes, trying to shove aside the panic; damnit, they liked that planet, they had communications to the rest of the Empire and more inhabited parts of the universe knocked out for long periods, watching the tiny little monkeys grow up had been an outpost pastime for all of their history.

Maybe if they could find the lion fast enough, Sendak wouldn’t destroy the planet.

“Not really - especially after ten thousand years of diffusion the influence is too uniform for there to even be signs of what general region it might’ve originated in. I think I can isolate a location other ways, but I would need to be within a pretty short range of it - the cruiser would need to be almost right over the location.”

Not good enough, Sendak circling the planet like that would draw attention and things would get ugly. “The old Blue Paladin might’ve left clues behind, though? We do know the area he was last in, we could start there and try to track, or see if there’s any variations that’re easier to tell from up close.”

He was focused enough on the simulation that he was barely paying attention to Sendak looming next to him; he didn’t see the Druid move until there was a thinner hand on his shoulder and a dark, cold shape leaning over, the mask a few inches from his face on one side.

He could feel all of his fur flattening and floundered and failed to stop a tiny metallic whine of fear; it was studying the readouts on his screen.

“The theory remains sound. There may be additional residue from the bond with the lion lingering.” It drifted back, lifting its hand and moving to a place a little behind him and off to the side.

Haxus spoke up from just the other side of Sendak. “Until we have more information, I would suggest small party scouting - the planet’s inhabitants may be primitive, but remaining quiet will draw less attention and potential interference.”

It would be the first, last, and only time Tav was actually thankful for Haxus’s presence.

Sendak nodded, then turned with a brief glance across Tav. “You, with me. We have a report to make.”

There was a jumble of things running through Tav’s head, all tangled up and snarled like a geothermal feather-worm until he wasn’t sure what was what; there was only one person Sendak answered to, and for all that it should have been a moment of triumph, Tav was having a hard time not just feeling panicky about it - old, old journal files that weren’t supposed to exist tangling with Imperial history and Sendak being a looming terror on Zarkon’s orders.

His friends hadn’t been included. The Druid wasn’t moving either as he followed Sendak out, a small mercy.

Sendak led to a small meeting room of some sort nearby; the door slid shut with the faint hiss-click of the lock engaging. Tav fought down the temptation to fidget - worry at the edge of his sleeve, fuss at clasps on his clothing, put a hand on the pendant under his shirt his ancestor’s journal was hidden in to feel around the edges of it, something for a distraction.

Sendak keyed in the call and then stood at attention, giving a neat salute that Tav fumbled to follow.

It never got any easier to stifle wondering what had happened between his ancestor’s journal files, photos, and videos, and the Emperor who was so very visible now, even out at their middle of nowhere outpost; he’d never actually been in any kind of live call with the Emperor before, only seen broadcasts and archives.

“Commander. I assume a report so soon means you have good news?”

“Yes, sire. The surveyor’s invention has been tested, proven, and we have a definitive answer on which planet hides the Blue Lion.” Sendak tapped something on the console to send files, and the system map was visible on the other end, a smaller model of it brought up by the terminal Zarkon was using.

Zarkon stared at it, eyes narrowing with a slow inhale of faint exasperated frustration. “‘Would I be so stupid’, indeed.”

Tav was torn between the warped comedy of Zarkon being confronted with proof that he’d spent ten thousand years being made a fool of by a dead man, and a vague sort of creeping uncomfortable near-nausea that something was wrong with the whole situation. Zarkon remembered things well enough to remember phrasing, what had been said in the last confrontation, and Tav had records hanging around his neck where they’d seemed inseparable.

Records that weren’t supposed to exist anymore, as near as he could tell.

Zarkon looked up from the readout, eyes settling on Tav, standing half behind Sendak. “And this is the surveyor?”

Sendak stepped sideways enough that Tav wasn’t hidden behind him anymore, and Tav froze. Zarkon motioned with a clawed hand for him to step forward.

He swallowed and took a step to be standing even with Sendak in front of the panel with the comm panel. Sendak stepped back slightly, leaving him out front and suddenly feeling much smaller.

“Well, young one? Aren’t you going to introduce yourself?”

“Ah, of course, your majesty,” his train of thought had imploded on itself and melted; he had to be speaking, but there wasn’t much coherent thought to it, and it was almost a rote habit tangent to add in human language, half under his breath, “he who stranded us out here after getting completely played and refusing to admit it and never sends supplies and materials for us to do our fucking jobs,”

And that was about where he inhaled and found some attempt to focus again, even if the inside of his head did still sound like machinery about to fall apart. “I am Tav, of Kelvet Outpost, current lead surveyor and local expert for our research on the lions of Voltron.”

Sendak had ignored the brief editorial commentary with silent exasperation; he couldn’t understand a word of it, and over the centuries it had been such a common habit for the Outpost residents to not even be worth pursuing most of the time as long as they were doing their jobs.

Zarkon, on the other hand, leaned the side of his face against one hand. “Care to repeat that first part?”

Tav blinked. Whatever he said to cover had to match the tone he’d used for the grumbling or it’d be obvious he was bullshitting, and he was suddenly regretting old habits and keenly aware that he may have just risked his life by running his mouth. “Uh, with all due respect, it’s a much more difficult job when the ships and equipment we have are sometimes ten thousand years old?”

Zarkon’s eyes narrowed faintly; Tav couldn’t tell what the reaction was, but there were tiny alarms going off on his head like there was something obvious he was missing.

“Funny, that’s not what I heard.”

Zarkon had understood him.

There was no way Zarkon had been exposed to - no, now that it was harder to avoid, there had been something in the old journals mentioning a side effect of the ties to the lions being an ability to disregard language barriers.

Zarkon had definitely understood him, and he stiffened with a tiny, metallic high-pitched noise; the dim look he got from Sendak didn’t even register.

It took a couple seconds for the rusty, faint, bemused chuckle from the other end of the call to register for what it was.

“I think I can overlook some minor insubordination in favor of answering mostly honestly, nevermind the results you’ve managed.”

It was going to take Tav a few hours to remember how to breathe properly. “Thank you for your indulgence, your majesty.”

“You have certainly proven your ability well past any objections over your youth. I am curious, however, what your research was based on.”

Of course the one person in the Empire with a very long and personal history with the lions would be curious as to how the middle-of-nowhere forgotten exiled outpost managed to figure out something like this. “Well, you see, part of it was just going over basic principles of energetic radiation and comparing that to everything else we’ve tried over the last ten thousand years.”

He was trying not to think about how much of his skin right now was riding on sounding like he knew what he was doing, particularly after the ‘minor insubordination’. The problem was, while that was true, it also probably wasn’t anything that hadn’t been tried in the rest of the Empire, and he really didn’t want to end up insulting Zarkon or any of his likely other efforts over the millennia more than he already had.

The pendant hidden under his shirt hung heavier than usual, something he didn’t want to talk about exactly but didn’t think he could avoid; Zarkon obviously was more than aware he hadn’t actually explained everything.

“And - one of my ancestors worked on the lions in your service originally, when they were built and afterwards. I found some fragments of notes in our old files, and used those to figure out what would be likely patterns for passive radiation related to their respective affinities, because - most of the clearer signatures would either be incredibly difficult to detect without being almost on top of them, or would be jammed and blocked right now, but after ten thousand years, there would’ve been enough passive radiation to leave some impact on whatever they were hidden on, even if it wouldn’t pinpoint an exact location.”

Just notes, really, only notes, no journal, no personal commentary, no attempts at making sense of another now-extinct species’ awareness and approach to technology or passed-down scraps of a time that’d been purged from the Empire’s histories and rewritten.

Zarkon nodded with interest, but he’d apparently succeeded at an earnest enough delivery and probably enough signs of sheer suppressed terror after his earlier slip to avoid sounding like he was hiding something.

It wasn’t like the parts of the journal he could access gave him any real explanation to what had happened or why, anyway, or like it would change anything about what the universe was now, either.

“We are fortunate that enough survived to be of use.”

This time Tav was paying enough attention to keep his first response from getting out - ‘didn’t even bother to think to copy archives and records when he destroyed the planet and now we’re expected to make it up from scratch’ and ‘would it have killed them to salvage the technical documentation first’ had been ten thousand year laments for the technicians and surveyors assigned to try to find the lion. “Yeah. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to narrow something down compared to previous efforts.”

“Once the lion is recovered, we will see to re-instating your ancestor’s position at central command; there will be definite use for skilled support crews and researchers.”

He needed a moment for that to sink in fully -

No more near-exile on a frozen moon. No more being the laughing-stock of the Empire. No more getting looked down on by anyone that came out to the half-stranded little outpost to check on them.

“Would I be allowed to bring anyone else from my crew here with me?” Not all of them had any skillsets in directly relevant fields, but he could probably make a case to get everyone he normally ran with moved to Central Command.

“The rest of the team that has been assisting in this search? …Of course.”

As terrifying as Zarkon and pretty much anybody associated with him was, even with the tiny dinging little alarm that it’d mean Druids no longer being distant rumors nobody had ever seen in person and the other dinging little senses that it wasn’t safe, they could finally have an actual place in the Empire.

“We won’t disappoint you.”

Zarkon gave an acknowledging nod. “You’re dismissed, Surveyor. Vrepit sa.”

He managed a slightly better salute than last time, the callback half not sounding like it came from him; Sendak motioned to the door, and he walked out, pausing as the door closed behind him to lean on the wall and remember how to breathe in a way that didn’t leave him light-headed.

*************************

An alien ship had come down in Montana.

They’d easily evaded almost everything official, only spotted by a few amateur telescopes. At least one of those amateur telescopes belonged to someone who haunted one of the more careful and thorough alien conspiracy boards, prompting a quick flurry of activity to organize an investigation, hopefully ahead of anyone else and quiet enough to avoid notice.

Two of the more active members for investigation had been in the area anyway, checking around an older site near the likeliest landing sites. It wasn’t hard to adjust plans, halting breaking down the base camp while the younger of the two turned around to head back.

Keith left the bike at the trailhead. He didn’t take the trail itself up the bluffs; it was too exposed and too visible, and he had zero faith in unknown aliens lurking in the system to not be hostile - in fact, he expected the opposite. He’d found another way up to the area of the few odd caves there, albeit one that involved going straight up through scraggly scrub growing in cracks.

He even had climbing gear this time, mostly thanks to Joe shoving it at him after the older man had found out he’d free-climbed it before. They only knew each other by aliases and a shared paranoia agreement to not pry into each other's lives or reasons for being involved, but after a few years of occasionally conspiring and documenting various sites spread across the west, they’d gotten to a sort of comfortable working relationship.

And Joe had never asked why “Akira” suddenly had no solid scheduled obligations or a near obsessive renewed interest in some of the older sites after the Kerberos mission disappeared.

The area where he topped out was clear; he took a moment in the relative cover of thick brush to stow the climbing gear and check his earpiece and the small camera mounted almost on his shoulder.

“All good?”, he whispered.

“All good” came back in confirmation.

He kept low and to cover, staying as silent as he could; they were searching on a hunch that the same odd tomb they’d been studying would also be of interest to the aliens. It meant that if they were wrong the entire stealth routine would be wasted effort, but after years of video from trips with nothing confirmable newer than neolithic cave paintings, Keith would call “nothing there, perfectly safe” bad luck and a failure.

Movement and an occasional faint electronic hum got his hopes up and got him flattening lower in the gap between jagged, thick scrub and part of the bluffs. There were definitely figures around the cave entrance, ones that looked too tall and large to be human even while he was still too far back to distinguish more than dark blurs through the leaves and branches.

He got as close as he dared, with only maybe a half foot of vegetation between him and the clearing around the cave entrance, close enough that he - and the camera - could get a good look.

There were at least three around the area. Two seemed to be posted watching the direction of the plateau, carrying something recognizeable as rifle-like weapons; they were either wearing seamless mechanically augmented armor or were machines, and the way the joints moved as they shifted weight made him lean toward the latter.

The one leaning in the entrance was broader, around nine or ten feet tall, in purple armor with red and gold markings. He? didn’t have a helmet, although there were mechanical pieces and a prosthetic eye on one side; the big alien had broad, pointed ears, fine violet fur marred by scars, and a near featureless gold good eye. One arm had a large clawed forearm that looked completely mechanical, attached at the elbow only by a tether of arcing pale purple light.

The alien didn’t seem to have seen him even though it was facing roughly his direction, good eye half-lidded; a yawn showed a mouthful of sharp teeth.

They looked like they came prepared for a fight, and he was quietly praying for a range of things like poor color vision and no augments on the prosthetic for infrared or anything else that would make his thin cover a joke; there were maybe five feet between them, and he didn’t like his odds of dodging if the alien lunged for him.

There was only a quiet intake of breath over his earpiece as the alien shifted; Joe could see what he was seeing, and had made the same guess he had that the alien probably had damn good hearing.

The one by the door looked up and inside at footsteps. A second one, thinner, less scarred, and in lighter armor stopped in the cave entrance, clawed arms folded; the larger one had raised a hand as they approached.

Keith couldn’t understand a word of the exchange that happened. The one he’d been watching had a few gestures with the prosthetic while speaking, a few too many teeth visible for his comfort. The thinner one made a faint noise, then said something motioning back to indicate the cave; there was a pause, then they continued, and the posture and tone looked much like a military report.

The larger one gave something he guessed was a salute. The thinner one returned it and turned to walk back into the cave.

Things were relatively quiet again, although his skin crawled and he couldn’t shake the feeling he was being watched. The lack of visible pupils didn’t help; he honestly couldn’t tell where the big alien was looking. He stayed as still as he could, holding his breath.

There was some kind of odd sound in the cave, like a vacuum-tube having a critical failure without the sound of glass breaking.

He wasn’t sure if the expression that crossed the alien’s face was a smile or baring teeth, but he wanted to bet on the latter, and they distinctly looked straight at him a second before something cold touched the back of his neck. There was a burst from it that threw him out of the brush and to the ground with a shriek of static from the earpiece; he might have screamed, but wasn’t sure, and it took a few seconds for his vision to clear with a hazy, pained ponder of if that was what getting tazered was like. He scrabbled to sit up, the larger alien’s armored boots passing across his line of sight, and tried to stand, wheeling around to face whatever had hit him.

The thing was thin, with covered arms coming out of some kind of hooded robe and five-eyed mask; its features were completely obscured, but the thin clawed limbs looked unnatural, jointed and proportioned wrong. It flowed out of the brush more like semi-solid black smoke than a living thing, the edges of the robe shifting as if they were extensions of it rather than a garment. Something black arced around its hand like inverted lightning, and he almost forgot about the other alien until the metal claws of the prosthetic were against his back, stopping him from backing away from whatever had ambushed him. The two mechanical sentries had barely reacted; out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of the other alien watching from the cave.

He briefly considered going for the knife at his belt, but he wasn’t even sure he could get it clear of its sheath if he did.

The one behind him - he wasn’t sure if they or the unnatural thing were the leader here - said something he couldn’t understand; the other in the cave had a dry, short response. The black lightning from the thing sparked out, tracing around him on the ground in a way that gave him no room to move; the larger alien stepped back as the circle completed around him.

He tried to jerk out of the way when the unnatural thing went for his throat, but only succeeded in barking his shoulder against the strange barrier, something that was simultaneously freezing cold and like brushing a live electrical fence. It caught him anyway, pulling him off the ground; the chill from its claws seemed to seep through to his bones from the contact, and no amount of the mid-day sun was cutting through it. The earpiece sputtered.

It tilted its head at him, loosening its grip; the cold didn’t exactly abate, but it stopped intensifying.

The voice from the thin, beaked mask was hollow, and seemed to get the attention of at least the one he could half-see. There was a short exchange between them, with it loosening its grip just enough that he could breathe. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know what had their sudden interest.

Something in the cold shifted, making his head swim for a moment, and then it dropped him. He ended up in a heap with his hands on the ground, fighting to catch his breath and shake off the vertigo. The weird black was creeping around and over him, centering somewhere just under his collarbone with what felt like a frostburn.

“Well, little one. Did you find what you were looking for?”

It was the armored one behind him, and understanding what was being said felt like the least of his concerns right now.

“I have no idea what’s going on,” he snapped. His voice was raspy, still getting air through him after the thing’s attack.

“Well, at least the brat has some spirit to him. Maybe the Champion wasn’t a fluke after all.”

He shot the one in the cave a sidelong glare, rubbing his throat; he had a lifetime of learning how far he could swing a shovel when he was already in a hole without making it deeper, he could get away with that much. A second later what the alien had said sank in, and if he’d had any kind of decent weapon, he would have made a level attempt at murdering everything in the clearing.

The knife was not enough of a weapon to let the brief homicidal impulse get past conditioning to bite it back in contexts where he couldn’t accomplish anything by it, but his hand on the ground curled in, clawing the sand, and he snarled.

If they weren’t the ones who’d snatched the Kerberos expedition, they were at least connected.

The odd feeling of vertigo slipped through, and started to make some sort of sense, as if something else were sifting its fingers through him, another presence turning his thoughts over in its claws.

The thing said something that didn’t translate. Whatever it had said, the other two didn’t answer out loud. Then, the mask tilted to look back down at him. “You are not wholly of this world.”

He froze, unsure if it was that deep in his head or if it had been seeing something else examining him, and not sure he wanted to know the answer. “I don’t know what you mean.”

The black streaks curling around him prickled uncomfortably. “You cannot lie to me.”

In his head, and he wasn’t sure how to keep it out. “I don’t - really know anything about it. I only know I’m not all human.”

It made a thoughtful noise, unsurprised. “You have found your people. You are Galra.” It motioned at the other two present; he wasn’t sure what it counted as.

And he wasn’t sure he wanted to be related to the creatures that’d taken Shiro.

“If that’s true then why am I here? Why do I look this - human?” He shrank back and to the side; it wasn’t more than a couple inches away from the one behind him and the thing, and he didn’t think they would let him get much further than that.

“Something must have been done when you were born to suppress anything too noticeable.” The one in the cave shrugged. “I can’t recall anyone stationed in this sector going unaccounted for, but there is always the possibility of a lost civilian ship - or someone that was accounted for doing something stupid and undocumented.”

As languid as the delivery was, he didn’t trust it right now, even if he was trying not to gauge if they looked like something that might be a source for some of what hadn’t been covered for “passing for human”, the long history of medical and other oddness he’d always lived with. Something big and predatory would make sense…

Or it could be the thing in his head trying to influence him.

“You’ve been called. You came seeking dreams of fire.” Its voice was still unnatural.

He wasn’t sure how, but his skin crawled more at that than it already was with the thing’s power wrapped around him. “I don’t know what you mean.”

It prickled again.

“There is something very old that we came into your system searching for. We already have one of them. You may be compatible with it.” He twisted around to look up at the apparent leader, who had taken over speaking for the moment. “If you are, you would have a position of great power and esteem within the Empire - the right hand of the Emperor himself.” The alien commander had stepped closer again, still just outside the unnatural thing’s circle around him. “You could have almost anything you asked.”

Every alarm he had for a con was sounding; there was a trap, nobody that reflexively hostile just offered things without a price, and he had a feeling it was contingent on obedience to some authority he knew next to nothing about, and the little he knew he already didn’t like.

Although if he’d read between the lines right, it might also mean getting them to let Shiro go.

“One life would be a pittance of a reward. We would grant what you seek.”

He snapped his focus back to the thing, torn between weighing what it said and wanting to recoil away from it answering things he hadn’t said out loud. He doubted he’d have free reign, they didn’t seem like the sort of creatures to grant free reign, but… “So you do have Shiro.”

“Nowhere near this sector. But you would be more than valuable enough for that to be easily within Lord Zarkon’s generosity.” Its voice had faded to almost metal-sliding-across-metal, as if it were not built to speak for long periods.

“Akira, I don’t know what —— told you, but I don’t li——is.” Joe’s voice over the earpiece crackled and broke apart, as if it were routed through an empty tunnel somewhere along the way.

He didn’t like it either, although he didn’t dare answer. Even if he asked what he would be expected to give up, what they’d want him to do, he doubted he’d get an honest answer; it was a trap, bait, and his entire value was whatever the strange dreams and odd energy he’d chased might mean.

But he doubted they’d let him walk away alive if he refused, and if whatever they wanted him to activate for them was that powerful and wouldn’t work without him, then maybe he could play along long enough to get Shiro and then figure something out from there once he knew more. “Alright. I’ll go with you. But I want answers on the way.”

There was a muted “fuck” on the earpiece and then the beep of the other end disconnecting. The circle around him abated, most of the black lightning receding into the creature; it rested a hand on his shoulder, over the camera, and there was a last prickling rattle that he was pretty sure the camera didn’t survive.

He got to his feet, wobbly; the vertigo was at a low roar, but still there.

“Is the survey complete?” The one behind him actually sounded respectfully cautious of the unnatural thing; Keith didn’t blame him.

“Yes.” Its mask inclined towards him again. “The trails from the tomb are ruined by age, and the surveyor’s instruments find nothing either. This one knows far more than we could gain from this place, including the location of the other lion.”

“Well, at least all that digging wasn’t a total loss,” the one in the cave said. Keith leaned a little to see around him; sure enough, there was a hole carved into the wall partway back, that would go straight through the rock in the direction of the tomb proper.

There wasn’t much at this site, beyond cave paintings and an old grave; he only knew it was connected to the other caves further south by similarities in some of the paintings.

“Then we will return to the ship to give our new recruit proper answers, and inform Lord Zarkon of our progress.” The strange prosthetic settled on his shoulder, steadying him, but it also felt like there was an implied message about trying to bolt. The thing vanished, as if a black hole closed in on it and winked out of existence in front of him.

The leader was hovering close to him; he nodded to the other one, who returned it and headed back into the hole they’d cut into the rock.

He’d had to rappel down through part of the waterfall on the other side of the rock to get into the tomb proper on a gamble, and barely got the battered machine that he’d rebuilt into his bike out via the same old opening. Joe was the only other person who knew they’d found the actual tomb and not just the odd paintings and carvings depicting whatever people had lived here ten thousand years ago interacting with some kind of sharklike figure. There’d been enough to pick out attempts at drawing ships, but the way the legend had mostly died out and the way it’d been drawn as less of some kind of idea of the divine had been what tipped them off that it might be an actual record of alien contact. No dramatic enlightenment, no gods making the land livable, just one strange and not human person who’d been depicted arriving wounded, spending time with the humans, then dying fighting some unknown enemy that used the local people as bait. They’d never mentioned it to anyone, a quiet agreement that neither of them trusted anyone else who might come, official or not, to respect the dead and leave the actual burial proper alone.

He could almost see some of the paintings from here; the last couple of the sequence in that hallway were destroyed by the hole they’d carved, but he could still see the painting of the blue figure, run through by a much taller one he’d just slashed across one violet eye, faded color on the face, and dark reddish armor.

It was a conscious effort to not look between the painting and the figure next to him; the one in the painting didn’t quite look the same, less ears and what looked like scales, but some of the others depicted in the larger battle further in the tunnel were less distinct on that, and the armor was definitely a crude depiction of something similar. He’d long wondered if the civilizations involved were even still around recognizably ten thousand years later and which ones were likely to still be past Earth, a flimsy possible clue to his own heritage.

It was definitely looking like the “Sky Warrior” hadn’t been an isolated loss in whatever conflict had been going on.

He didn’t think he’d get a good answer if he did ask.

The other one came out a minute later, followed by another of them - thicker furred than the commander, and not wearing armor, carrying a couple cases. That one blanched a little on seeing Keith, taking a step back and looking between the other two, then ducked their head, ears lowered and angled back, following the apparent second in command quietly.

The commander turned to leave, claws tapping Keith’s shoulder to signal him to move. He kept Keith close the entire hike down the hillside off a lesser-used trail; the second in command walked behind him, with the one not in armor trailing behind. They went off the trail once they were off the bluff, heading into a narrow ravine where there was a smooth, dark ship that he could pretty easily see as similar to the one in one of the now-destroyed paintings that the unknown assailants had left in.

He got names and ranks on the trip back, the apparent civilian staying quiet and away from him in the ship, looking away. There wasn’t really any chance to ask questions about them, as he was getting a brief instruction on protocol; they seemed pleased when he responded shortly into it with pulling up to something close to attention and a military “Understood, sir.”

He was being taken to their ship, to be taken in person to their Emperor. He wanted to believe that “You will be dealing with the ruler of the known universe” was an exaggeration, but a ten thousand year old regime was still nothing to take lightly.

He never got a good look at any kind of external porthole or window to see outside until after the small ship had landed and he’d been ushered out into a large hangar on some kind of much larger vessel; there was some kind of field keeping the atmosphere contained and pressurized, so that the end of the hangar seemed to look out on open space. There wasn’t much view of any starfield - the red spot of Jupiter loomed across what was visible from the opening, massive and roiling. They had to be a decent distance to keep a stable orbit, but the planet was still huge below, the red spot alone massive.

They’d made a trip that took Earth ships months in a matter of minutes, and he was staring at another planet he’d almost given up on ever seeing in person.

It was hard to enjoy it with the growing unease about what he’d just been leveraged into; all it really did was make him feel incredibly small and helpless in the face of a storm that could’ve swallowed Earth many times over, on a ship made by people who’d been going between star systems while humans were still making sense of agriculture and hadn’t figured out written language.

There was something pulling at him still; the same kind of feeling he’d gotten that had led him to the canyon caves that had to be what they were looking for, but as close as it’d felt when he was standing in the canyon, and much more urgent.

It had to be whatever they’d wanted him for; he’d get to it when he had a chance with less of them watching.

The hangar was large and long, with small, angular ships lined up in rows all along the walls. Most of the traffic came from more of the mechanical drones, but he could spot armored soldiers here and there directing and overseeing. Sendak had stepped away from hovering over him, but Haxus was still close by, watching him; the other one - the one they’d mentioned as a “surveyor” - was off to the side, clustered with two other Galra who weren’t in armor, talking quietly; one of them was another thicker-furred one, while the third one had scales.

He was a little curious, but he also didn’t think it’d be a good idea to wander away from Haxus just yet the way they were hovering, and the three non-military didn’t seem like they’d appreciate him drawing the officer’s attention to them more.

It wasn’t long before Sendak returned, watching out the hangar expectantly; another of the pods came in, a little different shaped, with some of the exterior mismatched, faded, and dented. It landed nearby, the hatch opening.

The Galra who stepped out might’ve been a little taller than Sendak; his armor was battered and looked like parts of it had been hastily altered to account for prosthetic limbs that he was pretty sure included part of one leg, the lower half of an arm, and other signs of reconstruction and supports. It all seemed a little patchwork, and definitely wasn’t nearly as sleek as Sendak’s, with no sign of the odd energy parts, either. Pitted scars covered ragged, heavy scales, and he kept a slow, deliberate stalk off the shuttle, stopping a few yards away from it with his arms folded, waiting.

The three civilians all perked up watching as soon as he walked out, but were staying where they were, glancing toward Sendak nervously now and then.

Sendak gave the other Galra a brief look of irritation with a short lip curl and a rumble, then walked over to meet him, not making any motion for Keith to follow; Haxus hung back by him, within earshot but not leaving him unattended.

“Commander Sendak.” The newcomer gave a rough salute.

“Security Chief Riven.” Sendak returned it. “We have narrowed down the location of the Blue Lion and located something of personal interest to Emperor Zarkon. I am going to leave a small complement of soldiers and a ship; you are to take them and your survey team to the location to find its exact hiding place and secure the area. As soon as we’ve made our delivery, we will return to retrieve it.” Sendak paused. “Once it’s secured, you might finally be able to rejoin the Empire proper.”

Somehow it felt like a barb; Riven was hard to read expressions on, and wasn’t showing much reaction at first. “It will be an honor I will be overjoyed to receive.” His delivery was flatter than crossing Kansas.

“I wouldn’t think a decorated veteran would be so attached to this frozen pit.” Sendak gestured at something off outside the ship, and Keith realized why there’d been “unspecified failures” for all attempts at probes under the ice on Europa.

“I am retired. I have earned my peace and quiet. I look forward to returning to it once the Emperor has his toy in hand.”

Sendak gave a snort. “I am sure with your record keeping a perimeter clear of curious primitives will be trivial enough.”

“Trivial. Yes.” Riven had gone flat delivery again for that. “I know enough of the little creatures after living here to know how they work, Commander; they won’t get to your prize.” He raised a hand and motioned to follow him, not bothering to look sideways; the three surveyors hurried to the ship behind him.

“I will hold you to that. Dismissed.”

Riven gave another tired salute and turned before Sendak had entirely finished returning it, stalking back to the ship with the same kind of measured, looming leisure.

The shuttle took off soon after. Sendak stared after it, then turned to bark orders at a few of the other soldiers nearby, to prepare a landing craft and collect the survey team, then motioned to Keith to follow; Haxus fell into step behind him as they left.

Chapter Text

Pidge looked up from her packing for spring break to a text tone - an old video game flourish from boss fight intros.

The laundry dropped as she dove for it. There were only a few numbers attached to that ringtone, people who had her number from conspiracy boards, and they only had it for the sake of “tell me if you find anything relevant to Kerberos”.

The other end was only labeled by their handle on the site, “cometchaser”.

{You were on the board when we called dibs on checking out the Montana sighting, right?}

She frowned at it. {Yeah. Did you find something?}

{It was real. Sekhmet found the aliens responsible for Kerberos with his face. They took him. I need help.}

She sat down heavily on the bed, staring at the message. She’d been pretty sure the strange transmissions she was tracking would be the only thing the Garrison would want to avoid badly enough for a cover up like what happened to Kerberos, but having confirmation had her mouth dry.

What might be confirmation, she reminded herself; while they’d seemed like some of the more sane and thorough people on a site hub mostly inhabited by nuts and flakes who thought their toaster was talking to them, she only knew them by handles and general areas of interest, little else. She knew they at least claimed to do “field work” investigating sites and posted some photos, independent of each other as often as cooperating, and that they’d both made it quite clear that they never posted all of what they found.

{Are you sure? How do you know it was them? What happened? Is he dead?}

{Damn sure. He was wearing a camera, I have the footage before one of them killed it. Give me a good encrypted channel and I’ll send the footage. He’s not dead - I don’t think.}

She stuffed the last few clothes in the bag haphazardly to clear off space for her laptop, not even bothering with trying to roll them neatly, and spent a few minutes going over every step of every encryption program she had handy to layer onto it before sending the direct message.

The file didn’t take horribly long; it was a video file, but it couldn’t be that much footage. She stared at it as the bar moved across the screen. What if it was some fuzzy smudges? What if it was fake? What if there was a trick, or some trap from the Garrison meant to lure her into outing herself? What if it was real, was it even enough of a lead to find anything?

It had beeped completion a couple times by the time she startled out of her thoughts looping to play it back.

The first few minutes were scrub brush with figures ahead; she resisted the temptation to start frame-grabbing to see if Sekhmet’s cameras had enough resolution to be worth anything.

Toward the end of that, she wasn’t doubting the camera; she was doubting his sanity a little, with a hiding place that uncomfortably close, even if it was the only way to get a decent look.

The important part had weird interference, the frame occasionally flickering and distorting from whatever the - weird thing - was doing; she couldn’t understand a word any of the aliens were saying, but Sekhmet’s - Akira, from Cometchaser’s comments on the earpiece that were a part of the recording, although it was probably an alias itself - side was loud and clear.

He wasn’t talkative enough to make it easy to tell what was going on, besides one weird outburst that had her calling up his post history to check if she was crazy or not, but from the way he’d fished at them about Shiro and the last thing he said before the camera died, there’d been some kind of bargaining session.

She picked the phone back up. It still could be faked, but she wasn’t sure she could afford to risk passing it up in case it was real…and it wouldn’t be easy to fake on the budget most of that board had.

{Have you found their ship?}

{I saw it leaving not long after that video, unfortunately, but I think they’re coming back.}

She let out a hissing breath; of course there’d be a clue like this yanked out of reach before she could even get to it. {Why?}

{Because there’s more caves with markings like that one spread out. You said something about picking up on transmissions looking for something, right?}

{Yeah.} She’d never gone into much more detail than that on the site; she didn’t trust anyone there enough, it was too public. {I'm still fighting their encryption to get pieces to translate, but they’re looking for something. I think a weapon.}

{Well, we’ve found hidden tombs and odd things around a few of those caves before. Whatever they’re looking for might be under or around one of them. He’s been in the tomb by the one they were at before, there’s not anything spectacular in there that we didn’t already salvage or leave be out of respect for the dead.}

{Salvage?} She stared at the phone, frowning.

{That’s the Sky Warrior Tomb we mentioned. Left out that there was some kind of vehicle in the tomb they’d buried with the guy. A good part of it was still intact, he rebuilt it into an old salvaged airbike chassis. I’ve got it with me now.}

She wanted to believe it, but was still a little uneasy; it felt too easy after years of nothing. {Why me?}

{Because I need help. I’m one old man with a hunting rifle, I disappear easy alone and there’s not much I can do by myself. You seem to have some resources and ability. And you’re the only other one who seems to have a personal connection to Kerberos.}

Too easy.

But she didn’t have much else.

{Alright, what do you need.}

{I need backup. I’m going to see if I can figure out where they’re going to go when they come back. Bring anybody you can trust. If they’re after a weapon then I don’t like the looks of them finding it, and I don’t trust the authorities to do anything but bury this and pretend it never happened. Again.}

Well, win or lose, it wasn’t like she was risking her real identity here. She swiped a couple of buttons on the screen to send a proper contact request instead of a “restricted contact allowed”.

The reply included GPS access. {Where are you right now?}

{Arizona.}

{Alright, I’ll keep an eye on things here for now. I’ll keep in touch.}

She finished packing, and didn’t get a lot of sleep that night; she’d suspected the aliens that were lurking weren’t friendly, but that was a worst-fear confirmation. The new light on Sekhmet’s tendency to be very angry quality control on information and theories in the alien hybrid theories forum was a little unsettling, but it’d sounded like they were using Shiro as a bargaining chip; she wasn’t sure what that offer had been exactly, or how trustworthy the guy was. It was entirely possible that if they saw him again, it’d be with the aliens against them over whatever was hidden…

But then, the way the Kerberos Mission crew had disappeared, she doubted they’d have let him walk away if he didn’t agree to go with them.

First thing in the morning she grabbed a couple rolls and started hiking; she wasn’t going to call home for this, and didn’t have many options other than hitchhiking if she was going to get anywhere in the direction of Montana. She knew Cometchaser’d asked for her to bring people she could trust, but that was in short supply right now; they’d just have to make do.

She made it two miles out before a well kept grey car slowed down alongside her on the road, windows rolling down.

Lance leaned out the passenger side; there was a Latina woman who couldn’t have been more than a handful of years older than him in the driver’s seat, and Hunk was in the back. “Pidge? What’re you doing out here?”

“Er. Heading out on break?”

“Are you hitchhiking?”

She glanced around the highway and shrugged. “…Yeah, guess I am.”

He frowned, scowling for a moment. “Where are you headed? We can give you a ride.”

Oh, that wasn’t going to work. “Montana.”

He mouthed the first few syllables, grimacing like he’d bitten into a lemon. “You’re trying to get that far like this? Don’t you have any family or anybody?”

She shook her head. Her mother counted, but she was trying to keep her mother out of what she was getting into; as far as her mother knew, she was still on the rolls as Katie Holt, had friends to spend spring break with, and was not going out doing dangerous things to obsessively conspiracy chase, nosiree.

Lance let out a melodramatic groan, draping out the window. “Look, get in the car. You can come with us, alright?”

She shook her head. “I…really can’t. I agreed to help someone look for a friend of theirs who went missing.”

“You know, we could do Montana, I think. Our plans weren’t that concrete, were they boys?” The voice from the driver’s seat was a little muffled.

“Hey, a road trip is a road trip.” Hunk was grinning in the back seat.

“Well, that settles it. Get in the car, Pidge, we’re going to Montana.”

“I don’t - I can’t - this is -“ Not a road trip, not a vacation, possibly a matter of life and death, but she’d get there a lot faster with a ride for the whole way?

Hunk pushed the car door open, sliding over and waving at her to get in.

Pidge sighed, and hopped in, settling her backpack - half her weight - on the ground under her feet, and settled in for the drive.

Lance and his sister - Veronica - were a little louder than her family, although she noticed there was only ever a couple words of Spanish - enough to not be too hard to figure out in context, which she suspected was for her benefit; Hunk didn’t seem to have a problem following it. The happy chatter was still close enough to make her oddly homesick, not for a place, but for having the whole family in one place.

And she was tired, staring out the car window letting most of the conversation turn into background white noise while she ran back over the video in her mind, what it could mean, and how bad of a situation it meant her father and Matt were in.

Somewhere it drifted into vague nightmares along that vein; having images to put to what was menacing her family only made it worse.

She started awake with Lance’s coat draped over her, curled up against the door of the car; Hunk was nudging her shoulder. The sun was halfway down.

“You alright?” Hunk looked worried.

“…Yeah. ‘Mfine.” She stretched, sitting up, and almost forgot her glasses hanging half off her face when she went to rub her eyes.

“We’re partway through Colorado; when it gets dark we’ll find a hotel to stop at, probably around Pueblo.”

Pidge had a moment of doing mental math; they’d left not long after dawn, she’d been in and out of sleep a lot of the day and honestly didn’t feel like she’d rested at all, it should’ve been about a twenty hour trip, which meant they’d covered somewhere over ten hours of ground in a little under eight. “…How fast are we going?”

Lance laughed. “You don’t want to know.” The way he said it, it sounded more comfortably affectionate than potentially alarming.

So apparently he got a little bit of it from his sister. She fixed her glasses better on her face.

“We did lose a little time to Lance taking the wheel for a while; you were asleep for it.” Veronica was just as flippant as Lance; Pidge decided not to ask or comment. There was silence in the car for a few minutes. “So tell us a bit about this friend we’re going to help out.” At least Veronica was keeping her eyes on the road; there was that comfort.

And Pidge barely had an alias from a few short texts while on the way out. “Uh. Well, his name’s Joe, and the one who went missing is Akira. Joe’s retired. They go out doing exploration stuff a lot, finding old cave paintings and stuff. Akira disappeared on one of their trips; the cops don’t want to go looking yet, but Joe’s pretty worried because Akira’s better at survival and navigation and stuff than that, and Joe’s just not in great shape to go searching like this.” She wasn’t sure how to go about explaining that she only knew either of them from a forum. She also yawned. “Joe called me late last night. I didn’t get a lot of sleep.”

“Man, I don’t blame you. That’s pretty rough.” Lance apparently bought the heavily edited version; Hunk nodded soberly.

“Well, this won’t be the first time we’ve had to find someone who got themselves in trouble in the middle of nowhere.” Veronica’s smirk in the rear view mirror was worrying, and Lance curled into a hunch in his seat.

“Not a word.”

Hunk snickered in the seat next to her.

“Oh that wasn’t the only time. You know I helped Tio Tulio with his search and rescue volunteering for a while, right?”

Lance just leaned on the door to stare out the window sullenly.

“So, your missing buddy. He’s good at survival, right?”, Veronica asked.

“Yeah. Been doing this sort of thing for years.”

“He have a GPS either of you can ping? Or a phone or watch or something?”

Pidge shook her head. “That’s part of the problem. It all stopped responding.” Which was Normal Person Speak for ‘It’s no longer in Earth’s orbit and is probably out of range’.

Veronica made a thoughtful, concerned noise. “He had at least one device waterproofed, right?”

Pidge hadn’t thought to ask, for obvious reasons. She knew from the forums they’d both made mention of being half-broke, but it wasn’t that hard to get a device that was at least a little waterproof, and the camera Akira’d been wearing had to’ve been something he’d budgeted for; most of the sport cameras like that had started keeping GPS units in them, both for better record-keeping on photos and for emergencies. “Yeah, he had a wearable camera on him he’d saved up for.”

Veronica sat up a little in the driver’s seat. “Score! If it was a good one, then it would’ve been backing up wirelessly to some base device; even if he wasn’t recording there’ll be a last-known-location record!”

“Yeah, Joe’s got that part. It’s a start.” Pidge smiled sheepishly.

“You mentioned caves, right? How deep were they usually going?” Veronica’s mood had improved, and Pidge was a little concerned; the thorough planning she was doing would’ve been comforting if Pidge weren’t playing lies of omission for half of it.

They had posted, if not photos, some commentary on their trips, at least. “I don’t think anything too deep; they didn’t have a great budget, so they were short on gear for anything too specialized.”

“Hrm. Might want to pick up some caving gear anyway when we pass through Denver tomorrow; there’s always risks of something going wrong and getting stuck somewhere dumb and unplanned.”

Things fell quiet again for a while, the sun setting; Hunk had dug a bag of jerky and nuts out of somewhere in the car, setting it in the middle for Pidge to pick on after passing part of it forward to Lance. Dinner was a flurry of debates and pointing at various restaurants in passing before stopping at a small Greek place in a strip mall, then Veronica pulled into a hotel that was actually a relatively nice chain rather than the holes in the wall Pidge had budgeted for with her hitchhiking plan; for both, Veronica insisted on paying for Pidge and both of the boys, puffing up to fuss about knowing what the loans and grants they were working with looked like when Pidge tried to argue. Veronica had even arranged things so that she and Pidge had their own rooms, letting Lance and Hunk share one of the two-bed rooms.

The next day, even with a few stops in a sporting goods store for Veronica to get caving gear for all of them and to gather roadworthy drinks and snacks and an actual stop for breakfast (as opposed to hitting a drive-in for lunch), they still made it into Montana proper; Pidge had texted Joe with the news that she had a ride and some help, and that they were making horrifying time that should not be thought about.

Joe had welcomed it, albeit with the question of {They know what they’re getting into, right?}, which she left unanswered. She was pretty sure, even with the video on her laptop, that explaining that they were dealing with a hostile alien abduction would get her called crazy.

They spent another night in Billings before continuing on north, down narrow and not always well-kept country roads. Joe had flagged a spot to meet just outside the area of the sighting; it was a tiny abandoned campground in the middle of nowhere, the road barely outlined in the dirt.

There were a few still intact picnic tables and they’d restocked coolers and nonperishable camp food in Billings; Hunk took over cleaning out an old grill for lunch while they waited. There was a battered truck with a locking shell not far away; a trailer behind it held a red and white racing bike that Hunk kept craning over to squint at curiously, muttering something about modifications. The lift generators looked a little too big for the size of the bike, almost turning it into a small aircraft. She had a guess that must be the one with the salvaged alien parts.

She’d pulled out her laptop, checking messages using her phone as a hotspot; after a while, the food almost done, there were footsteps behind her, and everyone else looked up.

“Joe?”, Hunk offered from the grill.

“Yep. Pidge Gunderson and company?”

The others waved. She turned to look behind her with a weak wave of her own and a nod; the native man was old enough to thoroughly look it, wearing threadbare jeans and a work shirt, with a hunting rifle slung over his back.

“You did tell them what they’re getting into, right?” He’d stopped behind her, arms crossed.

She laughed nervously.

“Some younger survivalist that disappeared out nosing around caves and old sites, right?”, Veronica offered, although she looked like she was already suspecting there were parts missing and was debating how to respond.

Joe sighed, rubbing his temples with one hand. “It’s a little worse than that. How much did he tell you about what we were looking into?”

“Some old stone-age legend stuff or something about some god warrior or another.” Lance gestured with his soda before taking a drink. “Name’s Lance. This is my sister, Veronica, and Hunk, who’s kind of like my brother, and Pidge is our teammate at the Garrison. I’m the pilot, Hunk’s the mechanic, Pidge does comm. Veronica’s giving us a ride and helping out.”

The sigh turned into a groan. “Hunk. Mechanic, right?”

“Yeah?” Hunk fussed at the meat on the grill, only half taking his eyes off it.

“I can watch that for a sec, you should go have a look at the bike.”

Hunk frowned, studying the meat seriously, then sighed, handing the tongs over; apparently it was an acceptable short term trade. They could hear him keeping running commentary as he looked over the bike, walking around it. “Okay, rebuilt chassis, not a bad job restoring it, but those lift generators are for a vehicle three times this size, like, this thing must handle like an angry rodeo bull - what’d he do, take out part of the stabilizers or something to make up for the engines? I mean I’ve heard of some really good pilots doing dumb shit like that knowing they can compensate, but…”

“You can open the engine compartments and dig around a bit. I’m sure he’ll forgive it.” Joe waved at him with the tongs.

“Huh, stabilizers are fine, but - what the Hell is this cabling? I don’t think I recognize half of it but it’s sloppy as anything, and - oh god, did he really - who let him work on this machine?! I could do better than that when I started ship mechanic - …..” Hunk moved to the main body from the side lift generators. “…Why is there a second chassis body under -“ There was another click of another panel, and Hunk fell silent, staring harder, jaw slack and eyes wide. “…That’s not a standard engine. That’s not a standard anything. That is so not standard.”

“That’s pretty normal with modded stuff.” Lance gave an unimpressed wave.

“No I mean it’s not even a standard engine type, it’s got some kind of - fuel cells? No it’s a compart-…the Hell are those crystals this doesn’t make any sense -” Hunk closed the compartments, staring at it and scratching his head, then resolutely walked over to the handlebars where the key dangled from them, pressing the ignition.

The bike hummed to life, almost lifting the trailer it was chained to up with it. Joe raised an eyebrow at that with a thoughtful noise. Hunk stared at it blankly, then hit the ignition again to turn it off; the trailer clanked back down.

He stared at Joe, and wordlessly gestured at the engine. “Where -?”

Joe pointed off at bluffs in the distance. “From the ‘Sky Warrior’s tomb’ here a few years ago. The paintings showed someone who descended from the sky pursued by some kind of monsters riding what the locals drew as a bird; the warrior fought off most of the monsters, but was mortally wounded by the last two, and buried with his ‘mount’.”

Hunk looked at Joe, and back at the bike, then to Joe. “…wasn’t that tomb like. Stone-age?”

Joe nodded. “Neolithic, to be precise. About ten thousand years old.”

Hunk stared blankly off into space. “You guys were chasing aliens. That’s an alien engine. I’m standing next to a bike with a ten thousand year old alien engine that still works, rebuilt by somebody that never should’ve been given tools. I mean he got it working so I guess that’s something but if it jars funny something’s going to disconnect and how did he even figure out how to hook up an alien engine -”

“Alien engine? Really?” Lance laughed, although it turned hollow halfway through. “…You are joking, right, Hunk?”

Hunk shook his head emphatically, gesturing at the bike again.

“…You were chasing aliens.” Lance took another drink from his soda, Hunk’s thousand yard stare starting to infect him. Veronica, on the other hand, had sat up straight, an odd smile spreading across her face that made Pidge deeply afraid somehow.

“Yes. We were chasing aliens. In fact, we were just breaking camp after a trip out here to make sure there wasn’t something else hidden we’d missed, when I and a few others in the area spotted what looked like an alien ship slipping down to land in this area. We took a gamble that they were heading to the tomb, too, so I got the base camp back up and he went in to check it out.”

Aliens. Now that’s something I haven’t done before.” Veronica was flat out grinning.

Hunk’s stare was slowly turning to horror, while Lance was slipping into his own moment of far-off excitement. “I don’t think Joe’s carrying a rifle because they’re friendly, guys…”, Hunk attempted, quietly.

Joe just nodded grimly. “Not that it’d do me much good. I was running his base station. Pidge, you’ve still got the video I sent, right?”

She nodded, pulling it up and turning the laptop around for the rest of the table. Hunk walked back, adjusting his route a little to glance over the meat on the grill on his way.

Lance sat bolt straight at the sound check at the beginning, squinting and mouthing something; Hunk had the worst wince when “Akira” was suddenly thrown forward with the weird interference starting. As soon as he spoke more than a couple words, Lance’s squint turned to a wide-eyed look of confusion and pointing, looking back to an equally confused Hunk. “Keith?!”

Hunk nodded.

A moment later, Lance had almost re-iterated it, but what could be understood changed it to “- Keith is an alien?!”; Veronica elbowed him to be quiet, intent on the video. It didn’t stop a “ - Shiro?! Gane?” interjection when Keith used the name in the video, though.

Hunk looked increasingly horrified, while Veronica had gone focused and intent.

There was silence for a good couple of minutes after the video ended; Pidge turned the laptop back around.

“That was Keith. Keith is an alien? Kerberos mission was abducted by aliens.” Lance tilted his head, staring at the computer.

“…Yeah, I never had the heart to tell him that using his own middle name for an alias was a dumbshit thing to do when he’d been their poster cadet for demos and shows for a while.” Joe sighed. “Didn’t know about the alien part, but it explains why he was always so weirdly invested in the alien-human hybrid theory discussions.” The old man shrugged. “As for Kerberos… I don’t know what they said or how he understood it, but apparently they are the ones responsible.”

“Are. Are those aliens still up there? I mean, are we going to run into them if we go looking?” Hunk looked up at Joe, pleading.

Joe shook his head. “They left not long after they grabbed him, but they’re coming back for something, and I’m hoping we can find it first.”

“What about Keith? You think he’s okay with these assholes?” Veronica motioned at the laptop, chewing on a plastic fork.

“Hell no. I don’t know what that bargain was, but I wouldn’t trust it at all.”

“So how are we going to get him away from them?” She gestured with the fork.

“If we can find what we’re looking for we’ll probably have a better idea.” Pidge steepled her fingers, elbows on the table. “I’ve been listening in on their transmissions for a while; I can’t get a lot, but they’re looking for a weapon of some kind that was hidden. Joe said they had clues where it might be. I don’t like the idea of a hostage trade for it, but if we can figure it out fast enough…”

“We can do some kind of big rescue mission?”, Veronica offered.

“Or something.” Joe frowned.

“We don’t know what this ‘Voltron’ weapon even is, or what it does,” Pidge said softly.

“We can check the caves in the morning in case they left any clues; I’ve got the other caves with related paintings and carvings marked out pretty well.” Joe motioned back at his truck.

“How do we know Keith’s going to need rescued when they come back?” Everyone stopped to look at Lance. He motioned at Pidge’s computer. “He agreed to go with them. What if he decides to side with them? Or they don’t even bring him back, or brainwash him or something.”

“I don’t think he had much choice.” Pidge rocked back, feet hooked under the bench, arms folded, staring distantly at her laptop and the last couple black frames of the video. “If they really are the same ones that were responsible for Kerberos, then they wouldn’t have just let him walk away.”

Joe nodded. “He didn’t talk about it with me, but the way he went obsessive about it? If they’ve hurt Shirogane, he’ll probably try to tear the ship apart with his teeth.”

“And if he’s a hostage?” Pidge looked up, frowning. “It kinda sounded like they were using him as a bargaining chip.”

There was a silent pause. “I don’t know. Kid’s unpredictable.” Joe frowned and shook his head.

Hunk sidled over, taking the tongs back, checking over the grill, and sliding the middling-cheap steaks onto a platter, preoccupied.

“You know, if we find him, that leaves us the only people with a clue what happened to the Kerberos crew.” Veronica pulled one of the steaks onto her plate as she spoke.

“And the Garrison isn’t interested in helping,” Pidge grumbled bitterly.

“Geez…is this what you’ve been so preoccupied about all the time?” Lance was already eating, gesturing with his fork at Pidge; Hunk broke out of his thoughtful daze long enough to wave Joe over to sit, pushing a plate at him.

Pidge slumped forward on the table, chin in folded arms, staring at her empty plate.

Lance looked up at Hunk, worried, and jerked his head toward Pidge. Hunk frowned deeply, face falling, shook his head, and sighed, shoulders slumping, then walked over to sit next to Pidge, hand on her shoulder.

“I don’t know what we can do here, even but - we’ll help, alright?”

Pidge gave a weak nod, and Hunk tugged a little to pull her over into his side for an awkward, one-armed hug.

Lance stared at his plate, poking at the piece of meat. “So. Uh. How did Keith get involved in all of this? Like, was it some kind of family history thing, or …?”

Joe shrugged. “No actual clue; he hated talking about himself, and I’m not much better. He just sorta showed up on the forums one day years ago and never left, got involved in going out looking for sites a couple years back.” He paused, thoughtfully. “I’d seen a few of the old cave paintings in some weird places, but the ‘Sky Warrior’ thing was pretty quiet and a bit of a strange one. Course, that’s also why it stood out as something worth looking into.”

Pidge was listening; it was an entire run of conspiracy stories that they’d sometimes looked up, but mostly just laughed at until Kerberos. She almost wanted to wonder if something might’ve gone different if they had taken an interest - known a little more about whatever was out there or gotten in touch with people, but if Keith who was half-alien didn’t have a clue, then there probably wasn’t much about them.

Then again, maybe she would’ve already known Keith… and been there when he found the commander that took him, which wouldn’t have gone well.

“What d’you mean?” Lance had started eating, talking around a chunk of steak while Veronica was listening intently.

“Well, the problem with most of the theories about aliens visiting Earth in its past is…” Joe wrinkled his nose with a look of disgust. “There’s a lot of problems. Most of them are either taking other religions out of context and trying to chalk gods up to ‘actually aliens’, or they’re based on assuming our ancestors were morons who had to have aliens do things for them.”

He gave that a moment before he continued.

“The Sky Warrior stuck out because it was a similar figure that showed up in several old sites across the US, kinda sharklike despite a lot of the paintings being in inland areas, and the scenes were mostly pretty … undramatic. He’d show up, hang around with the locals, and wander on, up until the tomb.” He pointed back over his shoulder. “According to those, some enemy came down and threatened the local people to draw him out, and he died trying to protect them. There’s some weird paintings that might be religious icons in the deeper part Keith got to once, but none of it’s anything that shows up elsewhere, and it’s a tomb…it’s all pretty mundane. That’s why I started looking into them. Keith agreed with it, but he also knew where five more I hadn’t known about where right out the gate, including this one.”

“So it was probably some kind of weird alien thing.” Lance gestured with his fork.

“Probably,” Joe admitted. “Especially this last year he fixated pretty hard, like he was looking for something specific.”

Hunk had been listening, chin resting on folded hands. “So what you’re saying is, Keith had some kind of weird alien thing going on and was looking for other aliens, and he’s been looking for this Voltron thingie for years now, which would probably mean one of his parents was one of these guys, except they never found it or something?” Hunk leaned one direction, head tilting. “I’d always heard he was an orphan, but - maybe he was trying to find his family the whole time. Or, half of it, anyway.”

Lance made a face. “Hunk, you’re almost making me feel things about Keith.”

Joe raised a skeptical eyebrow, and Pidge looked up, mirroring it, although she let the older man do the talking. She’d heard bits and pieces of Lance’s endless ability to gripe about Keith before. “You two didn’t get along?”

“Well…no - I mean. I don’t want the guy to die or get enslaved by aliens or anything, but he’s kind of an asshole?” Lance sat back, gesturing as he tried to dig himself out of the hole, and both Hunk and Veronica rolled their eyes wearily. “He gets into fights all the time, he’s got an ego a mile wide, he’s a sarcastic asshole in class, he’s always got to be the best at everything, and his teammates won’t let anyone forget how much better they all are than everyone else.” Lance hunched over, hands folding in his lap. “He got one of Iverson’s eyes when he got himself kicked out, and Iverson still won’t let me forget that he’s better at everything.”

Joe just sighed. “Yeah, he seemed like he had his problems.”

Pidge wasn’t sure it was such a great idea to humor this; she’d heard Lance go on for a while before, even if there wasn’t as much energy to it right now. Keith’s side of that conversation had been alarming but not incredibly enlightening. “Anyway, whatever that conversation was probably had some answers, it’d just help if we knew what …they…”

She had a translation algorithm she’d been using to listen to their broadcasts - it wasn’t perfect, and would only get fragments, but it was there.

She sat bolt upright and dove to grab the computer, pulling it open to work furiously while everyone else at the table stared at her. She was halfway through trying to feed the video into the program she’d been using for audio files before when she remembered the others were there, still staring at her. She didn’t bother looking up from the computer, continuing on with fussing with settings and isolating the audio. “I’ve been able to translate a decent part of some of their recent broadcasts when I can record pieces - I don’t know if I’ll get everything, but I think I can get the general basics!”

She found the point in the file where there was the first report, before Keith had been caught, and fed it into the program, the audio playing back while the program worked on spitting out a text translation, with the video up to make it easier to keep track of; Lance, Hunk, and Veronica scrambled to crowd around her shoulders, while Joe just leaned in and half gave up, catching what he could from the side.

“Okay, I can get text translation of what my program will catch. It gives a transcription of things it can’t translate, which is mostly things like proper names, titles where we don’t have context to figure out what the equivalent would be, slang words, some technical terms, and things where the meaning is unclear or it’s a concept far enough out of what I’ve found to not have a good context cue in the lexicon yet.” She didn’t look up to see if anyone else was invested in the explanation, but it was worth the disclaimer.

She had to fidget with it a little to pull the video back as text started showing up translated.

{Have you located the actual (taern)?}

{Yes, but I’m not sure how useful it will be. He had definitely told the local (lerak’tol) about (Voltron), but it doesn’t look like they knew more than garbled stories. There were minor residual energy signatures consistent with (Altean) energy, but those turned out to be useless, unless you’re interested in minor old relics.}

{And the survey?}

{Still ongoing. He said he would need a few more (doboshes) to tell if there was a followable energy trail. The (Rekvas’droi) has been studying everything, but hasn’t said anything as yet.}

{Tell it we’re not alone. Someone thinks they’re being clever, and it should be able to tell if they’re alone or not.}

{Understood. (Vrepit sa).}

In the few quiet moments of the video before the attack, Lance leaned in a little further against Hunk’s shoulder. “Does the big guy seem like kind of a dick to anyone else? Because knowing what he’s saying just makes him sound like more of a dick.”

Pidge rolled her eyes; it wasn’t like they hadn’t gotten clues they’d been involved in abductions and seen the clip of Keith getting terrorized already once. “I think we already knew that.”

Even knowing it was coming it was hard not to wince at the scream and sudden interference when the shadowy thing attacked.

{They really are stupid little creatures, aren’t they.}

{About typical for ‘peaceful people’.}

As the text was appearing, it was punctuated with a quiet, drawn out “diiiiiiiiiicks” from Lance.

{This one is half (Galra), and is the one it has been calling.} She had a quiet sigh of relief that her program didn’t have any problem with the shadowy thing’s voice; she’d been worried about the tonal distortion confusing it.

She’d lay money they had a species name, now, although the conversation that went on over it wasn’t any more comforting.

{He’s the (Farhuen)? Are you sure?} - the big one, answering the creature first in their renewed interest in Keith and the fast flurry that followed.

{He is marked.}

{Did it really call a child this stupid?} That was the other one, back in the cave.

{Stupid or fearless.} It made the way the larger one leaned in for a better look downright chilling.

“Okay this is kinda creepy,” Hunk muttered, shifting weight.

{How did we lose this one? (Kelvet) wouldn’t have the resources for him to look that (leyak), and we know it wasn’t one of the scouts.} The lanky one was gesturing at Keith for that, looking up at the commander, who was studying Keith.

{Hadn’t (Krolia) gotten stranded here for a few (decaphoebs)?}

{Possible, but she’s not that careless, or (valcoer).}

That got abandoned while the shadowy thing did…whatever it was doing to Keith, the Commander’s attention returning to him, clearly expecting that Keith would understand him after that. {Well, (reda’ti). Did you find what you were looking for?}

The rest of it played out, the text running along the bottom of the window; Galra was definitely what they were calling themselves, it came up again in reference to Keith alongside the other things that didn’t translate - in context from there most of it looked like either proper names or insults.

It was hard not to notice the disparity between their conversations before Keith could understand them and what they were saying to him, even if they weren’t much more respectful to his face than they’d been behind his back.

And they definitely had the Kerberos crew - there was no mistake that they were offering Shiro in exchange for Keith’s loyalty. She wanted to reach through the screen and shake Keith for forgetting her father and brother in that negotiation, and if there hadn’t been other people crowding around her, she probably would’ve stalked up the hillside to scream. She had an entire mostly translated video confronting the aliens that had taken her family, not a single word had come up about them to give her any clue, and Keith hadn’t even thought to bring them up.

Lance and Veronica had stepped back partway, but Hunk still had a hand on her shoulder, and there was a nervous twinge to the way he was squeezing. “So, was it just me, or did the creepy thing do creepy mind reading crud in there? Because it was asking about things Keith hadn’t said anything about, which means either they knew a lot about him before he walked up to them, which doesn’t seem to be the case since they seemed pretty surprised by things, so it must’ve been digging in his head somehow while doing whatever it was doing so they could understand each other, which is crazy, but we’ve got machines that can translate brain impulses into text so you can think at a computer already, so maybe it’s not crazy, and-”

Lance elbowed Hunk in the ribs. “Breathe, Hunk.”

“It wouldn’t be a stretch from a universal translator trick,” Joe commented, and Hunk cringed.

“I’m more worried about Keith.” The tone on the name when Lance said it wasn’t worry for Keith’s sake. “They said they’ve already got one and he can use it, and he just agreed to go be some kind of big-shot for them.”

“He didn’t answer until that dark thing played the hostage angle.” Veronica was frowning, eyes narrowed at the computer, but she snapped out of it when she noticed Lance shooting a suspicious glare at her. “What? I know you hate him, but if he were in it for the power, he would’ve jumped at that, not stayed quiet like that.”

“Even if he is mostly in it for Shiro-” Lance scowled. “Why would he help anybody fight them when he could have all of that?”

There was silence; none of them had known him, Pidge only kind of recognized him from some of Matt’s photos where he was usually half hiding behind Shiro, but it didn’t make the idea of fighting him any easier, even if she was a little pissed he hadn’t tried for the entire crew there.

“I don’t know what went on in his head half the time, but I don’t think it’s going to work out for them that well,” Joe finally commented. “Because I don’t know how he was in the Garrison, but nothing ever made him angry faster than people telling him what to do, especially if he didn’t want to do it.”

There was another moment of quiet, Lance lapsing into a sulk and finally adding, “…Okay, yeah. That’s Keith.” He stretched, stepping away from the table. “Let’s just hope they piss him off before we end up with him and this weird alien weapon aimed at us.”

"Well, if we know what we're getting into," Veronica started with a clap of her hands, "Then let's finish dinner and make camp. We want to get up there bright and early to see what they left behind before they come back."

Chapter Text

The lighting on the Galra ship was dim by human standards; it wasn’t enough to be a hindrance, but it did give everything an oppressive air, and had Keith suspecting they must’ve been either nocturnal or from a homeworld where they didn’t deal with bright sunlight as much. At least two-thirds of the crew seemed to be the mechanical drones. They could’ve fooled a lot of people into thinking they might be something living, but as near as he could tell getting chances to watch them, they weren’t even very independent AI’s - just complicated enough programming to do their jobs.

Sendak and Haxus escorted him with them to the bridge, where the creepy thing - “the Druid”, they called it - was already waiting.

There was an odd puddle of the black energy around it, like a hole of violet-edged void in the deck of the ship; it didn’t seem to be responding to anything around it.

Sendak walked to the center of the curved forward part of the bridge, but was watching it, waiting; Keith stayed back. Haxus’s attention was on Sendak, but he got the feeling he wasn’t going to be allowed to get more than a few feet away just yet.

The black pool shrank back into the creature, and it straightened, nodding to Sendak, who stood at attention.

It only took a half-minute, but that ticked by long enough that Keith had already lapsed into attention stance himself; it was easier to keep still and avoid looking around or reacting and possibly drawing attention - or showing any more vulnerability than he had to - by leaning on old Garrison habits.

The screen opened in mid-air a few feet in front of Sendak, the edges ringed by violet light. The face on it looked eerily like at least one of the paintings in the tomb that he’d always taken to be a little distorted, although the glowing eyes were violet rather than the faded yellow of the painting.

The same figure that had killed the “Sky Warrior”, with a scar over the same eye that the Warrior had hit in the painting, which shouldn’t be possible.

Behind the almost draconian-looking armored figure was another one, in ornate-trimmed hooded black robes with white hair trailing out from the hood.

“Lord Zarkon.” Sendak gave a chest-high salute, which the entire bridge save the drones echoed. Keith stayed still; he wasn’t in any kind of service yet, was still uncomfortable with everything, and was a little preoccupied pondering how the alien leader was still here after ten thousand years, if it was the same individual.

“I am told you have good news.”

“Yes milord. We found the individual the Red Lion seemed to have been trying to summon, and he knows enough to narrow down the location of the Blue Lion to one set of canyons on this planet.”

Zarkon only moved slightly, but he could feel the alien leader’s attention settling on him, and it was almost as uncomfortable as having the Druid’s black lightning poking at him.

“And this is our missing youth?” He almost wished it had been phrased more like ‘hybrid’; somehow the Emperor choosing words and sounding as respectfully amused as he seemed capable of set his nerves more on edge than if he’d been insulted. Haxus put a hand on his back, nudging him forward. Something about the whole situation reminded him of some of the worse social workers he’d dealt with as a kid, and that just set him more on edge.

He walked forward to stand next to Sendak, keeping his head up and staring straight back, ignoring the way eye contact with the Emperor made part of his spine want to claw out his back to run for the door without him even when it was through a projected image.

“What is your name, child?”

He considered giving an alias, or using his middle name, or something, but the Druid was maybe eight feet away to his right and he could feel its attention on him. “Keith. Keith Akira Kogane.” He’d lost track of his birth certificate to ever check if the middle name was actually there, or just something his more traditional grandparents had insisted on right after his parents had vanished.

“I understand that you had a request.”

Well, may as well attempt; the creature was watching him and would probably correct if he tried to evade now. “The lives of the crew of the Kerberos mission.” There was a silent pause as he realized that they probably had a completely different name for the planetoid. “The three researchers that were taken from the edge of our system.”

“That can be arranged as a start.” Keith wasn’t sure how to read his expressions, but there were a few teeth points barely visible in something like a smile, and it was somehow even more alarming than if he’d been hostile to the request. He was starting to really wonder what he was tied to that he was apparently registering as too easy to hook. Zarkon returned his attention to Sendak. “I will be expecting you at central command soon, Commander. Vrepit sa.”

Sendak gave the same salute, returning the signoff; Keith went with pseudo-military training reflexes, trying to mimic the salute as best he could. Whatever he ended up doing, playing along seemed like the best idea for now.

The transmission screen blinked out, and it was enough of a sudden relief that for a moment he forgot the Druid watching him. That only lasted for a moment; the creature was visible out the corner of his eye.

“You have military training.” Sendak at least turned his head a little for some warning his attention had turned to Keith.

“Yes, sir. I was training at the Garrison for space exploration.” He wasn’t sure how sensitive the Druid was to leaving things out, but it was worth a shot.

“And you were out of uniform and alone?”

“I was investigating the ruins on my own time, sir.” At least he was used to military protocol when he was uncomfortable.

“To our fortune.”

He had been promised answers; during the momentary lull while Sendak seemed to be considering, he glanced sideways. “What’s been causing the dreams? What am I connected to?”

There was a very quiet rumble. “One part of an ancient weapon. If all the pieces are brought together, the whole has incredible power.”

“That’s pretty vague.” He folded his arms; he’d gotten away with lapsing out of formal, so he knew he hadn’t found his boundaries yet.

“It’s been lost for ten thousand years. Only Lord Zarkon and a very few others know much about it.” Sendak was looking down at him more directly now; he was edging closer to limits.

He straightened posture, shifting to be half-indirectly looking up. If he didn’t directly challenge then he could probably skirt closer to the edge for longer. “So how do we know the dreams mean I can work with it?”

There was a moment where he was unsure how to read the shift in Sendak’s posture, although “long suffering” felt like a good bet, and Sendak’s gaze briefly flickered to the Druid, which was still watching. “It forms a tie to the life force of someone compatible. Powers of that sort can have strange results; the Druids are capable of sensing such things in great detail.”

So he was either passing the buck, or the creepy thing genuinely knew more than he did about that part. It could also be a mix of both; Keith wagered he probably did know what the weapon was and what it was supposed to do, even if the part about the dreams might not have been his field.

He actually looked at the Druid, considering asking it.

Sendak’s faint warning rumble came a little too late.

“So you were sensing it on me.”

It was only audible because of how close he was standing to Sendak, but the commander had inhaled with a little more force than normal; the Druids made him nervous, and he didn’t want to show it.

“Yes.” The voice was just as hollow as ever.

“And knowing I wasn’t entirely human?”

“The life force of different species has differences. You are Galra.”

He still wasn’t sure he trusted the thing on that. If it could sense the marks of whatever had been giving him the dreams, then it had a reason to want him to go with them, and plenty of reason to lie if need be on anything that might work as a lure. And if it could get in his head, it would know how long he’d spent trying to make sense of why his medical records were a mess of “fuck if we know” for anything more thorough than a basic physical. He’d figured out he wasn’t entirely human a while ago, but there was next to nothing for a clue to what.

There wasn’t anything else he wanted to push questions at the creature for; when he turned to face forward again, he heard Sendak let out that breath.

“Do you have any other questions?”

He was definitely skirting the edge. “Not right now. It’s a lot to take in.” Which was honest; he was more tired than he wanted to admit from the whole ordeal, and didn’t want to know how much of the exhaustion had to do with whatever the thing had hit him with earlier.

Sendak looked back to his second. “Haxus. Show our new recruit to quarters.”

“Yes, sir.”

He tried to take more mental note of the salute; he was probably going to have to do well at it soon. He also had the feeling that even if he was on a fast track to being a leadership darling yet again thanks to whatever this weapon was, he’d still be faced with needing to do better than anyone else to be taken half as seriously for being a by-their-standards tiny half-breed that didn’t even look like their species.

He focused on that until they were out of the room and down the hallway, and the creeping “being watched” feeling faded. He definitely didn’t like the idea of making this his “new life”; it was everything he hated about the Garrison, mixed with the kind of patronizing manipulative bullshit he’d gotten from the worse social workers, his actual extended family, and a few of the string of foster families he’d been bounced through, with an added dose of things that made him think about his history classes. “Military leader for an imperialist dictatorship” was not on his list of life goals, and he remembered what’d happened to Rommel.

“Are you alright?”

He started; he hadn’t expected Haxus to be paying that much attention to him.

It was also way too fast of a turnaround from “The brat has some spirit at least” for the concern to be honest, however sincere he was managing to look and sound.

“I’m fine. Just tired.” If he let on how suspicious of them he was, it would probably not go well.

“The Druids aren’t known for their gentle touch.” Haxus narrowed his eyes back.

Not trustworthy, but more talkative than Sendak, and he might be able to glean something out of it. “What are they?”

“Something you don’t want to pry into much, for your own sake.” The expression was almost uncomfortable. “They’re powerful magic users, the servants of High Priestess Haggar, Lord Zarkon’s most trusted advisor.”

Which was probably the white-haired robed one in the transmission. After a few years of dreams from an ancient weapon and the encounter at the cave, the matter-of-fact mention of magic barely registered as unusual, and that only in comparison to humans. “One of the paintings in the tomb looked a little like him. Were they related?”

It was more wishful thinking than actually being that obtuse, at this point, if Zarkon was the only one who knew what the ten thousand year old missing weapon did in detail.

Haxus actually laughed. “Lord Zarkon has ruled for the entire history of the Galra Empire, with Haggar at his side. He was the one who elevated us to our current place leading the known universe ten thousand years ago. Even without what we are currently seeking, he cannot be defeated.”

Magic-using teleporting monsters, ancient weapons that could send dreams, and a ten thousand year old immortal dictator. Zarkon’s eyes turning the same color as the violet parts of the Druid’s magic at some point was probably significant, too.

And Haxus was following the trend of carefully not saying too much about what he was tied to; “Red Lion” didn’t tell him much. Needing a powerful weapon meant either having an existing enemy Zarkon wanted to use it against that he didn’t already have an effective countermeasure for, or wanting to keep it from being aimed at them, and they really didn’t want him knowing much about it before they had him solidly in their territory.

Haxus nudged his shoulder, and he realized they’d turned a corner and he’d almost continued straight into the wall.

“The room is down this hallway. I’ll have food sent to it. You should sleep.”

Something about the amusement the taller alien had made him want to stab something.

“You realize I have no idea what I’m doing here or how to get around, or what ‘being Galra’ even means.” He’d been promised answers, and he was going to at least try to get some perspective on what they said he was and what kind of civilization he was being drug into.

“Is it really that urgent?” Haxus looked tiredly down and sideways at him.

“You think I’m going to sit on it when I’ve been trying to figure this out my whole life?” He glared back up; Haxus wasn’t showing signs of getting testy yet, so he probably had a longer leash than he did with Sendak.

Haxus gave the ceiling a thousand-yard stare. “Well, you have some of the attitude down, at least.”

“Ha.” It was a flat statement, and Keith hadn’t looked away from the taller alien.

Haxus heaved a sigh, and started talking with the occasional hand gesture, a tone that reminded Keith of the times one of the technical staff got pressed into unwilling substitute teaching. “Our people came from a small, heavily volcanic world very far away from here, populated by several different races and warring tribes. The Galra were cornered and embattled, but managed to rise to prominence in a decisive battle with a well-planned charge led by our greatest warriors and our first Emperor. There were a string of conflicts as we gained interstellar and intergalactic travel, until the discovery of a power source beyond any other early in Zarkon’s reign, most easily available from a rift that had opened on Daibazaal.”

Keith was taking careful note of everything; it was probably heavily edited - this felt like the kind of regime that doctored history heavily to their favor - but there were usually clues to find the truth he could watch for later.

“Voltron was made in that era as a symbol of unity, and Lord Zarkon was its leader, but the other factions that held the other pieces were pushing for control over it and the rift at the expense of the Galra people. They eventually fully betrayed us, led by King Alfor of the Alteans; Zarkon was nearly killed, and Daibazaal was destroyed along with the rift. When Lord Zarkon recovered, he rallied our people to strike back against the others; the Altean King stole Voltron and claimed to have destroyed it. Lord Zarkon spend several decaphoebs investigating this, not believing the claim, but eventually the fruitless search was mostly abandoned. After a long and difficult campaign, Altea and its people were destroyed, along with the other civilizations that had turned on us, and we became the dominant power in the known universe. In the ten thousand years since then, Lord Zarkon has expanded the Galra Empire, uniting the universe into one stronger, greater whole.”

Haxus paused, the main body of the lecture apparently over. “Some decaphoebs ago, Commander Sendak and I found evidence that Voltron had not been destroyed; we followed clues to locate one of the pieces. Since then, there’s been multiple searches for the others, while we’ve been searching for someone potentially able to wake it up, with no further luck until now.”

Keith nodded, intent on it and keeping any commentary to himself. It definitely sounded suspect, but it was obviously what they believed, or at least what they’d founded their justifications on. With ten thousand years, it’d be hard to find conflicting accounts, but there had to be something more accurate somewhere; it was hard to completely eradicate anything.

“And Earth’s outside the borders still.”

Haxus gave him a shaded glance. “Yes, for the time being, although Warlord Rannveig’s expanded the frontiers many times over. At this point it’s a matter of decaphoebs, although the planet is unlikely to be a high priority to devote resources to after the Blue Lion is recovered.” Keith listened, carefully filing that way and not reacting.

“So what else should I know?” He wasn’t entirely sure how to fish for cultural standards; he’d had to learn to adapt some to different rules and situations getting bounced around as a kid, but there was a pretty big difference between “different parts of Texas” and an alien society.

Haxus considered. “You’re at least half a part of an ancient, noble line of warriors and conquerers, brought to victory by the Emperor. Try to carry yourself as such.”

Keith gave that a dry look, barely managing to not roll his eyes.

“We’ll be heading to a Galactic Hub; the trip will take a few quintents, so you have time to adjust.” Haxus had stopped in front of one of the doors, tapping something into the keypad next to it. He motioned for Keith to come closer, and when Keith stepped up to the door, he caught Keith’s wrist, holding Keith’s hand to the doorpad.

There were a few chimes as the system processed, then the door opened.

“There. I’ve registered your biosignature with the ship’s security and given some clearance.” The second in command stepped back. “Get some rest.”

Keith sighed and walked into the room; Haxus might’ve been more talkative than Sendak, but he wasn’t that useful.

*******

The Druid watched them leave on the bridge.

“His loyalty is false. Do not allow him near the lion until both can be presented to Lord Zarkon.”

Sendak nodded. It didn’t come as a surprise; the boy was sharp, but not nearly as subtle as he seemed to think he was. “Understood.” He turned to the bridge crew. “Ensure the security protocols are updated to block anyone other than myself from access to the secured bay until further notice.”

Everything stayed quietly routine as the ship entered hyperspace, heading for the nearest hub for a chance to refuel and calibrate a proper jump to central command. Haxus returned slightly later than Sendak had anticipated, hunched and scowling.

“Were you given trouble?”

“Not much. Just the brat asking for basic history and getting existential on me wanting to know what it meant to be Galra.” Haxus went to his own console, checking over the notifications for anything important. “I am not a tutor or a child-sitter.”

Sendak snorted in a half-laugh.

“He’s already starting to test boundaries; we’re going to need to keep an eye on him.”

“Already noted.” Sendak had caught the boy gauging reactions and seeing how far he could push. “Any other thoughts?”

Haxus had come from military intelligence and black ops; it had made their early cooperation somewhat dicey, but after a few centuries it had been well established that Haxus was more successful and had a better position for himself behind Sendak than trying to challenge or usurp him, and his skill at observation and information gathering had been invaluable.

“I suspect he favors his Galra heritage, in spite of his appearance - although that still bothers me.” Haxus drummed his claws on the metal console under his computer screen. “The local colony or any lost civilian ships wouldn’t have had the ability to supress visible Galran traits in a newborn; whoever his Galra parent was, they had to have at least a solid medical kit of a sort more fitting to intelligence and more intricate long-term work, and the knowledge to use it for something nonstandard.”

“They were pursuing the Lion,” The Druid added. “His first clues came from notes left behind by his parent’s search, in a place only they would have known.”

Haxus frowned at that, eyes narrowing. It seemed incredibly unlikely, but there had been someone on a mission investigating the possibility of the Lion being hidden there…

The species wasn’t one they had a great deal of data on, but there had to be at least some minor outlines for rates of maturation or something somewhere; at the very least, he knew Kelvet Station had a bored fascination with the creatures. There was still some imprint of their usually-useless files from the pass-by in the battlecruiser’s computer buffer; there wasn’t much useful, but he did manage to find enough to calculate time scales and convert them to intergalactic standard, then compare it to markers in the archives.

“…As out of character as it seems for her, he would be about the right age to’ve been born while Krolia was missing and presumed dead out here.” It had happened while she was still fairly low-ranking; after she'd come back from the dead, she'd turned viciously ambitious enough to get Warlord Rannveig's attention, and her background had been a footnote he'd come across while investigating the sudden new political problem. “He certainly has similarities in attitude; perhaps she didn’t come up as empty-handed as she’d claimed.”

Sendak nodded with a rumble. “Odd of her to hide something like this.” Not mentioning a half-breed wasn’t surprising; it would’ve been an embarrassment, but having some clues about the hiding place of the Lion and the movements of its former Paladin…

“She hadn’t been as intent on gaining rank until after she returned. Perhaps she was wanting to secure a position where she could ensure she would claim all the glory from it before ‘suddenly’ finding it.” As volatile and aggressive as the other Lieutenant Commander could be, she was a cunning and clever tactician, and they were both sure it was no coincidence that Rannveig had suddenly gotten better at political maneuvering enough to be a serious irritation after she’d thrown in behind him. The accolades she'd earn as a Lieutenant Commander - or higher - would be much greater than the recognition afforded a military scout, if she were to turn up with something like a Voltron Lion. “I’d wonder if the brat was part of the gambit, but I don’t think she’d be so careless as to leave him unaware of his own mission.”

Sendak waved it off with his good hand. “It will be immaterial without confirmation, and if he is hers, she would be a fool to challenge our claim now.” They had found him and alerted Zarkon; if this had been her gambit, then she’d been the fool who left her handiwork unattended and unclaimed while feigning ignorance about the lion.

“The medic will need to look over him at some point; they can check while they’re at it.” Once they knew for certain, they’d know what to expect; if he was Krolia’s, then knowing ahead of time would make it easier to get ahead of her on any potential scheming, maybe bait her into doing something stupid before she could properly plan.

They could easily keep him out of the Lion’s hangar, and without it, he was helpless and easily manageable; Zarkon and the High Priestess would ensure he had no choice but to serve, and they would have an open inroad to claiming at least one of the other lions for the Empire.

Chapter Text

They drove to the trailhead and hiked up the normal way; Joe knew the area and took lead. Veronica had left behind her better clothes in favor of jeans and a tougher shirt and vest. The two of them had been all over in the morning, making sure they had a good stock of water with them and checking emergency kits. Pidge hadn’t complained about getting assaulted with sunscreen; she hated it, but hated it less than turning into a lobster.

Joe had also produced a second hunting rifle from his truck, a battered old thing that he’d identified as Keith’s; he offered it to Veronica, who passed it and the worn old ammo case to Lance because “he’s a better shot”. She opted instead for a slim camera bag with a mirrorless camera and a few lenses, keeping the camera out on a neck strap while they walked and using it instead of her phone.

Pidge stayed in the middle, between Lance and Hunk; the area was scrub and scraggly stubborn green plants with a low drone of insects. The two of them and Veronica were taking pictures on the way up and somehow managing to talk and joke as if they weren’t on a potentially life-threatening mission. She almost felt a little betrayed when Joe slipped in contributions on some of it. They were walking into a potentially hostile situation in an alien tomb, not a field trip, and her nerves were already on edge.

It too early in the year to be more than temperate cool, the Montana climate a small mercy compared to Arizona's heat, and the first part of the path wasn't that bad; it wasn't the worst time she'd spent outside of civilization.

She still could have celebrated when Joe pointed and said they were close; it was short lived when that turned out to mean another forty five minutes of going off trail, picking through prickly scrub bushes.

Hunk stopped in front of her when they were close to the bluff where the cave apparently was; she almost ran into him. “…didn’t these have more leaves and… green in the video?”

The whole procession stopped.

“Now that you mention it, yeah…” Lance had straightened behind her, alert, one hand on the strap of the rifle.

“Look down, boys.” Veronica was walking close to Pidge and gestured at their feet. The missing leaves were there, fallen from the branches, but they were blackened, crumbling to ashy powder at any disturbance without even a crunch. Their shoes and pants were dusted with black.

“Okay that’s creepy.” Lance shifted weight, trying to find a way to stand without disturbing it more and failing. Veronica took a moment to get a couple of closer photos, the shutter making quiet burst-mode whirs.

“I think it's a side effect. Come look at this,” Joe called back from just ahead.

They came out of the brush to a clear area, the narrow entrance of the cave more visible now that it was close. The entire area had a thin layer of the black and ashen dust over it that kicked up in the breeze. In front of the entrance was a scorchmark forming a ring, darker lightning marks radiating out from it and in toward the center.

Joe nudged the ring with the toe of one of his steel toed boots; it had partly filled with the strange ash, but was gouged a couple inches into the rock.

Lance pulled a stick out of the brush, standing beside Joe to trace the depth of the ring with it. Veronica stood on Joe’s other side, staring down at it. Lance held the stick up, the ash marking three inches of its tip. “What was that thing even.”

“More importantly, are we really, really sure they’re gone?” Hunk had stayed behind Pidge, not wanting to entirely leave cover, and was scanning the sky nervously.

“I watched their ship leave, and I haven’t seen any signs of them leaving any presence here.” She noticed that Joe had shifted his grip on the strap of his own rifle, even as he said that.

“So what were they looking for here?” Veronica had moved to the cave entrance after getting a couple pictures of the burned-in ring, peering in. The entrance was narrow, but there was a decent amount of space inside, and it looked fairly straightforward, even if there was an unnatural and charred gaping hole big enough to walk into cut into one wall.

“Either their weapon or clues to find it, I’d wager.” Joe stood next to the entrance. “I’ll stay out here - lookout.”

Veronica nodded, pulling an electric lantern off her backpack, unshuttering it and clipping it to her backpack before turning it on to walk in.

Lance followed Veronica into the cave without hesitation. Pidge shoved her hands in her pockets and tailed after; Hunk gave a couple of nervous glances, and stopped just inside the entrance.

It wasn’t an incredibly deep cave. There were paintings along the wall, the last part of the progression half gone where the hole was. They were a clear series showing the story Joe had described, albeit with the hostile aliens’ departure cut off.

Gwen went through the hole, and most of the cave got darker for it; it was enough incentive for everyone but Hunk to follow. Hunk waved with a nervous “I think I’ll help keep watch” as they vanished.

The new hole extended about twenty feet; the sound of water overhead and a waterfall somewhere outside grew louder, but there was no sign of it coming into the cave. It opened into a larger chamber; there only seemed to be one narrow crack of an entrance on a side wall, with the sound of rushing water echoing in loud from it. There was a raised area that looked like a cairn of stones carved and worn to form a fairly solid piece; not far from it was a sad, small pile of twisted metal, the surface almost looking like ceramic or enamel. Some of it had signs of old damage, but the greater part of the scarring, scorchmarks, and twisting looked recent, any dust that had been on it disturbed. It was quiet besides the occasional whir of Veronica’s camera.

“I guess that’s the parts of the bike that he didn’t use.” Lance nudged it with a foot; the former lift generators were thinner, lighter, and far smaller than any human equivalent, structures that would've been flush with the body of the bike almost, but had old damage that would’ve rendered them unusable, and the tools and materials to repair them probably weren’t available on Earth.

“Hey, have a look at this.” Veronica was holding the lantern up by the wall; there was another set of paintings, one single tall composite mural. There were five figures at the bottom of the mural. Above them were five simplified figures of some kind of large cats, each a different color. Above that was a larger humanoid figure with broad wings spread across that part of the wall.

They stared at it for a few minutes.

“Okay so there’s…. Cat gods? And an angel.” Lance continued staring at it, as if it might make more sense somehow. Veronica handed him the lantern to get proper photos of it, after fussing with the settings on the camera a little more to continue avoiding the flash.

“This must be what that one Galra was talking about when he said the local people had been told some kind of stories about Voltron.” Pidge shrugged; both of the others looked down at her. “Well, the people who did this were early civilizations; whatever they saw or were told, this is probably their best attempt at a representation. I mean, they drew the airbike as some kind of bird.”

“It’s the Thousand and Third Tale of Scherezade.” Veronica lowered the lantern with a defeated shake of her head. “Joe might have something from the other caves for comparison. You didn’t get anything from those transmissions to tell you what it actually was, did you?”

Pidge shook her head. “It’s called Voltron and it’s a really big deal to them.”

“It doesn't look like they left anything behind, eith -.” Lance leaned back to scan the room again, leaning around as if he barely had a spine to get in the way of bending to examine something by the cairn. “Well hello.”

He dug through some of the scattered and damaged stone, pulling loose a sword; the curved blade looked like some kind of white ceramic almost, tapering out wider at the end in a scimitar’s sweep with a sharp point, with gold and iridescent blue-violet patterning on the blade. The hilt was gold and blue with odd stones set into it that seemed to glow faintly in the dim light. Now that he had it loose, the blade itself cast a thin white light.

The lantern swung around as everyone’s attention focused on him and the sword. “Holy shit. There is no way that’s neolithic,” Pidge said, staring in awe. She was the closest, but everyone crowded around Lance and the sword, Hunk tapping the blade.

Pidge just listened to the faint ting from Hunk’s nails, trying to get a closer look at the crystals in the hilt. “This must be the other minor energy source they mentioned.”

“Man, it looks like some kind of ceramic but sounds like metal?”

Pidge leaned in under Hunk. “It’s actually glowing. I’m not sure how it’s doing that.”

Veronica swung the lantern out of the way, shuttering it halfway so it was easier to see.

“Should we take it with us?” Lance looked up from the sword to everyone else, the faint white light casting strange shadows across his face. “I mean, not that I’m a fan of graverobbing, but this place is pretty trashed as it is, and we don’t know if they might come back and mess things up more…”

“It seems important. We probably shouldn’t just leave it like this.” Pidge adjusted her glasses, studying it for any signs of internal mechanisms or construction.

“Well… here.” He fumbled to hold it out to Hunk not point first; Hunk raised his hands, leaning back, so Pidge reached up and grabbed it. It was awkward and made for someone much bigger, but lighter than she’d expected; the glow faded momentarily when it was handed over, then returned, if a little less bright than when Lance had been holding it.

There wasn’t any sign of anything else, in there, and she didn’t like the idea of hanging around too long.

“I’m gonna go back outside with the others.” Pidge turned and walked back out past Hunk to the clearing, giving the sword a couple test swings; Veronica and Lance followed not long after.

Joe had a pair of binoculars out, watching the area below the bluffs. “I was just about to call you back out. We hang around here much longer and we’re going to have company.” He offered the binoculars for someone else to look.

He got a few confused noises and Hunk beating anyone else to them, focusing about the direction Joe had been looking. There was a pretty good amount of dust coming up on the road out, with occasional glimpses of heavy grey vehicles. “Those look like Garrison rovers.”

Pidge stiffened. “Shit. We need to move.”

Joe nodded to her, adjusting the rifle and moving to the edge of the clearing, waiting for the others to form back up; he raised an eyebrow at the sword, but it didn’t seem like a huge surprise.

As they were walking, Lance was looking off where it was visible, watching the still far-off dust clouds. “Shouldn’t we tell them something? I mean, they’re the people with like…ships and stuff.”

Pidge stopped, and Lance did almost trip over her, running into her with an awkward noise. “They’ll just bury us like they did the Kerberos crew.”

Talking to the Garrison about this was Not An Option.

Hunk had paused to look back; she picked up her pace to catch up close behind him.

“You sure about that? I mean - we’re not missing or anything.” Lance was mostly keeping up, but he was hunched over, still staring off.

“Maybe we could leave a message or something? We might not be able to handle this on our own. At all,” Hunk offered.

Pidge stopped again, and Veronica stopped with her. Hunk was more ready to stop and turn around, and Lance expected it this time; Joe grumbled something and pulled the binoculars back out to check how close the Garrison vehicles were.

And then Pidge failed at anything like decorum or calm, wheeling on Lance furiously. “That was my family up there! And you know how much they cared? They didn’t even call to tell us before it hit the news! Iverson kicked me out once rather than tell me anything! And you can’t tell me, with their funding and their equipment, that they haven’t caught at least some of the transmissions I’ve been listening to! You want to go crawling back to pretend this never happened and just ditch the people they’ve let those purple bastards take, fine, but you tell them anything that gets them catching up to stop me from finding my family and I will murder you in your sleep!”

Joe winced as some of the echo died down around them, holding his breath; Lance got the feeling she meant the part about murder, and shrank back, looking to Veronica.

Veronica had her arms folded, tapping one foot and glaring at him. He flinched. Then there was a tirade in Spanish, with some very emphatic finger pointing, that had Hunk wincing and whistling a few times while Lance managed to shrink half a foot. She was doing a better job than Pidge had of keeping her voice from carrying at least, and Joe glanced away from the binoculars with his eyebrows raised and a look of renewed respect.

“We clear, Hermano?”

Lance nodded, not looking directly at her, and sounded honestly guilty. “Yeah. Crystal.”

“And you-” - she turned on Hunk, who took a step back toward Joe, shrinking down himself and flinching periodically as she spoke. “I am disappointed in you.” Pidge noticed that her accent had swung in with a vengeance. “Are you really so much of a coward that you gonna leave your teammate to face this shit alone? We trust you to have Lance’s back and to be his common sense, not to shove problems on someone else and run away with your tail between your legs! You gonna man up and help us here, or do me and Pidge and Joe gotta do this without you?”

Hunk swallowed hard, hanging his head and straightening up. “I’m coming.”

“Good.” Veronica set her jaw and motioned at him, and Joe, to keep moving. Joe gave her a loose salute and turned to lead again. As they got going, Pidge noticed he’d picked up the pace. There were a few minutes of silence after the argument, then Lance spoke, still mostly watching the ground.

“…Hey Pidge. Sorry about that. I mean it.” He rubbed the back of his head, and was fidgeting with the rifle strap. “I mean…it’s your family, and I guess I just - lost my nerve.”

Pidge let out a breath. On the one hand, it was a tense mess all around. On the other, that was her family. “Let’s just deal with finding this thing.”

In the end, they made it to the bottom - and the vehicles - with the Garrison vehicles down the road close enough to be visible incoming but not close enough to stop them getting moving. Pidge and Lance skipped seatbelts for a while, flattening close to the ground in Gwen’s car, while Joe grabbed Hunk’s shoulder and pointed him into the covered back of the truck; Gwen and Joe could probably drive by without comment, but if any of the three cadets were recognized, it might raise questions.

Joe did end up hearing, through the small window between the truck and its back, a quiet and wavering “What if they recognize Keith’s bike?” that Joe answered with a calmer-than-he-felt “Let’s just pray he was smart enough to not have it around them”. Hunk buried himself under a battered old tarp among the camping gear with a groan.

The Garrison had a response team, it looked like, the vehicles capable of a little more elevation spread out around the road while the wheeled and lower ones were single-file down the road. It took them a while to get through the procession of larger engines on all sides, Pidge wadded in the passenger seat up under the dash and Lance trying to mold himself around the undersides of the front seats from behind in the back.

The area was mostly empty; Veronica had to mind not outpacing Joe’s older and more battered vehicle, and they kept the younger trio hidden until they got to a rest stop that was safely well out of any suspicious range of the Garrison’s investigation.

Lance was quick to get out of the car as soon as it stopped and Veronica said it was safe; Pidge crawled out from under the console to stretch a minute later, while Joe coaxed Hunk out of the back of the truck.

They took a minute to stretch, take advantage of the bathrooms, properly get things put away, and generally enjoy being away from looming direct threat. Somehow, in spite of there being no sign of cars other than theirs, Pidge found herself stuck with a recurring eternal dilemma she’d fought since she took up the alias; it was an old rest stop, with two sets of bathrooms that clearly were made in a time when the area got more traffic.

If she went in the girl’s room, and anyone else saw it, it would raise questions. If she went in the guy’s room, she could use a stall sure, but there was always that nerves of if someone else walked in and either questioned her, nevermind that there were some things that were more than she wanted to see.

After a minute and a glance back to check that Lance, Hunk, and Joe were busy and occupied dealing with securing the camping gear and hiking bags in for the long drive, she took a deep breath and went in the men’s room.

When she came out, she got startled by Veronica on her way back to the cars, leaning against the side of the bathroom shack out of the way. “You’ll draw less attention if you walk in like you own the place.”

She froze with an ‘erk’; Veronica raised her hands. “If you need an escort somewhere with more people, we can ask one of the boys. Hunk’s not got a judgmental bone in his body for that sort of thing, and we raised Lance better than that.”

Pidge stayed frozen in mid-stumble, processing how to respond. She was starting to understand why, when she had paid attention to Lance talking about his family, his photojournalist older sister had always been mentioned in tones somewhere between fond respect and abject terror. “…Thanks. I think I’ll be okay.”

She straightened up, straightened her clothes, and kept walking.

The break turned into all of them with sandwiches around a table, looking at a map with pen-scribbled marks all over it. Joe had laid it out prefaced with the explanation that it had a lot of markers not related to this on it.

There were enough marks and lines to ponder if staring at it too long would open some kind of eldritch portal to fall into. She’d seen less complicated spell diagrams in video games. They spent a good couple hours poring over the map, getting explanations of each of the markers and what was there, debating different ways of trying to connect the dots on incident reports compared to older paintings and markings to find some center to the pattern.

The final decision came down to which sites had the carvings that looked the least like they blended in easily with the local cultures of the time, even if paintings and carvings of a mechanical lion were almost as confusing as the more abstract and re-interpreted depictions; there were a few ominous incident reports and UFO sightings in the general area that seemed to be smaller craft with similar contrails to the ship that'd left in a span of a few years some eighteen to twenty-some years previous, implying a worrying near-miss.

The bad news was that it was in the Grand Canyon area, all the way back in Arizona.

“So we drive as fast as your old beater can manage and hope we get there before the Galra do?” Lance jerked a thumb at Joe’s truck.

“Pretty much.”

Hunk looked across the table dead at Lance. “I call shotgun.”

Lance drooped melodramatically over his sandwich.

“Does anybody mind if I ride with Joe until the next stop?” Pidge looked over at the old man, trying to gauge how he’d react.

“I’ve got no problem with it.”

Lance shrugged. “Knock yourself out.”

They left not long after, with a few arrangements made that included Veronica informing Joe she was paying for hotels and major meals - something he tried to argue, then conceded on after being called on having a retiree’s spotty budget. Joe was designated as the lead since he’d have to be the one setting the pace; Hunk looked like he was barely restraining himself from celebrating the check on Veronica’s driving habits.

The first hour or so was quiet; Pidge’s phone was the designated one for any contact needed between cars, but it was a straightforward drive for a while on quiet roads, and Joe seemed mostly content to exist. The sword rested in the cab next to her.

“So has this always been in there?”

Joe nodded. “Keith found it among something crumbled off the cairn. From the carvings there might be another one under there somewhere. He never bothered it. Respect for the dead and all that. Under the circumstances, I don’t think the former owner would mind us taking it now, though.”

She studied it pensively; it must have belonged to whoever had been buried there. She didn’t know enough about swords to guess at how similar the scimitar was to Earth designs in the details, but knew swords in general were one of the examples of a fairly simple utilitarian design where versions had shown up in multiple parts of the world on Earth independent of each other. Alien cultures developing them through similar form-following-function wasn’t that far-fetched.

It had way too much of an edge still to be just ceremonial, the faint glow barely noticeable in the daylight, but definitely there whenever she picked it up. The paintings had looked like the ‘Sky Warrior’ was using two weapons that it would certainly match, but it was still weird; she would have expected some kind of gun or something more exotic and advanced of a spacefaring civilization.

After a while even that ponder faded into the monotonous silence of the road.

“You know, I have to admit, you’re doing pretty damn amazing - although I’d have had second thoughts about contacting you if I’d known you were fifteen.”

“Eighteen”, Pidge corrected boredly, half-mumbled around a beef stick. “Short runs in the family.” It was a practiced story by now.

“You know obituaries usually mention surviving family, right?”

She froze.

“Look, I don’t blame you. You know I’m not using my real name for any of this, and you did a way better job covering your identity than Keith did.” He was tiredly calm about it; Pidge relaxed slowly, heart still racing. “Kinda sad to see someone not getting to finish their childhood because of this shit, but you’re not the first, and I figure it’s better to make sure kids like you have somebody looking out for them than say ‘you're too young for this’ and have you get in over your heads with nobody knowing where you were or what happened.”

It took her a moment to dial down the panic, trying to focus on what he'd said and the general air of calm rather than her reflexive response to being identified; it wasn't like she could go anywhere when she was in a moving vehicle on a highway cross-country, anyway. “…Thanks. I don’t think I really had a say in losing it, anyway, and I don’t want to just sit and wait for someone else to do something. Damsel in distress is not my style.” She sank in the seat a little, her eye level ending up a little below the dash, and adjusted her glasses with one hand to keep them from sliding off. “And everybody just seemed okay with calling them dead and giving up on it. I couldn’t let it go like that.”

Joe nodded soberly. “Be careful and try to make sure you’ve got backup, alright? You won’t help them by disappearing yourself.”

She stared at the half-eaten beef stick pensively. “…I’ll try. It’s not easy finding people willing to listen, nevermind help.”

He chuckled drily. “I want to say I’m amazed you and Keith didn’t find each other, but he was the most paranoid, suspicious, antisocial git I ever knew. More than you even.”

She laughed, although it was a little nervous; she didn’t think she’d gotten that suspicious.

He shook his head, the brief amusement sobering. “You realize that if you’re not going back until you find your family, you’re going to be finding a way off Earth and you might not be back anytime soon, right?”

“…Yeah.” It wasn’t something she’d thought about a lot until after Joe sent the video and crystallized the situation; they had no idea how far these aliens could range, how much territory they had, where they’d take prisoners, or how hard it would be to get their prisoners away from them.

He tapped the steering wheel with a finger. “If you get off world in this, do you want me to get in contact with your mother? So she’s not left with her entire family vanishing on her with no answers.”

It was the other part of the rock and a hard place she was facing that she tried to avoid thinking about; her head dropped. “…Yeah. I’ll send you her info and…get something written you can give her.”

She spent the rest of the few hours of driving scratching at the back pages of her notebook; she went through about eight pages, getting a few lines and then scrapping it, before finally getting something written. She covered both sides of the page, tore it out, folded it, and slipped it into his glove compartment.

The midwestern roads passed by in droning monotony, countryside broken up by occasional gas stations and small tourist stops; it was easy to end up dozing off again.

Chapter Text

Keith wasn’t sure he could quite identify what the food the drone dropped off at his room was, but his best guess was something similar to fish and shellfish making up a lot of it. He had no idea what travel time between outposts was on these ships, but anything that could be cultivated on-ship sustainably without a lot of space was probably preferred; even if there were options for frequent resupplies, they would still need to be prepared for emergencies or missions that took them away from support for longer periods.

The bed as such was slightly concave and clearly meant for something a couple feet taller and twice his size; he barely bothered shrugging out of his coat, setting his boots beside it, and draping the belt with the knife around them before falling over in it.

He didn’t remember falling asleep, but he woke up to smoke, overwhelming heat, and a sense of urgency, followed by confusion as he recognized the couch that did double duty as a bed in his shack in the desert. The light coming in from the windows was dim and hazy, which set off a few loud survival instinct alarms; he grabbed his boots and belt, shoving them on and yanking a bandanna out of his belt bags to tie around his face as he ran outside.

Smoke blanketed the sky, and the glowing wall of a wildfire was bearing down on the shack from the hills, creeping forward foot by foot as he watched; it was close enough that he couldn’t rationally even get to his bike parked next to the shack.

He took several large steps back, watching the smoke to try and gauge which way the wind was blowing, and then turned to bolt downhill and upwind - or at least, what he hoped was upwind. That quickly proved to be an error in judgment, as he found the wall of flames already there ahead of him.

Outrunning a wildfire didn’t work, and he was stuck with no option but to try haring around guessing which direction it was going to move and what might get him out of reach of it. Every time he tried to head a direction that might be clear, it shifted, cutting him off and closing in, until he was on a higher ledge with nowhere to go, the heat and hazy thin smell almost overpowering and his own ragged breathing inaudible under the thick roar of the flames.

When he turned to stare up at the main body of the blaze, he had the sudden surety that it had eyes and a mind, and that he was being weighed.

A distracted corner of his mind went back to the Druid’s comment - You dream of fire.

It was much more vivid and much clearer than anything he’d ever gotten, but it wasn’t the tugging call the dreams had been before; this felt more like something was passing judgment.

“What do you want from me?!” He was yelling at the top of his lungs, but could only barely hear himself over the wildfire.

Something in the din changed - just enough to be sure it wasn’t a trick of sound. There were screams and calls for help coming from the roar of flames, overlapping and cutting each other off, voices that weren’t always human begging for help, for mercy, don’t do this, we did nothing to deserve this, please spare us.

It was nerve-wracking and nauseating to listen to, especially when he couldn’t do anything about it. “I know, they’ve been trying not to tell me anything but I know.”

The flames circled into almost a spiral; his name was threaded in to the screaming, the voices crying out to him - or in terror of him. He stepped back away from it, but there wasn’t really an ‘away’ to move towards.

“That’s not what I want!”

The screaming wasn’t stopping; the flames were watching him.

“I’m only playing along long enough to get Shiro and figure something out!”

The snatches of overlapping half-garbled voices changed to echoes from his own memory; the extended family that had always pushed him to act more ‘normal’, that something wasn’t right about him, the social workers that told him he needed to learn to get along with the other kids and his placements better (the other kids that were like sharks with blood in the water, he was different, he was safe to lash out at, the placements that were in it for being Good People who wanted a Good Child and had never thought about what taking in a kid who’d been hurt and passed around would mean), don’t fight back, what did you do to get them picking on you, try not to say anything bad about the people you’re with, the therapists that were more interested in compliance and obedience than what was wrong, years of Yes-Sir-No-Sir at the Garrison getting into fights and barely staying in with more bullies and backbiting gossip, Iverson’s staredown when he’d gotten angry about ‘Pilot Error’, “It’s over, Cadet, get back in line and stop arguing”.

A lifetime spent learning to hold still and just accept whatever was asked of him whether he wanted it or not, being helpless to do anything about it without making things worse.

“This is different - I don’t even know where to start with - I can’t fight them!” He was one person, he wasn’t even sure he could hold his own against someone like Sendak in a simple fistfight, he was on their ship, he was pretty sure the Druid could’ve killed him as easily as swatting a fly. About the only thing he had keeping him alive right now was not giving them a reason to kill him; he was getting more aware than he wanted to admit of how small and vulnerable he really was here, how little he could do as he was.

The flames reached up, doming over him.

He was arguing with a weapon, a weapon that they wanted very badly to either control or keep out of the hands of their enemies. He swallowed the knot in his throat, pulled the bandanna off his face, and screamed back at it. “I can’t fight them like this - if you want me to fight them, then give me the power to do it!! I know they’re afraid of you, so cut this bullshit and help me!”

For a moment, the heat seemed to abate, despite the flames not lessening around him at all; he had the growing sense he could walk into it unharmed.

Then, some kind of loud buzzing went off.

He woke up half draped off the bed and drenched in sweat, not feeling any more rested than when he’d fallen asleep. It finally occurred to him to look around the room, digging through panels that slid aside for the first thing that looked like it’d work as a towel; he needed to find out where there was a shower or any kind of equivalent, they definitely seemed to keep some kind of hygiene standard.

He knew the weapon was on the same ship, now. He needed to find it.

The buzzing went off again; it didn’t seem to be on any kind of regular timer, so it probably wasn’t an alarm, which meant casting a baleful glare at the door.

He walked up, putting a hand on the panel next to it, leaning on the doorframe and about ready to tell off whoever it was, he didn’t care how much they outranked him right now or how small and fragile he was next to them.

The Druid was also leaning in; its mask was barely a few inches forward and up from his face.

He started back, almost losing footing for a moment.

“Your development was altered. This must be corrected.”

He stared at it narrowly, weighing how much energy he actually had to care about its potential reactions. “Is that really necessary? I’m fine the way I-“

It reached out, grabbing his shoulder with one claw, then drifted back, pulling him into the hallway; his choices were to stagger along with it or end up picked up and carried by one shoulder, so he was trying his best to walk under as much of his own power as he could manage. He shoved at its clawed hand. “Fine, I get it. I don’t get a say.”

He stood straight, doing the best he could to walk under his own power; it let go after a few feet, but was still uncomfortably close, leading him around corners and through the ship via catching his arm or shoulder when it wanted him to turn. For a while, they were headed closer to wherever the mysterious weapon was stored; then it took a turn down a hallway, veering off. Several times they passed sentries and the floating smaller drones; the sentries adjusted to go around them, while he saw a few Galra crewmembers stop and reroute to avoid going anywhere near them.

It finally ushered him through a door somewhere in the back of the ship; he was pretty sure they were a few floors above where the weapon was, but he was also sure he wouldn’t have a chance to get away from it to see if he could find it.

It was an entrance to a sub-area, with a small entry space; there were a few benches spaced out, and a Galra in a dark uniform with barely any armor at an angular sort of desk console with a range of light screens popped up in the air around it.

The Galra stiffened straight; the Druid raised a hand. “I will be using one of your work rooms. Your assistance will not be needed.”

He sank back down in his chair, hands folding in front of him, watching them pass and trying to not react; there was still a mix of pity and fear anyway.

There were doors along either side of the short hallway, and it led to one on the end, pushing him inside.

There were, apparently, only so many variations on surgical workrooms in the universe. He dead-eyed the surgical table and the overhead light; it was as dimly lit as anything else on the ship, which somehow only served to make it look more like it belonged in a horror movie. A few too many Area 51 type stories and ideas floating around when he was trying to figure out his own heritage had been the source of running vivid nightmares; somehow he’d always expected any kind of vivisection to come from humans.

The Druid pushed him from behind, and he staggered a few steps into the room. He glared back over his shoulder at it as the door closed with a couple clicks and an ominous hiss. It tugged the back of his shirt with one claw. “Off.”

He pulled the shirt off, pointedly taking the time to set it aside on one of the panels or counters or otherwise usable flat surfaces on the side of the room while pondering how much it’d take to properly light the place on fire and how long until he might be able to get away with it. It was preferable to thinking about what was going on. The Druid was still staring at him expectantly, so he took his time taking off his socks and jeans, folding them and setting them on his shirt with more care than he’d often taken living by himself.

He was past caring if it was a good idea to intentionally irritate the creepy unnatural elder horror thing that was about to be doing something invasive to him; he was going to take every bit of civil disobedience revenge he could.

He was also not going to strip completely if he could get away with it, and he set his jaw as he turned back to the Druid in his boxers. It stared at him for a few long moments, then made an irritable-sounding hiss, motioning him to the table.

It was larger than a table in a human medical facility would be, and sat higher, although it wasn’t much of a challenge to sit up on it. The metal was cold, and lying out on it made his chest tighten up; a part of him wanted to bolt for where the weapon was, to use its wildfire for protection and it would grant it, if he didn’t know the Druid would stop him before he’d made it off the table, and the door was probably locked as well.

“Do you guys believe in anesthetic?” It came out like a joke, more fear wavering than he’d wanted.

“It wouldn’t work.” The thing’s hollow metal-on-metal voice was a flat statement of fact with no trace of apology.

He was torn between wanting, one day, to hit the thing as hard as he could, and the tight knot in his chest sinking a little at the implication there would otherwise be reason for anesthetic.

It didn’t bother with conventional restraints; the weird black-violet lightning seemed to flow over the edges of the table, wrapping around him to make it, at best, very difficult to move. Whatever the thing was doing, more of it crept around the room and flared to a deep chemical-fire violet, tracing symbols and lines around the walls and ceiling; the odd tug downward to the lion cut off, and the sudden isolation pushed the knot into panic, flinching against the thick black holding him down and freezing when nothing gave, eyes closed and trying to tune as much out as possible.

It didn’t work; wherever the thing’s power was holding, he could feel it seeping in, the prickling sinking through his skin. Something pressed against his arm, and then he was drowning in the prickling and creeping, to the point that he could almost feel it squirming under his skin.

It managed to get worse. There was an overwhelming cold that refused to numb out like freezing was supposed to do, staying at the burning stage and permeating everything. It was like getting spaced without an end to it.

He wasn’t sure how long it took besides “too long”, or if he actually managed to scream. He realized he’d passed out somewhere when he woke up to the Druid nowhere to be seen, and the medic from the entry room grumbling under his breath at a couple of light screens. Keith decided that feigning sleep or playing dead or whatever it would pass for was about all he could muster for this right now.

“Ugh, would it have killed that thing to at least let me get a baseline scan first?” There was faint beeping and sound feedback on whatever the man was doing, and the background hum of the engine was louder. “I don’t even have much for data on the other parent species…”. There were claws on his wrist, something cold pressed against it briefly. “Take the military assignment, they said. Much greater opportunities than some backwater colony, they said. Wasting talent, they said. At least on Doxia I never had to deal with horror story nightmares traipsing through without the slightest regard for basic necessities to do my job…”

There was an odd rusty sounding whine and it took Keith a second to realize it was coming from him.

“Ah. You’re awake.”

Everything felt stiff and wrong. He cracked an eyelid and hissed at the light overhead; the room was a lot brighter than he remembered it being, with some label markings on paneling that he hadn’t really seen before in colors he wasn’t sure what to call.

“Your other parent species had lousy adaptation to low light conditions. I warn you now that I have nothing for comparison on what it changed besides what I saw when you walked in and all of three basic archived records.”

There was a growl at that; he could guess where those records came from. The medic sighed.

He tried to sit up, his head swimming as vertigo set in, the medic put a firm hand on his shoulder, steadying him and guiding him back lying down. “Look, I don’t actually know what it did. I could have happily lived my life without ever having personal experience past the Commander’s arm with rumors of Druids breaking the laws of reality, but here we are.” The medic glanced over his shoulder as if making sure it wasn’t going to materialize in the room at his complaints. “You’re probably going to need some time to adjust.”

The rusty noise kept coming in and out. The medic gave him a long thoughtful stare, then buried his face in one hand. “Oh for…you either didn’t have proper vocal anatomy before, or it wasn’t well developed.”

He gave the medic a tired look of worn down frustration. He hadn’t been hearing that kind of noise on the ship from the pureblooded Galra. “Why am I the only one that does that?”

“Usually we learn to control giving ourselves away like that as children.” The medic shot the door a sullen glare.

Side effect of the Druid’s meddling as he understood it now: he was going to have no poker face and struggle to be taken seriously.

“If I’m reading what little I have right, your development was altered to allow you to pass as a normal member of your other parent species. The Druid did something to not only undo that, but overcorrect as far as it could push without fundamentally changing your actual genetics or basic quintessential structure.”

Another rusty hinge noise, not enough energy or fucks left to give to ask too many questions about the medic’s explanation. He was feeling a little less shaky and made a more careful attempt at sitting up, pausing when he’d managed something like vertical at the faint scraping noise on the metal table.

He blearily looked down at his hand.

He had very fine, thin purple fur now, with some faint markings in the range of colors human languages didn’t have a word for and a few darker violet stripes, as well as half-retractable claws that seemed to be fully out in an attempt to get better purchase on the metal table. They pulled back a little when he lifted his hand, but even trying to relax his hand fully still left visible claws sticking out of the sheaths; there were faint areas on the palms of his hands without fur. He could run his tongue over sharp teeth in his mouth, noticeable canines and shearing teeth instead of molars.

The medic tapped a couple buttons, and a smaller floating drone hovered down in front of him, projecting a small light screen below it; the camera in the front refocused so that he could see himself.

“The Druid overcompensated” was one word for it. He had a full coat of fine fur, with symmetrical darker facial markings slashing up on either side, in among some of the other occasional bands of odd color. His eyes had turned yellow with the irises brighter violet, his hair was a mess and he wasn’t sure if it’d always looked off color-wise and he’d never noticed - he was obviously getting more of an outside-human-range of color vision than the faint hints he’d gotten before. Something stuck in his head about visually oriented nocturnal predators and UV vision. His ears were slightly longer, broader, and the sensation he’d been trying to ignore that they were moving more wasn’t wrong, tips twitching toward sounds. He looked down finally; his feet were clawed the same as his hands.

He looked like a short, lanky Galra with a more unruly and longer mane than he’d seen on most of those that had them.

He was never going back to Earth, not like this, and for all that he’d wanted to leave for half his life, right now it was terrifying. He didn’t get the feeling they’d been kind to their captives, either, and didn’t want to think about how Shiro would react to seeing him like this, looking just like the monsters that’d taken him. The rusty noise returned for a few moments.

At least one way or another Shiro would be alive, whether he wanted anything to do with Keith or not.

He shook his head, trying to clear it. He had learned how to not growl as a child, but it felt like there’d been a lot less to try to mind back then, and it was a lot harder to wrangle, nevermind that the rusty whining noise was new. He was mostly only succeeding at skewing the pitch and making it sound thinner. The medic shook his head, going to a panel and turning back to him with a tall metal canteen.

“Here, drink this.”

He fumbled with the seal on the top; it was cold with an unpleasant salt-chalk taste - not far off from pedialyte with a little more of a sweet taste to it.

Probably tasted similar for reasons; he’d kept the stuff on hand as a survival thing and for the occasional unprepared hiker he’d found in the desert.

It did take some of the edge off the fuzz in his head.

“You’ve dealt with hybrids before?”

“Back on Doxia colony mostly. It’s frowned upon, but not that rare, particularly on outlying worlds and civilian outposts.” The medic waved a hand airily, mostly intent on entering something into the computer. “Hypothetically first and second generations can earn similar citizenship to other Galra with work, but in practice, they don’t usually get too far and most stay out of the military. Even the Crown Prince doesn’t escape it.”

So the Empire did, in fact, stratify by species superiority. It was not an incredibly cheerful thought and was another mark toward fighting to get taken seriously. The last sarcastic remark got his attention. “Crown Prince?”

The medic stared at him for a moment as if about to ask what rock he’d been living under, but caught himself. “Prince Lotor. According to what I’ve heard he’s been in ‘exile’ for a while under close watch.” There was a thoughtful moment as he considered something; Keith wasn't sure if it was something on the monitor or something to do with the conversation. “If some of the rumors of how that happened are true and they ever do let him back in the area, I’d be careful; he might not take kindly to another hybrid getting special treatment from the Emperor.”

One of his ears drooped back. “Great.” ‘Here’s your new brother’ had been words said at the beginning of two different hell periods. It was a rodeo he’d run before, albeit in what was probably the cutesy training wheels form by comparison.

“Don’t worry about it too much.” He had started wondering about the lack of examination, but he realized there was a small flickering light and a couple side pieces to the lens on the drone; he had no idea how much it was adding. “Even with Lotor, most of the military would kill to be you right now, getting a personal Imperial appointment like this. As long as you do your job and stay respectful, you can have pretty much anything you could dream of to want, at that level.”

He didn’t like the look of the Empire and didn’t know how much he would like whatever was asked of him, but if it was true…

He could get Shiro and the others from that crew at least safe, get some kind of influence and authority, and figure things out from there; if he was careful he might be able to do something from the inside.

It didn’t occur to him to think about how much quieter the pull from the hangar below was, or how distant the nightmare felt.

The medic did run through more direct checks, examining his claws, checking over his eyes with a couple sets of odd lights and scanners, and double-checking against whatever the drone had given. Finally he sighed. “Well, you’re as clear as I can make sense of.” The medic motioned to his clothes cast aside. “You might gain a little height at some point depending on how hard it pushed, but if it’s going to happen, it hasn’t started yet.” The medic paused, as if there were something else he was going to say, but there was some kind of awkward moment of revision as he studied the charts on his screen, looked at Keith, then back at the charts and back at Keith with the oddest look of terrified recognition crossing his face. “And I doubt you’re going to get that tall.”

He wasn’t sure how much counted as “a little height” coming from someone a little over seven feet tall, and the rest of the reaction made him certain the medic knew something he wasn’t saying.

His jeans still fit, even if some of the cut felt awkward now and he’d have to get used to cloth-over-fur. The shirt was close-fitting enough to be more awkward; the material was not made at all to deal with going over even thin fur, and he tried his best to ignore how uncomfortably it itched.

“I…Think it’s still outside.” The medic’s voice was hushed and apologetic as he nodded toward the door.

He nodded, putting a hand on the panel beside the door to opening it.

The Druid was just outside the door in the hallway. He didn’t want to go near it and could have happily lived his entire life without seeing the thing ever again.

“Come”, It said, and he followed behind it, ears angled down and back as far as they’d go; the rusted noise was half that and half growling.

The entire ship seemed less oppressively dark than before, and now he could see markings on the walls with arrows that were probably directions, in the same strange no-human-language-option colors as the labels in the medic room. Many of the doors had labels in Galra script over them that he hadn’t been able to see before at all.

He was going to have to learn to read all over again.

The Druid led to an entirely different part of the ship, pushing him through a different door; this one was a larger room, with unfamiliar machinery everywhere and a couple large areas of storage crates. There were a couple of Galra present, wearing heavier gear that didn’t look right for armor, with faceplated helmets.

One of them that had a few extra rank markings on the gear broke off and came over almost immediately, the faceplate and part of the helmet retracting.

“See to it that he is presentable.” The Druid shoved him at her and vanished.

She had to be around eight feet tall, broad built, and he was pretty sure one of her claws under the heavy gloves would’ve been as long as half of one of his fingers. He was starting to seriously wonder about his father. The quartermaster stared down at him for a long second; he realized the rusty-growl had only just tapered off.

There was another awkward moment, as if something was occurring to the quartermaster that she thought better of, a brief and confused flicker of recognition that was very pointedly stifled.

“Don’t worry. I hate those things too.” She set a giant hand on his head, mussing his hair; he shrank back with a faint hiss, and she laughed. “Alright, come over here.” She waved him over to something to the side that looked like a giant, clear-fronted tube; after an appraising look, she slid the front open and motioned for him to stand in it. “I already know there’s not anything here that’d fit you, so I need to know what I’m looking at.”

He caught a few stray whispers between a couple of the other technicians about recruiting children and ‘no I heard he’s a hybrid he’s just tiny’, and he found new levels of loathing for the Druid.

And a few, quieter whispers, “do you think he’s…” and “Well she did vanish for a while -”, that went dead silent as soon as he turned to try to hear better, the technicians acting as though they hadn’t been talking at all.

He didn’t have any good opening to confront any of them, and the quartermaster was watching him expectantly; he had another rusty noise with a little more of a grating quality to it, and stepped into the device.

Thankfully whatever he’d stepped into was just some kind of simple scanner, and he apparently wasn’t wearing enough to impede it. He’d have grumbled about being stuck still going around barefoot, but he was unsure how well his socks and boots would hold up to claws that they weren’t made for if he tensed at all.

The glass door slid open. The quartermaster walked off with a couple of light panels over her wrist. “Alright, let’s see what we can do.”

He found a place on what he was pretty sure was a storage container to wait, overhearing bits of her ordering the two other technicians around. They both recoiled and stared at him after something was mentioned about the Emperor. There were a few hand gestures and something about “so tiny”.

He was pretty sure this was part of what the world must be like for a chihuahua, and had a sudden deep empathy for how many of them were intent on murdering half of their surroundings.

The wait ended up being somewhere around an hour or two, mostly spent watching the technicians work. The Quartermaster seemed to be taking things in stride, while the other two on duty didn’t seem to know how to react to him and mostly just kept distance. There was an occasional trickle of crew coming in with equipment for maintenance or herding a drone in for some minor repairs. He seemed to be an object of suspicion and very grudging, wary respect among the crew, getting narrow stares when they thought he wasn’t looking.

He did have a little vicious pride in his planet and his deserts when one of the technicians walked by grumbling about cleaning sand out of the drones in places it shouldn’t have been able to get. It was a funny thing; he’d spent all his life feeling like he didn’t belong on Earth and trying to get off of it, but now that he was in space, it felt more like his world than it ever had when he lived there.

He was eventually presented with a lightly armored uniform, a change of clothes that wasn’t a uniform but that he suspected didn’t really count as civilian wear either, and forewarning that they’d be calling him back “before we reach the transit center” for his armor.

He braced himself going out the door, but there was no sign of the Druid in the hallway; he tried not to be too obvious in his relief. The drones patrolling the halls ignored him, the regular crew skirted around when they noticed him with sideways glances; he headed back to his room to change.

The uniform was left in his room. He wasn’t there in any kind of official capacity yet, and he didn’t really want to wear it until he absolutely had to, as if putting it on would mean fully committing to something he still wasn’t sure he wanted.

Part of him was tempted, and it did seem like the surest way to get Shiro back in anything resembling one piece. Part of him kept circling back to Rommel and if Shiro would even want him back at that point.

His belt with the knife and a bunch of his smaller possessions and survival bits fit with the new clothes fine, at least, even if he didn't feel like he trusted anybody on this ship enough to ask them about the knife, or even to unwrap it and stop hiding the odd rune on it.

He walked out, taking a look around, and wandered aimlessly around the nearby hallways, trying to get a feel for the ship. He was starting to feel short, with the doors and hallways all built for an average of seven to nine feet.

One of the drones walked in, not following a patrol path and clearly headed for him. It stopped long enough to announce that he was requested on the bridge, then turned, walking off. It seemed to be headed vaguely in the direction of the bridge, so he followed it.

The drone took up a sentry post outside the bridge. He walked in.

“-OUSAND LOCAL YEARS, BUILDING AN IMPOSSIBLE DETECTOR, AND NOW YOU FINALLY BELIEVE US THAT IT’S NOT HERE?!”

The light screen for communications was open. Haxus looked about ready to have a headache. The Galra on the monitor wasn’t in armor and was more round built, with thicker fur and a little more of a muzzle than Haxus but much smaller, narrower ears than Sendak, and didn’t seem to have any second thoughts about yelling at Sendak.

“Your frustration is shared by the entire empire, believe me,” Haxus said, clipped and forcibly restrained.

“The rest of you haven’t been stuck underwater, under ice, on some tiny little lightless moon galaxies away from the border, since their ancestors were sent out here in the early days of the empire!”

Keith felt like he should have a clue what was going on here.

“Then it should come as good news that you have the opportunity to finally complete your ancestor’s mission, and earn a place of high honor and the Emperor’s personal esteem.” Sendak’s voice was level, but his patience was fraying.

The uniformed Galra on the other end grumbled something oddly accented and uncharitable about “His Eminence” being made an idiot for ten thousand years by “the fucking blue bastard”; Keith realized a beat after that it had been in English, and that the frustration about the ‘blue bastard’ had an odd sort of awe in among the angry spite.

“What was that?” Sendak hadn’t understood more than the tone.

“I said it’s past time for us to rejoin the Empire, and we’re all looking forward to finally getting some respect here.” It wasn’t far off in tone from the complaint.

Keith had no idea who this guy was or how he spoke English, but liked him already. Haxus and Sendak had their backs to him, and if the Galra they were speaking to was paying any attention to him it wasn't being shown, which was a small mercy; he was perfectly good at schooling his expression, not so much his newly changed ears pricking forward at the familiar language.

“You have other ships besides the one I loaned, do you not?” Sendak was apparently done with the editorial commentary.

“Three functional and one larger cargo ship. The cargo ship might need a lot of maintenance.”

“You and your security chief remain in charge of scouting the area, then, and establishing a base camp. As soon as our new recruit has been properly inducted to his position, we will return to complete the retrieval and escort it to central command.”

“Understood.” The other Galra looked between the two of them and added, in English, “Good luck kid, you’re going to need it”, before trading salute and send-off with Sendak.

Haxus gave him an odd look; Sendak turned, also focusing on him. “What did he say to you?”

“He wished me luck.” Keith shrugged with an eartwitch.

“And before that?” Sendak sounded more suspicious.

“He was complaining about having tried to tell you it wasn’t there.” Which wasn’t what he’d said at all, but Keith wasn’t going to rat him out on bitching about the Emperor, and the Druid wasn’t there to call him on the lie. “Who was that?”

“Captain Gelvaz, the current overseer of Kelvet Outpost - the one we briefly stopped in orbit near before leaving. It was established on an outer system heavily oceanic moon of your solar system in the early days of the Empire, as a base to search for what we’re returning to collect.” Haxus gave the space the light screen had been occupying a frazzled look. “They’re all a little…damaged there.”

The explanation for what had happened to all the ‘suddenly malfunctioning’ probes sent to Europa was still chilling.

“They’re establishing a forward camp and pinpointing the location. With any luck, by the time we return to your planet, it will be a simple swift retrieval.” There were a few stray glances from Haxus that made Keith’s skin crawl and got another thin little rusted noise of discomfort.

He nodded; there was a quiet, background horror gnawing on him. They were going to Earth, and there was no way in Hell Sendak’s battlecruiser would go unnoticed when they returned there even if this Captain tried to show discretion. Odds were there was going to be a fight, because it would draw attention, and Sendak was not there for diplomacy. Keith was going to be part of an alien vanguard in an assault on Earth, a stone’s throw from the Garrison and from his home.

“Understood.” He paused, unsure. “How long until we get to Central Command?”

Even with whatever the Druid had done that made him able to understand them, the time measurements weren’t translating, but “With a stop at a transit center en route for a while” did stand out; it was far enough that even with their technology, they were going to be making a stopover somewhere. “After we’ve retrieved the other one, there will be little reason to linger around your homeworld; you will be fully transferred to the Command Center and the Emperor’s direct command.”

At least Earth was apparently a backwater of little interest besides whatever was buried in those caves. He nodded to Sendak’s outline of the plan, and tried to ignore the way there was a new angle of something calculating in the way the commander was watching him.

He was let go after that, with something half an order to familiarize himself with his surroundings and the Galra military; the bridge crew seemed to be busy, and there was no-one stepping forward to supervise or play guide.

He had a strong suspicion that they knew something about his mother, but he couldn’t be sure it wasn’t just wishful thinking - or creeping dread - and he both didn’t think they’d give a straight answer and wasn’t sure he wanted one.

Particularly if she was someone visible enough in the Empire for the terrified look the medic had given him and the way everyone else hushed when they realized he’d almost caught them talking about it.

It was more muted than it had been that morning, but he could still follow the call of the alien weapon well enough to wander that direction, looking around the ship and playing it off as exploring his new surroundings. If he could find it and get an idea what he was dealing with, he could factor that into attempts at plans better and know what his options really were.

Nobody stopped him or questioned him.

He finally found himself in front of one of the hangar bay doors; he could feel the presence on the other side, and was almost surprised, putting a hand on the door, that it wasn’t warm to the touch. It was watching, waiting.

He held his breath and put his hand on the panel next to the door.

It beeped, acknowledging the contact, but didn’t open.

One of his ears twitched. He tried again another beep and nothing.

“That hangar is locked; only Commander Sendak has access at this point in time.”

His hand twitched, claws coming out at Haxus’s voice behind him. He made a conscious effort to relax his hand so they drew back in before he turned around.

“Is there any chance I can get a look at it? I mean, whatever’s in there is the reason I’m here.”

Haxus shook his head. “It’s unpredictable, and dangerous to approach; Lord Zarkon is the only one who knows enough about it to make sure you don’t inadvertently kill yourself with it.”

That felt like a lie, but he knew better than to confront Haxus about it there. “Right. I’ll be careful.”

He looked back at the hangar door, then walked away.

Chapter Text

Shiro was having something in between an internal debate and an existential crisis as a distraction from the lingering threat of panic over being drugged, again. On the one hand he wanted to argue with himself about whether or not he should regret his life choices of late; on the other hand he wasn’t sure there actually had been choices to regret.

He was also still wobbly on painkillers, enough that bouncing ideas off the wall out loud to see how they sounded was an idea he was considering. Sure, the wall wouldn’t answer, but it would probably be a decent listener, and less dangerous to talk to than anything else he’d been around since his last big ‘choice that probably wasn’t actually a choice’.

Apparently there were rare occasions that someone who’d done well enough in the gladiatorial arenas got offered some kind of ‘out’. The way the crowd had reacted when Zarkon offered him a chance to ‘rise above his station’, it was either really rare and unusual, not something that happened with non-Galra, or both.

He wasn’t sure what would’ve happened if he’d refused, he wasn’t sure he wanted to know.

Of course, he wasn’t sure he wanted to know what he’d signed up for, either, considering what it’d gotten him so far. The room he couldn’t leave was better, there were consistently things like actual blankets, the food was usually identifiable as something intended to be eaten.

He was still locked in rooms he couldn’t leave under close supervision that wasn’t telling him jack or shit and wasn’t that much more pleasant than the people managing the arenas, and he had far more personal attention from the Druids and Haggar.

And they’d cut off a large part of his arm to make “improvements”.

He’d been unconscious for it; he wasn’t sure if it counted as a mercy or not to be put under with no explanation and wake up with a metal arm and no awareness of the procedure that’d removed and replaced it. At this point, he was somewhere in the low ebb between recovery painkillers and being too exhausted to have the energy for any appropriate reaction, and was settling for trying to make sense of it.

He was trying to adjust to the arm, but if he moved it too much or too fast, it still sent something like the more painful and hard-to-move-through sort of pins and needles through most of his body. That probably meant the nerves were actually hooked into the machinery directly. He was trying to figure out how it was attached, but when he tried to feel around the cuff of it, there was a point where the angry, still-healing cut-off skin didn’t stop or taper under it, it just…merged into some kind of fine, flexible black mesh that attached to the metal itself. If he poked at the mesh too much, blood started seeping through it.

When he’d first woken up, he’d clawed at it in panic enough that the skin part of the juncture was more ragged and looked like it was scarring messily. He’d ended up with his good hand restrained behind his back until he’d calmed down, and with the surgeon sitting in the room watching him like a hawk for what had to be hours to make sure he wasn’t going to try to pull it off again. Then there was one of the little floating drones watching him - he wasn’t sure how long that’d been there, but he’d slept a couple times and had a few meals before the surgeon grudgingly laid off the surveillance a little.

He wasn’t trying to get rid of it now, but he was discovering, with morbid fascination, that if he pushed on the mesh in the right places, it pulled against the skin part, he could feel his fingers on the mesh, and there was blood definitely oozing through the mesh itself, as if veins were hooked to something within the prosthetic.

He only knew enough about prosthetics to know that it was probably something Earth medics would sell their souls for, and he’d happily trade it to them for incredibly little. Maybe a fast-food hamburger. It wouldn’t be a bad trade; familiar Earth food for getting rid of unwanted alien hell-machinery.

The pressure when he poked to see if he could get the prosthetic part past the juncture to bleed was starting to actually hurt, like a gouged bruise; the shoulder and upper arm that still existed was aching, the prosthetic itself was getting a dull warning ache and he wasn’t even sure how that worked, and the pins and needles feeling shooting out from it was getting worse.

The anesthetic was wearing off, if not enough for his head to have started clearing, which probably meant the surgeon showing up soon.

It didn’t get far enough for his head to start clearing before the door opened. The lanky Galra paused, eyes narrowing as he pulled his good hand away from the joint, sitting up and trying to look innocent.

“What were you -” The surgeon made a frustrated noise, crossing the room in a couple quick steps to grab the prosthetic and lean over, examining it; one of the floating drones trained a light at a better angle. Shiro winced as the sudden movement of the prosthetic set off more of the weird feedback.

The surgeon fixed him with a surprisingly intense glare of weary irritation. “Do I need to keep you restrained from touching it until it’s completely adjusted?”

Shiro shook his head emphatically; he really didn’t want to have to figure out how to move the damn thing enough to eat while movement still felt like grabbing an electric fence more often than not.

“Then stop. Poking. At. It.” The surgeon actually poked his forehead with a claw-point on each word.

He did regret poking at it not long after. It apparently led to the surgeon needing to spend a pretty long time with a set of different tools, applying some kind of cold and unpleasantly tingling fluid over the juncture and the mesh inside the cuff of the metal, hooking up cables to the arm, sliding narrow metal tools in around the cuff and upper part to mess with things inside of it (which did, in fact, feel like having metal tools sliding under his skin), and triple-checking diagnostics via the wires on a small computer projecting light-panels, all of which required Shiro not moving.

The fuzz was clearing out of his head partway through it, the ache in the prosthetic was turning into a more noticeable and pronounced throbbing pain, his shoulder ached and hurt, and the feedback was becoming a constant low-level thing.

Thanks to the feedback, he didn’t really want to try moving even when the medic finished and was packing away tools, facing him with the Galra’s back to the door.

The door opened; as soon as the sound of its mechanisms started, for a half-second, the surgeon looked ready to threaten to put whoever was interrupting in restraints and hand them to the Druids for a week.

Then he seemed to notice Shiro’s suddenly paled expression, as Shiro had even less desire to move now that Zarkon filled the doorway.

When he’d first shoved his way into the arena, Shiro had thought Zarkon’s tendency of having a mostly open balcony with sparse guards was hubris. Over however long he’d been there, he’d learned that there was some kind of reactive shield that blocked projectiles, but very little to stop a direct attack by someone who could get physically close somehow.

Then he’d seen one actual assassin make it over the edge of the balcony to make an attempt. They seemed like someone who should’ve had a decent chance, particularly after getting that far, and if he’d overheard right, had taken out a few of the non-drone guards along the way.

Zarkon hadn’t needed any help, and the assassin was dead almost as soon as their feet hit the floor of the balcony box. Haggar hadn’t even twitched, only looked mildly put out at there being sudden blood on her robe. The corpse had been thrown to one of the larger beasts occasionally brought into the arenas.

The surgeon was actually a little cautious getting to his feet and turning before he could see the door, then stiffened fast into a salute once he saw who had entered. “Lord Zarkon! I had not been expecting you to grace us with your presence.”

“As you were, Ulaz. I merely wished to check on our Champion.”

Shiro had never heard Zarkon that happy. It was the kind of tone where random cheerful humming would happen with some humans.

It was more terrifying than hearing Zarkon angry.

“He is recovering well, although it will take some time yet for his body to completely adjust to the prosthetic.” Ulaz took a careful step back, still standing next to the bed Shiro was sitting on, but giving clear space in the room.

Zarkon stepped into the room. The door closed. His attention was more on Shiro than Ulaz. Shiro regretted his entire existence.

“We may be adjusting your intended station.”

It was clearly supposed to be good news. Shiro was certain there was a bear trap to it. He meant to be cautious, but exhaustion, pain, and discomfort made that difficult. “Well, it’s not like I knew what my intended station was yet.” He gave a faint shrug, and regretted it as the feedback from the prosthetic spiked with the movement.

Thankfully Zarkon still seemed to be amused by tiredly casual commentary; truthfully he wanted to be anywhere in the universe other than that room, and if he woke up back on Earth tomorrow Zarkon would be in his nightmares for the rest of his life alongside the rest of his horrorshow, but he also knew that showing fear would be bleeding in front of a megalodon.

He wasn’t sure he had the energy to actually express or act on that fear in any manner, anyway. After a point it just became an accepted fact of existence where it was literally impossible to react to it all of the time, and for all that Zarkon was the one in charge and orchestrating, the druids and Haggar tended to be more immediate threats.

“I have a potential commander who specifically requested you by name. I imagine you would appreciate serving under someone familiar, Shiro?”

There was something more terrifying than Zarkon in a good mood, and it was Zarkon happily addressing him by a name he hadn’t heard since he was separated from Matt and Sam, a name none of the Galra had seemed inclined to use, and in a short form that he didn’t really hear from people he didn’t at least somewhat get along with.

“I. Who?” Anywhere but here. Who did he even know that Zarkon would know about, much less put in a position of command, he knew it wasn’t either of the Holts, anybody else he knew should be back on Earth and far from this madness, had Earth been invaded or something, who did he know that they would give a command position that would even consider accepting it, he knew a few good, talented people from the Garrison but none of that would be that interesting to the Galra, and nobody that would call him ‘Shiro’ would want anything to do with this insane Hell.

Zarkon shifted, inclining his head with a faint noise of amusement. “They’re on their way here now, but have not formally accepted yet; I think leaving some surprises for the reunion wouldn’t be too great a hardship, would it?”

“Of course not.” It would drive him a little more insane, but it was definitely nothing next to spending an unknown length of time in a gladiatorial arena and getting experimented on by crazed surgeons and escapees from a horror movie script.

“That will be all for now, then.” Zarkon turned his attention to Ulaz, who had been doing an admirable impression of a statue during the entire exchange. “You are responsible for ensuring he remains intact and unharmed until then.”

“Yes, Lord Zarkon. Vrepit sa.” Ulaz saluted.

Zarkon returned the salute and honorific, then turned and left; Ulaz didn’t lower his hand until the door closed, at which point Ulaz stared at the door looking about as confused as Shiro felt.

There was a long silence, before Ulaz finally settled on ‘carry on with life’, his attention returning to Shiro. “…Start picking at it again, and I am going to build something so that you can’t touch it.”

Shiro was still staring off into space in alarmed confusion when Ulaz left, after a few other cursory checks and adjusting the dose on the painkillers as best as was possible with someone whose response to questions about pain levels was a half-verbal “Iunno”.

*********************

Ulaz made sure everything was in order and that the security in that area had not even dust particles out of place, then took one of his windows of ‘free time’ to head for one of the secluded ‘private space’ corners of an observatory on the outer part of the station.

There was a message that’d arrived some time while he was dealing with maintenance on the prosthetic, according to the chip that operated independently of the rest of his computer. He had a tired, sinking feeling it was something that he would’ve loved to’ve known before he went in to do the routine check.

It was heavily coded; over the years he’d stopped using anything to decode it and gotten used to reading messages as they were.

Sendak had found a pilot for the Red Lion, and was bringing both to present them to Zarkon. The prospective pilot had requested the Champion and his former crew as payment for service. Someone was in position to intercept and interfere. Maintain position to best judgment until further update.

Ulaz turned off the computer, burying his head in his hands and allowing a small groan in the quiet isolation of the observatory booth. He wanted to get Shiro out of Zarkon’s reach; his success in the arena was a useful skill to be certain, but Ulaz had been more interested in watching the disjoint between his demeanor around any Galra and his actions. Shiro had, from what had been said when he was brought in, been a researcher that claimed to be from a peaceful planet - and Ulaz had noted that the more there were more vulnerable others potentially going into the ring, the more enthusiasm he had for the arena.

He’d gone from a scientist on a survey mission to making a career of throwing himself into life-or-death combat so others wouldn’t have to, Ulaz had noted him quietly slipping food to others to the point of almost going without himself at times, and when there wasn’t signs of observation would take time to tend to other prisoners, all while keeping up an act of vicious bravado. It was talent, skill, and dedication to his ideals that was impressive even among their order; letting that get destroyed or turned into a Druid-twisted weapon would be a tragedy.

Of course Shiro would be on close terms with someone capable of being a Paladin and reviving some almost-forgotten bit of legend. Of course he would.

Ulaz sighed, folding up his computer and hiding the chip, then left the private booth to wander the observatory; the larger decks had a decent amount of traffic.

Sure enough, it wasn’t that hard to hear rumors about the first real news in years on Zarkon’s ten-thousand-year obsession hunt.

The Paladin was either the same species as Shiro or a hybrid, but he was hearing ‘half-breed’ more often than comparisons to the Champion, and sometimes both in the same sentence. There might be a lead on another one of the lions from them. There were some fragmented rumors about ‘half-crazy’ that were probably garbled from getting passed around by this point, but the more likely ones included getting caught trying to ambush Sendak, questioning a Druid, trying to shake Sendak for answers, and all but attempting a staredown with the Emperor himself.

There were a few comparisons to Krolia that he wasn’t sure he wanted to think too hard about. It should’ve been easily dismissable as idle gossip, but it would explain her recent meteoric rise through the ranks in a fit of focused bloodthirsty ambition a little too well.

He hoped Shiro didn’t know many people who’d potentially be at the root of rumors like that, but he also couldn’t ask without risking his cover.

His cover, which already had more of Hagar’s potential attention than he’d ever wanted, required regularly spending time working with Druids, and now overlapped with Zarkon’s lifetime personal pet project and personal obsession. He was pretty sure there wasn’t anyone alive who could ever remember seeing Zarkon nearly as happy as he’d been when he walked into that room, and that alone was high on the list of horrifying scenarios.

He was starting to be afraid of Shiro’s entire species. What if he asked and it turned out they were mostly like that? What kind of competition did their species have that they would develop that much of a talent for surviving in spite of complete disregard for anything resembling a survival instinct? They were small omnivores that, while resilient and stronger than they looked, almost completely lacked natural weaponry; had they survived to develop other weaponry on sheer stubborn insanity?

It was the kind of day where, no matter how much he tried to avoid thinking about what his life expectancy had become when he got his position here, he was very aware that he’d already outlived every record for spies that close in proximity to the Emperor, and survived about double the life expectancy for spies dealing with Druids. He didn’t need any more factors added to it being a miracle he was still alive. He didn’t want any more. He already expected to be dead or fled into hiding a long, long time ago.

And yet, the universe was determined to keep piling more on, like some kind of game to see how long he could defy the inevitable without flinching.

 

************************************************

It started out as an incredibly routine day for Krolia; the kind of day where it was possible to autopilot through checking over reports, sifting through troop movements and the messages from lesser commanders for anything that stood out, checking for any planned redirects, and going through the pointless mundanity of higher ranks. She'd gotten the message about there being yet another attempt at finding the Blue Lion from one of her under the table contacts.  It had taken some time and caution to find the lower ranking civilians and servants in different places that could be bought off and relied on to relay information in the hopes of sabotaging one commander or another they disliked, but it paid off well in information, and anyone who did suspect it just assumed it was part of either some power-play to support Rannveig's rivalry with Sendak or make her own bid for a higher command.  Even the "bottom feeders" she'd been cultivating read it as politics and not much more.  

Krolia's contact on the outpost had thought they might actually have a chance to find it this time, but refused to elaborate beyond frustration that Zarkon had given charge of the project to Sendak after Rannveig's failure to find it years ago, and she'd left it as another of the periodic pipe dreams that happened without much more consideration.

One of the lower servants on Sendak's ship had slipped something barely a quintent ago about Sendak and a Druid finding a half-Galra the Druid had identified as the intended pilot of the Red Lion; that was more concerning, but she was half a galaxy away and not in any position to intercept or react without risking her cover.  There were other Blades closer to the path of Sendak's ship, one of them would respond and handle it.

It would give her time to figure out a way to interfere with them approaching Earth and keep them away from her family and the Lion; she was already working out sketchy possible ideas to fill out as she got more intel, ranging from leveraging Rannveig’s rivalry against Sendak to slipping information out to the new saboteur nuisance that had cropped up recently or some of the other rebels in the area, to challenging Rannveig for leadership and then dragging the rest of his command down in flames against Sendak before bailing.
She had gone fully back to her routines, going through messages.

And then there was one, private, not in official channels, from Haxus.  

There was nothing good that could come of it, and it was probably bait of some kind, Haxus fishing for something to use her to hamstring Rannveig or otherwise manipulate politics... but she couldn't afford to ignore it and not get some clue what he might be up to, either.  

The text body was one simple line.

I believe we found something you misplaced.

Below it was one image, of a scrawny, short part-Galran boy in upper-class off duty clothes typical of the military, a boy with bone structure and markings that were achingly familiar and shouldn't have been there.

She growled with a snarl that took a few beats to school back, counting her luck that she'd been going through messages and updates in her quarters, alone.

Keith.  They'd found Keith.  The half-Galra the Druid had put its claws on to bring to Zarkon as the new Red Paladin was her son, eyes already washed out the glowing gold of overexposure, all of her careful attempts at ensuring he could blend in with humans and have a normal life erased.  She didn't doubt Haxus had already checked over whatever their medic might have gathered to confirm the relation; as arrogant as he could be, he was methodical, with a background in intelligence himself, and Sendak had to know as well.  

She wanted to rip Haxus's face off personally, turn Sendak's spine into windchimes, and take Keith back to Earth personally, but if she moved herself now, all she'd do is draw attention and give Haxus and Sendak leverage, nevermind get Zarkon's personal attention on her. Keith took enough after her that Zarkon was going to figure it out himself even if Haxus and Sendak tried to hide it, but with the way the Empire handled "half-breed bastard children", laying an actual claim to him would be a minefield.  It wasn't unheard of for someone of her rank to end up with a few illegitimate half-Galra children, but they were almost never acknowledged, maybe kept around as servants or pressed into some kind of "useful" service at best.  

Trying to argue a parental claim against the Emperor's pursuit of Voltron would paint a target sign on her back to the entire rest of the military upper class, and probably get the Emperor turning against her fast.  Acting on Haxus's bait would be a target sign, a "sign of weakness" for showing attachment to a "lesser" creature, maybe at best read as an attempt at getting leverage on the Emperor's new favorite for her own political advancement.  

Movements of major battlecruisers wasn't classified or abnormal for her to check; she scanned the list of commanders and ships that would be crossing paths with Sendak at the relay point, mentally tallying off which other Blades she might know about that were stationed where and hoping there was a someone she’d know about in the path. Kolivan would have already issued orders to prevent the Red Lion falling into Zarkon's hands; whoever was most capable with an opening would have orders to either subvert or kill the intended pilot before Zarkon could use them.

Prorok's command carrier was stopping at the same hidden high-security hub.  

She had enough privacy to access the comm chip and bring up a secure window; she was not supposed to get involved in Thace's mission, but Thace had to be the one Kolivan would've tapped to intercept.

She needed a pretense.  

Outpost has a way to pinpoint a second target.  Sendak will be acting on.  Are you intercepting the Paladin?

She could wait; she didn't have anything pressing that day, and Rannveig wouldn't be expecting to see her for a few vargas.

It was almost a varga before there was any response from Thace - Noted.  Yes.  Why?

As much as she wanted to send "Hurt him and I will gut you and feed your remains to the livestock", she did not want to explain it to Kolivan when she was this occupied with her cover.  There wasn't any good way to raise that flag, and she knew that risking half of the universe for the sake of avoiding hurting a son that probably didn’t remember her would not fly, not when there was no guarantee he'd be willing to work against Zarkon.

Nothing.  Get him away from Zarkon.

She sent it, not expecting any kind of response; it was Thace's orders, anyway, and there wouldn't be any reason for him to respond.  Even if he figured out he was dealing with her son, odds were there wouldn't be anything relayed back; the less she knew, the less might come out if she were caught.

Keith had the Emperor's attention, and there was nothing she could do but hope Thace could convince him to escape.

She couldn't do anything subtle or on her own to interfere, but she did have one avenue she could use to throw some confusion into the mix; she closed her computer, pulled on the rest of her armor, straightened it, and walked out of her quarters, heading to the bridge.

Rannveig was on the bridge, going over long range scout reports himself; there had been some harrying from just past the outer borders they were tracking, some small band of near-ghosts they'd been hunting for decaphoebs without much luck.  She got a brief half-wary glance back acknowledging her; she wouldn't be showing up early without something important, and with everything going on, it was likely to not be good news.  

“I have information on Sendak’s more recent movements, and on the search for the Voltron lions.”

There were times the tendency towards infighting Zarkon almost encouraged could be used to their advantage.

Chapter Text

The silence in Joe’s truck only lasted so long before Pidge woke up and started asking questions and taking notes, scribbling theories in her journal - about what they’d been investigating, Keith’s weird dreams and draw to the canyon caves, what they’d found so far and their theories. The local people around the Montana tomb had drawn an air bike of some kind as a bird, so there was no telling what they meant by the big cat figures, but there were lions scribbled in colored ink around her pondering in the journal anyway.

She switched back at a rest stop, to fill in the others more easily so they’d all be caught up when they stopped for dinner. Now that they were away from the tomb and the scars the creepy thing had left behind, the lighter mood had returned; she was inches from wadding up paper and throwing it at Lance, driving or no, for his ability to equate everything to some movie or another.

When Hunk joined in on the movie parallels, she gave a frustrated wail and slumped in her seat, muttering to the alien sword in its wrapped bundle about it being the only one who understood her here.

Dinner was Thai and a little more of the same conversation; Joe took the pop culture references better than she did, although she started to miss them when there was a lull.

“So Pidge. You said you got kicked out, right? How’d you get back in?”

Lance was idle and casually curious about it. She stiffened in her seat. “Uhm, well, I kind of might have - I mean it’s not like I broke into Iverson’s office and his computer or -” Lance’s eyebrow went up. “Okay so maybe I did and maybe I kind of lied on my paperwork to get back in. A little.”

Lance and Veronica were almost mirroring the same skeptically calculating look, although Veronica somehow seemed less suspicious and more like something was possibly making sense now.

Lance and Hunk shared a look. Lance scrunched his nose and leaned his head toward Pidge with a raised eyebrow. Hunk shrugged.

“Soooo did you find anything useful on Iverson’s computer?” It had been left to Hunk, and Hunk had decided that any questions raised about Pidge’s identity didn’t matter right now.

“Sort of? You know how they’ve had satellites and small robots out there sending data back, right?”

A few nods around the table.

“Well, not only were there no signs of a crash, but the ship and some of their gear was just… left out scattered. Tripod knocked over, sensors and stuff on the ground. The ship was damaged when it was already on the ground and anchored, with no sign of the crew. There’s also this huge gaping hole dug into the planetoid not far from where they were that wasn’t there before.” There was nothing suggesting pilot error and everything suggesting something else had happened to them; they had already landed and were interrupted at work.

“Sounds like they were looking for something and the Kerberos crew was unlucky enough to be in their path,” Joe observed.

“Wouldn’t the alien ship have shown up on the probes too?”, Hunk asked.

“It should have, yeah. There was something else but it was way too encrypted for me to get into in time, and it was behind a couple biometric locks.” She slumped on the table, and the topic of conversation drifted away again.

They found a nice hotel for the night, Veronica covering the cost. Pidge barely slept; she’d brought the alien sword up wrapped in a blanket, but unwrapped it in the room, setting it next to the bed.

Had her family known what they’d been close to? Had they even found anything? Was it in pieces, was there something else related to it? Was there some ancient ship somewhere that the Sky Warrior had used that the Garrison might have hidden somewhere? There were ten thousand years between the tomb and now, anything larger would’ve had good odds of being found.

She sat up, pulling the sword onto her lap. “What were you even doing? You can’t have been guarding it, they would’ve known they were close and found it ages ago.” The sword gave no answer, although she’d noticed the faint glow only happened when it was held, and the hilt seemed to warm, almost comfortingly, in her hand. “Were you a decoy? That’s the only way it would make sense - if you tricked them into thinking you were leading them away from it, so they would think there was nothing here and leave us alone.”

Ten thousand years ago, some unknown alien had drawn attention and pulled a suicide run, just to convince the Galra that the weapon they sought was far away and that humans weren’t worth bothering with.

“I guess we should be thanking you. You probably bought us the time to get to where we are. I’d apologize for taking this, but you know - better with us than those creeps wrecking your tomb more and taking it, right?”

The sword was still warm in her hand.

She set it back on the nightstand, point away from the bed, and tried to sleep again. Her dreams were garbled, bits of the recording bleeding into the Garrison burning with a shadowy dark shape in the flames, disjointed skips of a bloodied blue figure with fins and gill slits wielding both of the swords, desperately cutting down the purple-armored aliens and drones outside her family home.

She was awake a little before dawn, dragging downstairs to the hotel breakfast with her backpack and the wrapped bundle of sword. Lance was already downstairs, sitting over a plate of toast and eggs with a mug of coffee; Hunk was nearby, looking a little less awake and getting his own breakfast.

Pidge settled for a bowl of cereal and coffee, sitting down across from Lance with the sword bundle across her lap.

“You’re up early.”

Pidge snorted. “So are you.”

“Sleep okay?”

She frowned, leaning over her mug. “Not really. Bunch of nightmares about alien invasions and creepy shadow monsters.”

“That’s rough.” He took a sip of his coffee. “I kept waking up from weird dreams too, but it wasn’t bad, at least.”

“Speak for yourself. You kept waking me up to ask if it was morning yet,” Hunk grumbled.

She made a noise affirming she was listening, and downed half the cup, black.

“You ever think about how big the oceans are?”

Pidge picked at her cereal; this sounded like early stage sleep deprived Lance. Another day or two and he’d be acting like a bad cartoon super villain.

“Like, the planet’s what, sixty percent water on the surface? And we’ve got rivers coming up that carve right through rock.”

“You sure nobody put anything in that coffee?”

He rolled his eyes. “That was my night. I think I dreamed the entire Grand Canyon getting carved out by the river, and when it wasn’t that, it was the ocean.”

“And then you’d wake up and ask if it was time to go yet.” Hunk sat down heavily at the side of the table.

Pidge stuffed a couple spoonfuls of cereal in her face before it sank in and she froze, making a few hand gestures until she could swallow.

“Lance! I think it’s calling you, like with Keith!” She was hissing quietly, trying not to be overheard.

They both stared at her. She pulled out her notebook. “Okay so we’re dealing with some kind of super powerful alien thing, right? And Keith narrowed down an area because he was having weird dreams and felt something pulling him to the canyon. Now the fastest hypothetical response time or way to improve response time on controls would be some kind of direct neural interface, and they’d want this thing to be as efficient and responsive as possible. With what we have you’d have to have it hooked up to electrodes but we have no idea what these people were capable of, and our brains use electrochemical signals that can be picked up by external sensors!”

Hunk nodded, recognition dawning. “So it’s sending a wireless signal, only our brains aren’t really made for alien tech, so it’s all coming up as weird gibberish about fire and rivers and feeling a need to go to it because it’s trying to send clues and that’s the best a human brain can do to translate it.”

“And I was thinking too, Joe said Keith had been out there a lot and nothing happened, but the mural in the tomb showed five of them - his dreams were about fire and you dreamed about the river carving out the canyon, the Galra said they had the one that was calling him, and if the dreams are garbled bad attempts at clues, then maybe the reason nothing happened for him in the canyon is that the one out here was the wrong one for him - and they must’ve brought that other one in range when they were checking Kerberos to set off it trying to contact Keith!”

Lance stabbed his pancake with a fork, staring at her. “Wait, wait, why would Kerberos be when it decided to yell at Keith? He wasn’t anywhere near it.”

She shuffled through the notebook, holding it in the middle of the table where she had dates scribbled. “Because from what Joe said, Keith didn’t start getting the dreams really seriously until just after the Kerberos mission - maybe it had been outside of some kind of signal range for it to tell there was a compatible person in range, and it was being hauled around on a hostile ship, so as soon as it picked up on someone, it started throwing rocks at the window, metaphorically speaking.”

“Because it would be sounding an alarm,” Hunk sounded out with a slow nod.

Lance grimaced. “That means that all they have to do now that they’ve got Keith agreeing to do what they want is shove him at it and point him at us when they come back.”

“It also means, if the one in the canyon is calling you, that you might be the only one here who can stop him if he does.” Pidge adjusted her glasses, looking up pointedly at Lance.

“So why is the one in the canyon sounding the alarm now?” Hunk motioned at the notebook.

Pidge leaned back, folding her notebook; Hunk had a good point, and one where she hoped it didn’t mean they’d been beaten there even though she knew that was the most likely explanation. “I dunno. Maybe someone got too close or something?”

Veronica suddenly came into the lobby and blew past the table, barely pausing or looking down. “Grab your things and go, boys, our deadline moved up.”

Joe was right behind her, pausing only long enough to hold up his phone. “Confirmation of another landing craft by the canyon.”

He headed out, leaving the three of them staring after and no further questions why it was sounding an alarm.

They made a level attempt at eating as much as they could in two minutes and sprinted outside; Joe and Veronica were moving the gear that had been stowed in his truck into a couple of storage pods and panels on the sides of the bike. “My truck won’t keep up, so we’re going to leave it by the roadside a little out of town. I’ll ride with Veronica from there, and Lance gets to bring this.” He tossed Lance the bike’s ignition fob, which Lance stared at numbly.

Lance didn’t want to admit it, and he certainly wasn’t going to back out now, but he was a little terrified of going up against Keith. He hated being in second place, but for all his bluster about being sure he could do better, he remembered damn well what their scores and sim records had been; the odds in a dogfight weren’t on him.

Even outside of the cockpit, there were horror stories about Keith in fights; Keith had perfect scored self defense classes and had the meaner sorts around the Garrison afraid to look sideways at him. The only thing Lance had over him was higher scores on marksmanship and a tie on team coordination scores on his better days.

It all got a little weirder with him carrying around Keith’s hunting rifle, being tossed the keys to Keith’s bike. There were a couple other keys on the ring, two door keys and a few smaller keys to padlocks or cases.

“Hey Joe… Did Pidge tell you about her theories about the dreams and all?” Lance looked up from the fob in his hand.

“Yeah.” The older man had stepped back; Hunk and Pidge were faster at loading the bike.

“I uh. Started getting dreams. About the canyon and the river. Pidge and Hunk think whatever’s there is calling me.” He was suddenly feeling very awkward and self-conscious about it.

“Lucky for us. We might be able to snipe it out from under them.” Joe had tipped his head in acknowledgment, but was still preoccupied.

Veronica looked over the bike. “See hermano, I knew you’d do something great!”

Lance laughed nervously. “Did Pidge say the part about how Keith can probably already use the one they’ve got?”

“Yeah.” Joe was more subdued on that, gone downright grim.

“So? You’ve been saying for years you want to show him up and wipe that smug look off his face,” Veronica said, voice echoing from inside the storage container. “If he’s fighting for them, then he’s earned it.”

“…Hahahah yeah, I might finally get the chance right?”

Joe gave him a sideways look; the attempt at ego had fallen very flat and blatantly fake.

Lance lowered his voice to a level the people loading the bike wouldn’t hear, edging a little closer to Joe. “Did he ever say anything about me?”

Joe shook his head. “I’m the wrong person to ask. He didn’t talk about himself with me if it wasn’t relevant to what we were chasing, and even that had limits.” Which probably figured, considering the whole ‘half-alien’ thing had been news to the older man despite Keith apparently chasing it on the conspiracy boards.

“We were rivals. I was always second place. The only reason I got a spot as a fighter pilot was him washing out. He outscored me on almost everything.”

Joe nodded quietly.

Lance was still rattling, wanting to cling onto the hope that Keith did have a moral compass somewhere in all of his angry bravado, but the uncertainty was hanging over his head, hard. “Do you think he’s going to actually work for them?”

Joe frowned. “He hates following orders but honestly? I think that’ll come down to which wins, his conscience or them having a hostage.” Joe had been grave and pensive through the whole conversation.

“You don’t sound real confident.”

“I caught him growling ‘pilot error’ like a bitter mantra whenever things weren’t going well after Kerberos. I don’t think he washed out on a random fit of temper. I think he burned bridges.”

“So what you’re saying is, you think he might consider torching Earth if he thinks it’d save Shirogane.” Lance wasn’t sure if it was horrifying or a sort of loyalty he could respect; he wasn’t sure he wouldn’t do what the aliens wanted if they had any of his family, Hunk, or even Pidge, new of an addition as the guy was, if he thought he could guarantee their safety by it.

Joe nodded.

Lance edged a little closer, dropping his voice more. “What do you think they’d do to the Kerberos crew if he loses?”

Joe took a deep, slow breath. “They didn’t look like they had much fondness for mercy to me. But we could be here all day hashing over every awful thing that could happen and get nothing out of it. Let’s focus on getting there and keeping this thing out of their hands for now.”

Lance was liking the idea of the possible showdown even less; if he lost, it’d be his family behind him dying, and if he won, it might be Shirogane and Pidge’s family.

Nevermind that it was also the fate of Earth and who knew how many other worlds in the balance, because he doubted these aliens wanted this weapon to plant flowers and build bridges.

No pressure.

The car was mostly silent getting out of town; once they found a place where they could feasibly get Joe’s truck out of sight, Joe moved to Veronica’s car, and Pidge and Hunk spent a minute rigging up a passenger harness out of climbing gear - the bike was really not meant for more than one person for any real distance.

Pidge hopped up to ride behind Lance, with the wrapped sword strapped securely. Lance started the bike, and there were a couple short test hops as he felt out the engine and the oversized lift generators; Veronica’s car would be mostly restricted to the road for any speed, but the bike could go cross-country.

“Hey, does anybody know what kind of fuel this thing takes?”

Joe shrugged. “Never saw him plug it in or refuel it or anything.”

Hunk scratched his head. “I didn’t see anything for fuel. The crystals in the engine seem like they’re powering it, and I’m honestly not sure what they are.” He shrugged, and Lance had a funny moment as it really sank in that the damn thing had a weird alien engine, because there was something mechanical and Hunk was still figuring it out.

“Yanno, Pidge and I can probably just cut cross-country and get a look at things ahead of-”

Hunk cut him off. “That is the worst idea I’ve heard from you in weeks.”

Joe turned and tilted his head at Hunk and Veronica. “I’m with him, hermano. We’ve got better odds as a group, and if we let you two go ahead alone, one of you is going to have a dumb idea and get the both of you dead or caught. Let’s not gift wrap a second person they want to use.”

Pidge opened her mouth, thought better of it, and closed her mouth. Keith had been alone with only one old man with a hunting rifle for backup, and he hadn’t stood a chance. Lance with a rifle and her with an alien sword she had no idea how to use weren’t much better odds. And if Lance was getting the weird dreams now, that did mean the aliens would want him, too.

Lance stabbed the air with a finger a few times, then hunched his shoulders in a sulk. He couldn’t come up with a good argument either. “Okay, so I’ll pace you from off-road.”

It was a less cheerful drive than even the previous day. Hunk was thankful at least that Joe didn't seem to mind some nervous rattling and subject skips, and while he was evasive on details, he wasn’t completely secretive - retired ex-military, lived alone, had a personal reason for conspiracy chasing he didn’t want to go into beyond “I hope you all have better luck than I did”. Veronica quietly encouraged the chatter. Hunk had Garrison stories about things Lance got them into and how Pidge was slowly failing at getting drug along with despite being a relatively recent addition of a year or so.

Hunk hadn’t known Keith except as That Guy In Class that Lance hated who seemed intent on being aggressively top of the class and Right, to the point of sometimes successfully arguing down professors and being a sarcastic ass to classmates, except in xenobi where he hid in the back of the class and their old jokes speculating about why now felt kind of tasteless. There was also a near legendary reputation for getting into fights outside of training, appearing out of nowhere in weird places, and doing things like buzzing Iverson off-script when tagged for air shows that just made Joe bury his face in his hands and agree that it all sounded about right.

So apparently some of the “stubborn antisocial combative hothead with an ego” vibe Hunk had gotten wasn’t wrong.

Hunk and Veronica got a little more of Joe’s side of that - Keith had been actively chasing things years before Joe met him. There were a few trips he claimed to have taken with backup not from the forums; a couple of them Joe suspected had been Shiro, and couple of which were probably “not alone” like his protests of not living alone where Joe had sussed out eventually that Jack the Roommate was a diamondback that lived near his shack.

Joe had no idea how long the “living alone with a rattlesnake” had gone on.

Joe’s working relationship had come from Joe realizing how young Keith was and talking him into accepting backup, mostly by appealing to pragmatism and the fact that, while Joe was retired and not that well off, Keith was living off spare change from scholarships and grants, scattered odd jobs, and selling hide and bones from game.

Hunk was starting to feel bad for Keith as a person, outside of recent events and even if he was an obnoxious asshole, living alone like that from probably fourteen or fifteen. Joe’s response was “never let him hear you say that”.

Veronica had agreed that, between Joe’s comments and Garrison gossip, it was small wonder he’d be willing to go insane lengths for Shiro, who was probably the only person he really had - partly self inflicted as that might be.

They also weathered, in good humor, Hunk lapsing back into nervous rattling after an hour of silence, and rambling speculation on the Galra and what little had been seen of their technology.

Letting Veronica lead and navigate, they got there as the sun was setting, pulling the car off a side road at the edge of the canyon as close as they could get to one of the caves.

They found a vantage point by the edge, looking down into the winding canyon; there wasn’t a visible sign of the aliens or their craft, but they also had a pretty limited view. One of the caves was below them, the others were spread out over miles in different little niches and crannies.

Pidge had her binoculars out, flattened to the ground at the edge, scanning the canyon floor; another pair was getting passed around, as Joe checked the area and was mobbed by Veronica and Lance both wanting to get a look themselves. Hunk hung back a little, closer to the vehicles.

“I don’t see any sign of them yet. Do you guys?”, Pidge asked, not even looking up to them.

“Nada here. Are we sure they found the right place?” Lance sounded almost hopeful.

“They’re not amateurs. They’re probably just starting from a different area of the canyon than we are,” Joe grumbled; he was being more careful than either of the other two over his shoulder of staying low.

“We’re close to one of the caves here, right?” She looked up. “If we can get down there fast enough, we can start searching ourselves, before they get to this area.”

“And hope we’re closer to the right cave than they are.” The older man sighed. “I know the bike can make it straight down that kind of slope without doing damage, I’ve seen Keith do it. Damn thing has a pretty good altitude ceiling for what it is. If you kids want to go down, I’ll set up a base camp up here.”

“You going to be okay up here?” Lance lowered the borrowed binoculars.

“I’ve been doing this for years, kid, and I’m getting too old to go spelunking in caves and picking fights with aliens. Besides, somebody’s got to know what happened if anything goes wrong.” Joe slid back from the edge, sitting up wearily. “Or if it goes well. You find what you’re looking for and you might be better off trying to get it away from Earth - give them less reason to come here.”

Lance opened his mouth, looking up at Hunk, then over at Veronica, who’d gone silent and more serious, arranging her own pack with her work lenses for her camera in their padded cases shoved in among the gear and necessities, a collapsing tripod folded close against the side.

He wanted to go into space, but he wasn’t sure ‘leading horrible aliens away from Earth with no idea when he might be able to come home’ was how he wanted to do it; at the same time, the little they’d seen said that these aliens had a lot of power, and if it meant keeping them away from his family…

He dug in his pockets for scrap paper and a pen, scribbling a few names, what their relationship was, and phone numbers; Veronica saw what he was doing and nodded, letting him take over. After he’d gotten enough to get word around, he stood, passing the paper and pen to Hunk.

Hunk gave the paper and pen a long, sad look, then swallowed hard and wrote a few names, family titles, and numbers himself. He passed it back to Lance, lingering over it as if holding onto it might make what it meant go away. Lance turned to Pidge, who waved a hand from the edge. “He’s already got something for Mom.”

Lance held it out to Joe. “This is safer, right? I mean, with the kind of technology they have, if we try to call anybody from right on top of them, they’d probably notice the signal…”

Joe nodded, taking the paper. Hunk stayed by the bike, helping dig out the base camp gear and swapping it for Veronica’s caving gear and some of their survival things; Veronica tossed Joe the keys to her car as Lance started the bike again, testing the engine and then re-grounding it, as Joe reminded them all to try and be quiet in case any Galra were within range to hear much.

Hunk took the first trip down; it was a weird sort of ‘get it over with’, not wanting to sit on the top and watch the others go down to worry about if anything happened to them at the bottom.

He first regretted it because Lance hadn’t had to take the bike down vertical and near-vertical steep slopes before; if he hadn’t heard Lance choking back a scream at the drop to remind him to be quiet, he would’ve made more noise himself and not just clung to Lance, burying his face in the middle of Lance’s back with a hysterical queasy whimper. The front of the bike bounced off the ground at the bottom as Lance almost missed pulling up and getting thrust under it to right it again, a part of the Earth-built cover chassis in the front snapping off and clattering away. It wasn’t a big enough piece to uncover the actual alien chassis, at least.

His second regret was that when Lance took the bike back up, a process that looked almost as harrowing as getting down, he was alone for a few minutes at the bottom with the broken piece of bike. He found a rock formation out of sight to sit behind, jumping at every breeze and rattle of pebbles expecting to see armed drones or armored aliens rounding a corner.

There was only one more trip; Veronica and Pidge managed to hang on at the same time, and Lance managed to only scrape the ground a little at the bottom on that attempt, powering the bike off to land.

Lance still had Keith’s rifle and Joe had apparently passed Veronica his. Pidge unwrapped the alien sword, and Hunk turned around from watching the canyon around them to Veronica holding out a crowbar at him. He stared at in in his hands and at her uncertainly.

“Hopefully you won’t need it for a fight, but better safe than sorry, right?”

He swallowed hard and nodded.

He stayed on edge as they were hastily dividing up the survival gear. Pidge watched behind him, Lance watching up and around the edges.

The sun was setting, and the bottom of the canyon was already dark, temperature dropping. It was making Hunk more nervous - and made gleaming yellow eyes peering around a rock more noticeable.

He cut off a yell and waved with the crowbar, Pidge wheeled around with the sword, and Veronica and Lance swung the rifles around. The eyes vanished, and there was the scrabbling sound of something bipedal retreating in a hurry.

Pidge almost charged after; Hunk lunged over the bike to grab his teammate by the jacket, lifting Pidge off the ground. Pidge gave a strangled noise, waving the sword ineffectually at the dark canyon.

“Should we?” Lance jerked his head the direction the alien had left.

Veronica shook her head. “Let’s just get moving - that screams trap.”

Lance took the ignition fob for the bike with him, shoving it in a pocket they hurried away, to check the closest cave the other direction from the hostile aliens.

A decent distance away, Tav came skidding into a makeshift base camp. It only half looked respectably like a military base camp, and that was mostly Sendak’s contribution, a few soldiers and more intact drones setting up among Kelvet’s messier equipment. They had a few sentry drones, but they were older types, kludged and patchwork. There were enough guns for the Galra present and the drones, but only half of the ones that came from the outpost had been functionality tested or regularly maintained in the last few decades.

Tav was a survey analyst, and was regretting not going armed past a small and basic sidearm; the odds of him hitting anything were slim, but it might scare off a threat. Besides the soldiers, who he barely counted and didn’t want to talk to, it was just him, Levok, Selkor, and Riven. Riven would only half count in a fight; the old man had once been feared and high-ranked, but now he was retired and busy pretending he wasn’t mostly blind.

Riven was sitting on a storage crate next to the skiff, grumbling to himself about having been done with all of this a long time ago and just wanting all of the chaos of the Empire to go away.

The rest of their own contribution to this was coming “soon”, and it wasn’t soon enough.

Riven’s grumbles halted, attention sharp on Tav as he motioned the young surveyor forward. “Report.”

“There’s a small group of humans in the canyon - four of them. They’re not in uniform, so they’re not Garrison or military. They’re also all armed, my scanner showed their vehicle being an archaic hybrid of Nalquodian and Altean in construction, and one of them was carrying a sword of Altean construction - one of the two that’s been in the Blue Paladin’s tomb all these years.” He left out the part where the sword had been faintly glowing when the little one held it; it’d never reacted to anything any time a survey trip had checked on it, and the implications scared him a little.

Kelvet outpost did not see military action. Kelvet outpost was in the middle of nowhere in the ass-end of the inhabited universe, still had a galaxy or so between it and the border of the Empire proper, and the population of the outpost had given up long ago on the idea that their ‘mission’ was anything but a wild goose chase and a product of an old obsession of Zarkon’s. Nobody born and raised on Kelvet thought about armed conflict with anything besides aggressive geothermal wildlife on the frozen godforsaken moon. They were so not inclined to combat that they were laughingstocks of the Empire, referred to as “barely Galra”.

The humans starting to send out probes and ships was a little concerning, but their efforts were like watching a blindfolded toddler running into walls. Sure, Tav and a couple of the others had occasionally wandered off a little and taken extra time on trips to Earth checking on something or other, or snuck out in a “borrowed” skiff to get some time with open skies and breathable non-artificial atmosphere, but their few encounters with humans those times were the stuff of cryptid stories for the humans, nothing dramatic or dangerous.

Humans were small and one of the few sources of entertainment that wasn’t manufactured in the underwater colonies, or spottily transmitted in when the receivers even worked, right up until you had two of them pointing primitive firearms at you.

Riven closed his passing-for-good eye with a rumble. “So they are probably here for the same reason we are.” He pulled his own weapon closer, a big, heavy powered axe; he’d turned down a few offers of rifles, and Tav knew it was mostly because Riven would be useless with them, not because he ‘preferred a real fight’ like he’d claimed to Sendak’s soldiers. “Were you seen?”

“Er. Yes.”

He only motioned a little with his head for the surveyor to continue. “Was there pursuit?”

Tav looked behind him. “I don’t think so - one of the caves with paintings of the Blue Lion was the other direction from our camp, not far from where they came down.”

Riven drummed his claws on the crate thoughtfully. “Then keep an eye on that area and try to keep track of them. Get anything you can about how much they know without engaging.”

Tav shrank back.

“Oh for.” Riven buried his head in his only half-replaced hand. “They are a bunch of backwater primitives, Tav. Your ancestors were conquering the universe when they were still making sense of pointy sticks. You’re Galra, start acting like it!” Riven made a shooing motion with his more intact hand. “And don’t tell me you cannot get past them; if you can get past Ziska and Tovek, you can dodge a bunch of humans!”

Tav gave that a sullen glower and a half-hearted salute before he headed out of camp, back in the direction of the humans.

Back in the cave, they had Veronica’s lantern out, set as low as she could get it; they needed some light to get around the increasingly dark caves, but it ran the risk of giving away their position to the Galra.

Pidge had quietly been thinking-out-loud, trying to figure out if the Galra even needed as much light to see by as the humans; she had doubts about it, but there hadn’t been much good evidence either way yet.

The lion motif was everywhere, although the lion paintings were more detailed and stylized a very different way from the paintings in the tomb; it looked oddly mechanical. Once there was a faint blue luminescence when Lance ran his hand over a painting near the edge of the lantern light; he walked a few feet out of it to test it, hissing for attention, waving and pointing at it.

Veronica nearly doused the lantern, and there was a good hour of Lance attempting to figure out if there was a pattern to it, if anything would change touching the paintings in a different order, if putting both hands on one would affect it, if standing there and holding still would make something happen.

Somewhere in the dark, out of sight, there was a Galra surveyor burying his face in his hands. They’d found at least one prospective Paladin, maybe two judging by the sword’s reaction to the small one, and neither he nor any of the other humans had a bloody clue what they were doing; they were actually speculating as to what the lion paintings had to do with “the Voltron thingie”.

Hunk started dozing off against the wall while Lance was trying to make the wall do something; they found the end of the cavern, and Hunk had to be nudged awake again.

“Look, I’m tired, okay? We’ve been going since early this morning, it’s after midnight, and honestly, we should probably all get some kind of rest.”

“We’re in a narrow cave with hostile aliens trying to beat us to some kind of superweapon and you want to nap?”, Pidge snapped.

“Well…Yeah? I mean they don’t know much more than we do right? And if Keith’s not here and he’s the one who knows where it is, then they must be blundering around as much as we are, and we’ve got Lance, which means they can’t do anything with it even if they do find it, right?”

“He’s got a point there.” Lance wasn’t sure he could sleep right now, but he was starting to feel better about this whole thing for that. “If they beat us to it, all I’ve got to do is sneak in there and start it up before they can move it, right? And then WHAM, they’ve got this Voltron thingie aimed at them from behind!”

When this was over, Tav wasn’t going to be sober for a week. Armed or no, they were becoming a lot less intimidating. (Except the tiny one with the old Paladin’s sword; that one was still worrying. The apparent new Blue Paladin…not so much.)

Veronica sighed. “We can probably afford to get food and rest, if we stay in the back of the cave and keep watch; we’ll need every edge we can get.”

Pidge grumbled, but they made a hasty camp, digging through foil packets of camp dinners; Pidge took the lantern and watch, while Lance kept messing with the paintings for a while, trying to see if he could get them to do anything but glow a little. Veronica and Hunk were out pretty solidly.

Lance finally returned to the camp from ‘edge of visible area’, sitting down next to Pidge and the lantern.

“Say Pidge.”

Pidge had a sudden sense of dread. “Yeah?”

“About how you got back in to the Garrison?”

Pidge inhaled sharply, fidgeting with the bottom of her jacket zipper. “Wellll you see, I… uh…”

Lance raised an eyebrow, leaning in closer.

“Look, I made a fake name and a fake record so Iverson wouldn’t know it was me. I had to know what’d happened to my family, and when he caught me snooping in his office about Kerberos, he banned me from even coming on Garrison grounds.” She adjusted her glasses.

Out of sight in the dark, Tav adjusted Pidge up a notch on the ‘potentially dangerous’ meter. Kelvet hadn’t been involved in that beyond awareness of the mission from watching Earth transmissions and broadcasts, and awareness that Sendak’s cruiser had grabbed the human expedition, but he doubted the humans would distinguish different groups of Galra, and they were taking orders from Sendak right now. Almost anything was more dangerous with a personal grudge.

“So Pidge isn’t your real name.”

“No.” She folded her arms, hunching over beside the lantern, glaring off into the darkness.

Lance edged over a little closer. “You know, if we’re going to be helping you find your family, it’d be a little easier if you actually told us, I dunno, just about anything? I mean, if we find the Kerberos crew, we can’t really walk up to them and go, ‘Hey, we’re here with your brother or cousin or nephew or something, whatsisname!’ or ‘Who lost their midget?’”

Pidge grumped harder at the jokes. The awful part was that he had a point. “You know this means I’ve been lying to you and everyone all along, right?”

Lance shifted his jaw from side to side. “Well, you were doing it to get past Iverson and the Garrison people, so technically you were lying to them.”

“Same difference. I’m not who I ever said I was.”

Lance shrugged, hands draped in his lap, folding his legs. “Well, you lied to us to get us out here to begin with.”

Pidge looked away, to the wall.

“So I was thinking after that came out, and yeah, part of me kinda wants to be mad at you for that, buuut I also know that I’d have done the same from the beginning anyway if you didn’t lie to us.” He shifted a little, starting to gesture and talk with his hands as he continued. “I mean, I probably would’ve laughed at you about the whole ‘alien conspiracy’ thing if you’d tried to say it straight up, but we still wouldn’t have left you hitchhiking to Montana alone and Veronica still would’ve thought it was the greatest thing ever, so you’d have drug us into it anyway, and I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if I let you go walking into all this crazy alien invasion bullshit by yourself. So in the end it doesn’t really matter that you were being a paranoid basket case and tricked us into coming out here.” He patted Pidge’s shoulder, leaving his hand there.

“Thanks. I think.” She adjusted her glasses.

“Hey, we’re teammates. That means we have each other’s backs.” He squeezed her shoulder and let go. “But if I don’t get a name, I might need to start making them up. How about Clark Kent?” He tapped the side of her glasses frame with one knuckle and a sly grin; she swatted at his hand, missing by a long shot.

She sighed heavily, voice barely audible. “Katie.”

Lance paused, blinking.

“It’s Katie Holt.”

He tilted his head, squinting at her. “Y-” He stopped, glancing back at the other two asleep, and drug his voice to a loud whisper. “…You’re a girl?!”

She turned to glare up at him. “Yeah, gonna make something of it?”

He shook his head emphatically. “No I just -” He held a hand over his head and squinted at her. He at least knew the names of all of the girls in their class, and the year ahead, and the year behind, and she wasn’t familiar. “How old are you?!”

She glared harder. “Almost sixteen.”

He stared, wide-eyed and gaping, made a few awkward hand gestures, and then dropped his hands back into his lap, hunching over to stare off into the dark cave again. “Your family is going to kill us.”

She folded her arms, staring into the dark herself. “…I’d like to just keep going by ‘Pidge Gunderson’ for now.”

He tilted his head, raising an eyebrow.

“Look, if the other two corner me at this point or it comes up, I’ll come clean with them, but… it just doesn’t feel right to be ‘Katie Holt’ for this… and if they’re willing to take hostages and use the people they’ve got as leverage, then anything that tips them off that I’m related to Dad or Matt is just going to put them more at risk than they already are.”

Lance sobered, nodding quietly. “Pidge it is.”

Off in the dark there was one surveyor beginning to realize that he was ending up with an uncomfortably dangerous amount of information.

Eventually Lance wound down and curled up to nap, although his sleep was restless; there were crashing waves and storms in his dreams, riptides pulling him under and away inexplicably without drowning, the cool depths wrapping around him like a comforting blanket.

Pidge hated to admit it, but by the time Veronica’s silent alarm went off and she took the lantern, Pidge was also about ready for something like sleep, even if she didn’t sleep all that well either.

The sun wasn’t quite up yet by the time they were moving again, Lance running his hands along the walls sadly as they concluded they needed to try one of the other caves.

Something glowed overhead, and Pidge was fast with the binoculars; the two craft coming down weren’t that big, but they definitely weren’t human.

“Shit. We’ve got more company incoming.”

Chapter Text

Keith wasn’t sure he was exactly learning his way around the battlecruiser; the ship was massive, and he was also beginning to realize that what he’d initially taken to be the entirety of medbay and the quartermaster’s areas were only central stations for larger sections with more people.

The reactions of the crew varied; he made a lot of them uncomfortable, and he caught more than a few hostile stares and jealous glares when they thought he wasn’t looking. There were whispers here and there too; some of them were the familiar sort of “who does he think he is” sniping and gossip that’d been a part of his life in the Garrison. Some of them were snide bets on how long he’d survive before the Emperor got bored with him, some of them were bitter and angry that “some scrawny half-breed brat” had the Emperor’s personal attention over soldiers that’d been fighting and clawing to climb the ladder and “earn” it.

There were also a very few looks of vague pity and whispers about Druids; he wasn’t sure if those bothered him more or less than the hostility. It wasn’t unfamiliar either in some ways, it was just going from “poor kid, I heard most of his family abandoned him” to “poor kid, who knows what they’re going to turn him into when they’re through with him”.

Occasionally there were more of the odd, fearful and spiteful moments of recognition, quieter whispers that he could never get close enough to catch.

It was everything he’d hated about Earth and the Garrison, with the intensity cranked up and thrown into a dystopian funhouse mirror without even anything small and familiar to distract himself with; no trails in the scrub to hike, no grabbing fast food and finding a perch in the park. He considered seeing if he could still get his headphones working with his phone for what music he had on it, but he also didn’t know how long the battery would last if he turned it on, and didn’t think he wanted to waste that just yet.

He knew he’d been living on “I’ll do better than everyone and show them all” spite for years already, and it was a tempting thing to just continue leaning on that to drive forward and prove all of the ‘I give him a week’ sort of remarks wrong, to get solid enough in a position of power that they didn’t dare look down on him.

More than that, though, he wanted someplace safe, to actually be able to relax, and he missed Shiro; he wanted to be back in the desert where it was quiet, with the only noise and people coming from convincing Shiro to take a break from his own habit of overwork and Shiro pulling him into some dumb old sci-fi marathon to get him to lighten up and relax. There were answers about his mother, too, but that was less immediate, a part of him afraid of what the answer was now that he was this close, unsure if he wanted it.

Shiro was what was keeping him moving now more than anything; he finally had a lead on where Shiro was, and he wasn’t going to let that go, not when he was so close. Shiro had been the only decent person that’d managed to put up with him; it’d been hard enough going back to being alone when Kerberos had vanished and he suddenly had something to compare the isolation to, without everything he’d just been thrown into piling up.

He’d been less lonely in the middle of the desert without another living thing for miles but spiders, scorpions, birds, and the diamondback living under the shed.

He eventually found his way to the mess; the Galra scattered throughout were in a mix of mostly uniforms and off-duty clothes, with a few cases of partial armor. There was a little more of a range of food than he’d expected, and he had no idea what any of it was. Everything other than the fish-and-shellfish looking stuff was dubious, like something fabricated and reconstituted trying to pass off as actual meat.

He wasn’t feeling that brave yet.

Finding a place in a big public area where people were eating where he could eat in relative peace, try to vanish, and catch bits of passing conversation was a very old skill. He stood out, but he was also small enough comparatively that if he just curled on a bench at a table, most of the crew that were involved in their own conversations would lose interest and ignore him.

Half of it he didn’t have enough context to make sense of; there was a lot of gossip about different officers and commanders, relationship gossip, who was getting what promotions and who was having a fight with who, although occasional debates and bets on if there’d be a challenge out of it were new. He caught a few things about various conflicts; an uprising in some other corner of the galaxy, the border fronts, outlying colonies getting raided, an attempted prison camp revolt, raiders and rebels. 6There were other bits that were weirdly familiar; he had no idea if the dramas and books and media that got mentioned would have any kind of familiar format, and he caught something declaring some unfamiliar species the best at some kind of genre story that turned into a heated debate, but it was the same kinds of arguments and conversations about movies and TV that would happen on Earth.

And there were gladiatorial arenas treated as a sport. It shouldn’t have surprised him with the impression he’d gotten of the Empire, but apparently some part of him hadn’t really thought about it hard enough. From the sound of it, while there were some volunteer and career fighters, there were also many criminals, slaves, and prisoners of war thrown into it, willing or not.

And that was something he was trying not to think too hard about, even while the next table over was having a conversation about different gladiators and win streaks. There were a couple mentions of either getting, or trying to get, ‘promoted out’ one way or another.

“Still amazed the Champion got promoted out by Zarkon himself. I thought that only happened with Galra.”

“Nah, it’s happened before, it’s just pretty rare - I think there’s only been like, ten in the whole history of it.”

“Man if anyone’s earned it he has, by this point. He’s torn apart everything they’ve put in the ring with him. You saw what he did in that last match? It takes five of us armed and armored to stop one of those things planetside! I dunno what species he is, but if they’re all like that, I don’t want to mess with them.”

“You know that’s our next deployment, right?”

There was a brief, awkward silence, and one of Keith’s ears twitched hard; the dots were there next to each other, and he didn’t want to connect them.

“That’s gotta be a joke.”

“No joke. We’re going to their homeworld and actually landing this time after this stop at Central Command.”

It couldn’t be Shiro, Shiro was a bloody pacifist, Shiro had been failing self defense classes when he’d gotten into the Garrison…

“You’re telling me the people Kelvet Outpost make fun of and call ‘cute and stupid’ are the same species as the Champion?!”

“Kelvet people are crazy. It’s the same - weren’t you paying attention when we picked him up?”

There was some kind of sharp, fast gesture his direction, and he failed at stifling the reflex to turn and look; the three of them at the table suddenly froze awkwardly. One of them hadn’t really been speaking but had been about to say something; it’d died, and he shrank down a little in mid-gesture at Keith.

“What?” He was having a fight between reflex to curl into a posture better suited for sudden movement and trying to straighten up to somehow make up for his relative lack of height.

The one in the middle that hadn’t been talking leaned an elbow heavily on the table, and seemed to give up. “I was on the bridge for that. I think he’s part of why that promotion happened.”

Keith had a strange moment watching the soldier’s expression of wondering if his occasional ‘well, I’ve been caught, if I’m going under the bus I may as well get there myself’ moments were a Galra thing. “What do you mean?” He was half-watching the other two, but the one in the middle was the one who’d given up.

There were two awkward looks across the table, then both of them looked at the third, who waved a clawed hand in the air in a circle.

“One of your people that was picked up on the edge of your system a while back has one of the longest undefeated streaks in the arena in a century or two. He got recognized by the Emperor himself.”

It was hard to miss them half-expecting him to react badly to something they all were used to as normal, even if there was awkward awe to it; they didn’t seem like they had to face or interact with the people that got raided and terrorized often at all.

“I’m pretty sure he’s one of the ones you asked the Emperor for,” Bridge Crew added sheepishly.

Keith sighed. “Well, he’s one of two people then, and I don’t think I can tell which from any of that.”

That seemed to make the one that’d been making disbelieving comments about humans even more nervous. That one tapped something on some small device on his wrist, and spent a second manipulating a light screen between his claws; Keith stood up and walked over to stand at the side of their table, arms crossed.

The Galra held up the screen to him on some kind of transparent recording, apparently taken from a camera set high in the wall of a round, sand-floored arena.

It was Shiro, with at least a good handful of new scars and a sword in hand; his throat tightened. “No that can’t - he’s a pacifist, I had to teach him - he was failing at -”

He wasn’t even paying attention to the change in how all three of them were staring at him. Shiro was also grandstanding in an incredibly un-Shiro-like way, and there was something familiar about the entire routine, from phrasing to posture.

“Oh my god he’s using my Black Knight routine.”

Shiro had survived two years in an alien arena by mimicking Keith’s renfaire persona, and at this point, probably was better at it than Keith himself. Zarkon was in a higher balcony, watching, and had been included in some of what was apparently a broadcast.

He looked up at the three of them before it hit the actual fight; he was pretty sure if he watched that, he’d be trying to break into a hangar to steal any ship with long-range capabilities to assault the command center single-handed and murder Zarkon with his bare hands. They were all staring at him in confused awe and horror.

He wasn’t sure what was wrong with them now. “What?”

The one with the recording pulled his hand back, the light screen blinking out.

“You taught him.” Bridge Crew pointed between Keith and where the broadcast had been.

“Yeah. I taught him.”

There was a long, silent moment where they passed through confusion, disbelief, and into barely masked awe and terror.

“You really are -,” he started, cutting himself off and hastily switching to, “No wonder the Emperor wants you.”

He drew in and let out a deep breath, shook his head, and walked away; he didn’t feel like eating anymore. He wasn’t really going anywhere specific, and ended up wandering aimlessly through the halls of the Battlecruiser, only paying enough attention to patrolling drones and other crew to avoid running into anyone.

Shiro did not like conflict. Shiro liked fighting even less. Shiro had been failing self-defense classes; doggedly insisting on helping him practice enough to pass them had been something Keith had considered the least he could do in return for Shiro looking out for him, and he was pretty sure Shiro only really adjusted to it by mentally reframing it as sport-sparring for entertainment and exercise rather than learning to fight. Swordsmanship wasn’t really a skill widely taught either, but he’d drug Shiro to WMA meets and some of his own training, and Shiro had picked that up half out of curiosity and half humoring him.

The swordsmanship circles had gotten Keith into the Renfaire, and Shiro had shown up at the Renfaire, first surprising him from the audience; the rest of the crew pretty quickly picked up on Shiro being “friend and/or family”. Keith had been horrible at any role that involved too much normal interaction with fairegoers, and that’s how he got given an antagonist role and encouraged to go for broke.

He was horrified and worried and wanted to burn the Empire down for what Shiro had been put through; Shiro was one of the last people who should’ve been thrown into an arena to fight for his life.

As much as that outweighed all other reactions, he was at least relieved that Shiro had survived, was apparently about as “okay” as he could be under the circumstances, and there was a tiny bit of pride that Shiro had managed to put the fear of God into the Galra based on desperation, half-assed training, and a borrowed renfaire persona.

He didn’t know if the “promotion out” was because of him or because of Shiro getting Zarkon’s attention, but the relief was lessened by remembering that Shiro now had Zarkon’s direct attention, and Keith wanted nothing more that moment than to get Shiro as far out of Zarkon’s claws as he could, one way or another.

There was enough of a loud conflict in his head between being terrified for Shiro, feeling vaguely sick at the clues that his mother was someone feared and respected in this hellhole, wanting to murder half of the Empire, and relief at the renewed reality that he was going to actually see Shiro again that he almost didn’t notice the commotion as “docking at the transit station” was announced.

Most of the commotion was just crew suddenly having something to do; checking docking procedures for the huge battlecruiser, gathering things being offloaded, groups getting organized to bring on supplies. There wasn’t much room given for recreation time off the ship, but the station didn’t really look made for it; it was carved out of something that was a small planetoid or an ambitious asteroid depending on definitions, hidden in a gravity well between three planetoids. There was an artificial atmosphere and gravity generated on part of it, and one of the drones delivered the message that he was allowed to leave the ship.

There was a timer, he’d be summoned and warned when it was getting close to launch, the areas with atmosphere were pointed out from areas without, there was a margin with thin atmosphere and a perimeter border but very little gravity due to interference from the environment that were not to be entered without armor.

He stopped at his room long enough to get the armor on, briefly thankful the quartermaster had taken the time to walk him through that. The armor had simple thrusters built into it for helping maneuver in low and lacking gravity, as well as boots with a few reactive systems to hang onto surfaces.

Any other time he might have been fascinated by the transit station itself, but right now the chance for a little bit of solitude to try to clear his head was all he wanted, and he wasn’t sure when he’d get another chance.

The rock formations around the edges of the built-on areas of the station didn’t seem natural; it was a mess of lumps and rounded cut-out places with some odd protusions that looked like half-melted rock had been stopped and solidified suddenly, with jagged overhangs. The minimal-gravity area was making more sense as a sort of buffer zone between an area of space with unpredictable conditions and the climate controlled habitable zone they’d created.

It was quiet, peaceful, and not too hard to find a place where the station and its traffic were only visible passing by over the backdrop of space in between the local stars. It was an entirely different thing without an atmosphere, even through the tints of the helmet activating extra layers to protect against the light and radiation. He’d been on practice flights out of the atmosphere before, but hadn’t had a huge amount of time to appreciate scenery or get outside the ship without something to be doing before.

He wasn’t sure if it was more impressive or vaguely unsettling that it wasn’t just getting a chance to appreciate something he hadn’t had time for before, with the expanded range of color vision adding a lot that hadn’t been there.

It didn’t distract enough to miss movement on the edge of his peripheral vision, among the rocks.

The armor was not the same as his military armor, flat black and stripped of any identifying marks that he could pick out except a few odd violet markings. Three “eyes” that were lenses, lights, or both were set into an opaque faceplate, a hood over the helm still and stiff in the lack of air and gravity. The figure had a blade in one hand, tucked back against one arm where it could be easily readied, the point just visible.

He shifted to a careful crouch, ready to move. “Who’s there? Who are you?”

“That depends on you.” The voice was mechanically distorted enough that it’d be impossible to identify if he ran into them again without the armor; he could only guess they were Galra by stature and the odds of sneaking into this station as another species. They pushed off from lurking half-behind the rock, making an easy movement to perch upside-down on the rock overhang overhead, looking down at him.

He caught a better look at the sword and stiffened, almost drifting from his tenuous footing; there was a familiar glowing rune at the base of the blade.

“That sword - what is it?!”

The opaque mask tilted a faint fraction of a degree; he fumbled with the still-unfamiliar catch holding his knife, tugging the wrapping partly off to hold it up.

The armored figure tensed, grip on their sword shifting. “Where did you get that?”

He had their attention, and it was a dangerous angle of it. “I’m not - I’ve had it as long as I can remember, I don’t-”. No, he did have an idea where he got it, and this person might be his only clue. “It’s all I have left of my parents.” He kept still; he told himself he was trying to avoid sudden moves that might make him register as a threat, but the situation was closer to freezing in front of a bigger predator. “I don’t remember my mother or know what this means.”

If this person wasn’t tied to Zarkon, then maybe his mother wasn’t a part of the Empire after all.

“Has anyone on Sendak’s ship seen it?” He was definitely being interrogated now.

“No - not uncovered.” He started carefully replacing the wrapping, stowing it back out of sight. There was a tiny little instinct twitch at putting away the one weapon he had right now, but he had a funny suspicion that his limited experience with low-G would be the death of him if it did turn into a fight. “Who are you?”

“Not stupid enough to answer that.” Even distorted, it felt like a bad joke for a question he should’ve known better than to ask. “What do you know about what you’ve gotten yourself into?”

“They need me for some kind of weapon. They’re claiming they’ll give me anything I want if I do what they want. They don’t want to explain anything past that.” There was a growl that crept in under it.

“You sound skeptical.” The figure seemed almost amused.

“I know what it sounds like when people are saying whatever you want to hear so you’ll let them use you, and I’ve studied regimes like that on my world.”

“Do you want the truth of their promises?”

He stared up expectantly.

“He would absolutely be using you. Zarkon only cares about his own power.” They held up one hand. “But, Zarkon hasn’t stayed in power for eons by being a fool. If your loyalty is genuine and it can be done within the structure of the Empire, you would get whatever you wanted.” The mask inclined. “You are sitting on one of his personal obsessions, after all, which would make you either one of his most prized possessions to reward for diligent service - or an example for the ages if your loyalty faltered.”

It felt like the most honest answer he’d gotten this entire time, although he was wondering which side the armored figure was on. There was definitely a connection to his mother, the symbol was too distinctive not to mean something, and the blade he’d inherited plus the reactions of Sendak’s crew ruled out her being a civilian. He suspected that Haxus’s ignorance had been true at first, at least until he’d changed; family history should’ve been too tempting of a hook to dangle, although it also seemed like they were also trying to avoid her getting involved. “Personal obsession? What is this weapon he wants me for?”

They wouldn’t answer questions about themselves, but they seemed more likely to answer than Sendak or any of his crew.

“One of the lions of Voltron.”

It both meant absolutely nothing beyond recurring imagery, and had him trying to make sense of just how literal the recurring motif in caves he knew were related was. “Uh. What?”

The figure let out a long breath that vibrated mechanically in the voice distortion, shaking their head. “It’s an ancient weapon made before Zarkon began expanding the Galra empire, and a living thing - or rather, five of them. Each one individually and at full power can hold their own against warships many times their size. Brought together as a single entity, they are potentially the greatest power in the universe. They were hidden during the founding conflict of the Empire as it is, rumored to be destroyed. He’s had people searching for them ever since.”

Either there was a translation glitch going on or the paintings and carvings of the “stylized” mechanical looking giant lion in the Grand Canyon caves were far more literal than he’d given credit for. The tomb also had the painting of five lions with some kind of divine being in the center.

“Kelvet outpost?”

The figure nodded. “Established when the distance between the system one of the Paladins of old had last been seen and the early Empire’s borders made sending ships to search difficult. The outpost was hidden in the place that best fit the lion’s affinities, or so they thought.”

A moon made of water and ice - which made it small wonder that, in ten thousand years, they had never checked a desert canyon. “Was that where my mother came from?”

The hooded helm shifted as if pointedly considering where he’d stowed the knife. “…No.”

“So what do you want?” He doubted this was some kind of goodwill act, and even if his mother wasn’t with Zarkon, he wasn’t sure he trusted family. “I don’t think you’d talk this much if you were here to kill me.”

“That depends on you. What do you want?”

He almost started to answer, but he wasn’t even sure of the answer - if he answered honestly. “Are you one of Zarkon’s?”

The figure stared at him. “What do you think?” The bitterness even with the distortion could have made its own gravity.

He should be cautious; he knew nothing of the strange individual, what their agenda was, or even who and what his mother was, besides feared and apparently well-known. He had learned the hard way as a child from grandparents and aunts and uncles that family could be less trustworthy than strangers, even if a tiny part of him still wanted to cling to some hope that at least his mother hadn’t just abandoned him for no reason or wasn’t a part of something horrible.

He was running out of energy for being paranoid, and they had been more honest with him than anyone else so far.

“I don’t know.” They had admitted that he could have a secure position with Zarkon and the temptation for revenge for what Shiro had been put through was dulling already - “…Can the Druids influence minds?”

“Yes.” He stiffened as they paused, making a low, rattly-metal growl. They seemed to note that before they continued. “Usually either amplifying or suppressing what is already there, or breaking and remaking into something else.”

“Shit.” The rattling growl wasn’t stopping. The figure gestured at him to speak up. “I - the whole thing felt like a trap, I didn’t like any of it, and the thing in the hangar was loud in my head, and then… it pulled me aside to-“ He made a few helpless hand gestures. “It said something had been done to - hide what I was so I could pass for human and it insisted on ‘undoing’ it, and after it was done - the lion wasn’t as loud and…”

They leaned back, almost shifting the angle they were sitting at on the rock overhang, and were visibly studying him again. “Ah.” They were silent, and he waited while they reassessed what was going on or whatever they were considering. “How well can you shield your mind?”

He shifted awkwardly, almost drifting off the ground a little, and looked away at the stone spires. The figure’s posture shifted, not enough to throw them off.

“I see. Do you know what waits for you if you go to Central Command?”

“The Emperor.” And maybe Shiro.

“And Haggar, the one who leads the Druids. She’s been Zarkon’s shadow for as long as the Empire has existed, at least. If you go, you will be loyal; she will make sure of that.” They were sharp, blunt, and giving no room for argument.

His stomach twisted, a rusty sound entering into the growl; the one on the ship had been reading him from the start and he didn’t have the slightest clue how to stop it, and it had manipulated him with little effort or time invested. Zarkon he might be able to deal with; getting his free will stripped off by something like that was something different.

And there was something else that was suddenly more terrifying out of it.

“…Shiro.” He took in a breath. “They have - someone I care about. Do you - have any way of knowing if…” He trailed off, not wanting to finish the sentence.

“Not yet. Not that, at least.” The figure laid their sword across their knees, holding it in place with their armored wrists. “I know someone that is in a close position. The Emperor took interest in him before you were found; we don’t know exactly what they had originally planned. The last information I received was that they have made mention of putting him under your command.”

He didn’t doubt the strange figure’s statement about the Druids; he suspected one of the figures in the tomb paintings was Haggar, and Haxus’s unease about her and the Druids seemed genuine, never mind the rest of the crew.

It made it worse, hearing that in most other respects, they would be holding their end of the potential bargain.

He knew he couldn’t trust his judgment now; the best he had was what he’d been going on just before the Druid had gotten into his head, and the visceral reaction to realizing he could be manipulated like that. It was probably the other shoe and the trap; they would keep their word and give him Shiro. They just knew they had other ways to bring him under control even if he had power, relative freedom of movement needed for what they wanted him to do, and at least one of the people he’d come there for.

“Is Shiro the only one they have there?”

The armored figure tilted its head quizzically.

“When Zarkon contacted Sendak’s ship, I asked for the Kerberos crew. Shiro’s the one the Druid found out about from reading me when I was caught, but there’s two others.”

A headshake. “I haven’t heard anything of them. I don’t know where they are.”

Which would at least mean some weasel leeway to keep him around long enough for Haggar to work, because even though Keith mostly knew Matt as “That other friend of Shiro’s that will sometimes help from a different direction when he’s not taking care of himself”, he didn’t want to leave the others there if he could help it.

He was getting studied intently again.

“I’m not taking the bait.” He shook his head. “They’d just ‘need time to find the others’ or something and use that to make sure I held still long enough for Haggar to get to me.”

“So you’re going to take the lion from Sendak.”

Keith held up a hand. “One thing.” He took in a breath; there was already a thin rusty noise he was trying to stifle. “Can your friend look out for him? I can’t…go get him without walking into their trap…”

“If their cover slips, they’ll be worse than dead - and there are countless other lives at stake on this, as well.”

His shoulders slumped. “I know. I shouldn’t have asked.” He half wanted to just accept Zarkon and Haggar and all of it if it would mean saving Shiro, but he also remembered that before the Druid had worked him over, he’d been just as eaten at by not being able to face Shiro or himself if he did.

They knew they had a hostage, and God only knew what they’d do when they heard he was breaking his end of the bargain and running; it was either give up on himself and entire planets potentially, or give up on Shiro. He hated that he couldn’t even trust his own judgment or emotions either, thanks to the Druid.

And he hated that the Druid’s alterations and his lack of time to figure out how to control it meant there was actually a very identifiable whine under the rusted sound.

The armored figure shook their head and pushed off from the arch, twisting around to be right-side up when they touched ground next to him, the sword transferred to some kind of clip on the waist of the armor where it was easy to reach. They made it look effortless. “We will do what we can. It may not be anything… and it may not be better than a mercy-killing if Haggar decides to make a mindless weapon of him.”

It was faintly apologetic, as blunt as it was. He wanted to be angry at the entire situation, he wanted to give up and take the damn lion and find some godforsaken corner of the universe so nobody could have it, he wanted to snarl at the idea of putting Shiro down like a rabid dog, he wanted to snap that if it came down to that he should be the one to do it.

He knew better than any of it, even if he sounded like rusted nails tested on chalkboard. “…Thanks.”

The figure put a hand on his shoulder; there was a very quiet rumble. “Breathe. It will be a while yet before they’re ready to launch long-range, but the sooner you move, the easier it will be to get away.”

It took him a few minutes and a few deep breaths, shoving everything away; there was an alien base, a battlecruiser he had to get through, and some alien weapon, and damnit, even if he had to struggle to hang onto his anger against whatever the Druid had done, he was going to ram that lion’s claws down Zarkon’s throat one day. He just needed to focus on the transit center in front of him.

The other figure was definitely keeping watch the direction of the base until the involuntary noise died down. He started moving toward the direction of the station, then stopped; they were following. “If I walk back on ship with you it’ll draw attention.”

“You said they were keeping you out of the hangar. Do you have a plan to get in?”

He raised a hand, stopping awkwardly without a retort. “…No. Sendak’s the only one who can open the door.”

They drifted just past him, motioning to follow. “There’s other ways around those battlecruisers; the engineers and maintenance crews have to get to the internal structure, after all. They’re patrolled, but it’s entirely automated unless there’s reason to think of an intrusion there.”

Which meant an alternate way in, and it being easier to avoid being seen.

They already knew how to cross the transit station unseen, taking occasional odd routes with hand signs to not go above or around the side of cover, indicating angles of view from possible other passing ships, the cameras for external view of a ship, and control towers. They also could do it at a pace that occasionally had him hurrying to keep up as quickly as he could and be silent once they hit gravity again.

The hatch on the aft of Sendak’s cruiser was difficult to make out if you didn’t know what you were looking for; they dropped in quickly, waiting for him to close it again before taking off down the narrow tunnels and access areas. There were cables, strange pipes, and all manner of conduits and patterns in the wall that flashed red and violet and had warning signs over grates to prevent accidental contact; it was narrow, cluttered, and claustrophobic.

And his guide seemed to have memorized the patrol patterns and timing of the little floating drones, or had something built into the armor to be aware of them, predicting their passage well before they risked being seen.

They finally led to another hatch in the floor, motioning him close and tugging his gauntleted hand over. “Bring up your computer.”

He fumbled with the wrist, trying to remember what the quartermaster had shown him. Once the screen was up, they keyed something in.

“I’m going to set a timer. Don’t go through that hatch until it goes off; if I’m not at my post when the alarms start sounding, it’ll be noticed.”

“Why did you come this far? Why not just give me a map of the tunnels?”

The three white lights tilted up to stare at him, and they rested a hand on the hilt of their sword.

“…You’re making sure I go through with it.”

“Turning you loose with the lion out of Zarkon’s hands was the ideal potential outcome.”

“And killing me if I didn’t?”

“Would buy time while he searched for another pilot he could control.”

At least they were honest about it; there was something weirdly comforting about having the pragmatic take on the situation separate from his mother being connected to them. “Where do I even go? Is there friendly territory?”

They shrugged. “Trust the lion. It probably has ideas.”

And then they tapped the timer to start it, turned, and vanished down the hallway as it ticked down.

He held his breath, waiting with a hand on the hatch. It seemed to take forever, even though it was probably only a couple of minutes.

The timer beeped, shutting off the gauntlet’s light-panel. He pulled the hatch and jumped down.

There was some kind of red, spherical energy barrier filling the back third of the massive hangar, the top of it only a few feet down from the hatch; he landed on it in a crouch. He could see the lion inside the sphere. It really did look a lot like the more mechanical carvings around the grand canyon cave, but brilliant red, smoother and sleeker built than the one in the canyon carvings.

The sphere was holding, but he could feel it watching him - the same wildfire-with-eyes looking through him from the dream.

“Come on, help me out here -”

There was what almost looked like a black hole or a tear in reality appearing just inside the door that quickly formed into the Druid; he knew he stood no chance fighting it, that everything would be over if it laid a hand on him.

“Please-”

The lion growled, a sound that echoed through the hangar; the sphere vanished, leaving him dropping down onto the lion’s head. His boots and gloves clung just enough for him to not get thrown when it moved, roaring at the druid, yellow eyes flaring to life.

A small hatch opened in the top of the lion’s head. He scrambled for it, dropping down as the Druid tried to teleport up onto it; the hatch closed behind him.

There was a small space there with a door; the door opened into a cockpit, which he dove for. The pilot’s seat slid forward as he was jumping into it, controls and an entire display coming up around him.

He couldn’t read any of it, but understood it anyway. He also realized quickly that he was only barely controlling the lion; it was already moving, tossing its head to throw the Druid into the wall and dancing back to fire a beam at it that put a hole three or four times the size of the nightmare creature through the side bulkhead of the hangar.

Hostile eliminated. It turned the beam to the bottom of the hangar where the bay doors were, twisting around in the hangar to cut almost the entire bottom of it out before throwing its shoulders into the ceiling and kicking downward, knocking the bottom out.

There were alarms going off as it dropped out of the battlecruiser to the ground below, charging out across the transit station. The radio in his helmet dinged to life.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Sendak’s voice was an angry snarl.

“Not being as stupid as you all seem to think I am,” he snapped, and killed the connection.

The lion was heading away from the transit station, with two of the other battlecruisers already launched and pursuing; the starscape behind him was a mass of fighters. Sendak’s ship emergency launched, engines burning to catch up to the front of the pack.

He leaned back into the cockpit, hands on the controls. His head was full of fire and the need to keep moving, something much bigger and older wrapping itself around and through him. “You know what you’re doing and where we’re going better than I do…”

The lion wanted a course that cut dangerously close to the star the whole set of planets was orbiting, close enough to play chicken with the gravity well; he went along with it.

It was close enough for the cockpit to get uncomfortably warm, and close enough that he saw a number of the fighters losing control in the gravity well and falling in; the lion was aiming for a slingshot maneuver, using the star to wreck their pursuers and for extra momentum. The heat from it just seemed to draw out a loud wall of vicious glee in the back of his mind, as if the wildfire from the dream had become a part of him, folded around him.

Angling into the star, it didn’t have quite enough power to finish the maneuver. Whatever it was feeding off from the stunt seemed to make it flare more to life, finding new reserves to pour into speed to break out, flinging forward.

It was moving fast enough that he barely saw the wormhole blink open before they were through it.

Chapter Text

Rannveig had not gotten to where he was by jumping at shadows; he strove to exemplify the predator ideal of a Galra. Krolia had known when she'd reported her intelligence on Sendak's actions that he wouldn't move openly until he had found an actual opportunity, but he had dispatched a few spies and scouts to keep an eye on Sendak's movements and any other searches for the remaining lions.

She had every open reason to be keeping track of what Sendak was doing; it was something relevant to Rannveig's ambitions within the Empire. She was still dependent on Thace for getting Keith out of the way, but their agents had orders to interfere with Sendak and any other attempts at claiming lions they found.

Making Sendak look bad if they got an opening to help him lose his prizes would be well within that.

It didn't take long after Rannveig approved and backed efforts to investigate Sendak for that to backfire slightly. The problem was that it meant Rannveig was now interested in, and checking over, what they could get from any avenue possible, which included less classified things that got out on the networks from random people on Sendak’s ship.

Keith had been very much noticed by most of the crew of Sendak's ship, and was the new big subject of gossip on the battlecruiser, which meant stray leaks onto the network.

Which meant Rannveig pulling up bits of what had made it out, and staring between Krolia at her station and his own computer in thoughtful consternation.

She could see the image from where she was, and glanced at it, then studiously focused her attention even more on her own screen.

A dobosh or so passed, and the image hadn't left Rannveig's screen.

"Krolia."

It had to come sooner or later.

"Yes, Commander?"

"How much did you leave out of your reports on your time on that backwater planet?"

It was a question she'd known was coming. "Nothing that had been relevant at the time."

There was a faint rumble and a continued stare; he wasn't going to let go of it without an explanation.

Krolia sighed. "A large part of my attempt at salvaging that mission after I was stranded by a mechanical failure was to find out if the local population had any clues to the Blue Lion's whereabouts, particularly since the original Paladin had been on friendly terms with them before his death. I aimed to find out what they might know, which required contact."

"Contact." Rannveig raised an eyebrow.

She paused what she was doing to look away from her screen and address him with more of her attention. "I put down in my report exactly what they knew; all knowledge of the Lion and the Paladin was lost to history at some point, and very few of them had realized there were other civilizations passing through their system. I did as much as I could to make sure the humans I found with the most likelihood of knowing something would trust me enough to talk without drawing attention. So yes, contact."

It wasn't hard to avoid reporting anything useful to the Empire for her intended mission to Rannveig by just skirting the window where they’d found the Blue Lion together; most of the time, the figure in some of the images was interpreted as some sort of mythological element or a story passed inland from more coastal cultures, so as long as she stuck to Blaytz’s trail, there wasn’t anything useful. Among the humans, the idea that the depictions of Blaytz’s travels were showing an alien visitation was treated with derision by anyone respectable.

It was also less that she’d found someone who had ideas, interest, and connections, and more that he’d found her and volunteered to help with her mission, but that was also not a good part to bring up around Rannveig.

"And this?" He tilted his head toward the image of Keith.

It was slightly impossible to accidentally and unknowingly leave behind a half-Galra child when you were the mother.

"I did what I could to make sure he wouldn't draw attention among their population; the Druid must've undone it." She'd had her emotional reaction in private; it was easier now to maintain a more detached persona. "I had intended to check back on him at some point, in case he managed to find anything I might have missed leading to the lion, and considering the reports that he's how Sendak found the location of the Blue Lion, that apparently worked. I did not plan for the idiot to walk straight up to Sendak." She shot the image of Keith a frustrated, despairing stare. "Clearly he got his sense from his lesser parent."

There was a moment of silence on the bridge, the few actual Galra on the bridge crew becoming suddenly more nervously fascinated by their own terminals, while Rannveig's raised eyebrow went up further, a claw tapping on the arm of his console.

He was opting out of saying something that he didn't even need to say out loud and that the entire bridge crew was thinking; she shot him a glare with a faint growl.

Besides, they weren't entirely right. Keith did get it from both sides.

The moment passed; she was too useful to Rannveig for him to be careless about how he acted towards her. "Would you be able to regain control?"

She had left Keith behind to avoid him becoming a tool for some Galra warlord at best, and now that was coming down a knife-edge she wasn't sure her cover would survive.

"Maybe." She stared at her console. "I'm sure Sendak's already reported to the Emperor." Infighting and competition was encouraged up until it hampered the Empire's ability to function or interfered with something of personal interest to Zarkon, and here they were dealing with Sendak acting on one of Zarkon's nearest and dearest pet projects; Zarkon wouldn't care about who did what to get it, only that Voltron - and Keith - made their way into his hands.

Rannveig had an irritable rumble at that, also seeing the problem. "Make sure our agents are staying cautious - we will continue to focus on our other problems for now."

"Yes, sir."

None of it was any easier for the entire Empire slowly realizing that Sendak's prize find was her son.

********************************

Ulaz wasn’t sure if the message from Thace was good news or a reason to take up drinking.

Paladin turned. Fled with lion. Be careful.

It came more than early enough to be warning, probably sent in some tiny window right after Thace had convinced Zarkon’s new pet project to take the lion and run.

It was one less part of the ancient superweapon they needed to worry about Zarkon getting, and generally a success. It also meant that Ulaz was going to have to deal with Zarkon himself, very soon, in a significantly less good mood, which made any celebration of the long-term victory very dimmed in favor of worrying about the immediate threat.

He went about his routines as normal, if finding excuses to keep a closer personal watch on his charge. It was easy to explain; Zarkon had left him personally responsible, after all.

He’d been in and out of Shiro’s room enough because of it that Shiro was flinching less when he entered, and had started watching him. Ulaz knew the expression; it involved paying visible attention somewhere in the room, feigning sleep, or feigning staring off into space, but it was gauging, watching patterns and studying.

The man was resilient. Ulaz had registered as a potential threat and important factor in the environment, and now he was working on learning whatever he could to factor Ulaz into any potential plans.

Shiro at least was settling into resignation over the arm, rather than picking at it or fighting with it, which made some of his job easier.

For a while there were also distracted moments when Ulaz wasn’t directly looking where Shiro was mulling over something less immediate with much consternation, then Ulaz just barely glimpsed a pained expression of long-suffering frustration and realization crossing Shiro’s face. He caught a faint “Damnit, Keith” before Shiro tried to facepalm into the mechanical hand, flinching and wobbling. It was getting better, slowly, but there was still feedback as his nervous system adjusted to the new attachments.

Shiro must have figured out who their Paladin was.

Sure enough, eventually Zarkon swept into the room. He was quiet, and very much not in the eerily pleasant mood he’d been in before.

Shiro was sprawled on the bed with his good arm draped over his face. “What now?”

Shiro sounded tired, almost too tired to be as irritated as he clearly wanted to be, and Ulaz knew Shiro could see who was entering from that angle.

Zarkon just stared at Shiro, his own moment of gauging and studying.

“Your friend seems to be going through a youthful rebellion phase.” It was delivered with weary irritation, and a faint hint of resigned disbelief.

Shiro barely stifled a bitter bark of a laugh. It left him more certain that the only person he’d know that it could be was Keith, and he wasn’t going to tell Zarkon that if he thought ‘youthful rebellion’ was a phase or something unusual, he obviously hadn’t known what he was trying to recruit. Keith didn’t actually obey anyone, he just chose to follow orders when it dovetailed with what he wanted.

Zarkon was unimpressed, but not reacting a great deal; Ulaz focused on his computer screens, finding detail minutiae of the cybernetic alterations fascinating.

“You seem to have guessed who it is.”

“Dunno. Maybe? My memory’s been a mess since your people worked on me.” Shiro shifted his arm, gauging how bad the feedback was and Zarkon’s reactions. “You don’t seem very bothered by this.”

Zarkon inclined his head. “I have waited ten thousand years for this. He has nowhere else to go, and knows now who his people are. You are going to be maintained while he gets his… moments of insolence out of his system.”

Shiro was not going to be the one to tell Zarkon that, if it actually was Keith, that was never going to happen. There was also an odd dichotomy starting to form as he processed Zarkon’s last visit compared to how Zarkon was acting for this one. Zarkon was ancient, powerful, and still terrifying, but there were definite emotions and some kind of personal stake in this. Some of the controlled presentation had to be intentional habit, and contrasting the last visit to this one, Zarkon was frustrated and trying to re-assert control.

Keith had gotten under his skin without even showing up in person. Zarkon was a person who could misjudge, get frustrated and irritated, and get caught off guard, not just some monolithic untouchable demigod.

“So does this mean I’m going to get actual living space?” Shiro was staying at the far end of his bed from where Zarkon was, leaning up against the wall and staying still, but was doing an amazing job of playing it off anyway.

“You’re still on recovery.” Zarkon’s tone was flat.

“Are these the rooms you put all of your ranking military in for something like this?” Shiro actually moved the arm enough to lift the hand up, weakly moving the fingers; the feedback was painful, but he could manage through it. He’d managed through worse. Zarkon wasn’t the only one who could pull together schooling their reactions to cover vulnerabilities.

And right now, Zarkon’s game was keeping him intact and putting out lures, which meant that as long as he wasn’t actively causing trouble or pushing too hard on challenging Zarkon’s authority, he had some leeway.

“You haven’t been appointed to any position yet, and you are remaining under observation.” Zarkon’s eyes narrowed, the implied threat dangling.

Not a lot of leeway. But some leeway.

The door opened again; Haggar was in the doorway, not entering. She was only there for a moment before turning into the hallway; Zarkon sighed, walking out, the door closing behind him.

There were a couple minutes of silence.

And then Zarkon returned, snarling, teeth bared; for a brief few moments as he entered, there was a very loud rattling alligator-growl, and Shiro flattened against the wall, the brief bravado vanishing.

Zarkon’s attention focused on Ulaz, who had frozen. “There will be changes in plans. Your orders remain the same for now.”

Ulaz snapped straight to salute; Zarkon swept out immediately after.

The room was silent for a few long minutes. Ulaz glanced sideways; Shiro hadn’t moved, still flattened against the wall.

“You may want to breathe.”

That seemed to take a conscious effort, and it was another few minutes before Shiro managed to not press back into the wall behind him. It was a slow progression from frozen, to harried and haunted, to a shaded sort of focus; the kind of knife’s edge survival instinct that had gotten him this far.

Some of it was focused on Ulaz. The Galra was going to have to try and get some information what new setback had Zarkon angry, but he had a feeling that leaving to try and do that now, while Shiro was on edge and trying to gauge him, would just mean trapping himself in between Zarkon and someone with the potential to go cornered-animal unpredictably. Cementing himself as a threat to Shiro when he had to spend time in close quarters was almost as dangerous as the rest of the gamble on Zarkon’s perceptions of his loyalties.

He wasn’t sure what Shiro had been paying attention to or where, but that gauging was going until Shiro said something quietly.

“You’re as much of a prisoner here as I am.”

Ulaz eyed the door; the room was almost definitely monitored. He shrugged. “I have my orders.”

*****************

The news of Keith's dramatic exit came from multiple sources all at once.

Some of the more dissatisfied lower ranks Krolia had kept a running bribe on edged out the more general bits of network chatter that slipped out by barely a dobosh, and that came almost a varga before the official report and a standing alert for any ship that spotted the Red Lion to pursue immediately, as the highest priority.

And a few ticks after, there was a small text message on more secure channels from Thace.

{You're Welcome}

Thace was good at his job, quiet, observant, and good at putting pieces together; it was hard to tell if he'd figured out from putting together whatever encounter he'd had with her message, or just from catching Imperial gossip, but she was sure he’d figured out that Keith was her son.

Either way, she was never happier to owe someone, even if she was the one giving the orders for their scouts and patrols to watch for any sign of the lion. The only thing she could really do from there was hope the beast had gone somewhere outside of Rannveig's territory, where she wouldn't be caught in the position of trying to protect him while expected to hunt him down.

The relief was short-lived, vanishing like ash as they received a top-priority hail from Central Command.

She knew what it was before the screen had fully opened. She was sure everyone on the bridge knew what it was before the screen had fully opened.

The entire bridge was at attention as the transmission from the Emperor came up; she snapped a salute in time with Rannveig.

There was a restrained, curt tension when Zarkon was angry; a loaded explosive waiting for a target. "Commander Rannveig. I believe your lieutenant is connected to a matter of utmost importance."

Rannveig ducked his head, acknowledging. "We had our suspicions from idle gossip, sire." He stepped to one side with a pointed look at Krolia.

She stepped forward, to the center of the space the cameras would be focused on. "What do you require, milord?"

"The half-breed is yours. How much do you know of it?"

"The human father was one of their pilots in their attempts at space travel. He had a private hobby of investigating signs of other presence in their solar system, ours and otherwise, including sifting through theories of older contact for anything accurate. He had been aware of some of the traces left behind by the former Blue Paladin, but not their meaning. I exhausted all avenues available to me for learning what their species knew and documented what I came away with in my report." He actually hadn’t gathered much more than what could be gleaned in idle moments of boredom before he pulled her out of her crashed fighter, and he’d been considering retiring as a pilot when she left, but by now she could rattle off the version of the story doctored to fit the Empire’s sensibilities in her sleep.

Odds were that Zarkon had gone over her report when it'd happened, too; even if she'd come up empty handed when she returned to the Empire and claimed there wasn't enough evidence to act on, it was still his personal obsession. "I adjusted the child to blend in with their population; he was still small when I returned to my post here. I had expected them to continue investigating in my absence, and maintained terms such that I could return to check on what it might have found."

There was no room for any signs of maternal feelings or anything other than the Emperor's orders if she wanted to get through this in one piece and have any hope of a chance to do something. To the Empire, Keith was a half-breed, something flawed, a lesser being, an embarrassment if he couldn't be made into something useful. She was a higher officer of the Empire, and she was expected to be a model of the ideology Zarkon had constructed.

"Then you still have influence."

"Likely, although I can't be sure how much." Her cover wasn't going to last the decaphoeb, but she would at least have an opportunity to get somewhere in the center of the hunt and sabotage it as much as she could before she had to vanish.

Zarkon studied her silently, scrutiny that made her skin crawl; she stayed still, at attention, looking straight back and ready, a loyal weapon of the Empire.

"Bring me the half-breed and the lion, and you will have your own command, Lieutenant-Commander. That is your duty above all others now. Take any resources needed for this mission." He paused, eyes narrowing. "Do not fail me on this." There were visible teeth lingering on the last threat.

"Yes, my lord. Vrepit sa." She snapped a salute. Rannveig managed no more reaction than a slight ear-twitch; there was no arguing with the Emperor, and right now, Zarkon wouldn't care at all that he'd just left Rannveig abruptly needing a new second in command no matter how Krolia's new mission worked out.

“I will be expecting you at central command soon.”

The transmission ended abruptly.

Sendak’s battlecruiser was heading for Earth, to retrieve the Blue Lion and try to bait the Red Lion - and Keith - back to protect his home world.

Zarkon was already making contingencies; Sendak was his best and brightest, his favorite, the one that had never failed him, and Zarkon was unsure enough of his success here to be already arranging for her to step in to retrieve the Red Lion and its pilot.

It was a bitter, twisted little bit of hope, that Zarkon expected Keith and everything he was tied to now to best Sendak and was already assuming he would need contingencies.

*****************

Even if there was a drastic change in Ulaz's situation, the routines on the command center didn't change, and it would've been dangerous to alter too much beyond accommodating the shift in which projects had what priority. He had managed to win that post and survive it as long as he did because he did not flinch at Haggar or the Druids, dealing with things that made even some of the hardened commanders balk without blinking beyond critique of methods and complaints about inefficiencies.

There weren't many that were willing to tell Haggar there was a flaw in her work. She not only humored it, but seemed to find it almost entertaining as long as he actually was able to back up his complaints with data, proofs, and alternatives.

That same fearlessness that he'd survived by meant that it would be noticeable if he adjusted his pattern any; the only difference between this and any of his other assignments that ended up involving the High Priestess and the Emperor looking over his shoulder was the larger scale of implications.

More pressure than usual, and whether Haggar grew suspicious of him or not, he would likely need to interfere and throw his cover at some point to prevent Voltron from falling into their hands, but that looming likelihood was just more reason to treat it like any other assignment - the less there was out of the ordinary before he moved, the better odds he had of getting some element of surprise.

It was something that was all very tense and looming when he had quiet moments in private quarters to weigh his options, but outside of that, the Command Center went on as it usually did; the upper command was bolstered by the word spreading that they had preparations to claim Voltron.

He could manage socializing with the other upper ranks, playing along with their skewed idea of history and the vicious mess that was Imperial philosophy, but he preferred not to. Working closely for Haggar was its own small mercy there; even Sendak was more uneasy around the Druids and their servants than he'd ever admit to, so there were few that really wanted to spend downtime around him, and it gave him an easy angle of the persona to play up as the architect of nightmares that worked with the creatures that scared even the monsters.

He'd made a game out of seeing how long some of the commanders and upper staff lasted before he made them uncomfortable enough for them to find an excuse to be elsewhere, whenever one of them decided to get brave enough to bother him.

After a few decaphoebs of that, he could walk the halls of the command center mostly unbothered; either everyone with authorization to be in those areas saw the insignia designating him an adjunct to the Druids and gave him a wide berth, or they had experience with him to give them more personal reasons to avoid him.

It wasn't a pleasant peace, but he would take what he could get, and there was something to be said for watching commanders who thought nothing of ordering the deaths of entire worlds flinch and cross to the other side of the corridor to avoid him.

Unless they had business or some reason to seek him out.

"ULAZ!"

He stopped in the hallway, not turning to the voice that'd barked his name as if snapping a reprimand. Of course it was one of the upper intelligence commanders; they dealt with the druids more than anyone else that wasn't working in the labs, enough to gain some desensitization, and had enough involvement in black ops and the other side of the worst of the Empire to be hard to unsettle.

It was definitely a pending argument, but the commander sounded too frazzled and the setting was too informal for it to be anything serious. He waited until the man had stormed closer before he turned, deliberately, glaring right back in silence.

"Do you know what your - blasted pet has been doing?!"

The commander was almost growling and hissing in frustration.

Ulaz almost closed his eyes, completely unimpressed. "I told you that if you don't bring bioweapons in regularly for maintenance, their behavior turns erratic and they're more likely to rebel."

"Not one of the Druid's monsters! Your pet! That - tiny little vermin menace you'd been toying with!"

He paused in his exasperation to just stare blankly. "You're going to have to be more specific than that."

It really was amazing how much low key irritation could be caused with minor experiments on non-sapient life or with minor small drones that 'accidentally' got loose sometimes. Haggar didn’t even care; she usually thought it was hilarious herself.

The commander did growl, showing points of teeth, and brought up a light screen that he turned to push into Ulaz's face with lines of code. "Does any of this look familiar?!"

It was a set of subroutines for altering the behavior of automated AI systems, buried under a couple layers of misdirection and garbage recursive code that would do nothing but make it harder to find the malicious code.

And he had seen it before. He tilted his head to peer around the computer screen with an eyebrow raised. "Weren't you responsible for cleaning all of that out of the command center's computers?"

"This wasn't on the command center," the commander hissed.

Ulaz snorted, a stifled laugh. "Then it's far out of my hands; you'd be better off reprimanding whoever didn't bother to check records that allowed him within the same room as a potentially accessible terminal. You - did put a note in the records about the Incident, didn't you?"

They probably hadn't; there wasn't much effort put into keeping track of prisoners who were deemed of 'little interest'.

"That's not -" The commander growled with a strangled noise of frustration, ears angling flat back. "Have you even paid attention to anything outside of your lab complex the last three phoebs?!"

Ulaz gave the commander a long, level stare. "I have been on a project of special interest to the High Priestess and the Emperor. Do you think I've had time to care about whatever's blowing up in the outer territories this time?"

The Commander glowered at him with another faint growl, patching something resembling composure back together. "About three phoebs ago, there started being 'technical problems' with automated transports in three outer sectors, 'malfunctioning' and dropping their cargo where it would be 'lost'. The 'malfunctions' were coincidentally losing the cargo where scavengers and rebels could swoop in to grab it before we could confirm the problem and find them. In the last phoeb, they've managed to get the virus onto transports in ten sectors. I found this trying to trace the responsible party." He tapped the back of the light screen with a claw irritably. "Your pet escaped and joined the resistance."

Ulaz scanned over the code again, and then shifted to look around the screen at the commander; at first it was just a faint hiss before he shook his head, laughing at the frazzled intelligence commander.

"This is not a laughing matter, Ulaz!"

"Isn't it?" Ulaz gestured to the commander. "The scourge of five galaxies, reduced to a sputtering mess by some backwater primitive? Warlord Rannveig himself distracted trying to swat a rat from a species that hasn’t even left their solar system yet?"

The commander narrowed his eyes with a quieter growl, jaw set with a couple points of teeth sticking out. "You're the one who thought it'd be funny to give him a computer."

"I," Ulaz stepped back, tapping his chest with a couple fingertips, "Had noted that a group of pacifist scientists would likely be incredibly boring in most respects, but that it might be worth seeing just how clever their species was. What I gave him was a heavily restricted and locked down machine made for children, to see if he was able to decipher how to navigate a foreign interface and what he would do with it." He gave the screen a very pointed look. "And if I had not decided to investigate their faculties, you wouldn't have any clue where any of this came from now. It isn't my fault no-one considered the information of any 'importance' before this."

The commander glowered straight through the transparent screen at him.

He reached up to push it out of the way. "You're welcome."

"Your pet." The commander tapped his wrist, dismissing the light screen. "Has turned into the most successful pirate the rebellion has had." He took a step closer to Ulaz, leaning in. "Since Antok's Scourge!"

"I couldn't possibly claim that one as a pet." Ulaz leaned faintly forward, smiling with visible teeth. "Although you're making me regret that I didn't. I'm sure he would have been amusing, and I at least wouldn't have lost track of someone known to have broken into our systems with severely restricted equipment."

"Are you trying to tell me how to do my job, Doctor?" The Commander bristled.

"It sounds like I would be better at it." He made a more pointed show of teeth, otherwise still. "Fortunately for you, it's far harder to find people capable of contributing to the High Priestess's research than it is to find glorified intelligence analysts, so you needn’t fear me gunning for your job."

That got a growl. "This is your vermin, Ulaz."

Ulaz straightened, adjusting the collar of his uniform, abandoning the threat posturing for quiet bemusement. "And outsmarting some frontier savage harrying supply lines sounds like your job, Commander. I happen to be busy with something far more important, on the Emperor's direct personal orders."

The Commander held ground, weighing his options, finally wrinkling his nose in defeat. "You know, I really hate you."

"That also sounds like your problem, not mine." Ulaz turned on one heel and continued down the hallway, pointedly ignoring the Commander.

On the off chance he made it out of this alive, he had to find a way to get some kind of nice gift to the new rebel commander.

Chapter Text

They made it to the next cave, making as much effort as they could at stealth. The same thing happened as before, with some of the carvings glowing, but nothing otherwise happened; the cave went back a decent distance, but there wasn’t anywhere else they could get to from it.

As they headed back to the entrance, there was movement up ahead; they flattened against a wall, using a bend for cover. Pidge peered around the corner enough to get a look, then yanked her head back fast, motioning for silence.

One of the aliens in armor passed by, with two of the sentry drones. All three were armed. The footsteps passed out of earshot after a few minutes, and Pidge checked again, taking lead to the entrance to make sure it was clear.

The path to the next cave was becoming more complicated, with occasional patrols to dodge. They made it to the entrance only to find one of the sentry drones posted by the entrance.

“Do you think that’s it?”, Lance whispered.

“I think they’d have more security if it were.” Pidge was still in lead, managing to slink as close to the edge of the rock they were using for cover as she dared.

“Maybe they don’t know for sure either?”, Hunk offered hopefully.

Pidge glanced back, gauging angles and who was hiding where. “Hey Hunk. Can you toss a rock that way?”

Hunk looked uncertain, but nodded, finding a stray piece of sandstone and tossing it.

The sentry reacted, turning to check the direction of the clatter. It was quick to shift tracking trajectory, but Pidge was already lunging out of cover with the alien sword, throwing all her weight to drive it through the drone’s chest.

The drone dropped, hitting the sandstone with a metal clang that echoed; Pidge winced, planting her feet on it to yank the sword free.

“Come on let’s go!”, she hissed at the others, waving.

Lance and Hunk hurried out; Veronica motioned at them to go, readying the rifle and staying behind cover.

Lance stopped at the downed drone, picked up its heavier rifle, and held it out to Hunk. Hunk blanched a little, holding it uncomfortably, but took a deep breath and adjusted his grip on it, following.

One of the paintings did not seem to include the lion, but did have a startlingly detailed night sky; there was a streak of light, as if something were coming down from above, while five indistinct figures stood below. Pidge took a few pictures with her phone; there were recognizable constellations, which made it worth investigating further. Veronica got a few better pictures of her own, carefully adjusting her camera before lining up the shots.

Once they were outside the cave, Veronica caught a flicker of movement from other cover off to the side. She trained her rifle there for a few long minutes, but the canyon stayed silent.

If there was one of the Galra there, they hadn’t sounded an alarm yet, and pursuing it to investigate would risk drawing attention.

The drone going dark did get a response, one of the soldiers Sendak had left with the outpost to secure the forward camp hurrying back with the two other drones. Veronica stayed silent behind her rock, tapping a quick text to the others inside and crossing fingers the short-range text drop wouldn’t show up to them like something using more of a cell signal might - {three at the entrance maybe company.}

In the cave, all three of them flattened to the wall, and Hunk found himself shoved toward the front of their hiding place with the alien rifle.

The Galra soldier checked over the fallen drone, noting the missing weapon with a growl. “We’ve got hostiles within the perimeter and a missing rifle. Looks like the drone on cave five was taken out with a bladed weapon.”

Riven came over the radio. “There should be other eyes out that way from our perimeter - Tav, did you see anything?”

Tav froze. He should be answering, but there was a twinge of hesitation; this was the retrieval that would finally get recognition and not be the joke of the Empire -

And his ancestors had spent ten thousand years as laughing stocks in the name of Zarkon falling for a ruse, with threats of death if they abandoned their post, and still no explanation for the jarring dissonance between the alliance his ancestors described and the history he’d been taught.

Ten thousand years forgotten for centuries sometimes, with nothing more to hope for than making the best of a mission they couldn’t complete, and for all the noises about recognition Sendak was going to be the one named the hero.

“Tav? Do you copy?”

“I copy. I did get eyes on the intrusion. They headed further into the canyon already, towards cave eight.”

“Understood. In pursuit.” The soldier stood, hurrying further south, with the drones following.

Veronica stared suspiciously as the Galra turned to leave the other direction, then at the other cover across the canyon. {all clear}, she sent. She wasn’t sure if it was another trap being set or not, but they could worry about that when the others weren’t cornered in a blind cave.

There were a few long, tense minutes before the others came back out, with no sign of any luck. They found an out of the way corner, Veronica waving that way.

“I think we’re being watched,” she whispered simply once they had a vaguely okay hidden vantage point; she’d caught a few more brief flickers of movement. “The soldier that stopped was on some kind of radio call for a minute before he left.”

Pidge followed Veronica’s occasional wary glances; there wasn’t anything there that she could see, but they were also not moving - it’d be easier to stay hidden around them if there were someone tailing them.

“Why wouldn’t they just come after us if they know we’re here?” Hunk was glancing over his shoulder nervously; the alien rifle was starting to become a security blanket, hugged to his chest almost even if he was keeping a hand on the grip.

“They couldn’t do anything with the other one without Keith. Maybe they’re trying to get an opportunity with Lance.” Pidge looked over at Lance pointedly; Lance paled a little, the other implications of the entire Chosen One gig starting to sink in.

“Either that or we’ve got a friend who doesn’t want them getting it. I don’t think we’ve got a way to tell right now,” Veronica muttered, narrowing her eyes at a specific rocky outcropping.

“I don’t like it,” Pidge grumbled.

Lance didn’t like it either; they were basically at the mercy of some nebulous person, and he did remember the mentions made that Keith was probably only working for them because they had hostages.

They didn’t have leverage on him, unless they could separate him from the other three; then they’d have his sister, his closest friend, and Pidge, who was his teammate and someone he needed to look out for.

Lance let out a breath, sliding down against the rock. “I really hope this guy’s friendly.”

Pidge already had her phone up with the marked map. “Alright, the next cave is a little east of here. It’s not far and it looks like they’re still establishing their perimeter, so we can probably hit it without a fight still if we move fast.”

She started to shift to leave; Lance held up a hand. “Listen - you guys will be careful, right?”

All three of them turned to look at him.

“We know how they got Keith, and you’re all right here…” He looked away, waving a hand at them.

There was silence for a moment; Pidge nodded grimly, and Hunk went quiet, shifting the alien rifle in his hands.

Veronica rested a hand on his shoulder. “We’ll be careful, hermano.”

They slipped out; Pidge barely caught signs of movement tailing them, now that she was watching for it. Whoever it was, they were doing damn good at staying out of sight.

Pidge didn’t like it; she was seeing what Lance was worrying over pretty clearly now. She was the best at stealth and had the sword, so she had to take point a little, but she didn’t want to put too much space between them. Hunk at least was hovering close to Lance, although it was hard to tell if Hunk was being protective or hiding behind Lance’s show of confidence. Veronica brought up the rear, keeping an eye behind them.

The noise of a helicopter got them all to freeze, Pidge cringing and fumbling for the binoculars. She barely got a look at the news copter before it got shot down.

Pidge adjusted to head the direction of the crash.

Hunk grabbed the back of Lance’s jacket; Lance hadn’t questioned Pidge’s change in course. “They’re going to be swarming that crash.”

“So?” Lance twisted around to look up at Hunk.

“Well…” Hunk gave the alien rifle in his other hand an uncomfortable shift; he was more afraid than he wanted to admit. “We might be able to find that weapon and then we won’t just be sneaking up to a bunch of armed aliens?”

“If there’s any opening to get the survivors it’ll be early and go fast.” Pidge looked back and then ducked onward; Lance pulled loose to follow. Hunk sighed, following after, with a short glance to confirm that Veronica was siding with everyone else.

The copter had come down in the canyon a little west of the alien ships; it gave them a good idea where the alien base camp was, right on top of one of the caves. It destroyed their chances of getting into that one; the base camp defense had just spread out to envelop the downed copter.

They found a perch with some cover; it wasn’t very close, and they were left relying on Pidge and the binoculars.

There were three of them; reporter, cameraman, and pilot, although what she guessed was the pilot was unconscious, bad off, and left with a couple drones and no real tending. The other two had two drones and one big scarred-up alien herding them into an open area; some of the armor looked more like mechanical parts separate from the rest of it. There was coloration in common, but she wasn’t sure they were all the same species.

The big one had slate violet-grey skin with darker horns in a straight row over the top of his head, one eye missing and patched over, the other dim yellow and scarred around, and a scarred mess where one finned ear should have been; part of one hand looked mechanical, while the other arm was rebuilt with worn, ragged machinery from just below the elbow down. One of the other two had patchwork armor that didn’t look complete, thick dark violet fur with a stiff, short mane going down their head and back of their neck, pointed ears close to their head, with noticeable catlike eyes, slit pupils with grey irises on yellow. The last one had intact, well-kept armor; she wasn’t sure at range, but it looked like there was short, fine violet fur, with featureless yellow eyes like the bigger one.

“Looks like three reporters, all alive, one of them’s pretty bad off. There’s three of the aliens and a bunch of drones.”

The scarred up one had the camera; the cameraman was trying to talk at them animatedly. The big alien gave the reporter a dim stare, then used the more mechanical clawed limb to crush the camera, giving the cameraman a narrow look with bared sharp teeth. The cameraman shrank back.

“They had a camera. It was probably broadcasting, so it’s pretty safe to say the world knows.”

The one in partial armor came forward, saying something to the one in better armor, then turned to the two reporters. The reporters started, attention focusing on the patchwork alien; both of them started talking, and the patchwork alien waved at them to slow down.

“…I think one of them speaks English. He’s talking to the reporters.”

“What? How?!” Lance leaned closer; Hunk grabbed his jacket again, keeping him down.

“Well, I was listening to their transmissions and found signs of their chatter around our system for years. We’ve been trying pretty hard to get attention, and it’d be really easy for them to listen to us.”

There was definitely some kind of exchange going on, with the patchwork alien apparently playing interpreter between the reporters and the better-equipped one. Going by the way the reporters were acting, it was some kind of interrogation.

She couldn’t tell anything of what was being said or what they were doing, but after a few minutes of questioning and a lot of frantic gestures and arguing from the reporters, the one in better armor snapped something to the other two. The translator seemed taken aback, while the scarred up one tilted his (she guessed, maybe, who knew if they were sexually dimorphic at all or how they worked) head, saying something from the rock he was sitting on.

The armored one snarled, drawing some kind of sidearm, and fired three shots.

She lowered the binoculars, closing her eyes and feeling a little sick; it was one thing to go into these things knowing there was a risk of people dying, to be prepared for fights in the heat of the moment, and another to sit on a ledge and watch a pointless execution without being able to do anything.

“What happened?”, Hunk whispered, and she realized all eyes were on her with a quiet sort of sober alarm.

“Apparently they decided the reporters weren’t worth keeping as prisoners.” She shifted down from her vantage point, still feeling queasy.

“Wait…they just killed them?”, Lance asked.

Pidge nodded, eyes on the ground. “Rescue’s off, let’s get back to what we were doing.”

“How can you say that when you just -” Lance motioned sharply the direction of the rock, and what was past it.

She glared up at him. “Because what else can we do? We find whatever it is they want so bad and use it, or we can’t do anything about this, and I don’t know about you, but I’m done with being helpless.”

“And if we stick around here too long they might spot us,” Veronica added, already getting more uneasy watching their backs.

They were closer to the alien camp, close enough to make dodging the drone patrols a hairier proposition. Somewhere on the way to getting clear, Pidge spotted one of the ships nearby, checked for patrols, and stopped. “Hey Hunk, c’mere. You two cover us.”

With no further word, she went low to dive underneath the ship. Hunk scrambled behind, wedging in under a structure on the side that looked like an engine, leaving Lance and Veronica still behind cover and checking frantically for any signs of the Galra or their drone soldiers.

“What are we doing?”, Hunk whispered frantically; Pidge was already fighting with some kind of latch on the bottom, using the sword to wedge it open.

“Sabotage,” she hissed.

Hunk shrugged and began feeling around the engine, borrowing the sword for much the same use as Pidge had put it to. He was a little unsure on a lot of it, but could at least reason out pretty well what contributed to what mechanically and what was more or less important. He filed a note to find out what the sword was made out of at some later date, since not only was it undamaged from being used to pry open alien hypertech ship plating, it’d actually left marks in the ship.

Pidge concluded at some point that she had done enough damage rewiring things, wedging the paneling she’d pried open shut, and Hunk had swapped fuel and coolant lines and disconnected stabilizers; he frowned at the bent part of the paneling as he closed it, and scuttled after Pidge back to cover, with a small prayer that the aliens wouldn’t do too thorough of a preflight check.

The increased alien presence was making it hard to get close to the caves; they switched tactics, focusing on sabotage while Lance picked off occasional drones he could keep from catching on and pursuing too quickly. By nightfall they had to fall back, as the camp went on alert, pulling their perimeter in closer and rearranging patrols and guards to minimize targets.

Tav was still tailing, ambivalent on if he should say something or just be disappointed he couldn’t make bets with a couple of the other younger Kelvet colonists. He certainly didn’t plan on making a target of himself after seeing how well their proto-Paladin was one-shot-one-kill bringing down drones; he’d revised his earlier assessment of the young human as “ridiculous and not dangerous” to “that’s definitely a couple of Paladins in the making”. Just because he hadn’t aimed for a living target yet didn’t mean he wouldn’t, especially if startled, and Tav did not plan on being the target that broke the no-actual-killing streak.

Some of the sabotage they were doing was potentially lethal, but it was also going to catch Sendak’s unit he’d left rather than the small handful of Kelvet residents, so he was finding it hard to care. Sendak and his troops had always been terrors to deal with, condescending at best and often swinging abusive.

The small group of humans retreated back to one of the outlying caves for the night, posting watches again, the alien rifle left for whoever was awake. Lance took the first watch, restless and jumpy; they were in a small war zone, and while the reporters signaled that the rest of the world had noticed, there wasn’t any sign of backup or larger response from the rest of the world yet. The Galra were still keeping their perimeter shrunk; he finally slunk toward the entrance, curiosity getting the better of him.

There was a flicker of movement ahead close to the entrance, a brief flash of yellow eyes in the dark. Lance shifted the rifle ready, hurrying after, keeping close to the wall.

He didn’t catch their mysterious tail, but there was a light overhead - the distant blaze of a ship making atmospheric entry.

It was much larger than the other that had come down, enough to make everything else look like a joke; big enough to blot out the sky overhead as it came down over the canyon, like an aircraft carrier expanded to carry an entire sprawling base with it. Other ships streaked out of the sides, fighters circling to form an aerial perimeter while drop ships spread out along the canyon rim, bright purple contrails fanning out like fireworks that never burst.

Lance scrambled back in a hurry with barely a thought to check if the tail was still there, shaking the others awake. His frantic gesturing and whispers of “We’ve got trouble, big trouble” didn’t explain much, but did get everyone scrambling alert and trying to be quiet under the ominous rumble of the giant ship’s engines.

He led to the entrance, more tense. It was too dark to see anything, the ship overhead blotting out the stars and moonlight above them.

There were footsteps approaching in a too-regular pattern; they flattened in to hide, Pidge on one side of the entrance, Lance on the other.

Two of the alien soldiers in well-kept armor passed by with three drones. After they were out of sight, the group regathered back in the furthest part of the cave.

“They don’t seem to be setting up lights or anything.” Lance was watching over his shoulder nervously; he could dodge spotlights and flashlights, he’d learned that skill sneaking around the Garrison after curfew. This was harder. No lights meant no easy tell for where they’d be looking.

“Like I said earlier, I’m pretty sure they’re nocturnal. They probably don’t need lights like we do.” Pidge was watching the way out suspiciously.

“That gives them a pretty big advantage here - we can’t even bring out a flashlight without giving ourselves away,” Veronica grumbled.

There were other footsteps echoing from the area of the cave entrance and alien voices; they all fell silent, flattening wherever they could, the few firearms they had trained outward while Pidge tensed with the sword.

Tav heard the other patrol coming and had the benefit of radio chatter to know that Sendak had people spreading out to scour the canyon for the saboteurs; nobody else knew yet that they were hunting at least two proto-paladins. They were cornered, and he could easily flag down the patrol to have backup that was far less squishy and noncombatant of a target than he was. He’d probably get some kind of accolade for finding the Paladin, and with a little more work to find the Lion, would be Kelvet having a direct hand in solving their ten thousand year mission, maybe enough for Sendak to not steal all the glory.

His entire family line’s ten thousand year exile of hiding out underwater, on a frozen hell, mostly forgotten by the Empire, with their only protection against raiders and the like for centuries at a time being staying too quiet to notice and having too little to care about.

He walked out of the cave openly to greet the patrol.

For those in the cave, a few sets of footsteps left and there was no sound of anyone heading further into the cave; Pidge crept out along the wall, Lance trying to flatten where he could cover the way out as much as possible.

After a couple minutes, she came back, voice down to a whisper. “There’s one of them and one of the drones at the entrance. He’s not armored and he’s only got a small sidearm; we could probably break out.”

“Do you think they know we’re here?”, Hunk whispered, with a harried nod out of the cave.

“I dunno. They’ve gotta know we’re armed, so why leave one guy that’s not even prepared for a fight if they did?” Lance was keeping the rest of the cave covered anyway; something didn’t feel right about the whole thing, and he wasn’t sure if it was in their favor or against it.

“It could be a trap. We know they’ve got an easier time in the dark than we do; they might be giving us an easy target to get us to show where we are.” Veronica was against the wall with her rifle, watching out, but wasn’t keeping it readied; Lance was the better cover anyway, she was mostly backup.

“Well, we could always just hide out here and wait until morning, right?” Hunk gestured at where they’d wedged in before in the back of the cave.

Lance and Pidge both turned to argue, but couldn’t come up with much of a better idea; Veronica shrugged.

“I don’t like this - we’re cornered,” Pidge finally grumbled.

“We’re either cornered or stuck in a canyon inside their perimeter with them knowing where to hunt us.” Veronica slid to sit against the cave wall. “May as well try to rest a little while we wait this out; either we get a shot at moving come morning when we can see, or we fake them out into thinking we’re somewhere else.”

“Or we end up having to shoot our way out,” Lance added, still grimly watching the cave. He didn’t like any of this, and wasn’t inclined to budge from his spot covering the hall with Hunk, Pidge, and his sister there. He’d been having second thoughts about killing someone, but if it came down to not killing or leaving his family and team in danger, there’d be Galra going down.

The hours ticked by until dawn slowly; nobody wanted to make more noise than necessary, in case the one posted by the cave entrance heard them, and nobody managed more than fitful dozing. Pidge spent a few minutes on her laptop, intent on something, and pulled everyone close, motioning at the screen.

In one corner was the photo of the painting with the night sky and five tiny indistinct figures. The main part of the desktop was taken up by a astronomy program, set to work out when the night sky in that area would match the painting.

The date was that year, a few months off, what would have been late in the summer term and drawing closer to graduation exams.

“Look at this. Something coming down, five people, and it’s a clear enough night sky to match a date.”

They stared in silence for a few minutes.

“Like - whoever put this here was predicting something?” Lance blinked at it.

“I - maybe? I’m not sure what it should mean, but… the five thing was in the tomb, too. Five people, five lions.”

“And five figures for whatever it’s trying to predict,” Veronica added.

“There’s only four of us.” Hunk motioned between them.

“Keith. If it’s tied to the weapon then Keith is supposed to be here.” Pidge chewed on her lip.

Hunk counted off on his fingers. “…So Keith got called, and Lance has it calling, and there’s supposed to be five people for whatever this weapon is apparently - does that mean all of us just wandered into some kind of weird destiny chosen thing?”

“Maybe? I don’t know, I…” She looked down at the sword, and held it out to Lance. “Here, hold this for a minute, I want to check something.”

Lance blinked, but took the hilt; it flared brighter then when she’d held the hilt, and in the dark, there were some barely-visible markings down the blade.

There was a shutter click from where Veronica was sitting. Pidge nodded, taking it back and holding the hilt; the glow was there, but noticeably less now that it could be seen clearly, and without the odd markings. Another shutter click.

She held it to Hunk; He swallowed and took it. The blade dimmed, then kept about the same level of light it’d had for Pidge. He stared at it, then looked up to Pidge and Lance helplessly as another shutter click sounded.

Pidge turned to Veronica, holding it over.

Veronica shifted to set the camera in her lap, taking the sword’s hilt in both hands; the glow dimmed and faded out.

“…Okay so it reacts to some of us but not all of us,” Hunk noted.

“And reacts the strongest to Lance, who’s being called by whatever’s hidden down here. The sword belonged to the guy who hid it here, so it’s probably reacting to whatever energy thing they have going for neural interface? Keith could pick up on this one enough to figure out where it was, apparently, even though it’s not the one he’s attached to…” She thought hard, frowning. “…Lance can I see the fob for the bike for a second?”

She held a hand out, and Lance handed it over, bewildered. A couple of fine screwdrivers for working on computers were easy enough to reach in her bag, and she had the fob popped open fast enough, holding the opened plastic shell.

There was nothing in it but a lead fishing weight hastily glued in to give it some heft.

“…It’s a dummy. How does that thing even WORK?!” Lance almost slipped, barely stifling the last word to a breathless noise of frustration.

Pidge let out a breath, drumming her fingers on her laptop as she closed the computer, handing the useless dummy-fob back to Lance. “The same way the sword does. It’s recognizing people compatible with Voltron.”

“So the five in the painting are the people that the weapons are calling to, but Keith’s missing and he should be here, and Veronica isn’t one of them, which means we’re actually short two people right now,” Hunk summarized.

“If only one of them is nearby, then we can figure out who else was supposed to be here after we have the one here away from them.” Veronica was settling her camera back in its storage bags, attaching it to her backpack; as much as she might’ve wanted to get pictures of the alien encampment, she was more needed as extra hands for a rifle, and knew it wasn’t a good time for photos right now. If any editor groused about not having those shots, she was more than happy to verbally rip an ear off about having at least some shred of survival instinct and what it took to get the photos she had.

At the cave entrance, as the sun was rising and light began to enter the canyon, Tav was startled out of dozing himself by one of Sendak’s troops nudging his shoulder; he wheeled around fast, then froze when he realized that Sendak himself was not far behind, with five drones, another two soldiers, and his second-in-command.

“I see you’re doing a splendid job keeping watch, Surveyor.” Sendak did not sound happy with him. At all.

“Nothing has come in or out of this cave since I’ve been here, Commander. You can check the drone’s logs.” He waved at the drone standing across from him.

Sendak straightened taller, looking down at him; the Commander was huge, particularly for a Galra, but Tav knew better than to flinch and make himself more of a target, holding his ground.

That, and while he knew better than to start an actual confrontation, he also had an idea where his limits were, and he wasn’t going to get pushed around within them.

“This is the last possible hiding hole within our perimeter that hasn’t been searched by my crew since my arrival. Either they hid here before you arrived and you missed them, or you’ve been lying.” Sendak’s good eye narrowed.

Sendak catching him out in the deception would be an immediate execution if he was lucky. He might be able to ride out the reputation Kelvet had for being incompetent hicks, but even that would carry some kind of severe punishment; Zarkon didn’t have much patience for failure at important tasks, and Sendak had embraced ‘victory or death’ enough to have even less than the Emperor.

He stood ground, staring back in spite of the knot in his stomach. “Then they’re cowards enough to be cowed into staying hidden by one non-combatant and a drone.”

He stepped away from the entrance, motioning for them to check themselves; there wasn’t much he could do but hold onto fake confidence and brace for the firefight that was about to happen. He finally had to admit to himself that, in the debate between Imperial Accolades and hoping Zarkon’s prize slipped his grasp to one day ram weapons down the Emperor’s throat, he wanted to back the humans. A normal military team they might have stood a chance against if they were clever and the Paladin kept his aim, but from the stories he’d heard about Sendak, it would be a massacre.

Sendak’s drones formed a half-ring, weapons trained on the entrance; one of the soldiers grabbed Tav’s shoulder, half-dragging him to the outside of the ring in a show of standing guard that was mostly a reminder that they didn’t trust him right now. The other soldier followed Sendak in, while the second stayed by the entrance, a lighter sidearm trained on it. Haxus was only slightly behind Sendak.

Nobody in the cave understood the exchange, but they’d been able to hear it; Lance had burrowed down into his cover behind the alien rifle, Veronica flattening beside him with her rifle, while Pidge pressed against an indent in the wall with the alien sword. Hunk was just around a curve in the wall from Pidge, the crowbar shoved through his belt, holding the second hunting rifle and shaking.

Lance carefully lined up a shot as soon as the two aliens came around the corner; the bigger one was hard not to recognize as one of the two in Keith’s recording. He centered his aim on that one’s good eye.

They were cornered and he wasn’t going to let the bastard take one of his family.

There was a split second between the sound of the rifle firing and the bolt hitting home; even with a faster rate of fire than any human weaponry, the alien leader’s prosthetic claw snapped up, the shot ricocheting off it to scorch the ceiling of the cave. Pidge dove out in a lunge, driving the alien sword through the breastplate of the other one to the hilt, throwing all of her weight into it; the Galra went down with her crouched on the corpse.

The commander snarled at her with an inhuman growl, bringing the claw down in an arc; when the sword wasn’t coming loose easily enough to go with, she let go of it, throwing herself back in a haphazard roll under the claws.

There was a gunshot and a loud clank as a bullet hit the back of the giant Galra’s armor to no effect; Hunk threw the hunting rifle aside, charging with the crowbar and a yell that sounded more panicked than intimidating. The one-eyed alien looked almost insulted, sidestepping the charge easily and lashing out with a kick that sent Hunk sprawling to the ground.

Pidge tried to dive for the sword, but barely stopped short of a shot from behind taking off her hand; the second one from the video had come just far enough into the cave to get a line of sight with his sidearm.

Hunk started to get up, then spotted the rifle that had belonged to the one Pidge downed; he moved to dive for it as Lance was trying to line up another shot. The commander moved faster than anything that big had a right to, bringing the mechanical claw down on the rifle with a flash of violet light from the claws that tore it apart; Lance’s shot passed through where the alien’s head had been a moment before as the commander shifted weight to bring the claw around at Hunk, who barely scrambled out of the way.

It wasn’t far enough; the prosthetic swung back, the energy tether holding it reeling out to turn the strike into a backhand that sent Hunk sprawling to the ground again, dazed.

Pidge was stuck dodging, her own snarling interrupted occasionally with panic; it was taking all her effort to not get solidly hit by the second, and she already had noticeable burnmarks and holes across some of her clothing, with a couple glancing burns on one arm and another across her calf. It took up enough of her attention that she couldn’t get out of the way fast enough when the commander snapped out to catch her, the claw wrapping almost all the way around her and picking her up off the ground as if she weighed nothing.

The second turned his pistol to Hunk, training it in warning as Hunk started to get up; the commander’s claws flickered with an ominous pale violet light, Pidge trying to squirm away from them, and Hunk raised both his hands, holding still. The second made a faint gesture to the sword embedded in their dead underling, saying something to the leader, who was narrowing his good eye at Pidge and Hunk in interest.

Veronica put a hand on Lance’s trigger hand, pulling it away with a harsh, low whisper. “You stay hidden and come get us after.”

She grabbed the alien rifle while Lance stared at her and dove out of cover, firing off four shots that weren’t even really aimed; most of them just hit stone, although one came close to the second, who fired back, carving a furrow across the top of the rifle and clipping her shoulder.

She dropped the now useless weapon and rose up to her knees, hand over her shoulder with the best growl she could manage at them; Hunk gave her a panicked look and a frantic gesture to not move.

The leader wasn’t letting go of Pidge; she went limp in his grip, glaring death at everything around them. The second gestured with his pistol for Hunk and Veronica to get up.

The leader walked out with his hostage, the other one following behind Hunk and Veronica, leaving Lance behind cover in the now-dark cave.

Tav watched them come out, mentally noting the one missing among the humans; he was trying to hold his ground and play it off like he had been before, but it was already fraying. “So they were in there.” And one missing from Sendak’s party. “I’m surprised they gave you that much trouble, if they were so intent on not even trying to fight me.”

He was going to die, assuming they didn’t drag him off to do something ridiculous like gift him to the High Priestess or something.

The soldier watching him growled, baring teeth. Sendak’s glower was suspiciously considering.

“You. Take one of our drones and keep him here for now. Don’t let him out of your sight - or near anything important.”

The soldier saluted, then trained his rifle on Tav.

Pidge tried to twist to look back as Sendak walked off with her; Hunk turned to look as best he could, blinking in confusion. Veronica gave one narrow stare, then kept her eyes on the commander ahead of them. Most of the drones went with, walking around the captives in formation.

Tav gave the rifle trained on him a weary, nervous look now that the commander had left. “Is that really necessary?” He held up his empty hands, his small sidearm still on his belt.

“Yes,” the soldier replied simply, keeping it trained.

In the cave, Lance stayed still in the dark until well after the sound of footsteps faded out; he was alone, the aliens had Pidge and Hunk and his sister, he didn’t know what they were going to do to them, all he had was a couple of hunting rifles that did nothing to the alien armor and a weird alien sword.

Panic was setting in; they hadn’t been able to do that much as a group, what was he going to do? There wasn’t even any sign that any outside response had left a dent in these things, he hadn’t even graduated yet, he was a cadet with apparent delusions of grandeur.

He sat up and leaned on the wall; one of the carvings glowed faintly blue under his shoulder.

“What do you want from me?”, he whispered at it, barely more than mouthing. One of the rifles was sitting next to him, the other dropped where Hunk had left it; Hunk’s crowbar was on the ground against the wall, there were scorchmarks all over the walls damaging some of the carvings, and the ruined alien rifle was where Veronica had dropped it, a couple feet from the dead alien.

Everyone else had at least managed to do something in that skirmish, and they had pinned everything on him.

He didn’t have any confidence that he could do anything here, but he did have a lot of guilt at the idea of giving up without doing something; he might not make it, but he could at least try to not disappoint whatever confidence his sister had in him, and he couldn’t go back to his mother and father without her, or Hunk.

Or Pidge, for that matter, whose family was missing and not there to worry about her.

He crept over to the dead alien, planting a foot on it to pull the sword out, trying not to think too hard about it; the blade had a sheen of red that smeared dark on his jeans as he fumbled to tie it onto his belt so that he could carry it.

He walked back, picking up Pidge’s backpack that had her computer and everything really incriminating in it; they were probably just going to have to sacrifice most of their supplies, since he couldn’t afford to be weighed down, and most of them had any valuables on them anyway. He managed to shift it to keep Veronica’s bag with her camera and lenses hanging awkwardly beside it, clipping Pidge’s to it partly. He paused over the rest of the discarded mess, picking up one of the rifles - the more battered one, which meant it’d been Keith’s - and crept for the exit.

The alien that’d been watching the entrance was at gunpoint with an armored soldier, a drone on the other side. The rifle wouldn’t do anything to a drone, and it wouldn’t do anything to the armor, but there was a partly open throat and part of the face.

It might be enough, if they were anything like any other living thing with a brain in the skull and a lot of vital things packed into the neck. The alien was intent enough on its other captive to not be looking at the cave, and the drone’s back was angled toward him.

He settled into finding some kind of stable stance, lining up his aim; he’d only get one shot, and if he was lucky, he’d be able to grab the alien soldier’s rifle to bring down the drone.

They had his family, and one way or another, he wasn’t going to let that stand.

He focused, steadying, angling the shot back and a little up; if there weren’t major arteries or a windpipe, there’d at least be a spinal cord. He let out a breath and pulled the trigger.

The soldier dropped, leaving the unarmored alien grabbing the rifle and blinking in confusion; the drone wheeled around, and the second alien fumbled, taking three haphazard shots that barely brought the drone down.

Lance stood in the entrance with the hunting rifle; the other alien stared at him with the soldier’s rifle held awkwardly. Lance wasn’t sure if what the Galra was wearing even qualified as armor, even if it did seem built to give some basic protection. He wasn’t as tall as the apparent leader, but was still probably close to eight feet of lanky beanpole with thick dark violet fur and a white streak of longer fur forming a mane and hackles from the top of his head back, pointed ears angled close to his head, white markings around featureless yellow eyes.

Tav dropped the rifle, raising both hands empty. “Don’t shoot!”

Lance blinked, lowering his rifle. “You speak English?”

“My name’s Tav, from Kelv-…Europa. There’s not a whole lot to do sometimes, and it’s useful.” Tav’s accent was bizarre, and there were some sounds the Galra struggled with, but it was definitely English.

“Useful.” He gave the alien a doubtful look.

“When an Imperial ship wanders out to the sticks like this, you can bitch all you like and they won’t know a word you’re saying.” Tav lowered his hands, leaning on the rock wall with a nervous glance either direction; they were in a narrower offshoot of the canyon, but that mostly just meant being easier to corner. “Also transmission’s lousy for anything from the rest of the universe that isn’t official communications. It’s easier to just listen in on what you people broadcast.”

“…So you’re saying there’s an alien colony on Europa that has just been sitting out there, eavesdropping on humans out of boredom.”

“Pretty much.”

Lance stared sideways at the taller alien; he was lanky and thin even as they seemed to go, built like a mess of sticks, and definitely not as muscled as the others they’d seen so far. “You’re the one that’s been tailing us.”

Tav nodded.

Part of him wanted to be suspicious; the alien could’ve called in the others… but he’d been following them for over a day, and standing outside the cave for hours.

And, judging by the dead soldier and drone, he’d gotten in trouble for it.

“Why were you helping us?”

“It’s a long story. The short version is that my ancestors owe the Emperor ten thousand years of revenge, and helping you take one of the things he wants most is the best way I can think of to get it.” The alien grinned for a moment, showing a mouthful of sharp teeth.

“Ten thousand years of revenge for what?” Lance wasn’t sure this was something he should be trusting, there.

“One of my ancestors was one of the technicians who helped build Voltron. I don’t know what happened to him when Zarkon decided to forge the Empire, but when the lions were split up and hidden, his family was exiled with a number of others to the place Zarkon thought one of them was most likely to be hidden, to stay there until they found it.” The alien bent down to pick up the rifle, holding it out to Lance. “We’ve lived for ten thousand years underwater in a frozen Hell, forgotten for most of it, because the Emperor fell for your predecessor’s fakeout.” He made a half-nod to the sword tied to Lance’s belt.

Lance slung Keith’s rifle over his shoulder and took the alien rifle, shifting it to hold it properly. It was one thing to be off chasing paintings in a tomb and know it was Damn Old but apparently related to something hidden; it was another to have it put in perspective of generations upon generations of history. “…Why Europa?”

If ‘his predecessor’ had died on Earth, then the thing being hidden on Earth made sense to Lance.

The alien looked both ways, craning around to watch the canyon. “Because the Blue Lion is the Guardian of Water, with an affinity for ice and oceans, so the outpost was established on one of the two places in the solar system that we thought best fit that. Look, if we don’t want to get caught, we need to get moving; I think I know which cave it might be in, if I managed to descramble the jamming on its energy signature well enough.”

Lance had found someone with a clue, and there wasn’t nearly enough time to actually get explanations or make sense of any of what he’d just been told.

“Not until I get my family back.”

The Galra paused, mouth open, then closed his mouth and nodded with a faint frustrated rumble. “Alright. That’ll be harder. Sendak’s probably taken them to his ship. If they saw the sword, they know you’re all after the lion.” He nodded up to the giant behemoth hovering over their heads.

“So we steal a ship Pidge and Hunk didn’t fuck up yet, and go get them.” Lance cradled the rifle in one arm, turning to head toward where the center of their camp seemed to be; he stopped after a couple steps, turning to Tav, holding a hand out. “Name’s Lance.”

Tav paused awkwardly, then accepted the handshake. A moment later Lance was handing him Pidge’s backpack, not wanting to be stuck carrying half his weight.

Tav gave the backpack a confused look as it dangled from his clawed hands - he’d hoped the human would accept the sudden defection, but he hadn’t expected to be trusted to help carry their things quite that fast.

Lance felt a little better about his chances now that there was someone who knew more about what they were up against watching his back - they were still facing a gigantic warship and a small army with a fast-growing encampment, but maybe there was a chance.

Maybe.

Chapter Text

The Red Lion came out of the wormhole at a ridiculous pace, adjusting trajectory as the planet it’d arrived at flashed past too quick to see. It still seemed to be riding the high from whatever it had taken in passing through the star’s outer corona, turning the path it took around the solar system gradually slowing its momentum into a victory lap or three.

When it had finally slowed itself down enough to make atmospheric entry and a sensible landing that wouldn’t result in a massive impact crater, it made for the one habitable-looking blue planet with a purr.

The lion was bringing its new Paladin home.

It landed in front of some kind of large, alien castle structure, crouching down to let him out. He walked out, blinking against the bright sunlight as his helmet’s visor quickly adjusted; it wasn’t intolerable, but it was uncomfortable and the first time he’d been in full sun since he’d been changed, driving home that he was now definitely something nocturnal.

The lion stepped back and roared; a large gate on the front of the structure opened.

Dim lights came on as he entered, illuminating a great hall with stairs sweeping up and away; a brighter spotlight outlined a barrier around the center of the floor as he reached the middle of it, a synthetic voice demanding identification as some kind of scanners went off.

He stared up at it. “You probably know as much as I do at this point.”

After a couple of seconds, the lights went back to normal, the security system apparently satisfied; a door up the stairs opened. Lights in the hallway came up illuminating a specific path, side hallways remaining dark.

They led to a round room with some kind of center pillar console; when he held a hand over it, it flickered some of the light panels like he’d been dealing with on the Galra ship, with Galra script in light blue. He couldn’t read it, but there was a vague sense could still understand some of it if he tried, the lion’s flame a living, apparently permanent fixture in his mind.

Something was activating.

A panel in the floor opened, and a cryotube rose out of it; there was a young lady inside it, dark-skinned and white-haired, pointed ears and some odd facial markings the main tells that she wasn’t human while the tube was still sealed. Her dress had intricate scrollwork edges in some of the bright not-human-visible colors, following and extending from simpler-seeming patterns and bits of metal findings sewn into it.

It was humming, the script on the control panel flickering by rapidly; the front of it cracked open with a hiss, then retracted, and she stumbled forward out of it.

He stepped forward to catch her, an arm falling over his shoulder as she cried out and then staggered.

“Are you alright?”

“No, I don’t…I..” She blinked blearily, looking up at him; her blue eyes had some kind of secondary slit pupil that glowed within like the flash of an opal.

Her eyes went wide with recognition and some kind of strong, tangled mess of emotion. The internal pupil narrowed to a slit and then widened.

The next thing he knew, there was shriek of rage and a fist in his stomach that knocked the breath out of him and sent him staggering backward; even with the armor he wasn’t sure she hadn’t managed to crack a couple ribs.

The kick that followed it threw him against the far wall, and he definitely would’ve had broken bones without the armor - as it was, he still saw stars from the impact. He would’ve probably ended up on his hands and knees if she hadn’t lunged forward, pinning him to the wall and holding him up by the throat with one hand.

What are you doing on my father’s ship?!

He couldn’t breathe, barely managing a couple of weak clicking noises from down in his chest as whatever would normally be responsible for the growling wasn’t getting quite enough air to function. She was glaring at him, face twisted in fury; she loosened her grip barely enough for him to find air to answer.

“I - some - giant robot lion brought me here -”

Her grip tightened again, and he tried to squirm loose, his vision blurring, tugging at her wrist with one hand; he may as well have been trying to budge a steel bar. “Try again, Galra. Where’s King Alfor.” She snarled the word ‘Galra’ like a curse.

Cryopods in a hidden place, and this was the daughter of the leader Haxus had alluded to in his narration of the history, the one who’d hidden the lions - which meant she’d been there for ten thousand years and Alfor was long dead.

It didn’t seem like the best answer to give at that moment.

She loosened her grip just enough for him to manage words again. Somehow, in stealing the alien lion that had been hidden from the Galra, he hadn’t really thought about the fact that he now looked like a Galra, wearing Galra armor, and that the people who’d hidden the lions from the Galra might not react well to that. He could hear another pod reactivating and opening; he didn’t get a look at it, but had a sinking feeling of dread about it.

“I have. No idea? Just landed - place is empty -”

“Do you really think I’m stupid enough to fall for a flimsy story like that?” She looked him over, eyes flickering across the armor with frustrated confusion dawning. “And when did the Empire start sending children into battle?”

The growl sounded more like a busted clicker than a proper growl. He was getting sick and tired of ‘small for a Galra’ and ‘doesn’t know how to not make reflex vocalizations’ getting read as ‘child’. “’M not a child - half human -”

That didn’t do more than add a speed bump of confusion to her panicked anger. “What the quiznak is a human?”

Of course she wouldn’t know what a human was, the ‘Sky Warrior’ hadn’t exactly shown any signs of contacting home. His frustrated noise was thin and reedy.

“…Ah, Princess…”

“Yes Coran?” Her eyes weren’t leaving him and she wasn’t showing any signs of letting go.

“I just checked the security logs.”

“And?”

“Well, besides some small anomalies in your pod, he’s the only other living thing in the Castle right now.”

“They sent him alone? How did he get in?” She almost glanced away.

“That’s just it. According to the security log, there’s you, myself, and the Red Paladin.”

“…What?!” She finally did look away to the man at the control console, although her grip half-choking him didn’t lessen.

Coran held his hands up, nodding to the console and over to Keith.

The Princess’s attention returned to him. “How did Zarkon get the lions?!”

The rage was an even more thin cover over panic.

“H-he doesn’t… they were - taking me to him, I took-” he fought to get air again. “Took Red and ran…” He was starting to feel dizzy, and his vision was blurring around the edges.

“…Princess…” Coran’s voice was quieter, shaken and distant.

“What.”

“According to the Castle’s log, we’ve been asleep ten thousand years.”

He wasn’t sure if her grip tightening was intentional or a reflexive flinch as her gaze dropped; her shoulders were shaking, and there was some other odd warm numb feeling that swept over him fast. Either way, it was enough on top of everything else for his grip on awareness to tilt and fade out, fast and edged, like a heavy blanket had been dropped over his consciousness.

Allura dropped him after that, the armor clattering heavily to the ground; Coran winced, walking over carefully to lay hands on her shoulder.

For a good few minutes, she stayed still, watching as if she expected the armored figure to wake up and attack; even when she turned away, she was glancing back every few seconds, not wanting to take eyes off of him.

The last she had remembered, there was live fire and fighting within the castle. Half the crew that were loyal to Alfor were dead, the rest were in a pitched battle against the ones that were loyal to Zarkon, and the Castle was being pursued, the other Paladins inbound to try to support them.

She brought up the control console; the Castle was responding to her as primary command and royalty, the access tier her father had held. The Black Lion was locked in its hangar, dormant and under a seal that prevented it from awakening without the other four. The only one active was the Red Lion, sitting outside the castle.

Ten thousand years had passed; the Paladins save Zarkon were long dead. The Castle’s computer had kept a ten thousand year backlog of distress calls and alerts that blotted out its entire known map, cries for help flaring up and then vanishing in silence.

The last documented Altean presence of any kind was a tiny flicker on a distant colony, nine thousand years old.

“He won. Everything’s gone.” She sank to the ground in front of the console as the star map came up, a sprawl of red.

“Not quite. We’re still here.”

“With what?” She twisted around to motion harshly at the entire room. “The Castle, two of us, one active lion, and-”, she took a couple seconds finding computer and words, “some quiznaking Galra child soldier?”

Coran walked close enough to squeeze her shoulder, half-kneeling for a moment. “Well…we need to start somewhere.”

Allura reached up to dismiss the star map, twisting to shift where she could see the crumpled, unconscious pile of armor. “How did this happen…”.

It was bait, it had to be bait. He was either sent out to find them to lead Zarkon’s forces to them, or as a lure to draw them out, or -

“The other lions. What did my father do?” She had another suspicion, as Coran walked over to check on their unconscious intruder.

“He transferred his own connection to them, to you, then had them scattered and hidden so that Zarkon couldn’t find them.” He knelt down, checking the young Galra’s pulse and frowning thoughtfully.

Of course there wouldn’t be immediate pursuit. Zarkon had found one lion and needed her to find the others; it’d be easier if she did it for him.

“He said something about being a hybrid didn’t he?” Coran fussed with his moustache, then started detangling limbs from the armored pile.

“I…think so?” Allura didn’t like the idea of keeping him on the bridge. “We should move him to a holding cell before he wakes up. I will not risk him continuing whatever mission he might be on.” Her estimate was about mid adolescent - just young enough to make the whole situation more distressing and to highlight how rotten Zarkon had become, just old enough to be capable of being dangerous.

“I don’t think he’s that young - just half something really…really small for a Galra.” Coran managed to scoop him up; Allura might have been stronger than he was, but it was probably better to not risk Allura getting startled again when she was this tense.

“He was growling and whining like one.” Grown Galra, even before the species had gone mad, didn’t like advertising their emotions that loudly, particularly not in mixed company. “And even a hybrid should be taller than that if they’re grown.” Galra were huge, and this one was barely her height.

It was more confusing to Coran for that, really. He started out the hallway; the sooner another altercation was made impossible, the safer for everyone. “Maybe being part ‘human’ interferes with his ability to control it somehow? I couldn’t tell enough to guess.”

“Ugh. We need more information.” Allura shook her head, following behind him closely.

The holding cell was built to be as secure as possible; it was mostly its own self-contained room, suspended on narrow supports in an open dropoff, with only a narrow bridge for access and an entrance set into the side that worked more like an airlock in sealed stages. Allura stayed by the door; she didn’t doubt Coran could take care of himself, but she also didn’t want to take any chances.

Coran had a few moments of grumbling; ten thousand years had been time for changes to Galra technology, and while he managed to figure out the armor enough to get it off, it took longer than he liked and he got warning-zapped a few times by security mechanisms. It looked like most of whatever the boy had with him had been moved to narrow compartments in the armor; he passed it off in pieces to Allura, to move out of the cell.

Ten thousand years was also long enough to have no clue where his clothes came from, although his belt under the armor and the attendant extra pouches looked more worn than everything else. Coran mumbled an apology that got a raised eyebrow from Allura after confirming he couldn’t get the spare pockets off without either damaging the belt or removing it, which meant a pile of thin pockets with small things in them getting handed to Allura while he set the belt aside.

The Galra boy stirred while Coran was moving him to the cot, still waking up hazily with a thin rusty hiss as Coran carefully pulled his hands back; Allura tensed.

There was a flurry of movement, but it was to wedge into the corner of the cot against the wall, ears flattened low as much as the could, claws out with a rusty growl. Coran held his hands up to show they were empty; Allura stayed by the door, glowering suspiciously.

As he managed to get some kind of bearings, Keith untensed slightly, although it was partly a weary wilt. He looked Galra, had arrived in Galra military armor, of course they had immediately seen an enemy combatant - and if he couldn’t get them to trust him, Sendak would get the Blue Lion from Earth and his escape would be taken out on Shiro.

“Who are you and what are you doing on my ship.” She had straightened her posture, staring down imperiously at him where he was still wedged into the corner.

He swallowed, trying to drag his nerves together. He hated being vulnerable like this; every ounce of his experience screamed at him that being this dependent on others for help never went well, but he had no other choice right now but to try and pray they listened.

“My name is Keith. I’m - One of Zarkon’s commanders found me on my homeworld and the Druid with him realized I was the one Red was calling. They took me and were going to present me and the lion to Zarkon. I managed to get to the hangar before the ship could reach Zarkon’s command center, to get away, and Red brought me here.”

He took a breath, raising his hand. “Please, you have to believe me - the Blue Lion is on Earth, and they know exactly where now. Sendak is going back for it. We’re barely getting ships that can cross our solar system, most of them have no idea what’s out there at all, Earth can’t defend itself against them - they’re going to burn my home.” He had spent most of his life wanting to leave, but he didn’t want to see the planet destroyed, and after spending time with Sendak, it felt more like home than it ever had before.

Allura raised an eyebrow; his Galra features weren’t subtle, it’d stick out among a species that wasn’t used to dealing with others. “And your people on Earth never noticed that you weren’t one of them?”

His ears flicked down. “I didn’t - used to look like this. The Druid said my mother must’ve done something so I could pass, and it - undid all of it.”

She looked him over, dubious. “And they gave you armor and outfitted you.” Not just armor, but armor implying rank.

He rumbled in frustration; it wasn’t working, it never worked, it never had worked before. “They wanted me to agree to work with them. They told me I could have anything I wanted.”

“So what did you do, accept and then just change your mind?” Allura was caustic and suspicious.

“Look, I was pretty sure if I’d said ‘no’ out the gate they would’ve either killed me or dragged me out in the brig. I knew it was a trap from the start, but I thought if I played along I could get enough freedom of movement to get away.” He gestured at the entire ship around them.

She folded her arms, studying him without any of the hardness fading from her expression - he had to know that the Castle wasn’t in a position to match whatever Zarkon had offered and that fleeing had decent odds of being suicide; she still expected it to be more likely that he was acting under orders, one way or another. “And you just decided to turn that down without any idea what you were running to.”

“I know what it looks like when people are telling you what you want to hear so they can use you, and I’ve studied enough history to know how often tyrants like that screw people over.”

She studied him, gauging. “They seem to have treated you mostly well; why should I trust you if you turn that easily?”

There was a rusty hiss that tipped into a growl, claws digging into the bedding. “They nearly killed me for nothing before they realized I was the one Red was calling! They were digging in my head, put me through Hell to change me, and after what they did to-”. He cut off with a a snarl, not wanting to bring up Shiro - he was vulnerable enough here without giving them something else to use against him.

A distracted glance away from the Princess caught Coran messing with his phone, looking between it and one of the small light panels, something that got another growl.

“After what?” She narrowed her eyes.

“I don’t want to talk about it.” His ears flattened back and he shrank back into the corner more. They weren’t going to listen; it was as good as over anyway, there wasn’t anything he could do here or anything he could say to change it.

“They have a hostage, don’t they.” Coran’s voice was quiet, and far more sympathetic; Keith’s breath caught with a short, rusted whine. Allura looked over at Coran, questioning. He held the phone over to her with a photo up, of Shiro with an arm around a still human Keith to keep him from ducking out of frame, both in their respective uniforms, the Kerberos craft on its launchpad in the background.

“Are you even sure that’s him?” Allura’s voice had dropped to just address Coran, although she wasn’t making any effort to not be heard, looking between Keith and his phone.

“Well, there’s some basic medical data where preliminary translations would fit with his story. I would need to finish translating and get a current scan for comparison to fully verify that.”

A tiny part of Keith wanted to hope; that maybe the older one might sway things in his favor, might be more reasonable, but he wasn’t sure he could even afford to allow himself that at this point.

Allura studied the photo, then stared at him hard. “We need to verify your story more before we decide what to do with you, and I need to have a talk with the Red Lion.”

She turned and stalked out, leaving him alone with the older Altean.

Coran was studying him, then flicked through a few screens on the phone. “…May I see your hand for a moment?”

Keith sighed, holding his hand out, the claws pulling back in to normal points. Coran stepped closer, turning his hand palm-up carefully and studying the bare fingertips, nodding to himself with a quiet hum.

Then, he locked the phone and handed it to Keith.

“It uses a primitive biometric lock, yes?”

Keith stared at him, nodded, and took the phone back; luckily the alien’s guess was right that his fingerprints were intact enough to still work. Coran nodded with a smile, apparently satisfied with that.

He looked from the phone up to the alien, waiting for it to be taken away; he knew he was a prisoner here, and they had made effort to take everything else he owned out of his reach.

“You can keep it. Allura’s a little paranoid right now and we can’t afford to take chances, but it’s harmless enough.”

He stared at the phone, still midway through sifting his old photos; Shiro, out of uniform, sitting on one of the larger rocks outside the desert shack, watching the sunset, at ease and without any of the drastic scars he’d seen in the Galra broadcast. “I didn’t want to run the battery down yet.” He didn’t know when he would be able to charge it, and it contained all he really had left of home, and possibly all he had left of Shiro.

Coran spent a minute on the light screen he had. “It uses a short range frequency for recharging, yes?”

Keith nodded.

“Then adjust this and…”

The phone chirped, registering a compatible power source in range.

He stared up at Coran. “Why are you doing this?” This was what the lion considered home, but they’d also nearly killed him when he walked in, were holding him prisoner now, and he was sure there was some kind of conditions; even if it might be better than the Galra, Shiro still remained the only one he’d encountered where he hadn’t had to watch for strings attached to things somewhere - the only person that’d wanted him around without most of the investment being some kind of performative show that faded quickly, a lack of realizing what they’d gotten into, or mostly about what he could do for them.

Coran had a silent pause; there was a difference in tone between someone asking a question like that because they were upset and in a bad situation, and the more level habitual wariness of someone who honestly didn’t have a concept of the world working any other way, and Coran was almost completely certain he was hearing the latter. “Well, why not? We may be in a bad spot ourselves where we can’t afford to be careless, but even if you were hostile, there’d be no point to causing needless misery or treating you like some non-entity not deserving of basic dignity.”

Keith gave Coran a long, almost hollow stare, then pointedly looked out the door Allura had left through. “She’s in charge, isn’t she?”

“…yes?”

“Is that what she’d say?”

Coran went silent; he didn’t think Allura would cross too many lines, but he didn’t have a good answer, not when she was as upset as she was and still re-orienting herself from being under live fire. “We’re not going to torture you or anything, we just need time to get our bearings and verify your story.” It almost would’ve been less horrifying if there had been argument or fear or some response other than tired glowers and resignation. The young Galra might not be the adolescent they’d first taken him for, but he was still young, and nobody that young should be that lacking in faith or hope. “I did copy the contents of your device to the Castle’s systems; I might need to go through them to sort this out. I’ll try not to pry more than is needed.”

The snort Keith gave came out in an awkward rattling snarl with a very brief half-hearted baring of teeth; he didn’t bother looking up. There wasn’t anything he could do to stop them, anyway.

It didn’t help Coran’s temptation to find whoever had been responsible for his upbringing and make sure they were never allowed near children again. It was a very Galra gesture, and one that seemed like old habit, but only the vocal part seemed new.

Galra were not a passive people. More patient than they were given credit for, predators that lacked that starved, but not passive - either something was seriously wrong enough for there to be learned helplessness in that reaction, or they had a potential bomb to defuse on their hands.

Probably both.

When Coran left the holding cell, the wide smooth outer wall was opaque, and Keith thought it meant he’d be alone. The phone had locked on idle; he unlocked it again.

It was still in the middle of his pictures from the Kerberos mission launch; Shiro and the rest of the team, catching a moment when the press cameras were less focused on them, laughing and talking.

He stared at it, then just curled around the phone, knees drawn up to his chest, face mostly buried in one arm. Red might have thought of this place as home, but Keith was feeling less and less like he trusted the two that were here to actually help - and he wasn’t sure if he had a way out anymore to try to do something himself. He was pretty sure he’d rather have at least gotten a chance than this progression of finding different ways to be completely helpless to do anything, but no matter how he ran over things, he couldn’t find an option that didn’t mean he was helpless at the mercy of someone who had little reason to care.

Shiro was the one person he’d been able to trust, and he was going to lose Shiro to some alien war without even having a chance to do anything about it.

There was a sudden hum, and the opaque curved wall turned clear and transparent. He stared sideways at it over his elbow, caught off guard - Coran was outside the barrier with the Galra armor, very pointedly trying to redirect his attention away when he realized how awkward the timing was.

He wasn’t in any kind of place to pull back together and try to cover reactions or shove the looming grief back in its box; he stayed in the corner, burying his face back in his arm, opting for ‘if it’s not visible then it never happened’.

“Sorry about that. I need to make sure there’s no locators surviving in this before we leave the planet, and I thought if I was going to be here anyway, it was better to not just leave you alone at a time like this.” The man was awkwardly apologetic, in a way that sounded genuinely concerned and a tone that hit some uncomfortable notes of deja vu for times he’d found weird empty hard-to-get-to corners of the Garrison only to have someone he only barely knew at the time show up ‘to check on him’.

Keith rusty-growled and curled back in the corner, trying to tune Coran out. He wasn’t ready to deal with this, and definitely wasn’t inclined to trust friendly overtures made from the other side of a prison barrier.

Coran sighed, casting a worried glance out the direction of the front entrance; they couldn’t exactly tell the Red Lion to choose someone else at this point, and alienating one of the paladins right out the gate did not seem like a good, working idea at all, Galra or no. His own misgivings about this were growing as well; even if the boy weren’t a Paladin, it was hard not to see how much harm they were doing to someone who’d been begging for help just a few doboshes ago.

They were gambling on a lot of factors, and he knew his record with gambling was dismal, but he wanted to believe that the Red Lion wouldn’t have woken up after ten thousand years just to lead Zarkon to their doorstep or sell them out before they even had a chance.

This was granting that by the time he was done, he’d destroyed at least three locator devices hidden in various parts of the armor.

The last sweep from the castle came up clean, and he was just preparing to pack it up, when the castle’s security scanners on the room picked up on the armor’s own systems doing a brief area-check - it didn’t have a very complicated bioscanner, but it did have one, and it wasn’t a system that should’ve run any kind of automated check while the armor was off and dismantled.

He picked up the gauntlet computer, activating it to check diagnostics; there wasn’t anything wrong with the armor, and there was no record of the scan having even occurred.

Coran frowned, and carried the gauntlet, part of the breastplate, and the helmet - the main components that might’ve been involved - across the room to a sealed system set into the wall, opening the panel to set them in it.

It took the Castle’s computer a few long and confused minutes, but there was some kind of disturbance that came back with a guess of either a malfunction or some kind of external control signal with no origin point or traceable route, coming from the gauntlet.

And then there was the quiet chirp of an incoming message, not from the helmet, but from the gauntlet. According to the castle’s system, it didn’t have any kind of comm receiver by itself, and the receiver in the helmet wasn’t picking up on anything.

He looked back at the cell; Keith was still trying to ignore him. “You wouldn’t happen to know why your gauntlet would be trying to talk to you, would you?”

There was an earflick, and then he looked up with a focused stare that was turning from confusion to recognition, alarm, and a very bad and transparent attempt at looking like he had no idea what Coran was talking about. “No?”

Coran raised an eyebrow. “Never gamble. You’d get cleaned out in a few ticks.” He opened the sealed container, pulling the gauntlet out; the computer remained biosignature locked, and wouldn’t respond to him, although there was another soft chirp.

Then it started on its own, putting up a small lightscreen, Galran text scrolling across it in a simple message.

{The lion is clear of Zarkon’s forces?}

Keith was watching, with a few futile attempts at trying to read the small lettering from where he was.

Coran tapped out a reply on the screen. {Well, there isn’t a battlecruiser in orbit yet.} Yet felt like an operative word, particularly with some unknown party patching through via a comm chip the Castle’s systems couldn’t find.

{Who am I speaking to?}

{Who do you think?}

There was a long pause, then: {You aren’t botching your written grammar. Relying on psychic translation tricks can’t fake that.}

Coran glanced back at the cell. Espionage was not among his list of skills, but he did have the Castle’s computers watching, and it only took a couple gestures on the light screen beside him to set a trace attempt to find the origin point of the communication.

{How about you answer first?}

{I am still not stupid enough for that.}

Keith was watching him warily, trying not to look curious about it and failing.

“Well, you have a mystery person checking on the lion who caught I wasn’t you, and says they still aren’t stupid enough to say who they are.” That was definitely surprise and recognition. Coran shot him a flat look. “I’ll have an easier time explaining this to the princess if you give me an idea what’s going on.”

Keith shrank in. “…I never got a name or - much of anything, really, but… They’re the one that warned me about what Zarkon could do to control me, and they showed me to a back way into the hangar to get to the lion when Sendak had me locked out.”

If it meant what Coran hoped it meant, then there was a sympathetic spy in Zarkon’s ranks. It seemed worth humoring; he’d have to hope his betting luck had changed in ten thousand years.

{Lead Engineer and Royal Advisor Coran. I was removing locators from the young paladin’s armor they so generously gifted.}

There was another pause, then: {There isn’t a battlecruiser in orbit because Sendak chose to pursue the Blue Lion first, rather than follow the locators you were just destroying. The Druid recorded enough of what it learned from his mind before the Red Lion destroyed it for them to know as much as he does about where the Lion is. They’re bound for his homeworld already. You don’t have much time to get to it before they do.}

{Understood.}

His reply barely made it back before the trace attempt came back with a result, a dot on a small patch of star map that appeared over that screen.

And then three more results, the map spreading out to try to track all of them.

Then ten more appeared, some of them with odd variations in timestamps.

The map rapidly filled the room, and began turning the dots into scattered clusters; there was a vague pattern to them, the clusters primarily around a few specific areas of space, but those were getting ridiculously dense, sometimes overlapping, and the scattered ones were occasionally registering well outside of the known universe. Some of the triangulation was requiring input from navigation, as if it were trying to chase the signal through external dimensional space without the benefit of a stable wormhole with entry and exit points, and that was starting to get enough data points trying to register at once for the lights to dim, leaving Coran frantically trying to de-activate half-solid bits of map to try to get to the shutdown switch on the trace.

As suddenly as it’d started, the excess data points vanished, leaving behind only a small handful, and one intentionally sent coordinate that had a few points clustered around it.

{I’ve given you coordinates to his homeworld to make this easier. Your ship’s computer has permission to contact me via discrete text that I may not be able to acknowledge or answer, but I will not open full location permissions without a reason.}

Coran had a small moment of twitching; he was definitely going to go over the Castle’s record of what had just happened to try to figure it out, but he wanted even more to believe that this was a message from a sympathetic spy, if only because the security technology he’d run into was nothing he wanted to see in Zarkon’s hands.

{Thank you for that. I’ll try not to disturb you if it’s not necessary.}

{Much appreciated. Tell him my associate is close to his hostage. No additional harm as yet.}

The gauntlet computer shut itself down.

He leaned against the wall heavily, still holding it; the show the map had made had Keith briefly distracted from his own paranoid moping.

“What the Hell was that?”

Coran tugged the light-panel over to check, skipping back to system logs for the early clusters, before it began taxing the Castle’s computer to its limit trying to track it. “…Well, that’s bloody brilliant and utterly horrifying.”

Keith stared, one ear ticking.

“Avoiding external tracking by routing part of the signal through external quantum space. When I tried to trace the origin location, it succeeded - for every possible location they could’ve been in at this point in time in any potentially recognizable version of reality.” Coran checked a few other scans to compare it to the saved data on the locators he’d destroyed; the Castle could locate the other ends of those with only brief difficulty.

The trace-back on one of the locators was showing the blurry lack of static position of a hyperspace jump, while the other was a fixed point somewhere far from both their current location and the location the spy had sent. Neither showed any sign of the strange quantum security, although what masking they did have had taken the Castle’s systems time to find a way around; it was a massive leap forward from the technology the Galra’d had the last time the Castle was awake, and probably would’ve been impossible to track if the Castle weren’t partly a living thing, but it was still nothing like what the spy’s device had. “The good news is, it doesn’t look like Zarkon has that technology.”

“And the bad news?” Keith was waiting for another shoe to drop; there had to be one, and he doubted the spy would’ve contacted them unless it was something important.

“Your mysterious friend said that Sendak is, indeed, bound for ‘Earth’ to retrieve the Blue Lion. But,” Coran raised a hand, pointing to the ceiling, “They also said that your friend is relatively intact, and one of their people is close by.”

Relief outweighed frustration for the moment, as he sagged back against the wall, closing his eyes.

At least someone was looking out for Shiro.

It didn’t mean the frustration wasn’t there. “That’s what I was trying to tell you.”

“Well, I think I have enough information to make that our destination, as soon as we can get the Castle moving.” Allura might not like all of his sources, but the quantum security seemed like good proof that the spy wasn’t working for Zarkon; Coran was pretty sure the hyperspace jump pointed to Sendak, while the stationary point the other locator had traced back to was wherever Zarkon himself was. “It will take a day or two for that, this ship has been inactive for ten thousand years.”

Keith glared pointedly at the door of the cell, and at Coran, saying nothing.

Coran held up both hands. “I’ll - talk to the Princess as soon as she’s done talking to the lion; that should be enough to clear things up. Better to include her than spring surprises on her again, eh?”

Which left him still at the mercy of someone who hated him.

Chapter Text

Pidge tried everything she could to find a way to squirm loose from the Galra officer’s mechanical arm, but was having absolutely no luck. Unlike a simple set of restraints, he was adjusting the claws around her struggling, tightening grip enough to be painful in warning a few times. It didn’t do more than get her to hold still for a few seconds, and she was keeping up a steady stream of swearing under her breath.
xdxzDc
“Sonofabitch as soon as I get loose I’m going to take this place apart so fast nobody’ll know there even was a ship here…”

If they’d needed a translator before, then they probably didn’t have a clue what she was saying. The big alien was occasionally glancing up at her with what she swore was a bemused expression, and in one of her pauses to catch her breath, there was a faint huff noise that had better not have been a laugh.

She was pretty sure that, even without understanding English, he got the gist of what she was ranting.

Hunk was in the middle right behind him, looking around nervously; Veronica was behind him, shoulders hunched and glowering, with the second in command bringing up the rear, gun still in hand. There were a couple of drones on either side, and even the relatively shorter second still towered over Hunk and Veronica. The number of soldiers and other drones around the area went up as they got closer; the ground camp had expanded over the night, from the scattered ships and clumps they’d seen the day before to a proper military encampment.

Several of the smaller ships were grounded and wrecked with very frustrated looking aliens in lighter or minimal armor digging in the innards, destroyed by engine malfunctions and other “accidents”; she had a tiny swell of grim pride at getting to see the aftermath.

There was a slightly larger skiff of some kind in the center of the encampment, well guarded, that they were heading toward. The drones around the loading ramp stepped aside sharply, letting them board. The ramp closed behind them, leaving them in a relatively small space with a raised area where the pilot’s consoles were.

The leader wasn’t putting her down.

The pilot was one of the aliens in light armor, who gave a salute and brought the craft up, engines humming to life; it was a short trip, almost straight up, then hovering before the small ship landed again with the sound of weight on metal.

They disembarked inside the dimly lit ship, in a hangar that closed from below; a couple lines of drone soldiers and a few actual ones stood at attention as the procession passed, heading for some other point in the ship. She tried to keep track of the turns in the hallways as best she could, but there was no sign of any labeling or markers, and everything looked alike; she’d be hard pressed to identify which hallway went where.

One of the soldiers turned to leave at a door the commander stopped at, the drones staying outside while they were brought in by the leader and his second. It was a large, dark room, with angled panels along the walls and some ominous looking machinery in darker parts of the far wall that she couldn’t make out well; the second in command herded Veronica and Hunk together, attaching something between the cuffs on their hands, then running another energy tether from it down to anchor on the floor. Pidge tried to get a look but couldn’t get a clear one, beside that the chain between the rings seemed to just be some sort of solid energy beam, and whatever had been attached was joining them. The leader held her down finally, within a foot of the ground, and the second in command grabbed one of her wrists, holding her arm still in spite of her attempts at jerking her hand away. The circular band tightened around her wrist, a light going around the outer ring and some kind of odd prickling feeling wherever the metal was near her skin.

She was making it as hard as possible to get the other cuff on, keeping her other hand as far away as she could.

The second made some dry comment, and got an amused noise from the leader and a half-nod; she wasn’t sure if she liked the exchange, at all.

Hunk shifted weight, and both of the aliens turned to look, the second’s hand going to his sidearm; Hunk straightened, staring at the ceiling and whistling, earning him a very dim look and the leader keeping attention on both him and Veronica. The second returned his attention to Pidge, who had made more effort to squirm away and make things difficult, even if he hadn’t let go of her left hand.

He gave her a flat stare, then said something to the leader, who opened the metal claw, letting her drop.

As soon as she had any movement, rather than trying to get away, she was using the grip on her arm for leverage to kick the second in the ribs as had as she could manage; it didn’t do anything besides hurt her feet through the boot, the armor hard and unyielding as he was yanking her to the ground, twisting her arm around behind her with a knee planted in the small of her back.

She was snarling and squirming the whole way, trying to get any angle she could to get another shot in without much luck. He’d managed to catch her other wrist and pull it around behind her to attach the other cuff depressingly quickly, grabbing the back of her jacket and shirt roughly to pick her up by as he stood up, her feet dangling off the ground.

It didn’t slow the attempts at finding an angle she could hit him from, even if it was awkward attempts at kicking back and up at his armored forearm with a steady snarled stream of every swear word and insult she knew.

She stopped kicking when it turned into something as likely to hit Hunk as the alien, still snarling and spitting curses as he wrestled her wrists in to attach the cuffs on her to the device; once he’d let go of that, she lunged in an attempt at biting anything within reach, armor be damned.

When she hit the limit of the beams holding the cuffs together, there was a warning beep from the device in the center, then some kind of pulse; for her, it felt like a mild shock, but it hit Veronica and Hunk harder, getting a couple cries of shock and pain as they almost lost footing.

The second was standing smug just out of her reach, arms folded and watching her; the height difference between her and Hunk particularly was enough that just standing had the interconnected tethers at what was apparently their outer limit, and just leaning forward was enough to get the warning beep.

“Fucking dickless whore. When I get out of here I’m going to bring this whole fucking ship down on you and decorate the ruins with your guts, you bastard.” Being around the Garrison had done wonders for her vocabulary, and if it was all she had right now, she was going to dig out every curse she could find.

It only seemed to amuse him.

The door opened somewhere in the middle of her tangent, to another one in something that was only partially armor with a face mask and a case; the new arrival took in the scene with brief, long-suffering dim look that was quickly shuffled out of sight to a carefully schooled neutral before either of the two officers looked over. The newcomer walked over to a counter, setting down the case and doing something none of them could get a good look at, but that none of them had any good feelings about.

Not being able to tell what the device he had in his hands was when he turned around didn’t help either; the way they were arranged, Pidge couldn’t even get a look, she just knew that Hunk tried to edge back and ran into both her and Veronica, triggering a warning beep from the device when the tether to the ground pulled with his movement. He froze, trying to shift enough to not set it off; Pidge shrank back in closer, the best she could do for any reassurance, still glaring daggers at the second in command. Veronica had a better angle to squeeze his wrist, even if she was shrinking back herself.

For a moment, the other alien paused standing over them to look at the two in command, gesturing at them with some kind of flat question. Whatever answer he got was short and dryly firm, then after a pause, had some other comment where the second had motioned particularly at Pidge.

Pidge did hear the footsteps moving around, finally getting a look at the newcomer as he reached down to grab her collar and pull forward.

She hated being tiny enough next to them to be easily manhandled.

Something cold pressed to the back of her neck and bit into it, and then everything dissolved into prickling stars and dark.

It was noticeable fast when Pidge went stiff and then limp, Hunk trying to squirm to make sure she didn’t fall enough to set off the device; he couldn’t see what’d happened or tell anything, what they’d done or if Pidge was still breathing, leading to a garbled mess of worry and panic that came out in a sharp, steady murmur of “nonononono-”

Veronica caught his wrist, tense and stiff herself, nails digging in; it was some kind of an attempt at steadying him that only had any effect until he heard whatever the alien was carrying go off again, and found himself trying to support both of them.

He closed his eyes, trying to focus on holding them up; after a couple seconds, there was a clawed hand on his shoulder pushing down, and he froze, locking up. There was a quiet noise of exasperation, then cold metal on the back of his neck.

The medic caught the biggest of them before he fell in a direction that would set off the booby trap meant to discourage them from struggling too much, tugging so that they’d be awkwardly propped against each other in the middle of the room. He looked up from the three unconscious humans to the commanders.

“I hope you weren’t needing answers too quickly. It’s going to take time for their nervous systems to adapt to the implants, and we still don’t have enough data to adjust them very well.”

“Is there enough for it to work faster than last time?” Sendak was unconcerned with the delay, while Haxus busied himself searching pockets, retrieving anything that might be personal devices or other sources of information.

“Probably?” The medic stepped back to lean on the wall, keeping observation. “My baseline to work with is an amazing total of three and an altered hybrid.”

“As long as it works, we can afford to wait.”

“Wouldn’t it be quicker to just get the Kelvet administrator to translate again?” It’d been made abundantly clear that their mission was one to be completed as soon as they could, and if he never saw this planet again it’d be too soon.

For a moment, Sendak’s lip twitched, a brief flicker of teeth. “Right now I’m more concerned with reliability.”

The medic shrugged, turning more of his attention to the three captives while Haxus setting some kind of small personal devices on a light panel from the terminal; tuning them out and focusing on what he was supposed to be doing seemed like the best option for him at the moment.

Haxus motioned Sendak over; the medic had enough security clearance and a solid enough record to not be considered a risk, but that didn’t mean they wanted him involved beyond making sure the prisoners remained intact enough to be of use.

There was a video file that had clearly belonged to their recent runaway from the smallest one’s device, and a string of images from the largest’s that were the area around the tomb, some of the aftermath of the Druid’s power, and the carvings in the caves around them. “And it looks like the surveyor at least had one accurate report.”

In several of the images, there was a fourth human - including a few pictures of the carvings glowing blue under his hands.

Sendak looked back, good eye narrowing as the sudden last-minute assault from the third one clicked. “They were acting as decoys.”

“It looks that way. The fighters haven’t seen anyone entering or leaving the canyon, and we’ve brought their vehicle on board; he’s somewhere in our perimeter still.” Haxus tapped a claw on the counter under the panel. “They didn’t keep enough on their devices to tell how much they know, exactly, but we’ll have time for that.”

***************************************

Outside, Lance was finding himself relying on Tav to navigate the Galra encampment. He was suddenly thankful for every night Hunk had complained about when they’d snuck out of the Garrison to go out; it wasn’t that different in practice, minding lines of sight, attention, likely paths, and cover.

He was trying not to think about how at the Garrison the worst he’d get would be a reprimand for breaking curfew, while here he could get dead, or worse. He at least hoped he was reading right that Tav was about as tense about it as he was. They were having a hard time getting close enough to steal a skiff or otherwise get up to the ship.

They were stuck behind cover, in one of the less heavily patrolled areas; it was a little horrifying how quickly the Galra had built a full encampment on the ground, even if most of it did look like it was meant to be broken down and moved fast.

Lance draped his arms over his knees, looking up at the looming battlecruiser that blotted out most of the sky. “So. You have a better idea for getting in than just trying to stowaway somewhere? Because I’m running out.”

Tav thought, turning around to look at the area. “…Maybe, but you’re not going to like it.”

“Try me.”

“We ambush some single-guard patrol, I steal the armor, we act like you’re a prisoner, I demand to be taken to the ship to take you to Sendak myself. We get on board and bolt the first chance we get.”

Lance considered it, the ship looming overhead; everyone else was on board it somewhere. “Sounds good to me.”

“…You know I’m going to have to take any obvious weapons for this to work. And the bags.”

“Yeah?” It seemed obvious to Lance, at least.

Tav had a moment of pause that Lance was actually willing to trust him that easily - he knew he hadn’t registered as much a threat, but he didn't think he’d earned his way onto the fledgling paladin’s good side solid enough for “trusted with a gun to his back”.

Lance was already looking around gauging the area and glancing back at him.

Trying to find a good target that wouldn’t raise too many alarms too soon or draw attention to what they were after proved to not be much easier than just sneaking in. They were closer into the base camp than either of them were entirely comfortable with when they spotted a lucky break in the form of an off duty soldier, asleep on the side of one of the skiffs, his rifle next to him but out of armor.

That meant the armor had to be nearby somewhere. Lance stayed flattened where he could see the soldier and most of the approach to the secluded space between the skiff and the canyon wall, a few large storage containers providing more shade. Tav set down the bag, slinking out close along the skiff to the open hatch on the side, peering in cautiously.

It was mostly quiet, an occasional quiet scrape or shuffle from inside the skiff. Lance flattened into the rock at the sound of footsteps, quietly praying the patrol wasn’t going to turn to check the skiff. He could still hear Tav rustling inside occasionally as the patrol cadence grew closer, stopping at the open space where they had a view of the area around the skiff.

He flattened lower behind the rock; he couldn’t look without giving away his position, and he had no good way to warn Tav either.

One set of footsteps walked into the open space next to the skiff. They stopped for a good minute near the rock, and Lance held his breath, frozen against the rock.

The footsteps moved away, next to the skiff. He could still hear some occasional scuffs and movement in the skiff, but not see what was going on.

There was some kind of quiet exchange and a sharper shift that sounded about like a salute, then the footsteps left the clearing and the patrol moved on.

Shortly after, Tav returned to the spot of cover, flattening against the rock in armor; after a couple moments staying still, he worried at the collar of the armor uncomfortably. “We need to get to where we’ll look less suspicious walking up.”

*******************

Pidge woke up alone in the same room, with no sign of Veronica or Hunk beyond their phones and belongings set aside on one of the counters. Her hands were still cuffed behind her back, with the tether in the floor. Her head was swimming, vertigo throwing everything wobbly through a dull, throbbing headache.

The two officers were at the console, watching.

She squirmed to sit up, managing to awkwardly prop up cross-legged, staring blearily at their shins. Her glasses were hanging half off her face at an awkward angle, and she was thankful she didn’t actually need them to see.

“Finally joining us.”

She squinted up at the second in command; she hadn’t seen any indication that he understood English at all before, which had her wondering if she’d missed something and they’d been able to understand her all along, or if whatever they’d done to her was letting her understand them.

“What do you want.” She glared up, not enjoying the reminder of how big they both were; it stood out particularly badly when she was restrained, alone, and stuck close to the floor.

“You have a choice. This ship is leaving with you on it, either willingly as a recruit, or as a prisoner.”

“Really.” She glared sullenly up. “Why would I want anything to do with you assholes?”

The Commander took a half step forward, forcing her to crane up further to keep glaring up at him. “Our Emperor rewards loyalty well. You could have a position of power and authority reaching across much of the universe.”

“And if I say no?”

“Then you should hope one of your friends has some value to the Emperor and is willing to cooperate, if you value your planet or any of their lives.” He knelt down, the massive prosthetic resting on the ground; the gesture still left him looming over her. “You’ve only had a small glimpse of what it means to be an enemy of the Empire. This ship is one of a vast fleet. You will accomplish nothing by clinging to your defiance.”

“Why should I believe you at all? There’s nothing stopping you from going back on anything you say the second my back’s turned.” She was trying not to edge back away, to put any kind of distance or fidget to try and get loose while they were watching that closely. She wanted to not give him the visible fear he was clearly going for, more than she wanted to get away from being directly in front of the alien commander.

“Do you doubt the consequences if you don’t?” The second glanced up from rifling through the small pile of personal effects, holding up a small pocket photo of her with her entire family. “You’re assured to be useless to your family continuing as you are… at best.” There were more teeth visible on the last word than he normally showed when speaking, and the implied threat made it loud and clear. “And your friend you tracked us looking for… Keith? ‘Sekhmet’? Only barely considered them as an afterthought.”

She’d thought she’d hidden it better than that, but the realization he’d been digging in inside pockets she’d added and hidden was a distant second on her concerns right now, as unsettling as it was. More importantly, it destroyed all her efforts at keeping clues connecting her to her family away from what they could easily find, rendering all her efforts at not keeping identifiers on her phone useless; the reference to Keith made it clear he knew exactly who he was talking about, and meant he’d probably read some of her text messages.

The dig at Keith was suspicious, in an ulterior motives kind of way; she didn’t like the implications but didn’t like the idea of letting him manipulate her more.

“Where is he? Is he on this ship?” She wasn’t sure what options she had, but if she could keep them talking without agreeing to anything, maybe she could buy time for… something. Some idea or one of the others to do something, or Lance to give her a good distraction.

“You’re in no position to ask questions right now,” the commander growled.

She hoped it was a bluff covering Keith having done something stupid or brilliant, and not just a cover for him being with them or elsewhere under their control.

She knew what her father and brother would want her to do. Joining them wasn’t an option. Seeing what she could destroy from the inside might be an option, but she didn’t know enough to have any kind of a plan, and she’d need some way to signal to the others without tipping off the aliens. There was also the question of Lance, who might make the whole thing moot if he could throw them off enough.

Sendak stood up, towering over her. “Well? Prisoner, or ally?”

She shrank back, slumping, eyes dropping to the ground. She needed to buy time, and the only way she could think of to do that was to give them a performance. “I - I don’t know, I… I need time to think.”

There were a few moments silence, then a set of beeps; the leader turned, routing it through the terminal behind him. The voice communication was turned down, but she could hear it well enough anyway.

“Commander Sendak, sir. There’s a - soldier with another of the humans. He claims to have captured the one we were looking for, and is demanding to present the captive to you himself.” The soldier sounded bewildered.

“Is something wrong?” The commander was giving the panel a suspicious look.

“…Did we have any of the locals on our crew?”

There was a beat, then a similar faint, frustrated growl in two different pitches from both officers, before the second took over. “Detain them both. I’ll be there shortly.”

“Yes, si-” there was a muffled alien swear in the background, then the call broke up into the sound of gunfire from one of the alien rifles and a burst of swearing from the soldier that cut off sharply, then a lot of running, gunfire, and shouting, with a snatch of Lance’s voice getting rapidly more distant arguing with one of the aliens - “YOUR AIM SUCKS!” “I’M A RESEARCHER, NOT A SOLDIER!”

The second hurried out of the room at a run, and she caught Sendak mutter something exasperated about “the only one with a shred of pride and still an idiot”.

She kept her face down to hide the brief vicious grin of pride; Lance was still out there.

******************************

Lance had snatched the alien rifle back after Tav’s sad attempt at shooting the soldier making the call to get away; he’d proven much more effective with it, and was now getting to test how well he could return fire while they were running for their lives. They’d made it back out to somewhere closer to the edge of the encampment, but the Galra forces still erupted like a kicked wasp’s nest, forcing them to sprint a zig-zag around any cover they could find.

Near the edge, Tav pointed and yelled “SHOOT THERE!”; Lance followed it, catching that it was a joint on some scaffold they were putting up over some kind of supply crates, but not having time to do more than trust the surveyor that it’d do something.

The scaffold collapsed onto the crates and tubes in a shower of sparks and a few bursts of volatile munitions. Tav bolted straight up part of the cliff, occasionally reaching back to haul Lance up part of it if he lagged behind, leading to wedge into a crevice about twenty feet up and barely big enough for both of them to get out of sight.

Tav had flattened back as far in as he could wedge, managing an impressive impression of cats-are-liquid in spite of the armor and bags. Lance edged back in next to him, sliding in to keep the rifle pointed vaguely toward the entrance.

“Got any more-”

Tav hissed at him. “Quiet!”

The commotion continued below, a mass of running feet and shouting. A couple minutes passed and then it redoubled, one voice cutting through the noise as everyone else shut up in deference. Lance couldn’t understand a word of it, but he recognized barking orders, and caught a thin, stifled rusty-hinge whine from Tav at the sound of the other voice as the surveyor tried to wedge deeper into the cave.

As some of the commotion grew less chaotic, Lance crept to where he could just barely see into the canyon.

One of the two from earlier was down there giving orders, scanning the canyon himself restlessly. It would be a long shot, but it was within the alien rifle’s range; he sighted down the barrel.

“It’s one of the bastards from earlier,” he whispered, focused on keeping his bead.

“Haxus,” Tav hissed, shifting just enough to tug the back of Lance’s collar.

“I’ve got a clear shot on him.” He was seriously considering taking it.

“Can you also take everything that’ll aim up here when you do?” Tav tugged again, sounding desperate and terrified.

“…..no.” Lance glared down the sight line, then let himself be pulled back, curling around the rifle in a sulk.

They waited in silence until some of the commotion dispersed and Haxus moved further away in the canyon. There was still a decent amount of background noise including a few ground vehicles coming and going below.

Tav only seemed to relax once the officer was well away, and even that was only by a small margin.

“So who was that asshole?” Lance jerked his head the direction the officer had gone, scowling.

“Haxus is Sendak’s Lieutenant Commander. They’re two of the most powerful and dangerous officers in the Imperial Fleet right now, and among Emperor Zarkon’s most trusted favorites.”

“So he’s a big deal.” Lance wasn’t impressed.

Tav cringed. “Sendak was one of Zarkon’s direct protégés. He rules an entire territory of the Empire including one of the border areas that used to be one of the worst for rebel and pirate bases and related unrest. Haxus was aiming to challenge for it until he decided he preferred throwing in behind Sendak, and they recently put down a rebellion spanning multiple galaxies.”

Lance paused, processing the implied scale. “Wait. Galaxies. How big is this empire of yours anyway?”

Tav sighed, and tried to rub the bridge of his nose, a gesture that ran into the helmet. “Emperor Zarkon rules most of the known universe. We’re still outside one of the borders, but the distance between us and the main empire gets smaller every century.”

‘Known universe’ for a race that could cover galaxies was probably more than what humanity was aware of, and Tav said century in the tone someone talking about human politics would use for years. Lance was starting to feel small, and wonder if he should think about it too hard. “So uh… that tomb was what, ten thousand years old, right?”

“Yes. And yes, Zarkon is what happened to your predecessor.” Tav didn’t seem to want to leave the small crevice he’d found.

There were several things he could think about there that threatened to be downward spirals of panic, so he picked the one that seemed least likely to send him joining Tav in wadding up in a terrified ball. “How long do you people live?!”

“Not that much longer than you people normally! Quintessence exposure does weird things and extends lifespans, Sendak’s around three thousand, but Zarkon’s past that even! Nobody really knows how he did it, there’s rumors and theories but-”. Tav made a couple helpless hand gestures.

“And I’m supposed to fight that?”, Lance blurted, voice half falsetto, failing to avoid one of the edges he’d been trying not to think about. He was one good-but-not-great pilot who wasn’t sure he could take Keith, much less a ten thousand year old dictator and an empire that covered most of existence.

“Voltron is probably the only thing that could fight him anymore and hope to win.” Tav’s own agitation faltered, turning small and uncertain. Even with the helmet covering his eyes, Lance could see part of his expression and feel the alien looking at him like a child who’d found the only adult in a disaster - every shred of hope pinned on him.

Lance swallowed hard, feeling his chest tighten. He had to not think about the enormity of it, just what was in front of him - his family, his friends, and his new weird friend… and Sendak. As terrified as Tav was of Sendak and Haxus, two officers and one large ship were a more manageable enemy to focus on than an immortal God-Emperor and an Empire spanning galaxies.

Figure this part out, and why he was so important, and deal with the rest later.

“Okay. We can do this.” It felt like it was more for his own benefit than Tav’s. “What is this Voltron thing anyway?”

“It’s -”. Tav paused. “There’s five lions - they’re…”. He made a few vague gestures, mumbling through words in the alien language like he was fishing, eventually shifting to a string of mismatched English. “Element… angel… drone… animal…,” he made a few more hazy, frustrated gestures. “God-beast-ship-things?” He paused, checking, and Lance nodded; he was following probably as well as was possible. “They’re dormant unless they have a Paladin. When all five are active, they can become one being with each other and their Paladins, and that’s Voltron. It’s said to be potentially the greatest power in the universe.”

Lance followed perfectly well, but somehow attaching himself in the context squirmed away and refused to seriously solidify. “So I’m a space Power Ranger.”

Tav froze, mouth open, tapping the air irritably with a clawed hand, then slumped with a helpless shrug. “I guess?”

“Well, I guess of all the sci fi genres to land in, Sentai team isn’t that bad. At least the parts are usually pretty cool no matter where I am.” He paused. “So does this mean we need to like, beat the shit out of Keith and then drag him into some kind of power of friendship redemption arc thing since he’s apparently going all antihero on us?”

Tav was staring at him incredulously, mouth hanging open.

“Come to think of it, where is Keith?” He wasn’t sure if Tav knew, but he could hope.

“Not here, that’s all I really know.” Tav shifted in the crevice, a little less wadded into it. “Sendak wasn’t away long enough to get to Central Command; I’m sure he’d want to hand off his prize to Zarkon personally, but if the Emperor made other arrangements to transport Keith, Sendak would obey. He could be with Zarkon now, escaped, or dead.”

Lance wasn’t sure if he should be relieved or more worried about that, considering the options. For the moment, it was one less threat to keep track of while they found a way to get the others back.

He hoped it was escaped, though; he didn’t like his odds or the implications of that fight, and thinking of Keith being dead to the asshole dictator in this context was distressing and making him realize he might not actually hate the guy.

It still sounded like there was too much traffic for them to slip out of hiding; he settled in against the rock next to Tav to wait. He knew quiet would be the safer option, even if it didn’t seem like the drones and soldiers could hear them as long as they kept their voices down, but the longer he sat and listened to the ongoing hunt, the more every looming worry and doubt threatened to turn into a pit of rabid weasels in his mind.

He needed a distraction. “So what are these lions like? Are they literally lions, like the cave paintings?”

Tav nodded. “The paintings here, at least. The ones up in the old Paladin’s tomb were made by people who’d never seen them.”

He had something else to focus on, and something useful, at that. “How much do you know about them? I know you said your ancestor helped build them, does that mean you’re like, the expert?”

Tav made a quiet noise in his throat that was half of a laugh. “Probably up there in the Empire, at least, behind a few people. See, I’ve got the notes from my ancestors who worked on them, but it’s just their journals passed down. No schematics, only partial ideas and equations and an occasional design scribble, and nothing from the other civilizations involved.”

Tav disconnected the gauntlet of the armor, pulling it off and setting it aside; Lance went quiet, watching curiously. The young Galra dug something hanging around his neck out of the collar of the armor out, a pendant that seemed to be made of small pieces of scrap metal from an old ship, mostly the same kind of dark metal the Galra ships were made of. After a minute of careful fidgeting with it, Tav produced a small chip from the pendant, sliding it into a small device on his wrist that wouldn’t have been much bigger than Lance’s watch.

A couple clicks of buttons on the side of the device, and a light panel appeared in the air in front of Tav with alien writing and symbols scattered across it; it was apparently solid enough for Tav to use like a touchscreen. Lance shuffled over closer to lean in and watch; it served as an inadvertent reminder how much bigger Tav was, since what would’ve been leaning over another human’s shoulder only put him peering around partway up Tav’s upper arm.

An image came up on the screen, Tav tugging the edges to make it bigger. “This was taken when they were all completed and active, along with the support ship made to accompany them - the lions, their Paladins, the crews that built all of it, and the core of the crew that would be serving on board.”

The focus of the image was in front of some kind of sleek white ship that mostly fell out of frame, a central body with what looked like side nacelles.

Five mechanical lions with yellow eyes sat in front of it on their haunches, the largest black one in the center with red and white wings, the two smallest next to it, and two other larger ones on the outside. The scale of them was made dramatically obvious by the small crowd of people lined up in front of the feet, a few figures on the head of the black one; with the image zoomed out to show the lions well, none of them were very legible, although the crowd at the feet seemed to be a mix of the slate-purple of Galra, something that almost looked human zoomed out that far, and a handful of others. The sky above was orange and crimson, with light slanting through dark clouds and scattered haze.

The Blue Lion was one of the larger ones; it looked a lot like the cave drawings that’d been glowing, drawn up tall with an air of smug pride. The Red Lion was next to the Blue, coming up partway on it, a sleek, smoother shape.

There was an odd pang, like it was a first glimpse of something that he’d never known was missing in his life.

He stared at it for a few minutes before his attention finally broke to register the rest of the image again. “So your ancestors are somewhere in there?”

Tav nodded proudly, zooming in near the Black Lion’s feet with a couple gestures, pointing to a Galra who looked nothing like him - smooth violet-slate skin, finned ears, and a narrow ridge of horns running down the center of an otherwise bare skull, in the middle of a mixed group of Galra and others; some of the other aliens flagged his attention - they still looked almost human, save for pointed ears, some kind of colored facial markings, and an odd light in their eyes.

He looked between the image and Tav. “Man, you guys changed a lot in ten thousand years.”

Tav shrugged, head leaning to the side. “Galra genetics, ten thousand years in a frozen Hell to adapt to… it happens.”

“Who’re these others?” He pointed to the other apparent aliens; there were at least as many of them in that group of the lead engineers and technicians as there were Galra, including a redheaded young man who couldn’t have been that much older than Veronica sitting up on the lion’s massive claw.

“Alteans. They were the other major race involved in it.” Tav had gone oddly distant and pensive. “They’re extinct now; when Zarkon started the expansion of the Galra Empire, he tried to erase all traces of them from existence, right down to their records and the schematics and notes on their contribution to Voltron.” The last part had a very distinct hint of bitterness that didn’t need a lot of explanation from what Lance knew of what Tav had been assigned to work on.

Lance frowned, studying the picture. “It looks like you guys were pretty chummy when it was built. What happened?”

Tav gave a small snort. “That’s something I’d love to know. I mean,” he gestured with the hand that didn’t have the wrist-device on it, “Every Galra in existence knows the ‘official history’ version of it, but what the ‘official history’ says about events before the war with them doesn’t sound anything like what’s in the journals. The last part of the journal files must be around when whatever it was happened, but they’ve got this weird encryption on them that changes every time we try to beat it; even I’ve never managed to get in, and I’ve managed to find hidden files that nobody realized were even there in it.”

Lance let out a breath, his lean turning into draping a little over Tav’s arm. It was a huge mess of a mystery that he’d landed himself in, and one without much to go on right now. There had to be something less abstract and confusing to pull out of this. “…So…you said the original Paladins were in this picture?”

Tav nodded, another couple gestures to bring the focus up to the Black Lion’s head, and a group that looked every bit as proud and accomplished as the engineers and technicians at the lion’s feet.

There were five people standing on the top of it, close together, while an Altaean woman in a functional fine pink dress was sitting on the lion’s muzzle, apart from them; another sat more primly on the other side of the lion’s head, in a simpler jacket and slacks, with a bemused expression and some kind of black cat with reddish spines curled around her shoulders. A tall Galra with heavy scales instead of horns and dark red armor stood in the center, clawed hands resting on the shoulders of the two on either side of him; on one side was a white-haired, grinning Altaean man in white armor with gold trim, a blue cape that was dwarved under the Galra’s dark purple one, one hand lifted to rest on top of the Galra’s massive claws wrapped around his shoulder. On the other side was an odd salmon-and-tawny alien with reddish-on-gold eyes, thin straight horns or hornlike ornaments pointed up, and pointed ears, dressed in neat green, gold, and white, who seemed to be taking the claws on their shoulders in quiet good humor, with no sign of discomfort.

A tall, broad alien with blue hide, fins, and gill-slits on his neck was beside them on Alfor’s side, leaning casually on the Galra’s arm. On the other side was another unfamiliar alien with short reddish fur and broad, heavy jaws that had a clawed hand on the Galra’s shoulder and a grin that showed off long, sharp lower canines.

“The lady in front here is the Altean Queen; while she wasn’t a Paladin, she was close and involved enough to be with them for this. The other one was an Altean alchemist named Honerva; she helped some with the lions, and - …it’s complicated, I’ll get back to that. The first Paladins came from some of the best and brightest of their civilizations and species, all of them leaders among their people. Your predecessor’s there on the side - his name was Blaytz; he was a big adventurer and explorer, a military special forces leader as well as an excellent diplomat.” Tav tapped the image of the other alien he didn’t recognize in the center with a claw. “And that’s Trigel, the Green Paladin; a clever tactician, researcher, scout and scholar. The big one on the side is Gyrgan; he doesn’t look like it, but the journals said he was a philosopher and a capable engineer and architect himself, even if he wasn’t as interested in some of the esoteric stuff the others got up to.”

Tav paused uncomfortably. “The last two are the ones who led the team that found the meteor that the entities were bound to originally. King Alfor of Altea, one of the leaders of the alliances in that day, and one of their best alchemists and engineers; he made that sword you’re carrying as a gift for Blaytz later on in things.” Tav took a deep breath, pausing over the Galra in the center. “And the then-King who had united the disparate Galra factions and was another alliance leader, Zarkon. If the journals were right, he was married to Honerva, and a complete pile of sap about it.”

For a moment, Lance thought he hadn’t heard the last name right, but the way Tav had paused -

He turned to look up at Tav, uncertain and off-balance with that new bit of information. “Zarkon? Like Emperor Zarkon? The Zarkon that went all genocidal on the Alteans and is ordering all of this now?”

Tav nodded. “Same one.”

Lance stared at the image again; Alfor was almost leaning into Zarkon, and Zarkon seemed to almost be encouraging the contact. It looked about as tense and uncomfortable as any particular photo of him and Hunk, although the disparate species made it easier to tell they weren’t related. The previous Blue Paladin seemed almost as comfortable there, leaning on Zarkon as if it were an easy familiar habit to be close with the massive Galra, and the Yellow looked about like he’d happily pick Zarkon up and walk off with him.

And there was Honerva, looking amused with the whole thing, an Altean herself.

If he hadn’t known the history, the reason he was seeing this image to begin with, he would’ve thought of it as the kind of group where there wouldn’t be anything that could tear that apart. It would’ve been downright heartwarming.

The relative ranks and histories were intimidating, to be sure - trying to measure up to Keith felt easier than trying to measure up to the record of the finned figure smiling easily at Zarkon’s side. There was an almost more distressing gravity, however, as there were faces, names, people put to the history of genocide and horrors, pulling it into a stark reality alongside the giant warship over their heads somewhere and the soldiers still teeming outside.

Leaders of interstellar civilizations having a falling out was the kind of abstraction that littered history books, boring tragedies too huge to fathom. Two friends that looked like they had the same kind of predict-each-other’s-ideas finish-each-other’s-sentences he had with Hunk turning on each other to the point of bloody eradication was terrifying and vaguely sickening, unfathomable in a different way.

“Why…?”

Lance didn’t even notice the quiet, breathless whisper had escaped him until Tav answered. “I don’t know. I wish I did.”

****************

Sendak did not return to the bridge for the report; he kept a few specific files taken from the devices of the captured humans where they were easily accessible.

It wouldn’t be necessary for the reason for the short report; he did not make small update reports without a good reason and without ensuring what he was relaying was accurate, but it didn’t hurt to be thorough.

He was the only one in the room, the location on the Cruiser part of the comm request sent out; the response was quick, with only Zarkon and Haggar present on the other end.

“You have new information?”

“The situation is not yet resolved, but I have located three of the potential paladins. I am currently making efforts to secure them and prevent any repeats of the previous incident.” He didn’t expect the Red to stay away with his homeworld under threat, but he wasn’t going to discount the possibility they might still need to chase, and he wasn’t moving his ship until they had the Blue Lion and the other three.

“And you’re certain of it?”

“Yes. There’s been left behind devices belonging to the former Blue Paladin responding to them, and the Blue Lion’s energy has responded directly to one in particular.” He tapped a couple of icons on the console, sending the images.

Zarkon studied them, considering. “So we have confirmation on Blue and Red.” And two others without a clear sign. “Describe them.”

Sendak inhaled, tallying what they had, what they didn’t, and where to start. “Their personal devices only had simple, basic civilian encryption and security. From their past communications, they came searching for the other one after his disappearance, with what little his camera had recorded before the Druid destroyed it. They are all - these three and our runaway - trainees at an exploration facility; not military and practically children.”

“They were not chosen lightly,” Haggar commented, “And should not be taken lightly.”

Sendak gave her a weary nod of recognition; they should’ve been easy targets. “They’ve caused enough trouble to prove that.” He wasn’t going to allow them to be more than a temporary threat and nuisance, but they had succeeded at that part.

“The smaller one is one of the saboteurs, and was the first one to go for the kill against a living target. She seems clumsy outside of ambush conditions, and has been trying to listen to our transmissions for some time now. The larger one was assisting with the sabotage, but seems to avoid confrontation unless forced. The Blue candidate is an excellent marksman, and convinced the surveyor who was supposed to be finding the Blue Lion to join him.” Sendak paused. “The only way the Kelvet brat is going to live is as leverage.”

Zarkon shifted with a quiet exasperated noise; it wasn’t an exact match, but there were large elements of deja vu. “If he is anything like his predecessor, then leverage would work.” He was already calculating out the mental math on what they had and who likely went where. “By my estimate, we have located all of them save a candidate for the Black Lion.”

Sendak had an uncomfortable pause, gauging whether or not he’d be overstepping bounds on something that was usually well out of his place. “Are we certain there is one? So far all we’ve found are replacements for the dead.”

“There will be one,” Haggar said with firm certainty. “Alfor’s gambit would be pointless without one, and he would not have thrown his life away for this if he didn’t have at least that much.”

“If the others are in a cluster, then the Black Paladin will have a connection as well. Do you have information on others connected to them who may be in a position of respect or authority to them?”

Sendak rumbled. “We are still going through their personal files. The officers of their ‘Garrison’ have authority, but there’s little sign of significant respect for them, and outright hostility in some cases. There is one who was in contact with the Red Paladin when we found him that also contacted them, but that one retreated from both confrontations.” There was also another commonality, but… “The small one is related to two of the three that we’d brought in previously; two of them are family of hers. She was searching for them the same as the Red was.”

Zarkon frowned, eyes narrowing. The most obvious seeming answer would mean the Paladins had lost before they began, and the Lions weren’t that careless. Either Alfor had rigged things to gamble more on Allura than had been previously guessed, or they were missing something. Alfor had proven capable of acting well out of normal bounds when pressed hard enough, but Zarkon wasn’t sure the nature of Alfor’s connection to all of the lions would be enough to force something like that, and had doubts that Alfor would be willing to force the issue even in desperation.

More likely they were missing something. “Either there’s someone else you should be looking for, or the seal on the Black Lion is interfering enough to mask interactions. I expect the former to be more likely.”

“Understood. I will ensure that these few are contained more carefully than the other one, and watch for signs of another.” Sendak saluted. “Vrepit sa.”

“Vrepit sa.” Zarkon nodded to the salute, and ended the call.

Chapter Text

The Castle was clean and empty, Allura’s footsteps echoing down the halls. Even though a part of her was aware of the vast gulf of time involved, it still felt like it’d been maybe hours ago that the halls had been littered with corpses or marred with bloodstains and burn marks, the remnants of the pitched battle between factions of the crew. It was a nightmare she’d spent wishing she could will it to have never happened, yet now it was jarring and wrong to have it look as though it had never happened.

Maybe if there’d been people to greet her, crew and passengers, her father waiting outside the pod, it would’ve been less nauseating; less like crossing a forgotten tomb.

The sun was setting outside, the doors opening before she reached them. Allura stormed up to the Red Lion, sitting on the wide walkway leading up to the castle. She could feel the lion’s attention, but there was nothing more clear from it than dull irritation at first. The lion wasn’t moving, leaving her with no choice but to walk up to one of its giant claws and put a hand against the paw, focusing power on it and the connection she had to them.

The lion was sulking, and ‘glower’ was a more accurate word for its attention. It was at only a fraction of what it should be, most of its being still dormant, but even that small fraction was a large entity, and one that was exasperated and growling in her head in frustration.

“Oh don’t look at me like that. You’re the one who thought it was a good idea to bring a Galra in full armor here.” She sent back frustration, anger, and ragged nerves of her own, along with the still fresh images of the bloodbath she’d just been through, before the Castle tried to run.

Zarkon had betrayed all of them, everyone even marginally loyal to him had betrayed them, the Galra had turned on them en masse, there’d been ten thousand years of slaughter. Her home was destroyed and her people extinct, and she’d woken up to a Galra in armor that wasn’t even ‘rank and file’, it was ‘someone Zarkon had granted authority’.

Someone that hadn’t made any threatening gestures, the lion wedged in, that was alone, and hadn’t even tried to defend himself despite her nearly trying to kill him - had instead been begging her for help right from the start.

“That doesn’t mean anything and you know it.” The lion apparently hadn’t done well enough at getting used to dealing with ‘mortal beings’ if it thought being knocked out in the middle of a battle only to wake up leaning against enemy armor would get any kind of calm response, for a start, and even after the initial reaction, she had little reason to trust ‘lack of hostile gestures’ from someone who’d just found themselves outmatched badly enough for surrender attempts to be explained by survival instinct alone.

Beyond that, the Galra that had turned on them hadn’t made any threatening gestures before Zarkon gave the order, and had made every possible overture that they were allies and friends. “We had accepted Zarkon as family in everything but blood, and look at what he did with that.”

Even with enough time for a string of running battles and deaths as things fell apart, that shock was still raw and fresh.

There was a frustrated tangle from the lion, too much at once for her to make sense of, then Red shoved the initial response aside as something it wasn’t time to deal with, and began drawing distinction between Zarkon and the new Paladin it had chosen.

Zarkon had become a paranoid, angry ball of knives that had declared war on all of existence and labeled anyone he couldn’t control the enemy. Red’s new Paladin was a paranoid, frightened ball of knives that was desperate and trying to balance surviving a bad situation and too much loyalty to abandon another against having a conscience and refusal to be Zarkon’s weapon, and was there because his conscience had won.

Allura did not find the parallels comforting; ‘paranoid ball of knives’ could go many unpredictable directions, and even with the lion trying to counter her suspicions, the conflict was clear. The bond was new enough that Red didn’t have fine detail, but Red was showing what it had of the new Paladin’s mind and emotions as of them leaving to come to the Castle, and there was a painful amount of doubt and fear that running would be a mistake he would pay for; his conscience was fighting against ties to everything important he had left - the hostage Coran had mentioned. “He really did make some kind of deal with Zarkon, didn’t he.”

She had some sympathy for being that loyal and caring that much about someone, but it was hard to empathize with too much when she’d just had responsibility for the greatest power in the universe dropped in her lap on top of being asked to trust someone - the lion prodded that ‘particularly a Galra’ was in among that, and got a jab back that even it had drawn some parallels to Zarkon - to not choose the side that had leverage over what was personally important to them even if it meant burning everyone else.

That was how this whole thing had started, after all - a Galra being willing to turn on the entire rest of the universe out of sheer devotion.

The lion’s sense of its Paladin’s situation wasn’t so much a deal as being sucked into a trap and scrabbling to keep enough freedom of movement to do something about it. Even with every indication Zarkon would hold the letter of his side, there was no trust and every expectation Zarkon would only use him and twist it around. He knew the ‘deal’ was a trap, he knew Zarkon would use that leverage to break him given the chance, that he’d probably lose everything important to him if he accepted anyway, and had chosen that nothing was worth accepting Zarkon’s leash.

He’d wanted a way out, and had been calling back to the lion in desperation for some way to fight back, to get away from Zarkon’s influence. He’d found a way to the lion in spite of every effort to keep them apart until Zarkon could be present, and now they were here.

And the Blue Lion was under threat - threat that wouldn’t wait nicely for Allura to decide if she was going to trust Red’s judgment or not.

“I know what’s at stake, but if he decides his chances are better with Zarkon after all or they’re using him as bait-”

The lion growled audibly, the rumble filling the air around her; terrorizing him wasn’t going to help him decide that she was a better option.

It thought the entire situation was unquestionably bait - the lion was certain that the Galra Commander only chose not to pursue because he was sure the new Paladin would show up trying to defend his home.

Red was thoroughly in favor of dealing with the trap by walking into it and proving to be more than they could handle. There was a certainty, some scribble of something larger she couldn’t entirely follow, but Red was sure that if they went, they would have the Blue Lion soon after arrival, and the others not long after that.

She leaned her head against the lion’s paw with a groan, dropping her hand; the overwhelming heat of the Red Lion’s presence was still lingering, drips of liquid fire through her raw nerves that were still ringing from the alarms and gunfire that were the last thing she’d remembered.

She wasn’t ready for this. She wanted her father, and wanted to believe he’d know what to do, she wanted home to be there to go back to, she wanted to wind everything back ten thousand years to before all of this madness, to shake her father and the other paladins and everyone to do something before Zarkon could kill everything she’d ever loved.

It felt like there was an abyss there; an edge where if she thought about it too much, she’d just fall into the enormity of everything that’d been lost, everything that’d happened, with nothing left to catch herself on.

The lion moved, keeping the paw she was leaning on still while it half-stood and settled back down, giant head arcing over her with a purr that was faint for something the size of some ships, warmth nudging over the lines her father had left her to them; it should have felt new and foreign, but there had been ten thousand years for that link to settle into place on her own life force.

One lion, soon to be five, with a new group of paladins that wouldn’t repeat the mistakes of the past. They had a purpose, and were needed now more than ever.

And the Red Lion was not going to move from the front walkway without its Paladin.

She sighed, giving it a dull, tired glare, still wryly fond. “Stubborn as ever.”

The rest of the universe couldn’t afford her falling apart, no matter how much it was taking of her energy to forcibly hold everything together. Breaking down wouldn’t solve anything, and all she had left now was to try to fix things - to bring back some semblance of the way things used to be.

She stopped in front of the doors, steeling herself to face the empty tomb of a castle again. “Why even inherit this power, if not to use it for our people and those in need.” It was an old, old phrase, passed down from one of her ancestors. There was a great deal of power that ran in the bloodlines of the Altean royalty, power that existed for a reason.

Her father and mother had used it to protect others, and whether she was ready or not, she had it and the duty of using it was on her now.

On top of that, she was responsible for Voltron, which existed to protect all of the vulnerable, weak, and innocent of the universe.

She focused on what needed to be done, tuning out the way the empty halls echoed; she needed to find Coran and find out how long it would take to get the Castle moving, then see about wrangling their apparent Paladin that Red had chosen to drop on them. Hopefully he’d be able to give enough information on this commander they were facing to come up with some kind of plan, since whether they beat him to the planet or not, there would be a fight, and she couldn’t count on having Voltron until they’d located the other three lions and four new Paladins.

Coran found her on her way down, a “Princess!” from the end of the hall jarring her out of her thoughts.

“I’ve gotten rid of all of Zarkon’s locators; once the Castle is moving, he won’t be able to track us.” There was a bit of phrasing that sounded off, but Coran was still going before she could ask, so she held onto it. “I was also able to confirm at least part of his story; his device had primitive biometric locks that he’s still able to unlock, and there’s copies of medical records from his world that certainly showed Galra biological traits, even if these ‘humans’ had no idea what to make of it - and I have coordinates for his homeworld!”

The coordinates would be useful, but were a little redundant; she could’ve found it herself by tracing the Blue Lion. Confirmation that he’d looked more ‘human’ before and been altered was worrying in implications, but the Red Lion had made it clear that there wasn’t going to be any negotiation on its choice of pilot. It at least meant he hadn’t been raised among Galra, and would hopefully have learned to take after the ‘human’ side of his heritage.

Which left the suspicious part of Coran’s report. “All of Zarkon’s locators?”

There was a tiny awkward ‘erk’, but he didn’t stumble over the question much. “Apparently, this ‘Sendak’ that we’re up against had locked him out of the hangar where the lion was kept, to make sure he couldn’t bolt with it before they could get him to Zarkon - but someone else interfered to get him in through a back way. They left some kind of communicator tag in part of his armor. I had a chat with them.”

Another headache on the massive pile of things to worry about. “How can you be so sure they’re on our side?”

“I tried to trace them.” He shifted weight to one foot, rubbing the back of his head. “The Castle failed, and they had some kind of quantum-probability based defense that almost choked the computers.” He patted the wall, as if trying to soothe the Castle itself. “It was a work of absolute genius, and if Zarkon had even the mathematical underpinnings of this technology, he’d be exploiting it for all it was worth, and it’d be pret-ty ugly! Seeing as how the Galra aren’t using space folds or external reality fabric scattering, but would probably love to have it if they could, I think we can safely say they’re not with Zarkon.” He leaned back against the wall, folding his arms. “They said that Sendak was already outbound to try to retrieve the Blue Lion, and that some ‘associate’ of theirs was trying to keep watch over the hostage.”

Coran’s logic for why the mystery person wasn’t one of Zarkon’s was sound, but there was another implication she didn’t like. “So spies within Zarkon’s ranks.”

“Certainly looks that way.”

“The only way they’d be able to function at all was if they were Galra themselves.”

Coran made a long, nervously ambiguous noise, fussing with his moustache. “Wellll…yes, probably.”

“Do we have any clue what they want? What agenda they might have? I doubt they’re doing this out of the goodness of their hearts.” She knew enough of the history to know that the Galra had been insular and always known for being slow to warm to outsiders at best, a history that would have been amplified and worsened by Zarkon’s influence.

“Maybe, but even if it is only self interest, I think ‘Zarkon not having Voltron’ is in the self interest of anyone who’s against him, and ‘Voltron aimed at Zarkon and effective’ would be even better for them.” Coran shrugged, letting go of some of the flippant pattern he usually preferred. “If I’ve read the situation right, they must’ve found out that one of the Lions had been found and mobilized to try to interfere even before our new Paladin walked blind into a Galra commander.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Walked blind into?”

“There was a video on his device and I got a little out of him about it. He’d been investigating signs of the Galra hanging around the system without knowing anything of what he was getting into, and tried to get a recording of them while they were investigating an old tomb dating back to when the Blue Lion was hidden; they spotted him and had some kind of strange mystic that recognized his latent connection to the Red Lion - which was already on their ship.” He turned to bring up a computer panel from a terminal in the wall, finding the newly archived file and running it from a point where the camera moved from the masked mystic to the commander behind him, then stopped it on that frame. “That would be Sendak.”

With everything else piling up, she chose to ignore the implications of a tomb dating back to when the old Paladins had died being the focus of investigation into the Blue Lion for now, focusing instead on the current events.

From the angle, the new Paladin must’ve been on the ground, and she didn’t like the look of the dark energy being used like a cage at all, or the look of the ‘mystic’. She pinched the bridge of her nose; she didn’t like anything about this, even if evidence was mounting more and more that their Galra Paladin was nothing more sinister than a desperate idiot with dubious ability to gauge risks.

She wasn’t sure how he’d been chosen to succeed her father.

“How long until we can get the Castle off this planet?” If there had been locators, then even if they’d been destroyed, Zarkon would know where the last signal had come from; they couldn’t afford to stay here any longer than was absolutely necessary.

“A couple of quintents, give or take - I’m still getting diagnostics results back as everything comes back online.”

She groaned; too long. Far too long.

“On the bright side, if we take off as soon as we’re ready, we should be able to get there around the same time as Sendak, maybe a little before.” Coran was trying hard to be optimistic.

Neither of them had an idea how much Galra technology for hyperspace jumps had advanced since the Castle had gone dormant to know how wrong he was.

“Let’s go see about our Paladin, then we can focus on restoring the Castle.” If nothing else, she really didn’t want to leave the Red Lion outside for that long, and the Lion had more points than she wanted to admit; if she wasn’t sure how much she wanted to rely on him in a battle now, it’d be worse after leaving him stewing in a cell for an extended period of time.

Her ancestors and family had prided themselves on being diplomats; both her father and mother had brokered peace deals and cooperative treaties across the known universe. Being a diplomat meant being able to find common ground and negotiate to a point of agreement, sometimes even if the other party was hostile or someone you loathed. She had to hope she took after the rest of the family enough to manage.

She’d pulled together her best official bearing, gliding into the room with Coran following behind. As soon as she entered the door, there was a brief burst of movement, the Paladin stashing something small under his pillow in a hurry and then wedging back against the wall over it, watching her warily with yellow eyes narrowed; there was a thin, faint, continual growl.

She knew she should’ve opened the door to the cell, if she was going to make a gesture of goodwill to try and get him cooperating enough to rely on under fire, but she didn’t want to walk into the cell. She was being cautious, she told herself, not wanting to admit she was terrified of removing that barrier between them - although as rationalizations went, not wanting another scuffle when he wasn’t armored and she’d risk doing serious damage on reflex and raw nerves was less flimsy than it could’ve been. She was more dangerous to him right now than he was to her.

“I’ve spoken to Coran and the Red Lion.” The growl didn’t lessen, and there was a flicker of a suspicious glance toward Coran behind her. “I am going to let you out of that cell, but I believe we need to reach some sort of understanding first.” She was keeping her tone level and calm.

His eyelids flickered with an eyeroll that was almost invisible on his current features, and the growl was briefly interrupted by a quiet snort.

She refused to react to it, keeping as calm and level as she could. “I know that you’ve just been through an ordeal, and how difficult it was to come here. I may have over-reacted on first waking up; the last that I had remembered, we were under attack, and I do apologize for any injury caused by my misjudgment of the situation.”

There wasn’t a worse reaction, but he was still glowering suspiciously and quietly growling; he was well aware that she would’ve nearly killed him - or successfully killed him - if not for the armor taking the brunt of some of those blows.

“I know that goodwill is too much to expect at this point, but we do share a common enemy, and neither of us stand much of a chance on our own.”

“So what do you want from me?” It was curt and bitter, sharp teeth visible on every word just short of keeping them bared.

“You are the one the Red Lion accepted, and Voltron is the only thing capable of stopping Zarkon. Help us fight him, and maybe we can put a stop to the destruction he’s been causing, for all of our sakes.” She had a mission, the Red Lion seemed sure that he would put the greater good ahead of his own benefit, and the common goal seemed like a safer option than trying to fumble through any kind of personal appeal, particularly when she wasn’t sure she could keep much else.

Keith’s ears lowered, eyes narrowing, and Coran winced behind her. “So what you’re saying is, you want the weapon and need me because I’m the only one who can pilot it.”

She closed her eyes, finding it something that took more effort to keep the calm, level tone; he was baiting now, and she couldn’t afford to let it turn into a fight. “A crude oversimplification, but yes. We need you. Countless lives depend on us having the power to stand up to Zarkon’s forces.”

He gave a sharper growl, and a snarl that bared teeth. “Go fuck yourself.”

She blinked, taken aback. “What?”

“Go. Fuck. Yourself.” Keith stood up, stalking to stand with his nose just short of the barrier, resting a hand against it. “I came here begging for help, and you choked me half to death, stripped me of almost everything I own, threw me in a cell, and now you want to ask the same goddamn thing of me Zarkon did, only you want me to believe it’s ‘for the greater good’ when you say it?”

“Zarkon is murdering worlds - he’ll do the same to your world if we don’t do something!” Her calm was frazzling out into frustration, and she caught herself just short of getting drug into another argument; even if she was still feeling panicky and rattled from waking up to an enemy-armored Galra, and the situation was unraveling out of her control.

“Why should I trust you?” He was still snarling, and his claws were out, points resting against the barrier.

That was the end of her reserves for keeping diplomatic bearing. “You’re the one who came here with the lion.” She motioned at him and off toward the front walk, feeling the dregs of composure she’d managed to scrape up wither away and vanish, taking any energy she had to exert control and be diplomatic with it. “You want to fight Zarkon and get him away from your planet, we want the same thing. Why are you arguing now?”

Coran leaned in the doorway behind her, burying his face in his hands.

“Because this isn’t any different! You and them both were ready to kill me before you realized I could work with the lion, and then suddenly I’m penned in like a prisoner so I can’t get away while people pretend to care and do whatever they can to try and get on my good side so I’ll do what they want!” He snarled at the barrier, fingers twisted sharply, claws scraping against the barrier.

She bristled, glaring back. “I am nothing like them!”

He straightened his posture almost forcibly, even if the rattling growl didn’t go away. “You’re right. You’re not like them.” His eyes narrowed, teeth showing. “I spent the first half of my life dependent on people like you, getting yanked around while they made a big deal about how noble they were, and I’m never going back to that. I’d rather serve Zarkon - at least he isn’t pretending to be a good person about it while he’s using me.”

“I’m-” It died, her voice faltering; he wasn’t backing down, holding his snarling glare, but there was something empty about the glare that made half of her internal organs want to curl up and die. “I-”

She couldn’t find anything. She raised her hands, making a few weak gestures, and turned on one heel to hurry out of the room. Coran stepped aside to clear the doorway, almost catching her but holding back; after the door closed, he turned back to the cell, where Keith was still bristling.

“Don’t even start. I already know where your loyalties are,” he snapped.

Coran’s shoulders slumped and his face fell; he walked out after Allura.

Keith’s claws slid down the barrier as the burst of energy from his bout of lost temper started to drain out. A half-minute later and regret started to sink in; even if they had managed to trample on just about every nerve he had, they weren’t trying to get into his head, and that alone was probably better odds.

If he’d just bit his tongue and agreed, he’d be out of the cell now and could’ve just gone on along with whatever they wanted, gotten Sendak away from Earth, and at least had some headway on revenge, if not a rescue attempt.

The strange spy had said there probably wouldn’t be much they could do, he was probably Shiro’s last chance, and he’d thrown that away, too - because it wasn’t just him at stake here, it was Shiro, too, and nobody else knew or cared to do anything about it.

Now he was pretty sure he’d burned the last chance he might’ve had; he couldn’t get out of the cell, the lion was outside, and the gauntlet was across the narrow bridge, on the other side of the barrier, with the only other contact he had that seemed to be vaguely ‘on his side’. He walked back to the thin bed, slumping down across it with nothing left to do but wait to see how badly he’d fucked up.

******************

Coran found Allura back in the infirmary, leaning bonelessly against the central control console with a few small colored shapes crawling on her; she looked dazed, holding a hand out with one of her mice standing up on her fingers.

“Look, Coran. The mice survived, too.”

He crossed the room carefully. “Allura? I know everything is a mess…”

“I can’t do this.” She lowered her hand carefully to rest on her knee. “I’m not my father, or my mother. Home is gone, we have no-one else, and I can’t even get someone who came to our door looking for help to listen to me - if anything, I made things worse.”

Coran took the few steps closer, carefully settling next to her and putting an arm around her shoulders. “It’s awful, I know. I’m not sure where to start myself, but we can’t just give up.”

She shifted away from the pillar to lean on him, curling to cling closer with her head on his shoulder; the mice moved to perch around her free shoulder, a tiny knot of warm fur against her neck. “I don’t know how Father ever did this - I miss home and I miss him, he’d know what to do…”

Coran squeezed her shoulder. “I have something you need to see.”

He stood, holding a hand down to help her up and pull her to her feet. The mice mostly stayed on her shoulders, spreading out a little, small presences and voices that weren’t going to leave her.

Coran led to one of the inner chambers of the lower part of the Castle, not saying more until they were almost at the door.

“Your father left this behind for you, before he left the Castle for the last time.” Coran had been one of a few surviving crew staying with the Castle, when Alfor set it to a random outer territory destination and fled to draw Zarkon’s attention. It hadn’t been said, but everyone had known Alfor was going to die; that it was the last they’d ever see of him.

He opened the door and stepped aside.

Allura walked into the dark chamber; she knew what the clear container on the center pedestal was and what it meant before the simulation came to life, a field of flowers spreading around her with her father in the center.

She crossed the distance haphazardly, hurried, stopping short as she realized the hologram would have to be less solid than that of the flowers, to share the same space as the memory storage module.

“Father…”

“Allura, my dearest. It’s been too long.” The echo of her father smiled down at her, weary and bittersweet.

Coran stepped back out, the door closing behind him. Allura needed this, but he wasn’t ready yet to face the ghost of his lifelong and to-them recently dead friend.

“Father I miss you. I - we all need you; I can’t do this.” She curled up against the pedestal, watching the juniberry flowers sway in the wind.

“What makes you say that?” He knelt down, bringing himself closer.

“I’ve barely even started and I have no idea what to do, the entire universe is on fire, our people and home are gone, and we have one Paladin who thinks I’m worse than Zarkon.”

“Slow down and think smaller, dearest.” One of the projection’s hands brushed her shoulder; it wasn’t solid, but there was a warm prickling, just enough of her father’s energy left behind to be recognizable. “Trying to mind everything all at once does no good to anyone; it only works one step at a time. Breathe for me and just focus on what is right in front of you.”

She took a few deep, slow breaths, eyes closed. “We have a single Galra Paladin and he hates me.” Even trusting the Red Lion that he would not have willingly agreed to be part of a trap, she couldn’t rule out it being part of their plan with him unwitting.

“He’s terrified, trapped, and cornered, and has enough Galra in him to bare teeth and claws at anything he feels is a threat,” Alfor commented wryly.

“And I keep making that worse.”

Alfor shifted, draping an arm over a folded knee, and cleared his throat lightly. “Allura, listen to me. Everyone makes mistakes. Even the best of us, and terrible ones at that.” He frowned. “Yours are smaller and far less catastrophic than mine were.”

She looked up, half wanting to correct him, but knew better; he could be just as stubborn as anyone else in the family, even as an echo.

“Don’t try to undo it. Take responsibility, make your apologies, do whatever you can to not continue it, and repair what you can. Try to learn from it. That’s all anyone can do.”

“How am I supposed to do that?” She didn’t want to be in the same room with their new Paladin without something in between them, and at this point, she may have already driven him to go back to Zarkon.

Alfor stared off thoughtfully for a moment. “Might I be able to speak to him? It’d be easier to say what would help if I knew what I was dealing with, and files on the computer only say so much.”

She blinked. “You mean bring him here?”

“Well, I can’t very well go to him.”

Allura nodded, and levered herself standing, walking out of the room. The mice mostly hopped off to stay on the pedestal, only one staying on her shoulder.

She trusted her father, and trusted him to have sound reasoning; if this would help salvage her mistakes, then she was going to swallow all of the internal urge to get far away and stay away. She walked past Coran, focused on what she was doing; she didn’t dare take any time that might chip away at her momentum. Coran moved to ask, then just followed after, stopping outside the brig room while she continued in without stopping.

Keith was draped on the cot, barely moving, but he sat up fast when she was entered, watching warily and more on edge that she’d come in alone. Allura felt the edge of fight-or-flight spike up, her own nerves tangling when he moved suddenly; she wasn’t sure if she trusted herself if she tried to keep a closer watch on him, even though she didn’t like having him completely out of line of sight, either.

Her entire demeanor was off, a very different kind of stiff from earlier, and she wasn’t looking at him, even as she entered the cell.

He could only guess that he’d either earned a second chance or an execution, going by how uncomfortable as she was; he let go of the tension and looked away. There wasn’t really anything he could do about it either way, and arguing with them would only make things worse.

“My father wants to speak to you.” ‘Softer’ wasn’t quite the word for her demeanor compared to earlier, but it was definitely subdued and blunted.

“Huh?” It wasn’t what he’d expected. He wasn’t sure what was going on, but he knew Coran had said they were the only people on the ship, even if Allura had come out of the cryopod demanding to know where her father was, and he was pretty sure King Alfor being dead was a truthful part of Haxus’s version of history.

She heaved a sigh, still not looking at him. “I need to take you to him.” She was trying to come up with a way to word it that wasn’t an order and didn’t require explaining what was going on while they were standing in the middle of a cell.

Keith stared at her in confusion, then stood up, waiting for her to lead; if ‘out of the cell’ was the only way this was going to make sense, then he wasn’t going to argue.

She turned, walking out, tapping something on the door panel as she passed; it stayed open long enough for him to follow her out. He paused for a brief moment, staring at the wall-panel where he knew his knife was, but he knew better than to ask. It was a weapon, and that was what everyone else always took as the primary value of it, even if it being kept like that mostly hurt because it was having the only clue he had about his parents and his heritage taken away.

Coran followed for part of that hallway, setting him more on edge; even if Coran hadn’t been as threatening, he didn’t really trust the older Altean, particularly not behind him. The engineer turning off down a side hallway muttering about checking on the reactor was a relief.

Allura led deeper into the ship, many of the hallways only barely lit, to the round, mostly empty room; she stopped partway in, near the round pedestal in the center with her back to Keith. Keith stayed just inside the door as it shut, feeling more confused than ever.

Then the simulation hummed to life, and suddenly he was in a field of alien flowers, the odd tube in the middle replaced by a translucent figure in armor.

He’d almost taught himself to ignore the occasional faint ‘color there wasn’t a word for in English’ after one too many time getting shut down hard and sometimes punished for trying to ask what color the inside of a ‘just one color’ flower was; what had been faint hints before were now vivid patterns, a delicate fernlike branch pattern lighting up the centers of the red blooms.

Alfor’s echo motioned for him to come closer. “You don’t have to stand by the door.”

One of Keith’s ears twitched, and he looked between the ghostly figure and Allura, who still had her back to him. “You’re…?”

“Not exactly. Merely a recording of memories and personality, left behind.”

Ghost apparently really was the closest to the truth. Keith took a few steps forward, staying behind Allura and a little out of reach. Alfor’s ghost watched with a quiet thoughtful noise.

“She said you wanted to speak to me?” His ears had lowered slightly, not trying to angle back like earlier.

Alfor nodded. “It seemed like the best way to help keep things from getting any worse all around.” The ghost motioned to him. “What Coran uploaded is something, but I would rather get a more direct idea of what we’re dealing with before I try to pretend I understand the situation to give advice.”

Keith shot Allura a pointed, sullen glare on that; she still had her back to him, and wasn’t turning to look. Alfor raised an eyebrow and gave a faint, fond head shake.

“So you have everything that was on my phone.”

Alfor raised open hands. “I’m tied to the computer system, so it’s hard for me to avoid noticing things. I tried not to dig too deeply - just enough to know of your work trying to investigate Galra interference and the lions on Earth, among a few other things.”

Allura did half-turn with a narrowed, suspicious look, then glanced back to Alfor, and folded her hands in front of her, her back to Keith again; her father, or what was left of him, seemed to have an idea and reacting on raw nerves and impulse would only interfere.

Keith raised an eyebrow with an ear-twitch and a quiet growl. “You may as well just say it.”

Alfor paused, a moment’s thought and noticeable conscious re-orienting of his reactions. “I’d say you’re goal-focused and short enough in your interactions for your forum logs and mail to not give much of a clue to what you actually think, but you have a very large and hoarded folder that I think Coran and I both owe you an apology for prying into.”

He tried to not react, but there was a slightly louder growl and he could feel his ears angle back.

Alfor’s ghost closed his eyes, lowering his head. “It doesn’t speak badly of you. Only of the people around you and what they made you expect to be exploited as weaknesses, although your wariness about being used might have saved us all.” He paused. “Your armor was bugged, recording, and tracking to a ridiculous extent, and the Castle has been interfering with similar devices worked into the clothes they gave you. There is a hole where the tracking systems didn’t show movement and all other recording blacked out before you reached the lion, but under the circumstances, that just means Zarkon and Sendak didn’t get any of it.” Alfor sounded impressed and a little grateful for the hole. “If you hadn’t been suspicious of Zarkon’s motives and intentions, he probably would have had you by now.”

If they’d bugged him that badly, that meant Alfor had the exchange about where Shiro had spent the last year, and his attempt at the door to the hangar.

“So what do you think he would have done with me?” He knew what the spy had answered, and that the artificial ghost was ten thousand years out of circulation, but the answer would give him something to work with.

The ghost sighed, an expression of weary distaste and disappointment crossing his face. “Well, his empire hasn’t collapsed, so I imagine he retained some ability to gauge the limits of his people’s loyalties and what he can and cannot push.”

The quiet bitterness was waving little mental red flags, and Allura had tensed; that wasn’t a tactical reading or something from an intelligence report, it was personal.

“I imagine he’d keep his word enough to ensure you had incentive to stay put and to pull some of your own priorities in his favor, then arrange everything else to ensure it was as hard as possible for you to leave and that he could keep enough leverage that you wouldn’t just take the lion and leave when you were out of easier reach on missions.” Alfor’s ghost shifted imaginary weight uncomfortably. “I doubt he trusts anything he doesn’t have a way to control anymore.”

Definitely personal. “So you knew him.”

Allura somehow found a way to tense more, earning a worried look from the ghost. “Yes, although now may not be the best time for that conversation.”

Keith narrowed his eyes at the ghost.

Alfor looked between him and Allura, a harried moment of weighing options. “We do owe you explanation of what you’ve been drug into, but - after there’s been some time to recover?” The ghost inclined his head toward Allura, expression pleading.

They’d known Zarkon, and it was probably connected to a lot of the chip on her shoulder.

Keith didn’t like it, and the discomfort did come out in a rattling sound, but he couldn’t argue with not pushing on trauma when someone was still volatile from it - particularly when getting that person to sort it out was a matter affecting his survival and Shiro’s. He nodded. “Alright. Full explanation later.”

Allura half-turned again, glaring at both of them with her mouth open, then just folded her arms and stepped back with a noise of frustration; she didn’t want to talk about it, but she liked less needing to be talked around like she were made of glass, even if she could read her father’s reasoning in trying to mitigate risks of another pointless argument.

Alfor had a brief moment, again weighing concern against everything else, but apparently settled on shifting away from that subject and taking the opening.

“What was your impression of Zarkon and the Empire?”

Keith’s ear twitched; there was probably a land mine somewhere in that question, but he wasn’t sure where it was. “…We’ve had regimes like that on Earth. They don’t usually last more than a handful of decades or a few changes of power.”

And that was clearly not going to be enough of an answer. “…It’s a tyranny, probably half run on a lot of pressure to control what people think and believe and encouraging them to sell each other out for some kind of batshit purity ideal and superiority complex.”

Alfor nodded, a very slight gesture of acknowledgment, and raised an eyebrow; there was another half of that question he’d tried to sidestep.

Keith sighed, unsure what to say even. “I wouldn’t trust Zarkon any further than I could throw him. Even if he held to what he promised me completely he’d have all kinds of room for loopholes and holding things back for leverage, and it’d just be a matter of time before he decided I wasn’t ‘loyal enough’ and fucked me over to make sure I couldn’t turn on him, or made an example of me.”

Alfor gave another quiet nod; he didn’t seem to be reacting badly but Keith wasn’t sure what the reaction even was, the ghost’s demeanor was so calmly neutral. It was probably what Allura had been trying to do earlier in the cell, but Alfor played it off so naturally that if Keith hadn’t caught other clues he wouldn’t have guessed the subject was something close and personal.

Keith decided the old king would make a terrifying enemy, and that set him almost more on edge that this was what he had to rely on to get away from Zarkon; he had clues, but not nearly enough familiarity to guess where Alfor stood in everything besides being dead, and what Allura would do with all of it. He shifted, drawing into military attention, hands folded behind his back. If he hadn’t been altered, it would’ve been a good cover for the gnawing wariness.

The thin rattle of a growl was only barely audible; Allura stiffened, and Alfor’s expression drained tired, the ghost straightening a few phantom flyaway hairs. “I’m not going to put you on the spot about the current situation here. I can see what the rest of the computer systems recorded, I know things have been… tense, to put it mildly, and that you don’t have a great deal of reason to trust us further than survival right now.”

The growl cut off in a faint, derisive snort. He was lucky he didn’t have broken bones. “With all due respect, Sir, it’s not like I have a great deal of choice in the matter right now. Whatever I might have said before, I have a guess how it would go if I tried to go back to Zarkon after what we did to Sendak’s ship.” Even keeping a level tone and leaning on military training wasn’t enough to do much for the amount of bitter, prickly resignation in his voice.

Alfor frowned, a slow headshake of what almost looked like concern, and rubbed the side of his temples. “Might I speak to my daughter in private for a moment?”

Keith’s ears angled back, but he nodded, turned on one heel, and walked back out the door.

Once the doors shut, Allura waited a beat, and let out a frustrated breath, hands balling into fists around the fabric of her dress. She didn’t want to make things worse again, but feeling like dead weight was gnawing on her, even if she wasn’t sure what she should be doing or how to even approach trying to salvage everything.

Alfor hadn’t looked away from the door; his expression had shifted as soon as it closed as well, a fierce frown.

Allura looked up to him; she had evidence one way and the other, doubts and worries one way and the other. “Do you think we can trust him?”

“I think he’d be a lousy liar if he tried to do more than evade, even without suddenly having more giveaways than he’s used to.” The phantom gave a dismissive half-shrug.

“…So he really thinks I’m worse than Zarkon.” Her shoulders slumped.

“At least when he’s angry enough. I think if he still believed it when he’d calmed down, he would’ve attacked you when you went to fetch him, or tried to bolt. Or both.” There was wry humor to it, even if it wasn’t a joke. “I don’t think you have as much to worry about as you were afraid of, although you aren’t going to have an easy time; he’s not going to trust you unless you let him come to you, for his own reasons.”

“We don’t really have the luxury of time.” She was half expecting Galra ships to show up any minute; Coran might have destroyed the trackers, but they’d still been going when he’d arrived, which meant the Galra knew where they were until they got the Castle running again.

“Think of it as a chance to prove your intentions in the field, then. Survival isn’t a solid tie for the long-term, but it serves well enough to give an opening.”

She gave the door a long, dim look, and then turned it up to her father’s echo; her nerves were raw enough at the idea of trusting a Galra even if he was one that hadn’t been raised in the Empire, and telling her to trust one knowing that there was mutual misgivings and little more than self-interest and desperation to hold it together was not an idea she liked at all.

Alfor noticed it, jaw shifting with some train of thought. “Have you realized what they’re doing?”

She blinked, thrown off for a moment. “Eh?”

“They’re isolating him.” Alfor nodded at the door.

She turned to stare back at it. “How do you mean?”

“Zarkon’s not a fool, and I doubt a commander he trusted would be, either, particularly when they had that mystic able to fish through his thoughts. They’d know from the start that he didn’t want to be there and had more reasons to hate them than to serve. Why would they put so much energy and time into changing him to look Galra and outfitting him as an officer, knowing he was only cooperating long enough for a chance to strike or run?”

There was a direction it was going, she didn’t like the look of any possible reading of it. “Giving him accolade and the trappings of rewards and rank would serve as some incentive - putting proof to their promises.”

Alfor half-nodded, tilting his head in acknowledgment. “Likely a thought, but if what the mystic saw was anything like what I could piece together from his files, they’d know those proofs had little to do with his actual priorities and desires here.” He motioned to a spot in front of the door, the hologram generators creating an image of him as he’d arrived, in armor. “Think, Allura. How differently would you reacted if he’d looked more like this when he arrived?”

The image flickered, changing to something reconstructing his old appearance from the photos; almost uncannily similar to Altaean in some respects, lacking markings, eyes wrong, ears mishappen, but could’ve been mistaken at a fast glance if one wasn’t paying attention, in odd clothes that were a little ratty in places and worn.

And it didn’t set her nerves on edge the way just catching yellow eyes and violet-grey fur from the corner of her eye did. There wasn’t any change in the posture or expression, it was still the same defensive wariness and guarded glare, but…

“…We might have already been halfway back to his planet, if the Castle were in good enough condition,”, she admitted, the words leaking out with grudging shame.

It was hard not to see what her father was seeing now; by making him look like one of them - and one of them with Zarkon’s personal favor - they’d ensured that any enemy of the Galra would turn on him before he even had a chance to speak. Even if he tried to run, he’d eventually either run out of options and be easily cornered with nowhere else to go, or they’d have ample opportunities to ‘rescue’ him from anyone he sought help from.

It wasn’t gifts to win favor, it was Zarkon hanging ‘property of’ signs around his neck. “Ancestors, they set everything up and I played right into their hands!”

There was a faint tingle as the recording’s hand passed through her shoulder in an attempt at resting a hand on it.

“Still far more salvageable than my mistakes. You do remember what to do with such, yes?”

She nodded. “Take responsibility, try to repair what can be repaired, and don’t repeat it.”

She looked back for a moment; the recording smiled with a nod. She squared her shoulders and walked out.

Keith was leaning on the wall in the hallway, and she realized quickly it was going to be harder than she thought as all of her nerves decided to knot up again as soon as she saw him, a ball of remembering that he was Galra and that was almost always dangerous. Looking at the wall a little next to where he was standing and focusing on the image her father had shown to make a point helped some, even if it did take a running mantra to remind herself that this wasn’t what he was supposed to look like, it was something the Galra had done to him to lay an unwanted claim.

“As soon as the Castle is able to move, we’re going to set a course for your planet, hopefully to find the Blue Lion before this ‘Sendak’ can.”

Keith straightened like he was preparing to argue, then just stared at her, thrown off and confused.

“And…” She looked away, voice softening; there was more that she needed to fix. “We should go get you your belongings, and a proper room.”

Chapter Text

The alien warship and encampment was far from unnoticed by the rest of the world.

Proximity and some warning meant the Garrison had gotten out there first, soon joined by US military, and a few encampments of allied forces, a ring of groupings of tents and vehicles spread out around the canyon. Roads going too close to it were closed; the alien fighters hadn’t shown a great interest in ground vehicles, but nobody wanted to take any chances, and civilians in the area would’ve been particularly bad. An entire section of the camps was being turned into a hasty safe zone for the local suddenly-displaced residents, along with assorted campers, hikers, and vacationers that had been in the area.

Iverson had been through six different “Do Not Engage, confirmed hostile and not entirely unknown” conversations with officers from more conventional military since the ship came down; luckily between the one news helicopter and the alien fighters shooting down everything that went over a one hundred foot altitude ceiling within the perimeter they’d established, the other military groups had mostly accepted sitting outside debating what to do.

The phone calls with the UN were almost the easy part; there was at least the small special council they’d always been tied to handling the uproar, so it was one area where Iverson could dodge the “Yes we had a clue about this” arguments and leave them to someone else. There’d already been warning that they were sending a diplomat to assist, which Iverson was less than thrilled about. The last thing he needed was someone who hadn’t known about it before that morning trying to take over and “negotiate” - which translated to “hope the almost definitely hostile alien presence wanted them to relay a message and let them walk away”.

He collected their best Xenobi specialist; Professor Yeun had one of the longer histories with the entire Problem, after all, and hopefully having someone who could talk science around the problem would make it a little easier to get across what they were up against.

They headed to a makeshift helipad outside the Galra aerial perimeter to greet the diplomat, a trim, neat middle eastern man, go through basic formalities, and led the man to one of the secure temp structures after.

Once the door was shut and they were seated, the diplomat folded his hands on the table. “I’ve been kept updated on what your representative has been relaying to the General Assembly. Nobody is particularly happy to find out you’ve known about this and deliberately hid it.”

“We’re aware.” Iverson had been getting periodic calls and texts with updates. The contact he’d been speaking to from their council had made nervous pitchfork and torches jokes in the last few.

The diplomat was keeping an even tone, even if he was clearly displeased and slightly irritable over it. “Before we go any further, I would like to hear from you why concealing alien presence in our system seemed like a good idea.”

“Because there was nothing we could do about them except maybe piss them off, and we had some very good advice on the matter from an expert.” He’d been through slightly less detailed versions of the explanation about fifteen times already that day.

“An expert.” The diplomat was giving him a dubious look.

Iverson sighed and turned to Yeun, who shook his head and raised his hands. He had a moment of staring off into space, already tired of everything, and then opened his tablet, bringing up an image and turning it around to show the UN representative.

The diplomat’s eyes widened.

“Her name is - was - Krolia. She was some kind of rebel trying to sabotage their current government from within that’d crashed here trying to keep some of their scouts from reporting back about something and bringing an army here. Had to leave a good seventeen, eighteen years ago to keep them from doing this -”, he jabbed his thumb the direction of the ship dominating the canyon, “Back then.”

It seemed to pacify some of the irritation, but not all of it. “…This was not in any of the reports you posted.”

“She wanted to be on record as little as possible,” Yeun commented. “We were respecting her wishes, and following her instructions to keep details on a need to know basis as much as possible.”

“And her reasons for this secrecy?”

“Because, besides whatever they were looking for, we were pretty damn boring to them.” Iverson picked his tablet back up, clearing the picture. “But they do pass through our neighborhood now and then, and if we were suddenly talking about them, it’d get their attention.”

Kadi considered it, rubbing his temples with one hand. "And the events of the last day or so at the canyon are why she was so insistent on avoiding their attention, I presume."

Iverson nodded grimly. "This isn't even that bad compared to some of her stories - they've wiped out entire other starfaring civilizations and turned planets to uninhabitable wrecks."

At least it didn't seem like they were going to need to debate whether or not the Galra were dangerous, as the diplomat accepted that without argument. "And you've been putting manned missions up knowing they could happen by any moment?"

Iverson winced. "They'd already had a history of ignoring our previous manned missions, and she didn't think that was likely to change as long as we didn't engage with any of the military ships or start going out of our way to mess with them. Said the usual way things went down with civilizations as little and backward as ours was them just deciding the little guys weren't worth the effort unless there was something about the planet they wanted, so it'd be either a full-scale invasion or not a whole Hell of a lot." He paused. "Besides Europa."

"...Europa." It was clearly a prompt - and considering how much buildup there had been to investigating the 'potentially' life-bearing moon, Kadi was clearly sharp enough to make the connection between the Galra and how suddenly that'd been abandoned.

"They've got some little research outpost there - she said it was civilians and exiles, their equivalent of getting shipped to Antarctica, and about as harmless as her people got." He shrugged. "We've interacted with them, for some value of the word."

"They pranked all of our probes. Remember all the 'hoax' photos from Europa probes that had dumb memes and movie references scratched into lenses or on signs held in front of the camera?" Yeun's stare was almost haunted, and the diplomat nodded with a faintly stifled almost-laugh.

Most of the probes had been destroyed not long after, but the outpost had done a damn good job of rendering anything they DID get useless.

"We do have samples of shells from geothermal Europan life... from girl scouts and campers who said 'Bigfoot' traded it to them for food."

Kadi shook his head slowly. "So, besides isolated, bored civilians successfully trolling you." He shifted, folding his hands on the table. "What do you know of them that might help convince them not to raze the planet?"

Iverson and Yeun shared a long, weary stare. Iverson turned back to face across the table. "They call themselves Galra, and right now, they're ruled by an imperial dictatorship that's been in place longer than we've had writing. They're carnivores, they're big, and the Empire's got a warrior ideal, a superiority complex, and a them against everything else mentality. There's some kind of old superweapon an old enemy of theirs hid in pieces, and one of them might be here. They're going to be our problem sooner or later, but barring something like this mess that probably has to do with that, we've got a few decades before their frontier border gets close enough to be dangerous."

As he was talking, he went sifting through his own files, tapping through the overrides to send a copy of a specific folder. "Since you're here, you can have a copy of everything we've kept under wraps on them."

Kadi pulled out his own device, checking it over with a nod, looking over the files. "So essentially, we're all in a very lousy situation with the entire planet at stake."

"Yep." It'd been hanging over Iverson's head for so long that now that it was here, he was having a hard time mustering more than burned out frustration at it, and he could only be relieved that Kadi was not trying to grill him about 'maybe they're not so bad'. "We've got some scrap from a scout team Krolia took out, but it turns out that alien hypertech's a bitch and a half to figure out when it's in scorched pieces."
He'd have a stronger reaction the next time the Galra did something dramatic, when it was worth the energy.

Kadi frowned over the tablet. "Do you have a way to make contact with them?"

Iverson blanched. "We think so, yeah?"

The diplomat nodded. "I need a few minutes to go over this more, then I'm going to try to open some kind of channel."

"You sure that's a good idea?" Between what they'd gotten while they had a source of information and the way the military Galra had been acting so far, any kind of contact seemed like poking a bear.

"I don't see that we have many other options to get a better idea of what's going on and what we might be able to do about it." Kadi was still distractedly going over the documents. "Crisis and hostile negotiations have been my career; I've dealt with dictators before, even if these are on a much larger scale."

The half hour or so while the UN representative was going over their intelligence were some of the most nerve-wracking, stretched and distorted minutes of Iverson's life. He couldn't argue without a better idea, and he was fresh out. They were ridiculously outgunned, and there were enough civilians in the general area or within easy strike range for the Galran ships to make anything that provoked them out of the question. Even if they had someone between the various encampments for scouting and intel willing to make the attempt, there as a decent likelihood the Galra would take it as the humans trying something and retaliate.

Just sitting back and letting it happen wasn't an option either. There'd already been casualties, even before they'd started establishing a forward base in the canyon.

Even before this, they'd still been on a timer of a few decades maybe to come up with a way to defend themselves before the Empire was on their doorstep anyway.

So they were going to try to talk to them, and hope they got something from it that gave them a clue, and that it wouldn't just get the Galra deciding they were being mouthy or needed 'shown their place' or something.

Eventually Kadi called them both back in; Iverson returned to the folding chair he'd taken before, across the table from the diplomat, with Yeun pulling the other one up beside him.

"So you have a better idea what you're dealing with now?"

"Somewhat." Kadi heaved a sigh. "It's a good basic report on the general situation, but it doesn't give me much to go on for cultural standards or what they'd consider more or less respectable."

Iverson glanced sideways to Yeun, who shrugged with a noncommittal noise; behavioral study was a side addendum to his main focuses, and Iverson had heard his 'insufficient data set' complaints before about other things. It was enough for him to go on with, Yeun could do his explanations later. "That's all we've got."

"It will have to do."

“So you have something like a plan? ‘Cuz we don’t have much.” Iverson wasn’t expecting the diplomat to have much, either, but he could dream.

“We try to open communications to keep them talking until we can find some solution that does not involve Earth getting destroyed, colonized, or enslaved. The ideal would involve some form of acknowledgment and cooperation from them, but that is incredibly unlikely under the circumstances.” Kadi drummed his fingers on the table. “They have the power and know it, as well as a superiority complex towards even other civilizations on a similar footing technologically. Just based on our world’s history, this is not a scenario with any kind of odds in our favor.”

No rose colored glasses here, just Iverson pondering if he’d actually wanted to get an outside expert opinion validating his own bleak understanding of their situation. “So what’s your best case prediction, then?”

“We keep this from turning into a sustained invasion, hopefully without them gaining something that might ruin things for potential allies, and then we focus on seeing what else might be out there that might be willing to help us or cooperate in some manner.” Kadi shrugged.

“So we scramble for a way to contact people they haven’t conquered yet, and whoever Krolia might’ve been associated with.” It wasn’t a great chance, and he wasn’t sure how well asking people that were probably narrowly fighting to survive on their own to cover others would work, but it was something. Sort of. Their luck at flagging down anyone else besides the Galra hadn’t been so great, even if Yeun had his own frustrated litany of evidence that the Galra weren’t the only ones passing by Earth.

“Stall for time. Got it.” Iverson nodded.

“There’s not much else we can do.” He seemed remarkably calm for someone staring down an alien invasion. “So, about contacting them.”

“Well, we think we have something that will hail them, but no guarantee they’ll answer.” Iverson pulled the clunky box up onto the table, pushing it over; the controls were simple enough, half taped over to mark where they hadn’t gotten parts working yet to specify a recipient or narrow bands on the one piece of hybrid tech they’d managed to figure out. “Fair warning, we’ve never turned this thing on properly before.”

All it was good for so far was getting attention, and they’d been living like rabbits under a hawk - the last thing they’d wanted was attention.

Kadi knew they had someone able to translate for English from the last fragment the news team had gotten out, so he stayed with that. “Greetings and apologies for any disturbance. My name is Kadi Hassim al Abbasid, and I speak representing our planet’s Council of United Nations. We do not desire a conflict, and wish to open communications that we may come to some form of understanding.”

There was a breathless silence as the room waited to see if there even would be a response to the hail. A few minutes passed, Kadi resting his hands on the console, breathing to a measured count.

Then the console beeped with a response.

There was a brief lag where there were snatches of the alien language audible as it was apparently being run through some kind of translation program en route.

“This is Commander Sendak, of the Galra Empire. We are on a retrieval mission. We will not tolerate further interference.”

Kadi turned from the audio-only call to give Iverson a hard look; Iverson blanched, shrugging with a blank headshake - he had no idea what Sendak meant. Kadi had contacted the other militaries that were watching around the edges, and as long as they weren’t lying, they were being very strict about keeping their people back out of reach.

“There have not been any sanctioned efforts at interference; we are making every effort to keep people and unmanned vehicles outside of your perimeter. If you can give us more information, we will make every effort to recall any of our people that have strayed into your operation.” For the moment, he had very few options besides trying to avoid kicking the beehive and attempting to get some kind of dialogue open; gauging anything else would come when they had more details to work with.

A few seconds ticked by before there was a response. “We will send coordinates to negotiate terms. Bring no aerial vehicles and come unarmed.”

The call ended, but there was another transmission with a marking on a topographical map of the area, and a hasty conversion for timing that only gave maybe a little under an hour.

“Well, it looks like we have plans.” He turned back to Iverson, who was responsible for transportation, putting a little more emphasis on ‘we’; the Garrison commander paled, but nodded.

***********************

The interruption was an irritation; realistically, the local primitives weren’t capable of being more than a nuisance, one easily swatted if they tried anything.

Sendak didn’t need to humor their naive attempt at diplomacy, strictly speaking.

However, they could complicate things in ways that their defector and the Paladin candidate could exploit, or even pull the candidate back out of reach, dragging out the amount of time they’d need to spend on the worthless ball of dust.

Sometimes it was just easier to pacify the vermin by letting them have the illusion of a chance for input; as long as peaceful species were given the chance to keep talking, they’d forget to raise a weapon even while their weaker and lower classes were gutted out from under them.

That left him needing a translator that wouldn’t be tipping a very useful hand - the program on the com computers was a hastily cobbled together mess, not well suited to direct field use.

The local colony definitely understood several of the local languages and wouldn’t be giving up an advantage, but they’d also never been reliable, and the surveyor’s betrayal mixed with their record of insubordination left most of them out of the question. The administrator had volunteered, but that was seeming increasingly like an ulterior motive.

The little clump of their personnel on board the cruiser was kept to restricted areas, all pulling away to give him a wide berth except one.

Most of the isolated colony were an insult to the species; too many generations hiding under the ice like vermin, with only the dregs of the Empire to bring in new blood. They were also prone to a disgraceful degree of sentimentality, and he didn’t trust most them to not do something moronic and annoying with one of their own among the list of targets. Their “security chief” was the only one worth calling Galra, even if Sendak wasn’t inclined to trust him much further than the rest.

“Security Chief Riven.”

The old soldier had glanced up enough to register Sendak’s presence when he entered, but otherwise hadn’t looked up until Sendak was standing over the bench he’d claimed, feigning sleep propped against the cruiser wall. “What is it now.”

It was impressive in an unpleasant way, how someone that once stood beside one of their most decorated fleet commanders could have sunk this low; he hadn’t even contested or argued the disgrace he’d retired under, even if some in the Empire gave credit for a shred of lingering honor in voluntarily choosing a worse end destination than what had been offered. “Have you learned any of the languages of the local primitives in your retirement?”

“It would be difficult to monitor what they’re up to without it.” Riven looked up finally, punctuating the near sarcasm.

Sendak left the attempt at bait where it was. There had been a time he would have had more genuine respect for the old man; now all that really mattered was that Riven could fill in as a translator and was more likely to have some scraps of pride as a Galra, enough to not try anything.

“I need a translator. The local ‘authorities’ want to negotiate, and I am humoring them to cut off any interference attempts.”

Riven tilted his head. “Oh? Not going to just claim the planet for the Empire in a storm of fire and blood?”

More sarcasm. Sendak ignored it again, although he did narrow his eyes with s faint lip curl; Riven and his old commander had played things more cautious, preferring a bit more reserve than most in their campaigns in the name of ‘not wasting resources’. “My mission is to retrieve the Blue Lion, and this planet is otherwise too little gain for too much resources spent for the time being. I want to claim the lion and get back to civilization as soon as possible.”

“So you have learned some discretion.”

He growled. Riven might be one of the few Galra out there older than he was, but that didn’t give the old officer license for insubordination, particularly after he’d retired in disgrace.

Riven levered up standing, unconcerned and leaving his axe where it was in the temporary quarters. “Alright, let’s go make sure the little monkeys stay out of your fur.”

Sendak had heard the word Riven used for the locals before, enough to catch that it wasn’t a flattering term.

At least taking the lion and leaving would’ve been enough within the tactics Riven had been prone to that Sendak was reasonably confident he’d obey orders.

*************************************

It was the diplomat, the commander, and the xenobi specialist in the end, making a short drive out to the designated point in a land rover; the two Garrison officers were quiet the entire trip, the silence of men who fully expected to be going to their deaths.

The people he was going to negotiate with not being human was new for Kadi, but that kind of pall and life-or-death stakes weren’t. He focused on that rather than on the implications of a First Contact situation and how it might be most of the population if things went badly. It was a scale much larger than conflicts between nations or groups within a nation, but the basic principles and means were the same; a little hindered by a lack of ability to get any sort of footing on the norms and standards of the other culture, but right now a great deal was riding on him being Good At His Job and managing to figure that out on the fly.

The alien contingent arrived in one of their small skiffs, the ship landing nearby. Even if it were vaguely plausible that the apparent leader’s prosthetic wasn’t a weapon itself, they most definitely had not come unarmed; there were two humanoid drones staying back by the ship with some kind of firearms. The other alien with the commander only barely looked the same species, coloration and eyes about the only commonality; they were both huge, although the second one’s armor was much worse for wear, and Kadi noted that while he was ‘visually tracking’, there was a brief lag that would’ve come with it being mostly for show - relaying on other cues more than sight.

Kadi took a three-count breath in and out. It was a show of force, dictatorial strong-arm tactics matching the basic, mostly tactical outline of Krolia’s account of her people.

He stood firm and calm, trying to find a neutral balance between looking up and not quite making eye contact until he had a clue which way to jump on that particular bit of protocol; Iverson and Yeung stayed a couple steps behind him on either side, stiff.

Sendak was almost twice his height; the whole thing was a power play, and Sendak was definitely confident in his own ability if there was a fight.

Of the humans present, two of them were not doing a great job of masking being quietly terrified, while the third was much better at covering reactions and would’ve recognized starting a fight as suicide even if it weren’t his job to avoid and prevent them.

“Commander Sendak.” He bowed; keeping things simple was probably the best bet without any sense of what would be proper protocol and what would be an insult.

It quickly became clear that the other alien was there as a translator; his English was rough and heavily accented, not something often used. “And you are the representative.” The blind one was not putting much effort into mirroring Sendak’s tone, but was listening carefully. “Your people have deployed a great amount of military for not desiring to interfere.”

“A reaction of caution. The aircraft that was brought down by your early landing party was a civilian craft, only acting on curiosity to broadcast the confirmation of other sentient life to the general population; it was ill planned, but not intended as a threat. The local military saw it as cause for concern, but have been responding to instruction to avoid needless conflict, and are keeping a perimeter to remove civilians.”

The translator rumbled, nodding before he relayed it; Sendak wasn’t showing much reaction, and Kadi was unsure of body language, but had a suspicion the translator was keeping military bearing over being uncomfortable.

“We know nothing of what would be a hindrance, so anything to let us know what to avoid so there is no offense given would be appreciated.”

Sendak gave a quiet huff as that was translated, showing a few teeth. Incidental eye contact didn’t seem to be getting any noticeable bad reaction, so he held firm, looking up at the big alien.

At least one of the human contingent needed to not show fear; Iverson was shifting weight nervously occasionally, and Yeun looked about ready to hide behind the commander.

The translator was keeping an almost flat tone, and it didn’t seem to be coming from difficulty with the language. There were occasional flickers of inflection, brief bits of weary exasperation. Sendak had turned attention from him to Iverson pointedly in mid-sentence. “A long time ago, something of great personal value to our Emperor was stolen and hidden here. We are here to retrieve it. There will be no tolerance for intrusion, and there has already been sabotage and interference from your people.”

Sendak stepped around Kadi, looming over the Garrison commander; Iverson stiffened. The alien handed something small over, with a comment that included bared teeth and a faint growl.

The translator shot Sendak’s back a quick, narrowed glare, before continuing his monotone. “This was taken from one of the intruders - one of your trainees.”

Iverson nodded slowly, barely taking his eyes off Sendak to check the emergency information on the phone he’d been handed for identification, then closed his eyes with a quiet curse.

Kadi glanced sideways, waiting for explanation; Sendak’s prosthetic claw was close enough to him to feel faint heat from the energy arc it was attached by.

“It’s from a cadet. They’re on break, left the facility a couple days ago - knowing his team it’s probably the whole team if there’s a group,” Iverson rattled off, voice low. The translator’s head turned tracking the sound, but he didn’t bother translating it.

Sendak looked back, saying something to the other alien. The more reptilian translator tilted his head with a rattling noise, waving a hand with a comment of his own and motioning back to the canyon; Sendak growled, and whatever he said got the translator to lower his head and apparently give way.

After that, Sendak did not move from looming over them, but did return his attention to Kadi, turning to face the diplomat; it forced him to crane his neck up uncomfortably to maintain eye contact.

“Most of the troublemakers have been dealt with, but one is still causing interference.”

Iverson flinched, and actually spoke up, grinding the words out with his eyes somewhere in the middle of Sendak’s breastplate. “If I can get enough to identify who the one still causing trouble is, I will call them back and try to get them out of your way.”

Sendak paused; the translator went suddenly still, watching Sendak.

Sendak’s answer wasn’t short enough to be a dismissal, but the translator pulled back, eyes wide with an odd noise, cut off fast when Sendak narrowed eyes at him, pulled into military attention, tone suddenly shifted to something more like a military report.

“The two that were caught are a small angry girl and a taller, broad boy.”

Iverson nodded, looking down, then paused suddenly confused. “…Girl? I know this team, there’s not a girl on it.”

Sendak didn’t seem surprised by the Commander’s confusion, even if he did sound keenly interested in what was going on if Kadi was reading it right, and he motioned at the phone in Iverson’s hand. The translator’s bearing was more stiff, no inflection in his relay. “So it wasn’t intentional for another of the same family to be in our path.”

In professional terms, Kadi would report that Sendak was controlling, aggressive, manipulative, and displayed abusive behavior patterns from the way he was playing bait and leverage, and was entirely likely to use large-scale violence to enforce threats or attempt control through force and intimidation, while the entire encounter showed evidence of militaristic force tactics being a normal mode of operation. In less professional terms, he was concluding that Sendak was a complete asshole, and while he would claim he hoped Sendak was not a good example of the larger culture, Sendak apparently was very high ranking and the translator was not thrilled with his behavior, but also did not seem to find it incredibly surprising or seem to think he had any real grounds for protest or disagreement.

Which meant it was at least normal for Sendak, and probably normal for the upper command in general.

He could also glean pretty easily that Sendak was baiting about one of the cadets being related to part of the Kerberos mission, and going by Iverson’s dawning expression of confused horror and frustration, Iverson hadn’t known they were there, which was little more than Sendak trying to sow discord and push buttons; it brought some slim hope that the cadets were still alive, since it would also make sense as trying to make their lives more difficult if they escaped and being petty.

Iverson thankfully pulled his composure back together, even if he was still holding himself stiffly enough to betray discomfort. “I know who the third member of the team is, and will attempt to call him back before any further damage is done.”

The translator was too stiff; something was off.

Kadi motioned at Iverson and hoped the gesture to back off and let him take back over got across; Sendak kept dragging him in, likely because he was less prepared and easier to get reactions out of. “Do we have any room to negotiate terms about captives, if there are any?”

Even before Sendak’s flat, one word answer was translated as ‘no’, he suspected he already knew the answer, but he had to at least try.

He nodded, not attempting an argument; at this point it would likely only be taken as an excuse to cause actual damage or make some sort of example.

“Is there anything else?” Sendak had, at least, directed the question to him rather than either of the Garrison officers.

Kadi considered. There wasn’t room for much; they were keeping any information closely guarded, and honestly, he suspected they were dodging full-out conquest or assault only due to external factors or lack of interest - it would be uncomfortably easy to tip Sendak’s intimidation posturing into action.

He turned his attention to the translator. “Are you allowed to speak separately?”

The blind alien paused awkwardly, making some quiet inquiry with Sendak; Sendak paused, studying Kadi, before giving an answer with what seemed like a permissive gesture, attention staying on the diplomat.

“Somewhat,” was the answer from the translator.

He wouldn’t have much leeway, and it was certain Sendak was going to be inquiring about anything he asked, which meant he had to be careful or he’d risk drawing the Commander’s ire on the translator or the rest of Earth. “How did you come to speak English?”

The translator’s expression shifted tiredly, and there was more inflection this time, age and weariness even if the words were halting and he occasionally needed a moment to find one. “I am retired. I handle security for search operations and mind stupid children. They use Earth languages when they are up to something because they know we Galra from the main Empire do not understand them. I have also learned bits of Russian, Korean, Xhosa, and Chinese because of them. The children still have not figured out how I keep knowing what they are doing.” There was a short pause, although the translator kept the same tiredly conversational tone. “Also he is lying. They have three people, the third is a relative to the loose dumb child.”

They weren’t mentioning the outpost on Europa, but that was likely where the translator had retired to; he nodded. “Thank you. That will be all then.” He turned to Sendak and bowed again; the only defense they had right now was in protocol and deferring a conflict, even if he suspected it would only mean delays before the inevitable. It could be months, it could be decades, but they were a weaker entity in the path of a militaristic and expansionist empire; sooner or later, there would be a reason for the Galra to pay more attention to Earth. “We thank you for taking the time to indulge our questions, Commander; we will do what we can to avoid any further reason for conflict.”

Sendak nodded at least, acknowledging the bow, and had returned to being vaguely formal in tone, even if the translator was sticking with an air of ‘I am too old for this’. “When we have secured our objective, we will be leaving. See to it that there are no further problems, or we will deal with them ourselves.”

“We will. Good day and we will be available for contact if there are any issues, Commander.”

All he got was another nod of protocol before the commander turned to leave, the translator turning his head to track after the sound of footsteps before following. The drones joined them on the ship, which lifted off and left.

They drove back in silence again, going from the vehicle back to the vaguely secure quonset; this time all three sat around the table.

Iverson had his own phone out, frowning.

“Something wasn’t right there. The translator blanched when Sendak answered you, and all of their other responses to humans anywhere near what they were doing were definitively hostile and not amenable to negotiation or release of our people. They’re up to something.” Kadi doubted they actually intended to let the cadet in question leave the canyon.

“I know. I know anybody else they’ve taken is probably dead, or maybe that’s what we should hope.”

“But?” he raised an eyebrow.

“Whatever you might think, I didn’t do any of this to send people out to die, and maybe if I can get the one idiot out of there, we won’t have another funeral to deal with.”

The diplomat sighed, and waved for Iverson to go ahead; he put it on speaker, setting the phone on the table.

For a minute, it seemed like the other end wasn’t going to pick up; then there was the click of an answer and a hushed, “Lance speaking, is something going on?”

Kadi had to give Lance points for effort; if he hadn’t been obviously trying to keep his voice low enough to not be heard, he might’ve sounded like there was nothing unusual going on.

“Cadet, I know where you are and what you’re doing, and you need to get out of there. If you don’t, they are going to kill you.”

There was a pause on the line. The cheerful demeanor vanished. “They have the rest of my team and my sister, and I’m not leaving without them.”

“This isn’t one of your damned movies, Lance. You’re one person against an entire alien military crew, none of us have anything that can actually fight them, and all you’re doing is throwing one more life away - get out of there, that is an order.” Iverson was scowling at his phone, frustrated.

After another silence, Lance spoke up again, sharp and colder. “This is like the ‘disciplinary issue’ Keith got kicked out over, isn’t it?” He didn’t give Iverson time to answer. “You know what. You don’t have a way to fight them, but I do, and fuck your orders, I’m not leaving my family with these-”

There was louder background noise, and a sudden, less human voice snapping “The phone!” before the sound of it getting manhandled, a jumble of noise, then a clattering impact and feedback, with a lot of yelling and the sound of the alien firearms going off; Iverson killed the call, burying his head in his hands.

“…He was trying to find them. That’s what he was up to.” Kadi was frustrated that he hadn’t seen it sooner himself. The second voice definitely had a similar accent to their translator, but it was less severe, the human language coming easier to them.

Iverson groaned, then grumbled, “Why is it always the fighter pilots?”

Yeun rolled his eyes. “Because in order to be a fighter pilot, one has to have the kind of personality to think it’s a great idea to bet their life on their ability to control a ton or two of metal going at ludicrous speeds?”

“Well, there’s still not much useful we can do but avoid provoking them into striking other targets.” Kadi propped his chin on one hand.

Yeun made a small, thoughtful hum and looked over to the diplomat. “If there’s a schism between the locals and the main Empire, do you think we might be able to get them helping us? I mean beyond a youth acting out.”

Kadi thought and shook his head. “It’s hard to say. They’re less aggressive but they’re also still beholden to the main Empire, and even if we have evidence that some of them are sympathetic, they likely can’t get away with more than minor, concealable acts of civil disobedience like the one we saw. I’d imagine the one that’s aiding your cadet is dead if they catch him, and any others who’d object to it or attempt to aid him, while someone with more authority or standing getting caught would be risking implicating the population as a whole. Asking them might be dangerous for us and them both.”

Iverson sat up and leaned back, bleak. “We don’t have much we can do. Sendak’s ship alone could torch everything we have without a scratch.”

“I’ve dealt with leaders like their regime before. Giving up power to them would be selling ourselves out and condemning the planet.” It was a moment of depressing realism.

“And fighting them probably means annihilation.”

“…you both remember what most of their transmissions we’d caught were about?” Yeung had leaned back in his chair, arms folded, thoughtful.

Kadi narrowed his eyes and nodded. “If it’s a weapon that’s been buried for ten thousand years that they still want, then it’s something they can’t re-create, and something powerful enough to be useful - which means it’s powerful enough for them to see it as a threat in other hands.” He sighed. “I know my entire job is to prevent violence, but I’m also responsible for trying to ensure basic rights are respected, and if Sendak and the situation with the translator are any indication of the larger Empire, we won’t have a truly peaceful option, just which form of violence we want to be involved in. What do we know about this weapon?”

“It’s called Voltron. It’s apparently in more than one piece. They already have one. They talk about it like it’s practically a legend.” Iverson shrugged.

“The way Lance talked, he seemed to have some idea about it.” There wouldn’t be many other reasons Kadi could think of for the cadet to think he had a way to fight back unless he had some clue about it, and it got grudging nods of acknowledgment from the two Garrison officers.

Iverson frowned, pulling out the phone he’d been given. “Well, if we can get into Cadet Gu…” He grimaced. “Miss Holt’s phone, we might get some clues what they know that we don’t.”

“Do I need to ask why one of the relatives of the lost Kerberos mission was enrolled in the Garrison under a false identity, or is it as self-evident as it looks?”

Iverson’s grimace deepened, and he shrank into his chair, arms folded. “Because she’s sixteen, was damn determined to get involved in this, and got expelled for breaking into my office over it.” He glowered up on that pause. “And I was not about to let kids get into the line of fire on this!”

Kadi wrinkled his nose; the handling of grieving families was a mess, and he wished he’d known about this sooner, but he couldn’t really fault the reasoning, just question the methods - and even that was better saved for a time when they didn’t have an enemy warship a few miles away.

There was silence, then Iverson shifted again, to bury his face in his hands with another groan.

“What is it.” Kadi wasn’t sure he wanted to know what else Iverson had thought of that might not’ve been public.

“Simulation records.” Iverson inhaled, looking up in despair. “Lance’s team is a squabbling mess and he crashes often. Thirty percent failure record, and you’re telling me to trust them with the fate of the world?”

Kadi sighed. “We have no other choice.”

********************************************************************************

Ulaz had left what he guessed was a few hours previous; Shiro had started testing a little more while things were apparently in some kind of holding pattern, and had been able to get terse answers to questions about the prosthetic and some minor routine things, although anything too broad about the situation got evaded, occasionally with hostile sarcasm.

He still got the impression the Galra medic was on edge and didn't have as much say in what was going on as he pretended to, but he wasn't going to get any kind of clear answer. Part of him wanted to believe there was something else going on, and that Ulaz was up to something that wasn't Loyalty To Zarkon, but there was the little cynical thought still that Ulaz's tension might just come from being aware that he was very close to something Zarkon was personally invested in enough to be erratic.

The feedback from the prosthetic, uncomfortable as it was, was apparently normal, and "would settle once his nervous system adapted to the unfamiliar signals". He'd gotten past trying to pick at it, to Ulaz's apparent relief, although he'd swapped that for testing how much he could manage; he hadn't asked yet if it was possible to hurry along the adaptation period in any way, but he was getting less and less comfortable with being that gimped in the current circumstances. There wasn't much he could do, and he wasn't about to sacrifice anything he could grasp at to make things a little less weighted against him.

From the routine of the last day or so, he'd guessed he probably wouldn't see the Galra for several hours; they did need sleep, and he'd kept track of what schedules he could see.

The door opening well ahead of when Ulaz should've been back set him on edge even before he'd turned to see who it was.

It only got worse when he realized he was now alone in a room with Zarkon. The Emperor had pulled back reactions to a more normal state of controlled and guarded, which only made him more wary; at least when there were signs of emotion, he had something he could read, and guarded probably meant planning.

That didn't mean he was about to show fear if he could help it. "So what's the occasion this time?"

"Curiosity."

There wasn't much in the statement to give him any more clues what was going on this time. He considered trying to ask, but decided to just settle on the bench, testing the range of motion he could get out of the hand before the feedback made it harder to focus.

"What was your relationship to our young troublemaker?"

Well, that meant Keith probably still was out of reach with whatever Zarkon had wanted him for and was still being himself, which was probably a relief; Shiro wasn't sure there was a way 'not being here or en route to here' could be anything but better.

“He was in training and I’d just made it into active service at the same place. He was close to graduating." He shrugged, barely looking up; his first guess now was that Zarkon was fishing for what he could use to regain control of the situation, and Shiro was not feeling cooperative for that.

Zarkon's eyes narrowed, and Shiro was certain he wasn't amused with the dodge. "And how did you register as the first priority to him, given an open offer of nearly anything?"

"I dunno. I did a lot of mentoring, looked out for a lot of the others there, and that mission I was snatched from was the first manned mission to the outer edge of the solar system, so a lot of the cadets and trainees looked up to me." It was mostly not a lie, and it was how he'd ended up with Keith close in his orbit - looking out for anyone that seemed like they needed it.

He didn't like the pause; it felt like there was still something Zarkon had gotten from it that was more than he'd wanted.

"Was that really all you did to earn that kind of loyalty?"

There was the irritation and implied threat he'd been expecting to pop up sooner or later.

"From what I saw, he was like that; even with people he didn't like, he got really protective and would go out of his way to keep everyone intact and on track." He wasn't sure how far he could go completely avoiding any personal relationship, but he was still sticking with using truth to dodge; Keith might've been brusque and socially avoidant given any choice in the matter, but he did well on team exercises and had a good set of priorities for eventual hazardous missions.

He didn't think the dodge got very far. In fact, he was pretty sure he'd found the start of the timer on Zarkon's patience, and that was very unpredictable in how long the fuse was.

"And yet, he still broke and ran, leaving you here."

It didn't have as much effect as Zarkon probably wanted, since Shiro had been incredibly relieved to hear that Keith bailed, after the initial panic from finding out via being stuck in a small room with a very visibly angry Zarkon had died down. Most of the sting came from it being a sign that Zarkon’s fuse was dangerously short today.

He half wished it hadn't been timed when Ulaz was away; even if the medic's usual reaction to Zarkon in the same space was to stay quiet and stay still as much as possible, and he doubted Ulaz could do anything, it still made Shiro feel a little better not being alone when the other party was clearly about as happy to be there as he was.

"He gets pretty cagey with anyone who hasn't managed to earn his respect." He was trying to not get into how much of a 'No that's just Keith' the sudden insubordination had been, but it was hard not to jab back.

His jab didn't seem to have much more impact than Zarkon's had on him, although the dull, unimpressed look came through loud and clear. There was a very faint sound that Shiro almost took for something out of place from the machinery, before he parsed it out as a much quieter version of the growl he'd heard before when Zarkon had been caught more off guard and openly angry.

He went still, the room suddenly feeling a lot colder; Zarkon might have gotten his composure back to cover emotional displays, but something had him angry enough for that to slip through, and it was aimed at Shiro.

"So you were on your way to becoming a leader among your people."

There were alarms in Shiro's head at the sudden shift of focus, even if he wasn't sure why it was that important.

"Eventually?" He was trying not to shrink down, trying to force his voice to stay cautious and level; even if there was a streak of instinct to try to appear smaller and less like a potential threat or problem, he'd learned that Galra really did work more like any other large predator, where showing weakness or trying to get away only made things worse. Zarkon hadn't seemed to be an exception, even if it meant a very precarious tightrope between 'don't look like prey' and 'don't look like you're challenging him'. "I was a pilot, it'd be a while before I had any kind of command position, and our teams were small enough that everyone was expected to be responsible for each other."

He wasn't sure what he was trying to sidestep, and Zarkon definitely didn't seem to have bought it either; he caught the faint growl again. There wasn't another question, although he caught a faint mutter from the Emperor as the narrow, gauging stare was turning into a more focused glare -

"Born leader, whose men will follow without question."

He stayed still, trying not to be too obvious that he was freezing to the point of not breathing; there was silence for a long few seconds before Zarkon turned and swept out of the room, the door closing just short of the edges of his outer, more intact cloak.

Shiro didn't let out his breath until at least a minute or two after the Galra leader had left. He wasn't sure what had just happened, beyond that whatever he was stuck in had just gotten worse somehow.

It was hard to focus on much of anything for the few hours until Ulaz would reappear; restlessness settled in, and he was left trying to go through old habit exercises as best he could around the feedback from the arm. The last grumble had sounded like Zarkon had been reciting something from memory, but he had no idea what or why it was important, other than that it was probably the only clue he had to what had Zarkon suddenly riled at him.

It didn't make any sense; it wasn't like "might've been in a command position eventually" meant anything now, with him in a cell, and before Keith had shown up on the Empire's radar, it'd seemed like Zarkon was considering grooming him for some kind of position of rank once they were more sure of his potential loyalties.

He was missing some large, important piece of context, and it was adding an upsetting amount of uncertainty to a situation where he already only barely knew what was going on.

Somewhere in the spiral of what physical activity he could manage failing to be a distraction from trying to make sense of what had suddenly put him on Zarkon’s target list, the door opened again; he startled, caught between freezing and being ready to fend off an attack. There was a faint hum from the prosthetic and a flicker of violet light that made the feedback turn from ‘unpleasant’ to ‘grabbed a light socket’; he was dazed, and when it faded, Ulaz was cautiously waiting for whatever he’d just triggered to die down, more tense than he’d already been and with some mix of guarded confusion, alarm, and unease.

“You’re back already?”, he blurted out, no other response managing to make it into his head.

“I’ve been gone long enough to sleep and tend to my own routines.” ‘You mean you haven’t slept yourself’ was a hanging addition left unsaid.

Shiro had a blank pause. “It’s been that long?”

“Yes?” Ulaz tilted his head, frowning. “Did something happen?”

“Zarkon dropped by.” He’d lapsed into a nervous attempt at flippant ‘nothing’s wrong’ for cover. It didn’t seem to be working; Ulaz’s frown deepened. “He was asking about Keith and my record. First time he’s seemed interested at all in what I was doing before.” He wasn’t sure if he wanted to try and ask Ulaz what the Hell had just happened, or run Ulaz in circles and avoid the subject entirely. He doubted he’d get an answer if he did ask directly, anyway.

Ulaz was keeping his usual habit of somehow showing less visible reaction than Zarkon habitually did, but at least seemed slightly less confused. “I haven’t received any change to my orders.” He started sorting out tools and instruments, attention dropping away from the attempt at conversation; Shiro definitely wasn’t getting answers.

There was a good hour of Ulaz mostly focusing on work, the prosthetic half-dissected while he had cables running into it and was poking around with various instruments; it was aggravating some of the neural feedback just enough to be vaguely miserable, everything turning into a mess of pins and needles numb after a while. There were occasional questions checking amount of sensation and what was registering from the prosthetic, terse and focused, with very little explanation given for what any of it meant; sometimes it led to connections getting messed with more, sometimes Ulaz just nodded and continued on.

Then there were tools and devices he didn’t recognize, or at least, he hadn’t gotten a good look at them before if they had been used; there was a little too much unease and nausea for them to be completely unfamiliar.

“I’m going to work on the energy conversion system. It will create a great deal of feedback and cause other localized interference.”

It wasn’t much warning; the ‘great deal of feedback’ was enough to nearly white out, and Shiro wasn’t sure how he managed to stay mostly still beyond freeze reflexes that’d been finely honed at this point. Some of the lights in the room were flickering when he got his bearings back, and there were bright violet lines of light running along parts of the prosthetic.

Ulaz was also looking over, waiting for the initial shock to fade, sharp unease actually showing.

“What, exactly, was he asking about earlier?”

Interference. It was messing with the cameras somehow, and Ulaz didn’t want to be recorded.

“…Uh. Something about how I knew Keith, but then it was mostly what I was doing before?” It was still hard to focus through the feedback, but if Ulaz didn’t want to be recorded, then Shiro was willing to go along with it in pure “do whatever your enemy doesn’t want” spite. “About mentoring trainees and cadets, and if I was going to be in a command position. Then he said something weird and stormed out.”

Ulaz tilted his head, prompting.

“…I think - ‘born leader’? And being followed without question. He was growling.”

Ulaz froze; the sort of recognition that suddenly dawned would’ve come with turning pale in a human, and Shiro caught a quiet rusted hinge noise that wasn’t coming from the machinery. It stifled fast, and Ulaz returned to focusing on his work without any further explanation.

There were some last checks, and after the prosthetic was put back together, Ulaz ran down a set of sharp instructions; there wasn’t much explanation, but Shiro did manage to connect that it was some kind of basic exercises that were probably meant for the adaptation problem with the prosthetic.

He didn’t have any more clue what was going on, but he was at least starting to lean more towards Ulaz probably not being an actual threat here. The other alarm bells about his situation having somehow gotten much worse because of something he had no clue about were getting louder, if it was something that would scare someone who worked with the Druids on a daily basis.

*******************

As Ulaz was on his way out, he tallied over what he had - far more readings than he technically needed. Overachieving usually was good cover for trying to fish further than what he could easily get away with in normal routines. Some of the younger technicians that were assigned assisting in the labs skittered out of his way, hurrying to follow barked orders; building a reputation for having occasional more hazardous moods had its uses, as well, and made it easier to build up a good layer of cover to keep Druids from finding and questioning shielding and mental redirects.

They had a blind spot right now over Sendak, but whatever was going on that direction had probably prompted Zarkon’s sudden fishing, and he didn’t actually need context to know what was important to his mission and current situation.

He was at least going to have to go dark on communication soon, and probably going to have to do something monumentally stupid; his cover was unlikely to survive sitting on the new Black Paladin candidate right under Zarkon and Haggar’s noses, which meant time to start planning how to at least do something more useful than getting caught, interrogated, and executed.

Chapter Text

Not long after Lance drew Haxus’s attention, Sendak carried Pidge out of that room, half engulfed in the mechanical claw again. She had already hit a loathing for Sendak, but the prosthetic was starting to get its own special section of hate.

He opened a door and dropped her in unceremoniously, closing it behind her. The room was small, bare, and unlit, probably not any kind of long-term prison. Hunk had scrabbled back against the wall when the door opened, and half-fell over trying to get back to Pidge with the cuffs still on; Veronica had only a little more dignity when she shifted to see.

“Pidge! Are you okay, what happened?!” Hunk was inch-worming to the front of the room, squirming to sit up once he got closer.

“I’m okay, they just - tried to recruit me, bastards figured out they had my family, but Lance is still out there - it sounds like our tail’s helping him.” She was shifting herself, trying to get upright. “They tried to bluff their way in and ran when the second said he was coming down, Sendak was pretty irritated.” She settled against the wall, Hunk managing to right himself next to her with some difficulty. “Veronica, did you have your camera set to sync to your phone?”

Veronica paused, then her eyes widened and she spit a few curses, at least two of which Pidge didn’t catch the language on.

“That’s probably how they knew Hunk and I were connected to the thing.” Pidge sighed.

“So that means they’re not going to do anything that bad, right? They need us to work the Voltron thingie.” Hunk was clearly flailing about for anything to lever against a threatening panic.

“Nothing too bad to you, maybe,” Veronica said, grim.

Hunk whined, the back of his head hitting the wall.

Pidge growled and twisted around, knocking her glasses off of her face, and stomped on it hard, until she had the sides broken off in points. “I am not doing the damsel in distress gig for Lance.” It took some more squirming, but she got the pieces into her hands, blindly feeling along the sides of the cuffs for the joints in the mechanisms.

At first it was just scrabbling, then it caught in something and there was a jolt from the cuffs. She cut off a cry of pain, clenching her teeth. “I must’ve found something, it shocked me.”

“Can you turn? It’s really dark so I can’t see much but I can try to spot or something.”

She turned, and Hunk flopped half sideways to get a better look.

For a minute she was poking around blind again, weathering the occasional shock, then Hunk shifted with an excited, “I think I’ve got it!”, and started giving directions.

It still took longer than she liked and a few more shocks, but there was an angrier buzz and they shorted out, falling off inert. Hunk squirmed back sitting upright, wrists where she could get to them, answering her warning that it was going to hurt with a tense nod.

She managed to figure out whatever he had fairly fast, although he still got a few unneeded shocks before she got them off; he sat back against the wall with a sigh of relief, rubbing his wrists. He didn’t stay there long, already moving to examine the door while she set to work getting Veronica loose.

“Okay, it’s half guesswork from what we were sabotaging earlier, but I think I might be able to short this out and force it open.” He held a hand out for the glasses fragments; Pidge handed them over. She settled back with Veronica to wait while Hunk worked, grumbling at it half-intelligibly.

There was a sudden shower of sparks and Hunk jumped back, dropping the half-melted piece of glasses frame with a yelp. A few drunken whirrs and buzzes came from the door frame, and Hunk threw his weight against the small window, pushing.

It screeched and then the parts drug open.

Pidge darted out as soon as it was open far enough for her, Veronica right behind; Hunk twisted out of the way, letting go of the doors which squealed back half-closed, jammed and stuck.

The first drone came running down the hallway.

Hunk dove in a tackle, Veronica grabbing the rifle as it and the drone went flying. For a moment they were a tangle of metal and limbs, then Hunk threw it over his shoulder, Veronica firing a few point blank shots until it stopped moving.

There were alarms sounding and already the sound of shouting and running, drones and soldiers headed for the jailbreak.

They ran the direction that sounded like it had the least pursuit.

“Breaking out is great and all, guys, but what do we do now?!”, Hunk wailed.

“We break as much as we can!”, Pidge shot back, while they were trying to lose some of the pursuit.

********************************

The only real saving grace after Sendak almost got the Garrison to give away their position trying to order him out was that the encampment was dense enough to give a decent amount of cover, most of it armored military hardware.

It wasn’t much consolation; Tav throwing the phone had only thrown off tracking by maybe ten or twelve yards, and Lance was pretty sure every single drone and soldier not in the ship was trying to converge on that area. He’d managed to get Tav a rifle in the chaos, but the Galra surveyor remained a horrible shot, better at distractions and collateral damage than actually hitting anything. It left the bulk of clearing paths and trying to buy breathing room to duck from one set of cover to the next to Lance.

“Fucking Iverson,” Lance grumbled under his breath when they ended up darting under some kind of landing craft, barely enough clearance between the underbelly of it and the ground for them to fit.

For a few long moments of silence, it seemed like maybe, the hiding place had confused things enough for the soldiers to lose track of them. There were drones starting to spread out again, pursuing different escape paths, even if there were more armored feet and ankles around the small craft than Lance liked still.

Tav stiffened, freezing, and Lance followed where he was looking; there was one set of armored boots that were different in design from the rank and file.

Lance’s attention had never been that low to the ground during previous close calls, but there were only two people that scared the surveyor that much, and one of them was a lot bigger and presumably still on the battlecruiser.

Even if Tav’d been right and they had been in a lousy place to suddenly draw attention to themselves before, Lance had a pang of angry regret for not taking the shot at Haxus when he had it.

Haxus wasn’t going away, either, and seemed to be making a circle around the craft, interrogating everyone still left near it.

And then he walked several feet away and stopped, definitely facing the skiff they were hiding under.

Tav twisted around, giving up on silence and trying to mess with one of the lower panels; Lance wasn’t sure what he was doing, but it looked like about the same area Pidge and Hunk had been messing with, and if Lance had caught that right, it looked like Tav was trying to disable the skiff’s engines so it couldn’t be easily moved.

He wasn’t quite fast enough; the skiff hummed to life, lifting up to hover a good twenty feet up, kicking up dust everywhere in rings around them, the open hatch clattering against it in the sudden sharp wind. Lance and Tav scrambled to sit up, then Tav shrank down and froze.

There was a ring of rifles aimed at them; Haxus had one of his own, a smirk of cold confidence over the leveled barrel.

For a beat, Lance was acutely aware that not only was there no clear path to run and at least seven or eight rifles trained on them, one of the most dangerous men in an empire that spanned galaxies had a bead on him. Haxus motioned with the rifle for him to stand up, a small movement of the barrel.

Lance flopped back on the ground, and shot upward.

The conduits and connections normally protected by the hatch were exposed; the skiff’s engine made a horrific noise as it listed, starting to turn out of control and about to drop. The ship suddenly became the most dangerous and concerning thing in the immediate environment, as even Haxus took a couple uncertain steps back, looking up; one of the swept sides hit ground, throwing up more dust and rock and taking out two of the drones.

Lance grabbed Tav’s wrist and bolted toward the side, cutting close to where the skiff was dropping but behind the path of impact; there were a few stray shots, and one that clipped the back of his jeans, a grazing shot that still left a sudden searing burn across his calf before they vanished into the dust and shower of rock. The pilot didn’t manage to get the skiff engine killed fast enough to stop it from another drunken lurch sideways, enough to keep the attention of everyone trying to not get hit and give the two of them a chance to vanish into the encampment.

It wasn’t any easier of a mess of dodging; it was the same routine as earlier, with all the more gratitude for the practice of sneaking around the Garrison, but this time it was while everything was on high alert, which much shorter windows of time to move and a lot more to watch for and dodge. The crash they’d caused had apparently caused some commotion and distraction, but not nearly enough, and Lance had the sinking suspicion that Haxus was directing most of the pursuit across the general area they’d been running toward when they’d ducked behind the dropping skiff to get away.

They didn’t actually get that far, wadding into a storage compartment out of sight in the back to wait for some of the immediate alarm to die down back into methodical searching. Tav had relatched it behind them, hoping nobody would bother to check an apparently locked crate, even though it was still mostly empty even with them wadded in back behind a couple of pieces of machinery.

Tav had also waved Lance in and scrambled through it with the kind of practiced focus of having done it before, which raised Questions about what the young Galra had been getting into before that were a good distraction from his burned leg.

At first, it seemed like it would work. They didn’t dare make noise or do anything that might draw attention to the large crate, but the noise outside was starting to thin out and sound more distant, the worst of the search fanning out further.

It was actually almost to where Lance was shifting to consider the door and Tav wasn’t completely against it, maybe close to an opening to slip through and get out of the path of the angry military.

Then the lock moved and the door opened, and Tav shoved Lance back, flattening behind the machinery, both of them huddled trying to use a reflective part of the thing they were hiding behind to see what was going on; the rifle was on the ground next to Lance, where he could easily keep a hand on it just in case.

The shape blocking the door was huge and armored, but there was only one gleaming yellow eye reflected, and it didn’t look quite right to Lance; oddly dim and ragged-edged. He saw one of Tav’s ears twitch, but he wasn’t sure if the intent expression was recognition or something else.

Tav held up a finger for quiet, and kept a hand on Lance’s chest, staying still.

The Galra at the door stepped up into the crate, looking around; his armor was a mess, worn edges and chipped pieces with no attempt at repair, far worse kept then Sendak’s and with a few more places where there were more of the internal parts showing than it should’ve had. Some of it showed internal mechanisms further in than there should’ve been machinery if there was still flesh and blood under it. His scaled face was scarred across with what looked like some kind of erratic burn, half of one finned ear missing.

Tav wasn’t trying to move when the other Galra walked closer to the machine, a large clawed hand settling on it, leaning in to look around it. There were at least a couple times Lance swore he had to’ve been looking right at them, teeth showing in a frustrated snarl, but Tav had his eyes closed and was holding still, so Lance guessed he must know what he was doing and followed suit.

The armored Galra moved past, to the back wall, a few inches from stepping on one of Lance’s feet, then turned and walked out with a growled huff, closing and latching the door behind him.

Tav let out a breath once it closed, slumping in relief and letting go of Lance’s shirt. Lance stared at him with a raised eyebrow; it was pitch dark and Lance could barely see more than shapes and Tav’s eyes now that the door was closed again, but he was pretty sure Tav could see him fine.

There were a few beats to make sure the heavy footsteps had left and there was no sign of pursuit before Tav gave a whispered answer. “Riven. He’s retired, been living out on the outpost with us, I’ve known him since I was little. He’s practically blind - can’t even read unless it’s large print right in front of his face, barely sees shapes further away.”

“So he really didn’t see us?”

Tav nodded. “If it’d been anyone else we would’ve been dead.” He paused. “Well, I would’ve been dead. I don’t think they’d kill you.”

Lance made a face and an uncomfortable noise; somehow, them wanting him alive was less comforting, even if he knew why and what boundaries it hypothetically, maybe, placed on how much they’d be willing to do to him.

After an awkward silence, he heard Tav shifting, eyes drifting away. “…If we do get into a fight, can you… well, I don’t know if you can avoid shooting him if it’s bad, but - don’t kill him?”

Lance pulled his hand off the rifle, suddenly uncomfortable for reasons other than a crazy alien dictator wanting to use him as a weapon. “Got it.”

“Thank you. He’s - basically family to a lot of the us that grew up on the outpost. Ex-military and grouchy and tries to make sure we don’t get away with anything, but…”

“No it’s - I get it, I don’t…” It took him a moment and swallowing past a lump. “I don’t really want to kill your family either.”

It wasn’t a sentence he’d have believed he’d need to say a week ago. Hell, he was still half avoiding thinking about the fact that he had killed a couple people while they’d been running, and there’d probably be more before the battlecruiser wasn’t a threat anymore and he had his sister and his team back.

And then he was going to be taking some alien superweapon and probably trying to get it as far away from Earth as possible, to make sure there weren’t reasons for more battlecruisers and soldiers to show up, and getting even more involved in some massive war on a scale he had a hard time imagining.

“No pressure,” he muttered sarcastically, and didn’t realize he’d said it out loud until he caught a narrowed, half-concerned look down from the Galra.

“Er. I’m fine. Just you know.” One thing at a time; he shifted to try to get a look at his leg on half-reflex, then remembered he couldn’t see to tell if it looked as bad as it felt. It hadn’t given out on him yet, at least. “Is there any way to tell the outpost people from Sendak’s people? And do you think I can get away with not killing the other soldiers?”

Tav grimaced; there were teeth showing but it was definitely an uncomfortable face. “Sendak and Haxus hold their crews to the same standards they keep - Victory or Death. They won’t stop until they have you locked up to take back to Zarkon, or they’re dead.”

Which was a wonderful thought.

“There’s not really proper military on the outpost, so - our people won’t have armor past a few messy pieces, and won't be carrying heavy weapons?” Tav shifted to fuss at the backpack Lance was carrying. “Do you know if there’s any first aid supplies in here?”

Lance was derailed out of his worry by the question. “…Yanno this was Pidge’s bag, I don’t even know. I know Veronica had some, she was pretty fussy about being ready for something to go wrong.”

Tav re-zipped Pidge’s bag, giving up on that, and shuffled around to slide Veronica’s bag between them, flinching and freezing when it jarred a little; when there was no sign it’d been particularly noticeable over other background noise, he went digging into the compartments.

The emergency kit wasn’t hard to find. It didn’t take long after that for occasional grumbled comments, not all of them intelligible. “…Right, you people are behind on everything.”

Lance stayed still; he still couldn’t see anything, really, even if Tav was fine in the pitch dark. He could hear Tav rummaging, at least. “You know, thinking about it, that didn’t work out that bad,” Lance commented. He hadn’t really counted how many rifles had been aimed at them before the distraction had thrown everything into chaos.

“Well, we did drop a small ship on them. I think most of them were preoccupied with not getting squashed.” There were claws on Lance’s ankle and he froze for a moment; Tav paused awkwardly. “…I know it’s not that bad but while we’ve got a minute we should get it bandaged?”

“That’s not-“ Lance hunched his shoulders. “I can’t see in here.”

“Oh. Right.” Another awkward pause. “…I don’t think we can stay here long enough for a lot of messing around, I think I’m going to need to cut off part of your pants leg.”

“Well, maybe ragged will come back in style.” He couldn’t muster more than resigned acceptance to that, considering the situation.

Being aware that someone was messing with his leg with claws and scissors in pitch dark was nerve wracking even when he knew that Tav could see just fine; he mostly knew what to expect from first aid training and some other dumb shenanigans - shenanigans that usually meant things getting handled with lights on and Hunk going over, in detail, why it had been a bad idea.

And Hunk was on the alien ship right now. He hoped Hunk and the others were okay, although he wasn’t sure there was an ‘okay’ about being prisoners of hostile aliens; maybe they wouldn’t do anything too awful unless they could use it as bait. He wasn’t sure if it’d be good or bad for them to figure out that Hunk and Pidge were also connected to the thingie, it’d hopefully mean they’d be less inclined to hurt them that badly, but it’d also mean they’d be more intent on not letting them go.

It was a downside to ‘no sign of Keith’; at least if they had some idea what the aliens had done with the other pilot, it’d give him a clue how they were handling the people tied to the weapon, and he didn’t want to think about his sister, who they didn’t have any reason to care about beyond ‘connected to the rest of them’.

Tav knew more than he did there, and Tav’s earlier admission that it was possible Keith wasn’t there because he was dead wasn’t comforting, both for not hating the guy that much, and for what it meant about Hunk and Pidge even if Sendak did figure out they were Potentially Useful.

Cold burn cream didn’t take much of an edge off the graze hurting, the bandage wasn’t fun but at least meant less worry of random things hitting the wound.

“You have no idea how lucky you are; if that had been a solid hit you’d be missing a leg now.” Tav was rummaging again, probably putting everything away.

Lance laughed quietly, almost all anxiety and no humor to it. “Lucky.” It was starting to get quieter outside; good because they could sneak out soon, bad because it meant having to mind sticking to whispers more to avoid being heard, and he was hitting his threshold for sitting in complete silence worrying about things. “So what’s the deal with Riven, anyway? Some of that wasn’t armor but it was pretty cruddy compared to like… Sendak’s arm.”

“He used to be pretty high rank, then everything literally blew up in his face.” Lance wished he could see the expression that crossed Tav’s face, he knew one eye almost closed; Tav’s voice went even quieter for a moment. “Also Sendak’s arm isn’t normal - I heard the Druids made it, you won’t see things like that even for normal military-grade prosthetics.” The way he talked about the Druids, it was like he was expecting just saying the word to maybe summon whatever it was.

He would have to ask about the Druid thing, but probably later, when they weren’t getting shot at, if it was that bad. “Well, you can’t just leave it at that.” Lance realized after he said it that maybe he was still treading on territory he shouldn’t, but Tav didn’t seem bothered by it, just taking a moment to think, eyes half-closed in the dark.

“He used to be the second in command of a fleet commander in a border territory - basically similar rank to Haxus.” That already was a hell of an image to reconcile, although thinking about what Riven would’ve been like with better armor and not blind… it wasn’t that far-fetched.

“It was a messy area, they were spending a lot of time fighting pirates and rebels, and it was made worse because the other groups had some saboteur and spy that could get into damn near everything and seemed to know almost everything they were doing. There was a transit station under construction, and the pirates attacked in force; after the battle started they realized the whole thing was drawing their forces out so that the saboteur could hit the station. Commander Antok went in after them, and Riven followed to back him up.” Tav tilted his head, sorting it out.

“The way Riven tells it, the saboteur found him first and ambushed him; that’s how he got maimed - Antok took over most of the fight, and when they realized the Hub’s power source and engines were already rigged and in the process of a chain reaction, Antok ordered Riven to go back and take charge of the evacuation while he went in to make sure the saboteur didn’t get away.”

“How is that a bad thing?” Lance was having a hard time connecting that story to where Riven ended up.

Tav gave a small, bitter laugh. “Victory or Death, remember? He backed out of an engagement his commander was involved in to take over something already being run by lesser officers and civilian personnel.” Tav’s pause was sullen. “He was given some leeway because of his injuries and past record; he could’ve retired somewhere more central, gotten better medics to do the rebuilding, but he chose to come out to Kelvet. The way it usually gets described, he was accepting the disgrace in retirement.”

It left a bitter taste in Lance’s mouth; the more he heard about the Empire, the less he liked it. “Is that what he says?”

Tav shook his head. “He says he was tired of dealing with basically everything to do with the Empire at that point. We were as far away from it as he could get and the most likely to be peaceful and quiet, because the Emperor had been looking for Voltron for ten thousand years, so it wasn’t like Riven had to worry about him finding it.” The bitter sarcasm at the end was thick enough to cut.

“Oh. Uhm.” Lance shifted, wincing a little when he barked the bandage against the rifle next to him. “Oops.”

“After they found the Red Lion, Sendak would’ve found the Blue whether you showed up or not.” There was a heavy sigh in the dark, and Tav actually sounded strangely guilty, the change of tone on the rest of the redirect coming a little too fast. “Besides, you might actually be able to get it away from Zarkon.”

Lance hadn’t been sure what to make of Tav’s admission he was in this for revenge before, but it was starting to make more and more sense, and look like it really was a lot more pinned hopes than just revenge. “The thing I still don’t get is - if he was blinded and mauled, it wasn’t like he could really fight anyway, and the Commander ordered him to go, right? So he’d have been disobeying orders if he stayed and wouldn’t have been able to do much.” He folded his arms, sinking back against the container wall. “And if this Commander Antok guy was such a big deal and it was his operation, then him deciding the evacuation was more important should’ve meant something too, right?”

“Welcome to the Empire,” Tav grumbled, glowering.

Lance made a face. “The whole thing is crazy.”

There was neither argument nor commentary to that.

It would probably never be completely quiet, but there were definitely gaps between the sounds of footsteps now that were in more of a patrol pattern - gaps they could use to get moving. Tav looked over, tapping his shoulder and tugging a little; he nodded, picking up the rifle and testing the bandaged leg.

It hurt, it’d get in the way, but it wasn’t enough to stop him.

They waited for an early point in one of the gaps, then Tav unlatched the crate, peering out carefully before ducking out so that Lance could slip by; it closed and re-locked when Tav let go of the door.

The patrols on the ground were all on different timing now; getting anywhere was a frustrating exercise in finding hiding places and waiting to figure out where they had openings and where there were crossover points, with more than one near miss where the timing had to be cut way closer than Lance liked, particularly when he was a little slowed down by a limp. Going under things worked sometimes, but there wasn’t always enough clearance for them to fit, and it made it even more awkward to get out from under whatever cover there was in time to not get seen, and harder to do it quietly enough to not draw attention.

There was a patrol coming on the right, they ducked left around a hasty launchpad with one of the small fighters on it, only to find there was another one coming up around the pad; the only other direction would put them out in an open bottleneck where there was no good way out.

Lance scrambled up on top of the fighter, flattening against it and putting an arm down to help Tav up; he half-regretted it, getting a sudden reminder that Tav was a good foot and a half taller than him and had the weight to match, beanpole of a Galra though he was.

It wasn’t a good place to stay. There were too many small fighters and drones floating around for it to be out of sight of something for very long, but they’d had at least enough luck to miss those for a few minutes, and not much else they could do but pray that the patrols on the ground cleared before one of the aerial drones came by with enough altitude to see them.

In nervously scanning the air in the canyon below the battlecruiser, Lance noticed something that stuck out -

There was a gaping hole in the bottom of the cruiser near what he was pretty sure was the aft. There was a large open area behind it, and some of the ragged opening looked like it had been some kind of bay doors.

He managed to worm a pair of small binoculars loose from his pocket, zooming it in; the edges were melted and ragged, and it definitely looked like some kind of a cargo bay behind it. There were gouges in the walls, straight parallel lines that he was refusing to mentally resolve into ‘clawmarks’.

He passed the binoculars over to Tav; after a couple beats of zooming in, squinting, and a quiet irritated rumble at the optics, Tav grinned, and it was a mass of sharp predator teeth that was a little unsettling, with a barely audible relieved mutter of “That’s the best thing I’ve seen all day”.

Lance made a quiet questioning noise, and got a whisper of “Red Lion”.

The cargo bay where Sendak had been keeping the Red Lion; those actually were clawmarks. And if the lion had torn its way free of the ship at some point -

Then not only did Sendak not have it, but Keith was out there, somewhere, and not obeying the Galra. Lance wasn’t going to have to fight Keith, and Keith wasn’t dead either.

The sudden relief didn’t entirely last; the first thing that tainted the good news was the question of where the Hell Keith was and why he wasn’t helping. He wanted to get his teammates and sister off the ship before there was any kind of massive superweapon aimed at it, but it’d still be good to have another one with them, for sure, instead of having a deferred race to get there before Sendak’s people found Blue hanging over their heads, and even without the lion Keith had to be able to do something to help with this mess.

The second sinking realization was remembering what they’d put together about Zarkon probably holding the Kerberos crew as hostages, and that if Keith had bolted, that meant Zarkon was sitting on Shiro and possibly Pidge’s family, with no reasons to keep them intact and every likelihood he’d make good on any threats to them.

Pidge was going to murder Keith and Lance knew better than to get in her way.

Either way, they didn’t have to worry about one of the lions being aimed at Earth, there was a gap in the patrols big enough to get between coming up, and they had the much more immediate problem of finding a way onto that ship to get Pidge and the others out of wherever Sendak was keeping prisoners; it was the crazy option but trying to steal a skiff or fighter and just charging in was starting to look like the only option they had.

Chapter Text

Allura led through the castle, occasionally pointing out things like quarters, kitchen and mess, and such; she wasn’t looking back whenever she spoke, and it was starting to get a little unnerving.

“And we definitely need to get you proper armor.” Of all the things that seemed to bother her, that he could agree on; the imperial armor was effective enough, but he didn’t think it’d even work for blending in when breaking into their ships anymore. He was too small and short for that, and it was a little too distinctive to not draw attention and questions.

It also had a few new dents courtesy of the Princess.

She said that just short of some large chamber that mostly looked like some kind of ready room, with benches and open spaces and markings for storage panels in the wall. Five large cases stood around the room, spaced out, with smooth armor, colors on white with dark undersuits.

She sighed, and wandered off to be fascinated with something else as he walked over to the container with the red armor.

Once he started struggling with it to get it on, it visibly shifted, adjusting itself to fit; it was a little disconcerting, but then, he was dealing with a civilization that had had mastered intergalactic travel while humankind was still getting the hang of agriculture and stable settlements.

Allura was definitely avoiding looking directly at him; even in Paladin armor she was doing everything she could to look anywhere but at him, and she’d gone even more quiet and subdued at it.

The armor was light, well jointed, easy to handle, and seemed to be actively cooperating; some kind of powered support and augment system. There was a sense of warmth that didn’t seem to have anything to do with temperature that came with an acknowledging flicker in the back of his mind; it was built to cooperate with the lion, somehow.

Allura was keying her way through some kind of layered security lock; when he turned back to her, she had a long, armored case open.

The interior was padded, with four devices that were little more than a partly colored arc around a handle.

“The bayards were made alongside the lions - adaptive weapons that change themselves to suit their Paladin.” She was looking down, staring over the case distantly. The armor had a faceplate that could close, and there was a setting to tint the faceplate one-way so it wouldn’t interfere with vision.

It didn’t really seem to help at first.

There were five sets of armor, five lions, but only four bayards, and he didn’t think he’d get an answer from her. He wasn’t even sure she’d hear him if he didn’t repeat himself a few times right now.

After he’d had a chance to test out the weight and balance on the oddly built sword it became, she led out without explanation at first, heading toward the front entrance.

The lighting in the castle was bright, but he still needed a second for his eyes to adjust to bright sunlight again. The lion didn’t seem to have moved from where he left it, and there was a thin, smug pride in the back of his head.

“We will need to get the Red Lion safely into its hangar before the Castle can leave, and it refuses to move without you.” She still had her back to him, but sounded as bemused as quietly frustrated; it only seemed to make the lion’s spiteful smug louder.

The lion lowered its head, jaws open with the entrance clear, as soon as he’d cleared the threshold of the door out of the Castle. Allura hung back in the door, watching.

He could feel the wildfire curling around him again, protective as he settled into the pilot’s seat. The lion purred, faint vibrations through the chair.

It was tempting to just forego his room and move bedding and what passed for belongings into the lion.

It was relying more on him for control and input than it had when it first woke up, lapsed back to more background guidance so that he simply knew how everything in the cockpit worked.

He’d talked to it before in dreams, and it was old and had to know itself about what was going on. Unfortunately, that open query got a vague ball of everything at once, enough not-quite-translating memory and awareness to be almost painful. It backed off when he pulled away, and almost seemed confused at the difficulty.

Willing to answer, hard to understand; he’d need to narrow his questions and take it slow.

His knife and what it meant got something garbled and uncertain as the lion settled into the hangar; there was a little recognition of the symbol but no clue what it meant now or what it meant about his mother.

Allura got mostly affection, but also exasperation and very new frustration.

The lion bristled angrily and almost seemed afraid of Zarkon, but that strayed into untranslatable to the point of headache again, with a nasty morass of grief and injury.

He tried one last query, about Alfor. The lion’s response was fondness and sorrow, a few images and impressions that it seemed to be doing the mental equivalent of enunciating to him slowly. Alfor was a blazing hearth, a torch thrown into the dark, a blazing sun that fed life around it; compassion and drive, will to protect, silk over steel.

The lion was sure he could be trusted on a deep and profound level, and the lion was one of the few things Keith was sure he could trust.

Allura was waiting in the hangar when he disembarked. She went through motions of what timeframe they were looking at, how to contact throughout the castle, and then begged off to go help Coran with repairs. One of the mice that followed her everywhere ran over after she left, scaling his armor to sit on his shoulder.

“At least someone here doesn’t hate me.”

The mouse looked over to him, and he could’ve sworn it shrugged.

Keith changed out of his armor, the mouse climbing into a pocket on a loose shirt he’d managed to scavenge. He wandered the halls aimlessly to wait until he was sure the living Alteans were preoccupied before he slipped down to the lower levels.

There was one person who knew about Zarkon and what he’d gotten into who seemed like it wasn’t a subject loaded to the point of being unapproachable, and that could actually speak.

The lights didn’t come on when he walked in, although he almost didn’t notice. The realization that it would’ve been ‘dimly lit’ to him a few days ago was a stray, unsettling and distracted thought. He wasn’t sure if the computer had even noticed at first. He walked up to the tube of glittering light, scanning the room for any sign of an interface or console - the Castle had them hidden in the weirdest places, sometimes.

“Hello?”

There was a faint sound, almost more like a pressure change than a shift in the computer hum. “Well, this is a little unexpected.” Alfor’s voice was thin and had a faint artificial distortion to it, but sounded fondly amused nonetheless.

Keith looked around, and finally just settled on the tube as what seemed like the most appropriate place to be looking; it was about where the hologram had been standing. “Is it supposed to be like this?” He motioned to the room.

“I’d rather not draw any more power than I must while the Castle is being repaired and restored. Allura has enough power to be a passive amplifier and… well, I doubt my lack of an image for the time being has quite the same impact on you.”

Keith had never known the actual person, but it wasn’t hard to guess how unnerving a disembodied voice and a tube filled with strings of light would be for someone with close familiarity, even if the idea of close emotional ties to family was one he had a hard time wrapping his head around more than academically.

He shifted awkwardly, suddenly unsure how to approach the subject; the Red Lion’s fondness helped some with the nerves, but now that he was away from the creature, he was swiftly remembering how intimidating Alfor was.

“You don’t have to be quite so tense. We are all on the same side here, and I certainly trust Red’s judgment. Also I couldn’t harm you even if I wanted to.” Even just as a voice, there was a difference in demeanor with Allura out of the room that he was struggling to put words to.

“Not directly you couldn’t,” he muttered. He gave the tube a wary look; there were probably cameras somewhere in the room, but he didn’t have the slightest clue where. The ghost could talk and had Allura’s ear, which meant plenty of potential to be dangerous to him right now. He tried to remember the lion’s impression of Alfor; the lion was sure he could be trusted.

“Well, you don’t seem like the sort to make social calls easily, so I’d guess you came here with something specific in mind.” Jagged wasn’t the word for what was different; the ghost’s demeanor wasn’t as soft as it’d been around Allura, but it wasn’t exactly sharper or hostile either.

Weary, that was definitely part of it. Tarnished felt like as close as he could come to the rest of it, worn through in a way; less silk over the steel. “You were avoiding an explanation earlier for Allura’s sake.”

There was a quiet noise, resigned and unsurprised. “About Zarkon.”

“You knew him.”

“Very well. For a long time he was one of my closest friends.” Faintly wistful, pain old enough to have dulled. “He was almost part of the family for much of Allura’s childhood.”

That pulled something together in Keith’s mind, the vague outline of something uncomfortably familiar. “So what happened? Did he change on you, or just get one over on you?”

Even without any sign of gesture or body language, the pause was distinctly uncomfortable. “Honestly, after having ten thousand years to catch an occasional public broadcast and think on everything?” There was a breathless, artificial sigh. “He changed, but what led him to it was there from the beginning.”

Keith’s ear flicked, and he made a questioning noise.

“Zarkon was always a man of strong and passionate convictions; someone who would commit all of his being to a cause, face anything unflinching for his ideals.” The ghost was definitely speaking with admiration and a closer sense of warmth. “It was the best of him; why we would’ve followed him to face the worst horror, what finally united his people together.”

“And then?”

“…Well, it wasn’t immediate. It might sound hard to believe to look at him now, but love was his undoing; love devoted and complete enough to be willing to risk anything and anyone - and to see any counsel from others about his beloved’s obsessions as a betrayal. He was willing to destroy himself for her. I’d say what came back from that was not him at all, but… all it did was amplify the worst of him and erase the best, distorted all out of proportion.” Alfor’s tone had gone bittersweet, distant with grief, then after a pause, he turned colder, more just bitter. “I think that was the hardest part to come to terms with; that as much as he changed, even to this day, there’s still bits of the same person I knew and once would have trusted with anything, and it was the same passion and conviction that led him to this.”

“So what happened? How did that turn into the entire Galra race turning on you?” He tilted his head, eyes narrowing at the tube, trying to navigate something where he had a few vague ideas, a sprawling empire, a broad outline of the Galra leader, and Alfor’s odd narration.

An odd narration that turned to guilt and grief. “We made mistakes. We trusted him, and it left us in a situation with no good answer.” There was another uncomfortable pause. “We did the best we could, on my orders, but the best we could still meant that we destroyed their homeworld - or hastened the destruction that was already occurring, rather, to prevent it from turning into something that would claim other worlds. They were in shock, at first, but when he returned it took little effort for him to paint it as a betrayal and turn them against everyone else.”

Keith nodded, uncomfortable.

“The last thing I remember before I made this recording was making the arrangements to hide Allura and Voltron, then making plans to hunt him down and kill him before he could cause any more destruction.” The ghost paused, lapsing into wry, morbid humor. “You can see how well that worked out.”

“So you want us to finish the job.” He didn’t need to ask what Zarkon had done in detail; he’d caught that there were multiple genocides involved as just a start, including Alfor’s own species, and putting a stop to that was a cause Keith could get behind.

Particularly when he had a few personal grudges himself.

“I hate to shove this responsibility off on others, but rather obviously, I have little choice.”

“Well, he probably killed you. It’s not like that’s your fault.”

“You do have a point.” The ghost was amused, and sounded a little less guardedly cautious, if still less soft in tone than he was with Allura.

“So…”. He folded his arms, looking away. “About Allura…”

“Yes?” The ghost didn’t sound surprised, just resigned and worried.

“…When you said Zarkon was practically family… was he close with her when she was a kid?” He looked sideways at the tube, not sure if he would get an answer or not.

“Yes.”

“Fuck.” There was that familiar outline he’d been starting to see; someone close, someone respected when she was still young and vulnerable, someone she was supposed to be able to trust and rely on who’d flipped all of that against her. “How close?”

“There were nights when he was around where she’d snuck out at night not wanting to sleep and we’d find her curled up on him out in some garden or side room. He was good at guessing what she’d do and where she’d go to sulk when she had a fit of temper, or if we had a fight.” It was something that clearly had once been a happy, comfortable story, now a past the ghost was still grieving.

Keith slumped, the quiet rusty noise coming back. He knew this oncoming train, and he knew how likely it was to stop, too. “Were there any other Galra around?”

“His attendants and staff and their families. To my knowledge any of them that didn’t go along with it when he turned were killed, but we were mostly busy trying to stay alive; she was attacked a few times when it turned violent.”

Any Galra that had been close around her had gone from being safe and trusted to suddenly and abruptly a threat; for her it had been a few days ago, and there was now an entire Empire hunting them.

“…She’s always going to hate me, isn’t she.” It wasn’t even something he could be angry about anymore; not when it was a place a little too familiar, and he could see himself and his reactions to the worst few attempts at placements and a few of his early social workers in some of her reactions. That kind of paranoia was a survival reflex, not something that you just walked away from - and she had genocide and a ten thousand year tyranny reinforcing it, betrayals that made the ones he’d suffered look petty and meaningless.

He was everything that’d taken away everything she’d ever cared about, and everything they were fighting against now; he couldn’t muster enough reaction to it anymore for there to even be the rusted whine he had braced for.

“I don’t know.” The ghost actually seemed sad and distant about it. “She definitely needs time, and I wish you had more of it.” There was a pause. “…She’s stubborn, and has a temper, but she truly does believe in her principles and purpose - she may not be easy to deal with right now, but as long as you’re trying to help with this fight and protect others, she’ll help you.”

Common goal, common enemy, needing each other to survive. It wasn’t great, but it was better than what he had with Zarkon. “I’m not going to sit still and let all of this happen. I’ll help her.”

It wasn’t like he wasn’t used to being the monster people only really wanted around because he was useful.

He turned to walk out; he’d gotten the answers he was after, even if he wasn’t sure what to do with them besides deal with what was in front of him and try not to think about things.

“Before you go-”

He stopped, turning back; the room remained dark except for the tube of glittering light. “Okay, now that’s starting to get creepy.”

“Sorry. I should be able to generate the hologram without Allura’s unwitting assistance after the Castle’s had further repair; until then I’m making due with what I have.” It seemed like a genuine apology, at least. “Tell me about how you found Red. I know she has a habit of being … chatty before making her decision.”

He shifted from one foot to the other, unsure where to start. “I. Well. I started having - dreams about a year ago; mostly just fire, sometimes I’d get glimpses of claws or eyes, and it was like some voice I couldn’t make out or tell anything about was calling me.” He didn’t want to talk about the timing - maybe a day after when the Kerberos mission was taken, before they’d even made the news broadcast, before he’d known what had happened. “After a while I started feeling the call when I was awake, so I followed it out into the desert, but - the caves I found all had carvings of the Blue Lion; nothing reacted to me, so I had no idea what was going on.”

More timing left out; the calling hadn’t started when he was awake until after he’d been thrown out. He knew the ghost had access to the files copied to the castle, and had gone through some of it, but he didn’t know how much, and if Alfor wasn’t going to call him on leaving large parts out, he was going to continue telling himself the ghost hadn’t gone through his voice mail records. “Then when Sendak took me on his ship, it… got louder. Much louder, the one time I got solid sleep.”

“Oh?” It was lightly curious, but it still set his nerves on edge somehow, like the ghost was fishing and had some kind of specific plan and reason.

He wasn’t sure how much to tell; the whole thing made him uncomfortable, and he knew the way the Lion had confronted him didn’t really look good. “I - it was reacting to the deal I’d made with Sendak and - with Zarkon, I think.” He also wasn’t sure how to avoid it, and Alfor was probably the only person he could talk to that would understand and might be able to help make sense of it; the lion trusted Alfor completely, and he’d already been relying on its judgment.

“…The Druid had…gotten in my head; it knew I was looking for Shiro, and I knew I couldn’t fight them there - it’d almost killed me before it realized I was the one Red was calling. I thought I could play along until I got to Shiro, then figure out some way to get away with him and - whatever it was they wanted; they wouldn’t tell me what the lion was, even.”

Alfor made a quiet, thoughtful noise that sounded a little pained.

“So the lion gave me a nightmare - a wildfire out in the scrublands that cut me off every time I tried to run, that had eyes when I was finally cornered; there were screams coming from the flames - voices calling for help or-” He shrank in; he hadn’t even followed through on the scheme to try to play along with Zarkon and still felt guilty over it, sickened by the memory. “Begging me for mercy, to spare them. I yelled at it that - it wasn’t what I wanted either, that - I couldn’t do anything to stop them alone, and that if it wanted me to fight them, it needed to cut the bullshit and help me.” He was watching the ground, half expecting to get judged for it. “I asked it to give me the power to do something, because I couldn’t by myself.”

Instead, Alfor just sounded gently pensive. “And the answer?”

“The Druid woke me up. But - later when the spy got me in - it was like Red was waiting for me.”

“Well, knowing Red, you’d already committed to what she was looking for.” Keith froze, looking up at the amusement in the ghost’s voice and again cursing the lack of an image. “You wanted a way to fight for those who couldn’t themselves - and you were willing to swallow your pride and ask for help, rather than demand it.”

“…Red was your lion, wasn’t it.” It was another tally mark on the reasons Allura hated him right now.

“Yes. And that’s why I wanted to make sure you understood what the Guardian Spirit of Fire stands for.” Alfor was serious, but somehow - Keith wasn’t sure how - he’d passed the invisible test. “Because she can be incredibly dangerous, but that was never her main purpose or intention.”

Keith straightened, again trying to figure out where he was supposed to be looking, unsure again.

“You are being given enough power to fight - but what she represents goes beyond that; fire is not merely destructive force. Fire that is maintained in balance is warmth and light, something to guide and protect, to ward off threats, to bring change and remove the dead and rotten. Also remember that most life-bearing worlds depend on stars as the basis of everything that lives - the greatest fires in existence are the source of the light that feeds a large part of life.”

 

He listened; he wasn’t sure what to do with it, or how he was supposed to live up to that, but it was clearly important.

“You are not her Paladin to destroy - you are her Paladin to be the one who burns threats before they can reach those who can’t defend themselves, to safeguard the weak and protect your companions.”

Even if he was, generally, about as nurturing as a cactus to the face, and the best he’d ever managed was trying to harry Shiro into taking care of himself. “I’ll do my best.”

“And -” The ghost actually hesitated. “…Be careful?”

He gave the tube a confused eyebrow raise.

“Your loyalty is admirable - it’s honestly a tragedy that makes me wish I could have done something about that you’ve been beaten into guarding it so jealously.” The ghost’s voice had softened, to almost something closer to the tone he took with Allura, although there was an unsaid ‘but’ hovering under the entire sentence.

“Just… be careful to not let it blind you, to stay willing to listen to your conscience if they’re at odds. Find people you trust to give you warnings and listen to them, even if it hurts. Listen to the others when you find them, and be careful of how much you’re willing to sacrifice to grief. This entire mess started because someone was willing to destroy themselves and everyone around them for love, after all, and it hurt enough to watch the first time. I don’t want to see you repeat his mistakes.”

Keith paused, staring at the tube. His first instinct was denial, and he raised his hand and opened his mouth - it wasn’t that kind of a relationship, at all -

Except he wasn’t sure what it was, and he definitely wasn’t comfortable enough with Alfor’s magitech ghost to discuss making sense of emotions and relationships.

And there was the faintly rusty whining starting up again, defying all attempts at not doing it, his ears dropping.

“Uh. Oh dear.” The ghost was definitely half confused. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to-”

The whining pitched with a growl. “Don’t- it’s not-”. He made a few weak gestures, claws half out. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

He ducked out of the room before Alfor could say anything else, hurrying to the room he’d been pointed to as “his”; he curled up on the bed, wedged up into the corner. He’d almost forgotten about the mouse in his pocket until it had squirmed loose to sit on his forearm, nose brushing his forehead, squeaking in concern.

“Sorry. I guess I really am a mess, huh.”

There was another squeak, and the mouse gave him the kind of gentle head butt that he’d always thought was a cat thing.

“I…”. He swallowed, lapsing into the whine again and not caring; it wasn’t like there was anyone to overhear. “It’s not the first time it’s come up, you know? Before he left for Kerberos -”.

He trailed off, and the mouse nudged again, with a few quiet squeaks.

“I don’t know. I didn’t want to try very hard because he has this habit of putting everyone else first so hard that he’ll agree to things he doesn’t really want for someone else’s sake? And then try not to let on, I know he’d done it for me on a few things, I used to drag him to all kinds of things he wasn’t that interested in … and when I did sort of say something before they left, he said he wouldn’t be comfortable with anything when he knew he was the only person I got along with - that he’d always be worried I was just latching onto the first person who’d been consistently kind to me.” The mouse crawled along his shoulder when he shifted to have his face less buried, curling up against his neck.

It wasn’t the first time he’d lapsed into talking to the first convenient animal, but it somehow helped more than Jack back out in the desert. The big old rattlesnake that hung around the shack required a five foot clearance, so curling up with something else living hadn’t really been an option. The mouse wasn’t very big, but it was still a small, warm patch of physical contact and comfort.

And the mouse acted like it understood, even though he was pretty sure it was just picking up on his mood.

“Neither of us wanted to do anything that’d feel like we were taking advantage of each other, and now look at where we are.”

The mouse sighed, and patted his neck with a tiny paw.

*******************

There was entirely too much time with too little to do while Coran got the Castle ready to move, checking systems and doing bits of maintenance the self-repair system hadn't been able to keep up with - it hadn't been meant to sit for ten thousand years.

Even with the mice, everything was too quiet; Plachu had agreed to go keep an eye on their new Paladin.

Her father was probably right, but she couldn't help feeling uneasy about the entire situation; she wasn't sure how much had changed in ten thousand years with the Galra, but the armor he'd been wearing didn't look like it'd been meant for base rank and file.

She also didn't think Zarkon, or any of his commanders, would let him escape like that lightly; even if they had warning -

From a spy, somewhere in Galra ranks, that she was mostly relying on Coran's judgment to trust -

That the commander who'd been dealing with him had gone a different direction. The Empire was large, and she was half waiting for signs that Zarkon was sending someone after the Red Lion rather than just waiting to see if he'd take the bait of his homeworld being under threat.

She knew they had copies of all of his personal files from his device on the Castle now, and she tried to keep occupied with other things; Coran had been through it, he had been noticeably unhappy about that, they had enough mistrust aimed their way already.

That lasted about halfway to the sun of the planet outside setting before the nagging temptation to get a better handle on what she'd brought onto her ship, what they were possibly relying on, finally won out.

The three mice that were with her scattered out around the console and the chair, Chulatt staying on her shoulder. Their reactions to the idea were varying shades of ambivalence, although while she was sifting through directories to find where Coran had left it, Chulatt did pipe up with, "...He's going to be pissed if he finds out. More than he already is."

"I dunno, I think he might just be like that with most people." Platt had flopped out flat on the arm of her console. "I heard some of what Coran was digging through, some recorded one-way about the commander he was under and the base he was at."

Chulatt leaned around Allura's neck to see Platt better. "Isn't that kind of a Galra thing though? Not being real great with people they're not used to?"

"I'd say there's questions how they are with people they are used to," Allura grumbled.

Chuchule curled up half over her wrist. "He's not entirely Galra, some of it'd have to come from whatever the other part is." Then, after a moment, “Didn’t your father’s recording say that your best bet was to let him come to you with things like this?”

“Yes, he did, but we’re also going into a live battle; I have to know what I’m staking all of our lives on.”

Chuchule sighed, shaking her head.

The computer had sorted it somewhat based on how it'd been stored originally; different kinds of files and communication in separate directories. There was an entire folder of one-way voice communication where almost all of it was flagged with the same recipient or source, with an entire chunk of it labeled as 'received but never accessed' while there was another list that were 'receiving account no longer exists, stored locally' - spread out over what looked like a decent length of time; messages that had to've been sent with no expectation of an answer.

Considering what Coran had brought up earlier with the photo and mention of Zarkon having a hostage, she had a sinking suspicion why that would be.

The other directories were more organized than just who the other end of the communication would've been; he'd apparently been meticulous about organizing what he had. There was a directory all its own with photos and videos, nested out in categories with subdirectories, books that were apparently sorted between copies of materials from his training and study and personal projects, reports and papers.

And another one Coran'd sifted through a few times with medical records; she closed that directory - there wasn't anything there that'd add anything that new or helpful.

The easiest directories in the photo tree to get to were night sky photos, another directory that was all various landscapes, a subdirectory off that with animals and plants, and some of areas around some kind of base and a nearby town. It was an extensive and honestly lovely display of his homeworld, mostly focused on one area of desert.

The one Coran had been in with more personal photos was buried and nested in under folders of caves, carvings, old ruins, and faded inscriptions and murals; she actually found carvings depicting the Blue Lion before she found any photos that had Keith himself in them. From the date and time markers on the photos of the carvings of the lion, and some related ones, he had to’ve been investigating it for years.

One of the folders was labelled ‘Sky Warrior’s Tomb’, and was the only one sharing a directory as related to the canyon area with the Blue Lion carvings.

It was definitely a distraction, and one a little less likely to draw ire; she poked into that one.

There were a lot of site and context photos of an area of bluffs and scrubby brown-grey and green plant life in the uppermost folder, then a couple of other directory branches.

One was a sequence of murals that was flagged in order; the paintings were stylized, simplified, but there was a blue finned figure with two swords, a scene that apparently depicted him coming to the local people as a friend.

“Of course, even in the middle of something like that.” She sighed wistfully.

The next mural, the figure was leaving, dark shapes descending in the background that looked like crude representations of Galra ships.

The figure, pursued, then another mural with the large, dark, toothy shapes searching the area.

Galra surrounding the locals, menacing.

The blue figure, surrounded by red smears and dead Galra.

Then a larger dark figure, a stylized form of familiar red armor, violet eyes over jagged teeth, confronting the blue figure.

She took a breath and stopped, unsure if she wanted to finish the rest of the sequence; there were only three images left, but she had a sinking feeling where it was going. He’d successfully evaded the Galra, so the Galra had rounded up the locals knowing he’d come out of hiding to save them; Zarkon stayed out of sight until he could be sure the paladin couldn’t bolt, sacrificing his own people to catch them.

Chulatt curled closer to her neck; she tapped the screen to advance it.

The blue figure impaled by Zarkon.

Zarkon entering one of the ships to leave.

The locals, gathered around the dying blue figure.

The other part of the directory was inside some hidden chamber with little in the way of visible entrances or exits, a cairn with carvings with a familiar pair of blue-trimmed swords laying across the top, murals depicting stylized lions around a winged figure with five smaller shapes below; he must’ve told them some kind of stories of Voltron that they then kept secret, out of sight.

And then, Zarkon had come looking.

“How could he…” Her breath caught in her throat. She had most of her life’s worth of memories of everyone together; how close they had all been with each other, a natural extension of her family, easily able to predict each other and finish sentences. Blaytz had been there often when she was a child, even if her memory was of him being caring, but horribly awkward and uncertain, until she’d gotten old enough to be somewhat self-sufficient.

Zarkon had been a part of it. The last thing she’d remembered was him sending his people trying to hunt down her father, but this confirmed that he didn’t just go hunting, he followed through. Had he murdered all of them?

Had her father died on the point of the black bayard he’d made?

Chuchule tugged on her sleeve, and she realized they were all looking at her, echoing her own grief but with more concern.

She wiped tears out of her eyes, taking a deep breath; if she let herself keep going down that chasm, they’d have battlecruisers in orbit and the lions captured by the time she’d found some resolution.

There were some uncertain little squeaks from the mice, who looked between each other, but none of them had a good idea; they just settled for staying close, for now.

She took a few minutes to go back over where they were now. The Castle, Coran, and herself; one lion, a Galra paladin that she’d already had a couple of fights with, her father’s input on the matter. One of Zarkon’s commanders headed out to lay claim to the Blue Lion, and she needed to be able to rely on someone that didn’t want to talk to her.

She sifted back through the directories to find the photos that were more personal than just projects and investigations; Chulatt sighed heavily against her neck.

It took a while to find pictures of his.

Or rather, an area where there were some photos with him in them. There weren't many, and half of them looked like either someone else had taken them and sent them to him, or had stolen his device and taken them, including catching him passed out asleep in odd places. As exasperated as he looked in the photos where he was conscious, the ones that were in less public places were a completely different demeanor than what she'd been dealing with - smiling, at ease in a way that was hard to picture on him.

The greater majority of the photos of people involved one particular person; mostly either in some kind of dark green uniform or out of it, in fairly simple dark clothes. There were a few other people that showed up, some of them just for one or two photos, although there was one that showed up relatively often, a shorter young man with glasses, and occasionally someone markedly older.

And the photos of them together were mostly happy.

She backed out and checked the directories overall by time; there just weren't any photos of people at all after a certain date. There were a few additions to landscapes and wildlife, including several more of some kind of scaly, unfriendly looking creature coiled up on rocks and a few times in a corner of some kind of ramshackle living space under a very primitive heating stove all labeled 'Jack', a large number added to the folder with the ruins and carvings - all of the photos of the Blue Lion carvings were after it -

But none with people in them.

So there was a turning point, and then it tipped into obsessively investigating the few clues pointing towards the lions.

There was one video that was in a holding folder, not yet sorted, that was recent, and the auto-map placed it at the tomb; it was the one Coran had shown earlier, of the Galra commander and the strange mystic catching him.

The text communications at least had an entire small folder dedicated to the investigation; the few people he'd been talking to during that last chunk of time didn't seem to be on close terms, everything framed in fake names and without any interaction that was more personal than planning. All but one of them had signs of him outright lying, not sharing anything about the tomb or the caves where the lion probably was; it wasn't really something she could argue with, and was probably for the better that he wasn't drawing attention to it.

His photos and documentation of Blaytz's tomb at least seemed respectful, not all of the others seemed like they would be.

They'd been aware, or at least highly suspicious, of continuing other presence; he'd been chasing the Galra without knowing what he was chasing for longer than he'd been chasing the lions.

"Does he have any actual survival instinct." She closed that part of the directory.

"Well, the Red Lion did pick him," Platt commented.

She thought about looking through the rest of the text communications, but the voice calls were right there, and if she was going to try to get an idea what she was dealing with, where his priorities were, and how far he could be trusted...

"He's really not going to be happy if he finds out you went through those."

She only looked aside a little at Chulatt. "Well, he also knows how uncertain this entire situation is, and he seemed to weather Coran and my father going through them." And then, after a pause, "Besides, father said that what was in here actually spoke better of him, and that they explained why he’d been so unwilling to serve Zarkon, even if it was something he was used to expecting people to exploit."

"Zarkon already did use it against him.”

She didn't comment on Platt; they weren't using it against him, and honestly, she was all for trying to get whoever Zarkon had to safety, as soon as they could actually feasibly manage it.

Charging into Zarkon's headquarters with one lion and the Castle didn't seem like it would go very well.

She sifted through the voice messages, picking the first one that had a “sent, not listened to” flag.

There was a distant noise of voices in the background, cheerful chatter. “Hey Shiro. It counts as trying to avoid people less if I haven’t completely left the launch party, right? It’s not that bad, really, but it was getting to be too many people too close. …And I got recognized. I can’t believe I let you talk me into going along with that idea the brass had for those stupid promo photos. They really could’ve grabbed any of the pilot trainees, you know? Anyway, I’ll see you in a year. Don’t worry, I’m not going to completely flood your voice mail.”

She skipped a few entries ahead. “Hey Shiro. I hope everything’s going well out there. Training’s about the same as always. Professor Yeun kept calling on me - I know you swore he wasn’t actually that bad, but the guy still creeps me out, you know? Especially after he popped up on the forums. I don’t even get why someone like him would be on conspiracy boards, anyway; most of the people on there are off their rocker, it takes months sometimes to find anything useful in all the bullshit, and I can count the people with half a brain on one hand. Iverson was talking about me ending up leading expeditions after I graduate, but you know I’d rather just sign on one of your missions and be backup. My comm person’s started making shit up and asking if any of it’s true about me to see if he can get me to react to something because I don’t want to talk to him that much, and my engineer is a pain in the ass. They’ve walked right past half of my reading spots between classes trying to find me. I’m managing, it’s not like I have much choice but to deal with them if I want to get out of here into space, but I don’t know how long I could handle being in a tiny ship with the two of them in space.”

There were a few more that were vague chatter about classes, training sims, irritation with his assigned teammates, all very amiable and talking way more than she’d have thought he ever did.

One still caught her attention; it wasn’t very far before the list was showing “account no longer exists” failures.

“Hey Shiro. Not really anything new. I actually didn’t do anything off script this time for the exhibition. I mean, part of it was that I know you wanted me to do a little less harassing Iverson, and I am trying to be better about things like that, but you know - watching him twitch every time I made a flyby expecting me to do something was funnier than any of his reactions to any of my ‘stupid stunts’ before.” There was a pause. “Also started having some kind of weird dreams; wildfires in the hills and around the Garrison, only I kept seeing eyes in it, and I think I heard my name. Didn’t think much of it the first time, but it’s happened three nights in a row now. Still not sure what to make of it. Anyway, I’ll see you in a few months, or hear from you when you get back in comm satellite range, alright? Take care out there.”

Then, barely a quintent or two later, was one that didn’t sound wistfully amiable, the voice on the recording a shaky, near-monotone. “Shiro? I just got the news. I mean, I just saw the news. They didn’t say anything. They had the probe data but - I didn’t know anything until it was on the news. They -” There were a couple rougher breaths, trying to get composure. “They’re saying it was pilot error, your fault, but I know that can’t be right; it’s too soon, they’re not releasing any of the probe photos, something isn’t right. I don’t know how, or if it’s just that I can’t accept you being -” he trailed off, a good minute passing, voice more wobbly after. “You’re still out there somewhere. You have to be.”

One more quintent; he was going between wobbling and snarling, and there was an audible growl that didn’t sound like it came from the human half of his heritage at all in there a few times. “Iverson won’t tell me anything. He got angry when I asked, told me to drop it, that it was over - threatened me with a suspension when I asked what the probes sent back. They know something, they have to, and they’re just - “ It trailed off into a growl. “They’re trying to bury it. I’m not going to just - I need to know what happened, and I can’t believe they’re just abandoning you like that.”

Then one short one - the shortest of the entire list.

“I didn’t go to the funeral. Would’ve attacked Iverson. Sorry.” It was a flat, almost dead monotone, with a click that came a little too fast.

She moved to the first of the ones that showed an account failure; it was a while after, without many in between. “Failed my first simulator today.” His voice was coldly venomous. “Sorry, threw my first simulator today. Intentionally. Right at the start.” There were a few audible deep breaths, another faint growl. “They made. A simulator. Of a rescue and retrieval for the Kerberos crew. They blamed you, they’re burying everything, and they’re having us run simulators for what they refuse to do like nothing happened. I can’t stay here, Shiro - not with them refusing to tell me what happened, not with them doing this to you, not with - look. It’s not just because of you, before you even get after me for that, okay? If they’re willing to sweep you under the rug like this and bury everything, what do you think they’ll do if anyone looks too close at my medical records? There’s something out there, something they don’t want to tell us about, and I might be walking proof of whatever they’re hiding. I don’t know what I’m going to do but I’m not staying, I just - need to find out what they know before I get out of here.”

The next entry down. “I tried to steal a few server blades to find out what they know. I’m out of the program, and uh. Might have actually attacked Iverson. I’m in town, I just… I’ll get back to the shack and see what I can do from there.” There was a pause as some kind of engine hum went by, a few more beats of silence before he continued. “You never gave up on me, and I’m not going to give up on you, Shiro - as long as there’s any chance. I’m going to find you and I’m going to bring you back.”

“Shiro?” The next one sounded …. Lost, afraid. “I’m. Back at the shack. I don’t know what I’m doing.” A ragged breath; his voice was wobbling through it, holding back sobs. “I - I’ve just got some old notes of Dad’s and the shack and the bike and I know I couldn’t find you with them but - the only other leads I have are ten thousand years old, and - I’m just…alone out here. There’s nobody I could trust with this, nobody I can talk to about most of it, I could die out here and it’d be like I never existed. … Please, if there’s anything you can do - please come back, I don’t know if I can do this.”

She was starting to see what her father had meant, and also starting to feel guilty about digging into this; it was an entire run of everything private and vulnerable that’d been meant for one person he’d trusted.

She was this far already, though, and well past guilty enough that she may as well see it the rest of the way through.

“Hey Shiro.” It was less verge-of-tears than the previous one, but worryingly flat. “The dreams are still there. This probably sounds crazy but I think they mean something, and - they started right after you vanished. I didn’t really notice it with everything going on at the Garrison, but every time I wake up from them, it’s like there’s this pull - like something’s calling me, and it’s here, on Earth. If I really focus on it, it feels wrong to walk the wrong way from it, so - I’m going to follow it today. Nothing to lose, right? And if there’s something left behind that might lead to - wherever you are, it’s worth it.”

“Well, Shiro, there’s no convenient buried spaceships that I can find, but I did find something. It feels like - I know it’s the right place, I’m just missing something and I’m not sure what.” He paused. “There’s a bunch of cave complexes in the Grand Canyon; some of them have got these carvings of this giant mechanical blue lion. I think it’s related to the paintings in the tomb, one of them in the big mural there was blue. I don’t know if he had any connection to whatever happened to you after ten thousand years, but whatever it is has to be important. I just… need to figure out what it is. I’ll be there as soon as I can, Shiro, just - I know it can’t be good, if whatever happened wasn’t something bad you’d be back, but - hang on? If I get out there and find out you really are-” It was another of the funny pauses of choking back reactions and not wanting to say the last word. “You have to be there. You’re all I have. Whatever it is, whatever’s happened, I won’t - let anything hurt you once I can get there.”

“I found another one of the weird murals in the canyon caves - it’s a night sky with some kind of small figures. I ran it through some astronomy programs and it’s a specific date, about seven months from now. There’s something else in it that’s not a normal astronomical figure, some kind of bright light coming down. I’m marking the date and location.”

There was a string of them that were half-frustrated, focused nattering, theories and running circles over the carvings of the lion, the tomb, the implications of the other aliens in the tomb painting; in his flailing around and theorizing, he’d managed to figure out that the Paladin had hidden something the Galra wanted, and been hunted down for it, but successfully faked them out away from it. At one point there was actually a tangent, almost starting to sound like his old one-sided conversations, about “The mechanical lion has to be part of it, but there’d also need to be a ship here, and I don’t know what the giant mechanical lion’s supposed to be - it seems kind of ridiculous for a spaceship.” How long until the date in the other painting was a regular comment added on.

Then, there were two last ones right on top of each other, a few hours apart. The first had the sounds of night animals in the background, and was just a tired notation that there wasn’t anything new around the tomb, and he wasn’t sure what to look for. The last was a little more frantic - “There’s an alien ship coming in - I don’t know if they’re friendly or hostile or might know what happened to you or what, but the trajectory puts their landing right by the tomb, and that can’t be coincidence. We’re going to wait until after it lands and see if we can get a look at what they’re doing. I’ll try to be careful. I - Shiro, I hope I’ll be seeing you soon.”

She closed all of it, turning off the console, and leaned back.

She definitely understood what her father had said, now, and felt like she had a vaguely better grasp of what she was dealing with.

Someone with next to no outside connections, difficulty trusting that he’d acquired long before Sendak had found him - hadn’t he said something about other people ‘using him’ in the past and treating him kindly for their own benefit? - but ridiculously loyal to the point of self-sacrifice, with little tolerance for heavy-handed authority and a history of insubordination.

“Zarkon would’ve murdered him.”

The mice nodded agreement.

In the silence, it took her a moment to register that Plachu had returned, sitting on the end of the armrest; she raised an eyebrow.

“What? He’s asleep in his room, and out pretty hard.” The mouse curled his tail around himself, settling. “He wandered around the Castle for a while, then did a little checking that you and Coran weren’t nearby and went to the basement to talk to your father’s recording.”

“Oh?” It wasn’t something she’d expected; he didn’t seem to want to be in the room with Alfor.

“Yeah, he was asking about Zarkon and how you all knew him. He’s definitely more angry at Zarkon than he is at you - Alfor apologized for leaving the mess for others and he agreed to take on trying to kill Zarkon, sort of on Alfor’s behalf, I think more just because he wants Zarkon dead for everything else he’s done and Alfor wanting him stopped agrees with that. He was also pretty hung up on the whole genocide thing and Zarkon murdering people, definitely pissed about that.” Plachu yawned. “The guy is really bad at hiding anything - even when he’s avoiding explaining himself you can tell what he’s feeling pretty easily.”

“Well, that’s something, at least.” It wasn’t hard to infer a vengeful streak about as wide as the loyal one.

And if Zarkon had his friend for that long without any reason to care about keeping him intact, then there was probably reason for vengeance, too.

Alfor had said he was a lousy liar, too, and that she could be confident he was honest in what he said.

Plachu was watching her, oddly thoughtful and unsettlingly focused.

“What is it.”

“Well he also asked a couple weird questions about how much Zarkon was around when you were a kid, then swore a bit and seemed pretty sure you would hate him forever, but he agreed to help you with everything anyway.”

She frowned; there was something Plachu hadn’t outright said, but was definitely holding out the mental image of the young Galra with a defeated slump of resignation and a weirdly distant, almost guilty expression of resigned defeat.

“I don’t hate him, but he’s - very unsettling. He’s as much human as Galra, anyway, and he was raised human, so it’s not like I’m really dealing with a Galra.”

There were at least two small eye rolls, but they didn’t say anything, even if she could hear the bits of expectation that approaching it like that would blow up in her face somehow.

Chapter Text

The Castle finally got off the ground, coordinates set in for Earth.

Keith was still restlessly spending most of his time away from the two Alteans; Plachu had ended up hassling Coran to make sure Keith ate, since Keith was being avoidant enough to not want to admit that he hadn’t learned where or how to get food on the castle.

If she let on that she’d gone through his files, he was definitely going to be upset, but it had still given her some clues to try to deal with the rift - at least enough to coordinate stably; she wasn’t sure there was any kind of good or easy fix beyond that. Besides, the hostage situation had already come up openly, so it wouldn’t be acting on any ‘new’ information to comment on it.

He’d wandered in to lurk in the back of the bridge en route to his homeworld; it was probably as good a time as any. She was a little preoccupied managing the wormhole to walk back - hypothetically once it was open she could’ve left it, but she hadn’t actually been responsible for it beyond practice jumps before, and was still a little nervous about it.

She’d have preferred to have the conversation when she could devote more attention to it, but once they arrived out of the wormhole they were going to at least be dealing with getting in close to a Galra battlecruiser, and they had no idea how prepared Sendak might be.

“By the way, about your friend.”

She heard the shift of armor as he stiffened.

“If Zarkon is keeping him close, then it won’t be an easy thing to get him back - we won’t stand a chance until we have all of the lions, and have found their respective Paladins.” He wasn’t answering, but Chuchule was watching behind her and wasn’t giving any signs it was going badly. “Once we have that, I will help with organizing some kind of rescue. I wouldn’t want to leave anyone in captivity like that, and he’s been there far too long already.”

Chulatt’s ears swiveled up as the mouse covered her face in a wince at the last statement; there was a quiet, brief growl behind her by the wall, and Chuchule quietly leaned up. “He never said anything about how long Shiro’s been missing.”

“So everyone on this ship’s gone through my phone.” Definitely frustrated, and angry.

She straightened, trying to keep part of her attention on the wormhole and enough focus to not accidentally feed any energy fluctuation into it - it shouldn’t disturb anything as it was, but she didn’t really want to take risks with it. “I didn’t-” She took a breath. “I wasn’t trying to invade your privacy-”

“You just did?”

“We told you it was a bad idea to go through that folder,” Chulatt grumbled.

“I just wanted to know what I was going to be relying on going up against some Galra commander’s entire force, alone.” The mice, and her father, had probably been right; Chuchule made a small noise, a squeak just loud enough to make sure Allura knew they’d caught that thought.

“Well, you’ve got one Hell of an advantage on me, then.”

“You’re one to talk, going behind my back to my father.” The lights flickered, and it was probably a good thing the teludav mostly set coordinates and had some system for managing power spikes.

“At least he could have some discretion and decide not to answer something - and there was a lot he wasn’t clear on, or just gave yes-and-no answers.” He actually sounded a little more confused and suspicious at that. “And I didn’t ask that much.”

“Plachu did say it was mostly about Zarkon,” Chuchule said, thoughtfully.

“But not entirely,” she hissed back quietly; the only thing Plachu had mentioned was something she did not want to talk about. Keith muttered something under his breath that she didn’t catch, shooting the mice a suspicious look. The end of the wormhole was approaching fast. “Look, we’re almost there, we can sort this out later - I do see what my father meant about it not reflecting badly on you at all.”

She spared a glance over her shoulder, and half regretted it; the narrow, yellow-eyed glare was enough to set her stomach knotting.

“Fine. Let’s just go deal with Sendak.”

Sendak’s ship was actually on the planet already, and there were only a few, easily avoided sentry drones in the outer system; the Castle pulled in to land on the next planet out, using its mass for cover. They took the Red Lion down, coming in at an odd angle.

Not long after they entered the atmosphere there was a tone from a storage compartment inside Keith’s armor - muffled chimes. He fumbled to get his phone out, staring oddly at the name and string of text on the screen, then tapped a few buttons, opening a call on speaker.

“…Joe?”

Allura stared at him; she had seen the name - in a few of the more formal e-mails about chasing ruins and sightings.

“Holy fuck you’re alive. I take it you got away from them?” The man was definitely older.

“Yeah. I don’t have much time to talk. What’ve I missed here?”

“What the Hell are you - nevermind.” He belatedly realized he did normally give Joe location tracking access when he was playing spotter, hadn’t thought to turn that off, and the Lion was covering distance fast. “I got ahold of someone else with ties to Kerberos; they turned out to be another Garrison trainee, brought their two teammates and a family member. We were on our way back to the canyon to see if we could figure out what they were after and what’d happened to you were when they came back, and one of them started getting weird dreams like yours. They went down into the canyon to try to find whatever weapon these aliens are after to get it before the aliens do. I haven’t heard anything since and don’t dare try, just in case they can track the phone signals around that ship of theirs.” There was another pause. “They shot down a news copter and killed a couple reporters before the military and Garrison moved in, evacuating the area and keeping civilians out. There hasn’t been much new info, but the UN and the international news are a mess right now over it.”

Allura was listening gravely, turning even more serious at the mention of ‘getting weird dreams’.

Keith nodded, accepting it without any interruption in his focus. “Understood. Look, they’re a little beyond hostile, but I’ve got some backup and more info on what they’re after. Earth’s pretty far out of their normal territory and doesn’t have anything they care about except these, so our plan is to grab it and run.”

Red landed in an area of bluffs outside the patrols of fighters she’d picked up on her sensors; they could use the speederbike to cross the rest of the distance easily.

“I’d love to know, but I know better than to ask while they’re here. Good luck, kid. …And kick their asses for me? I live out there, and I can’t even go home right now.” The phone call ended.

He stashed his phone in a storage space under one of Red’s consoles, standing from the seat; Allura followed close to the bike. Blue was calling her Paladin the way Red had been calling him; they just needed to go catch up and help before Sendak caught whoever it was. Red’s particle barrier went up as soon as they were out of range.

They didn’t get far from the bluffs Red was half-hidden in before there were Garrison vehicles moving to intercept the speeder; Keith was ready to just gun the engines to dodge around them, but Allura caught his shoulder, signaling to slow down and stop.

“You’re doing all the talking,” he growled, closing the faceplate on his armor entirely and turning up the solar shield settings until nobody else could see his face through it.

She only knew what the problem was from the voice mails; he didn’t want to talk to the organization he’d run from. She wasn’t sure if his version was the whole story, but it hadn’t given her a good impression of them. Keith’s low growling was continuing.

She stepped out of the speeder; he had his bayard in hand behind her, not activated. Two of the three humans who’d stepped out of the vehicle were armed, although the apparent officer motioned at them to lower the rifles.

She stood firm, her own staff not activated, a small rod in her hand. “I am Princess Allura of Planet Altea, and my mission here is urgent. I don’t wish a conflict with you, but I cannot afford a delay, and the Galra will not be kind to your planet if we don’t do something.”

“So you’re not associated with Commander Sendak?”

She held diplomatic decorum, not reacting past closing her eyes for a moment. “No. I am not associated with Commander Sendak.” She took another breath to compose herself. “The Galra are on your planet seeking an ancient power, one which they could use to wreak unimaginable death and suffering if it were to fall into their hands - and possibly the only thing that could stop them. We’re here to prevent that, and to remove it from this area so that they have no further reason to threaten your people.”

The officer shifted, tapping something into a phone; then gave the response an uncertain look. “Can you spare enough time to speak to our representative?” She held the phone up.

Keith shifted impatiently. Allura half-grimaced; they wouldn’t have much time, but they also needed to not come through trampling the more vulnerable species without regard for their entirely understandable unease. “Yes, but not long.”

The officer sent the reply, then held the phone out to Allura; the interface was easy enough to understand, and she’d seen Keith answer a call on a similar device a moment ago.

“Hello?”, she answered, uncertain at first.

“Hello, and apologies for the interruption, princess.” The voice on the other end was smooth, calm, and warm. “My name is Kadi Hassim al’Abassid; I am a diplomat, appointed to speak for our Council of United Nations in representation. I apologize for the delay, but we wish no conflict either, and would merely like to understand what is happening on our planet.”

These people deserved better than what was happening to them; nobody deserved to get caught in the crossfire like this, and the Galra were brushing them aside, set and poised to trample them like so many others.

“I wish that I could give more time for proper explanation, but I believe you’ve seen the threat you’re under. Commander Sendak is a high-ranking officer in the Galra Empire; over the last ten thousand years, they have been expanding across the universe, committing acts of genocide and enslaving or destroying entire worlds. My father helped construct a powerful weapon that once served to protect the weak and vulnerable; when the Galra empire began its conquests, their Emperor sought to use it for his own ends. Due to circumstances at the time, it was hidden in pieces. One of these pieces is hidden on your planet, and Sendak is here to claim it.” She paused. “I will not let my father’s legacy be used to torment others. Your planet is outside their current borders, and has little else of concern; it is my hope that if it is no longer on your planet, they will have no further reason to threaten you.”

“Well, you are more pleasant to deal with than Sendak.” Kadi was good-humored about it, at least. “And we’re certainly in no position to stop you, if you’re equipped to fight them.”

He was being guarded, and they weren’t far from Sendak’s cruiser - outside the perimeter of the fighters, but he wasn’t committing to anything that might draw fire while under Sendak’s shadow. “Understood. Be careful and keep your people out of the way of this - I would like to avoid as much risk of innocent casualties as possible.”

“We will, Princess.” The call ended; she handed the phone back. The Garrison officer waved to the other two to return to the vehicle. Keith was already swinging back into the pilot seat of the speeder bike, ready to go.

There wasn’t much time to come up with any kind of plan with real subtlety; the best they had was to get in as fast as they could and not stop moving. If the old half-rebuilt bike could make the jump down, then he was sure one in good condition could do it easily.

************************************************

Haxus had found a higher vantage point on a scaffold overlooking some of the machinery being brought down. They were going to find the lion, with or without the surveyor that had deciphered a way to pick up on it, even if they had to dig up the entire canyon to do it.

Setting up an excavation camp was going smoothly; it wasn’t what needed his attention right now.

He had a ring of screens up, arranged so he still had a good view of that area of the camp. He doubted they’d be stupid enough to come close to his location, but they’d surprised everyone before. Most of his attention was still on the screens, tracking patrol movements and reports, watching for any signs of disturbance, even a patrol pausing for a few moments too long that might indicate seeing something and thinking better of it.

He wouldn’t admit it to most, but they were earning grudging respect; he knew active field scouts and assassins that would’ve been hard pressed to navigate the excavation camp’s security undetected, and these two - a research surveyor and an exploration trainee - had vanished well.

It wouldn’t save them when he did manage to find them, but it was definitely getting noted when they managed to hand the Paladin over to Zarkon. The surveyor was almost a shame; he would have been useful if he hadn’t turned traitor.

Watching for traces wasn’t working. Instead, he went back over the camp looking at their security through his prior training - watching for patterns and openings he would’ve exploited if he were trying to infiltrate.

They’d been trying to sneak on board the cruiser when they’d almost been caught; they’d fallen back to the edge of the camp, and then had been making their way back in when he’d almost pinned them down. It was safe to assume their objective was the others that’d been captured.

He could pick out three good paths that would put them under the cruiser where it would be a short jump up, and five skiffs and cargolifts they might be able to take up fast enough to not get shot down en route. If the surveyor had found a way into their computers, they could use any of them; he couldn’t discount the possibility, but their own techs hadn’t seen any sign of intrusion on their network and the surveyor’s computer had its access heavily restricted and it's individual ID alarm flagged, so it was less likely. Maybe.

The most likely would be the path most accessible from where they’d last been seen.

He traced it out on the map with one claw, marking where they would need to make pauses between patrols, where they’d need to find cover without being spotted.

Before he could send it, there was a signal of alarms going off on the cruiser already. For a moment, he checked back at his mental math; the disturbance had started at a lower alert almost around when he’d confronted them, it wasn’t physically possible for them to have gotten to the ship yet.

Then there was a voice communication from Sendak.

“I’m placing the battlecruiser under lockdown - nothing coming in or out, all landing bays and access doors secured.” Sendak sounded distinctly unhappy. “The three prisoners escaped the holding cell.”

Haxus blinked. They’d all been handcuffed, stripped of possessions, and the holding cell was little more than bare walls. “How?!”

Sendak rumbled, a slow moment of building nerve. “The small one broke her lenses to use the metal parts as tools. She managed to cause shorts in the handcuffs, then they used the pieces to damage the lock on the door.”

There was a silent moment. The cuffs would’ve been giving warning shocks the entire time; he’d done similar escapes as a matter of training and pulled a few in field operations. It wasn’t easy.

And she was either stubborn enough to be fighting without corrective lenses, or they’d only been meant to break up the visual outline of her face.

“Are we sure she’s related to the other one?” He knew her photos, it was the other researcher they’d taken - the one who’d panicked at the idea of the arena and cowered away from them, then apparently shut down in shock after his companion had turned on him.

Meanwhile, his little sister was showing the determination and drive of any proper Galra.

“They’ve stolen two rifles, destroyed or disabled ten drones, and sabotaged the comm system, lighting, and the waste disposals on three levels of the lower bow decks.” Sendak narrated it spaced evenly, with pent-up, restrained frustration and a growling undertone. “I have all personnel on board focused on recapturing them. The non-Paladin will not remain intact once we find them.”

They’d been somewhat cautious in handling, deference to their potential usefulness and Zarkon wanting them intact; only two of the ones on the cruiser fell under that, the other one was only worth leverage, and “alive enough to be a hostage” still left leeway to make a point about any further problems.

“I’ve lost sight of the other Paladin and the surveyor, but I have mapped out their most likely routes and timing. I’ll be sending it to the patrols -”

There was the chime of a priority alert on Sendak’s end, and Haxus went silent. Both of them had skipped past thinking of the nuisances as “potential” Paladins, if they were capable of causing this much trouble unarmed.

“…An Altean vessel has entered the system, and the Red Lion landed nearby. According to the fighters, a speeder bike left with two passengers. It’s under particle barrier and unattended.”

“Understood, sir. I’ll send the information on our vermin on the ground to the patrols and arrange a retrieval. Vrepit sa.”

He killed the call, sending his notes out; the lion took priority, and he’d need to summon Kelvet’s cargo carrier and pray the outpost managed to do something right.

*************************

Sneaking onto one of the smaller cargo carriers was the first plan. There were three of them that just seemed to be going back and forth, along with a couple small skiffs that were being kept on the ground in the area. Tav’s response on a quiet confused noise about how involved of a camp they were building was a whispered “excavation”, then when the patrol they were waiting out got further away, “They don’t know which cave the lion is under, so they’re just going to start digging.”

Then before they even got very close the cargo carriers stopped, grounded.

The next plan was to just steal the nearest skiff or cargo carrier and head up with it. They had gotten a pretty good feel for the patterns the patrols took, they just needed to avoid being seen and get close enough to get on board; with everything grounded, the pilots and work drones were mostly hanging around outside the ships. It shouldn’t have been that hard, if they could get to one, to just slip in and take the controls.

Before they got close enough for that, the patrols suddenly completely changed pattern, and one of the soldiers hurried with two drones over to where they’d ducked for cover.

For a brief beat, it seemed like the Galra was as surprised to have actually found them as they were to see him, while the drones took aim; Lance made an ungainly breathless squeak and took two fast shots, the two drones dropping, while Tav tackled the surprised soldier and ran with his rifle.

There were alarms going off before the soldier had even started to get to his feet, yelling, and suddenly the entire attempt at stealth was turning into a running firefight. The only small mercy was the lack of any personal sign of Haxus, but Lance did hear Tav swearing under his breath and blaming the officer for the sudden change in security behavior.

“How did he even-“ Lance’s question was interrupted by more gunfire and needing to dive behind some kind of heavy drill.

“I don’t know, it’s Haxus!” Tav took a couple wild shots past Lance; his odds of hitting anything pursuing were low, but it was at least cover fire to discourage following too close. Lance scrambled almost over him, to the other side of the drill, taking a couple blind shots himself before he bolted out, not really caring or able to keep track of what he was shooting at beyond ‘moving’ and ‘aiming at them’.

If they weren’t almost within sight of one of the skiffs, he would’ve been all for trying to back off to sneak back another way, but they were both too far into the excavation camp for that to work and too close for him to care anymore that they were abruptly taking an entire military encampment.

Something went over the edge of the canyon on the other side of the landing area, a wedge-shaped flicker of red and white that was definitely some kind of small vehicle; it didn’t look like anything of the Garrison’s, and it didn’t look Galra, either, but Lance didn’t have much time to care about what it was.

Not long after that, things suddenly got a little more confusing; instead of everything converging on them, they were suddenly demoted to a much lower priority of target, a few soldiers that were yelling back and forth in confusion seeming torn on which way to go, while the majority of the Galra forces headed the other direction, towards… about where whatever had just jumped the cliff must have landed.

On the one hand, they had a distraction, and that was a relief.

On the other hand, Lance was already starting to get nervous about where the Hell Haxus was, considering that he’d already established a habit of showing up unexpectedly like the villain in a bad slasher movie.

The mystery disturbance drew enough fire away to get within line-of-fire range of a skiff; Lance had to hand it to whoever-it-was, the living soldiers were actually seeming genuinely confused and panicked over whatever was going on. He wasn’t sure how long it would last, but they’d done a damn good job of sowing chaos at least briefly. The drones weren’t affected, but some of them seemed to be having routing errors, as if getting called more than one direction at once.

It left them with cover, and a skiff with two drones and a nervous looking pilot in lighter armor than the other soldiers they’d been dodging.

Lance managed to drop the two drones without drawing more attention to their cover than the pilot; two rifles aimed at him were enough for him to give a short, hurried glance around, throw his rifle, and bolt a different direction, because there was no abandonment of post if none of the officers saw it.

They ran for the skiff in a dead sprint, diving in the open hatch; Tav scrambled for the pilot’s seat, while Lance stayed by the hatch.

Being able to do cover fire if anything shot at them was a perfectly valid reason to be there, and it absolutely wasn’t him not having a clue how to get the hatch closed.

He regretted this a moment later. The skiff jumped up fast enough to almost land him on his ass, then listed sideways, and Tav was making small panicked noises with broken-off word mutters scrabbling with the controls; Lance managed to catch the wall near the hatch, and barely keep the rifle from falling out.

“Easy, easy!”

“I wasn’t trying to - the engine on this is bigger than I’m used to!”

The skiff overcompensated trying to right itself, tilting the other way, and Lance had to keep a harder grip on the wall; they had a couple drones turning to aim up at them.

“Why don’t you do cover fire and I’ll fly the ship?!”

You can’t! The controls are species-locked, you’re not Galra!” Tav’s tone was panicked, and as much as he wasn’t sure he could hit the battlecruiser from right next to it with a rifle, he would’ve gladly traded places if not for the species lock.

Lance barely got off one shot, one of the drones falling while he was trying to keep his feet somewhere resembling on the floor. “Turn, turn!”

“Which way?!”

A couple of shots hit the edge of the hatch and the ceiling of the skiff’s interior. “Doesn’t matter!”

The skiff spun; it almost overshot, but it did at least point the hatch away from the ground, giving Lance a good view of the bottom of the battlecruiser and leaving him unsure how the skiff was actually staying airborne right now.

(And on the Battlecruiser, Pidge and Hunk felt a brief sense of karmic balancing, as if there were no need to ever mention some of the dumb shenanigans in the sims ever again.)

After a moment of half-dangling by one hand and willpower, the skiff tilted back upright, and then stopped, Tav’s attention on something on the display panels.

“Wait - that can’t be-”

Lance’s first concern was actually getting back on his feet, then looking over at the display screen, which had a readout on one side showing some other mounted camera’s view of the disturbance, two lighter armored figures carving through the encampment, one armed with a staff, the other with a sword.

The skiff stopped going up, and angled downward again sharply.

Lance got his footing, and then before he could ask what had Tav’s attention, he was skidding forward, shoving the rifle in between some gap in panels in the wall in favor of hanging on with both hands, because he didn’t really trust Tav’s piloting to not suddenly angle the skiff the other way toward the open hatch.

He wasn’t entirely wrong, but the skiff whipped around to turn the other way first.

“Altean armor! That’s Altean armor!” Tav was actually managing to hold it steady, waving over the back of the pilot seat at Lance.

It didn’t really explain a huge amount and raised more questions than answers, since what he remembered of Tav’s fragmented explanation of the Lions’ history that had survived involved the Alteans being extinct for ten thousand years now, but he could definitely follow ‘people that probably have something to do with the lions who are not friends of the Galra are probably friendly to us’.

He stumbled a little, tripping over the bandaged leg, to stand in the hatch, waving and yelling at the two armored figures.

“HEY OVER HERE! Altean-type people or whatever! You’re friendly right?!”

There was a moment where both helms turned to stare at him, the visors closed over the faces.

The few drones that were standing and in line of sight also looked up, and Lance liked that a lot less when he wasn’t holding the rifle.

He fumbled to unhook the old alien sword from where he’d stowed it, waving it in the air and pointing at it.

The lighter of the two - almost definitely female, with the staff - charged for the skiff, jumping up with only a short burst from thrusters on the back of the armor, to land neatly next to Lance. The other one in red armor was right behind her, and needed more use of the thrusters to clear the same distance.

As soon as they were both in the skiff, Tav turned it to angle back up for the cruiser, almost throwing everyone off their feet and leaving all three of them hanging onto the floor of the skiff, Lance desperately propping his good leg against the hatch so that he could get away with hanging onto the old sword.

“Where did you get that?!” She nodded to the sword.

“It was in some old tomb the Galra’d been going through and we didn’t want to just leave it there?” He really hoped the explanation would cover it; he didn’t really want to piss off their only allies because of walking off with some kind of sacred relic or something. The skiff had leveled just enough for him to manage to hook it back on one of the heavy carabiners Pidge had attached to her bag; he wanted that free hand for the way Tav flew.

It apparently was a good enough explanation. “Are you the ones that were looking for the Blue Lion?”

“Yeah, though that’s a little on hold right now.” The bottom of the cruiser was looming outside the hatch, and it looked like Tav was aiming for the torn-open cargo bay. “They’ve got my sister and my teammates and I’m getting them back first.”

The skiff rose into the gaping hole in the belly of the cruiser, glancing off the top of the cargo bay with enough wobble to make holding on a priority again, then dropped onto the still-intact part of the floor with a heavy crash before the engines finally died.

Lance got back to his feet and staggered a little, as putting weight on the wounded leg sent a more jarring stab of pain after the abuse; the red-armored figure hopped out of the hatch, sword ready and scanning the hangar warily, while the other one put a hand out to steady Lance. “You’re hurt.”

He was putting more weight on his good foot for the moment anyway, and he laughed, more nervously than he’d wanted to. “It’s a scratch - anyway rescue first.” If he thought about it and expected it, he could manage to limp less, and he turned to retrieve the rifle from where he’d wedged it.

Tav stood up from the pilot’s seat, stepping around it with his shoulders slumped in relief. The lady with the staff stiffened, dropping to guard stance with the staff angled to ward him off. Tav froze, flattening back a step into the pilot’s console.

“You’re Galra?!”

There was a noise from the red-armored one; it was either some kind of strangled frustrated noise or a growl, he wasn’t sure which. It distracted her long enough for a glance back and a brief, “Oh - that’s different! You’re human!”; the red armored one didn’t need to open the helm for the eyeroll and dim stare to be easy to read.

Lance stepped between her and Tav, putting a hand on the staff to try to nudge it lower. It didn’t budge. “Look, he’s with me, and he’s already risked his life helping us. He’s on our side.”

“And you trust that?”

Tav shrank down; Lance pulled up, bristling, jaw set, glaring at the armored figure. “Yeah, I do. He spent a good day or so lying to Sendak trying to keep us from getting caught and if I hadn’t stepped in they would’ve killed him for it, so if you’ve got a problem with him, you’ve got a problem with me.”

She didn’t lower the staff at first, looking between them.

“The longer we wait, the longer they have to react,” the red armored one threw in impatiently, and Lance realized he knew the voice - but Keith would have to wait.

There was a long second that ticked past, and then she turned sharp, angling the staff away. “Fine - we don’t have time for this.”

She was out of the skiff toward the hangar door right after, stopping most of the way there to wait as if remembering that Lance wasn’t going to be following as fast. Tav stayed close behind, although it was hard to tell how much of it was trying to help and how much of it was an attempt at keeping Lance between him and the pink-and-white armored figure.

Keith didn’t pause and got to the door a little ahead of everyone else, giving a panel by the door a wary look. “It sounds like there’s already alarms going off.”

“Keith?”

Keith turned, helmet tilting as he stared back at Lance about as strangely as Lance was staring at him. “…Do I know you?”

“Lance. From the Garrison?” He motioned with one hand; the helmet-masked stare shifted, more blank, and it occurred to Lance that while the other one did have the faceplate covering and it was tinted, it was translucent enough to see her face when close by; Keith had his completely opaque to anyone on the outside. “Your rival?”

“My what?” Keith sounded more confused than when they’d started.

“Is this really the time for this?” The other one tapped the door out of the hangar with her staff irritably.

Keith shrugged, and tried the door.

The red panel flashed a couple times with some kind of warning beep; the door didn’t open. Keith turned to Tav, motioning for him to try.

“If they locked you out, I’m pretty sure they’ve locked me out too.” He shrank a little back behind Lance, but with everyone looking at him and Lance giving a ‘why not’ shrug, he finally stepped around and put his hand on the panel.

Three more warning chirps and nothing. Tav motioned to it in a wordless ‘told you’ moment.

The other one in armor was walking back almost to where the floor was ripped out. Keith paused, and then quietly asked, “…Princess?”

She turned. Her staff glowed and collapsed in her hand to a small rod that she attached to some kind of magnetic clip at the belt. She took a moment to visibly gauge distance before she charged the door at full sprint with the armor’s thruster’s on.

Lance felt a little better about diving out of the way and ending up stumbling and on the ground since the other two had also dove out of the way, Keith acting like he expected a bomb to go off.

He wasn’t entirely wrong - she hit the door hard enough to put a massive dent in it near one edge, the side of the door bent out of the frame. As soon as her feet were solidly back on the ground, she’d wedged to brace against the doorframe, forcing the door open wide enough to pass through with her feet.

The metal screamed with distinct snaps and rattles of mechanisms breaking. Lance and Tav stared in terrified awe; Keith just sat up, pulling back up to where he could get to his feet more easily. The Princess was maybe Lance’s height and lighter built, and he was pretty sure that wasn’t a function of the armor.

Tav’s tiny “I thought those stories were exaggerated” was barely audible.

She slipped through the open door, then looked back, waiting expectantly.

The other three scrambled to follow, Lance managing a decent pace in spite of his limp.

There were alarms blaring that seemed to fill the dark hallway, distant sounds of running and shouting that echoed to be hard to pin to a direction; they got past a couple of corners before a couple of the drones showed up headed toward the hangar bay, one dropping to Lance’s rifle as soon as it rounded the corner, the other impaled against a wall on the Princess’s staff.

Three more drones went by down that side hallway, headed somewhere else as they watched.

“How are we not the only target they have?”, she blurted out after a moment staring down the again-empty hallway.

It took a minute, but everything filtered in and crystallized to Lance; the others must’ve managed to get loose. A wild, relieved grin spread across his face. “It’s gotta be them!”

He didn’t wait for a response to start off after the drones; the direction the alarms were sending everything was probably toward Hunk, Pidge, and Veronica. The others were quick after, Keith and the Princess pulling out ahead.

Even with him unable to keep a full pace, they were managing scarily well between him picking off targets further down the hallway and Allura and Keith moving in to clean up anything he couldn’t bring down fast enough; Tav stayed close by, occasionally reaching over to steady him when the bad leg threw off his balance. They got partway across the ship by the time there was a coherent re-organization of response to turn after them, which also took a couple reroutes around sealed and nonfunctional doors; there were entire corridors with lights and other mechanisms not working, and one door that had a pile of partly dismembered and crushed drones that they thought better of and routed around.

“Geez, starting to think we’re really saving Sendak from them,” Lance muttered under his breath.

They got through one last ambush before reaching a hallway that seemed empty of soldiers and drones save for a few piles of nonfunctioning robot and at least a couple corpses. The Princess put a hand out before anyone entered the hallway, stopping just short, and picked up a leg from one of the drones they’d just brought down to toss into the hallway.

There was a faint whirring, and then two beams hit it as it hit the ground, scorching it and knocking it back.

Lance walked to about where it seemed safe, leaning one hand on the wall, rifle loose in the other. He might be able to take out whatever murdertrap they’d rigged, but the angle he was seeing on the fire would mean he’d be playing quick-draw with it and he didn’t like his odds against something the two of them had built in a fit of anger and panic. He yelled into the hallway instead, hoping they hadn’t dug in somewhere they couldn’t hear. “GUYS! IT’S ME! WE’RE HERE TO SAVE YOU!”

A door in the hallway whirred, making some odd clunky noises. “Lance?”

He let out of a sigh of relief at Hunk’s voice. “Yeah, it’s me. Can you shut off the death trap so we can get over there?”

“Yeah, sure, one minute.” There was a small commotion from the room they’d holed up in, and he could hear faint argument between Hunk and Pidge about ‘which wire’ and ‘like I know what half of this does!’, then there were a few hissing pops and a couple louder cracks, showers of sparks coming from something by the door.

“Okay it should be clear now.”

Lance grimaced at Hunk’s ‘should’, and he heard Veronica muttering a quiet death threat to Hunk in Spanish; the Princess reached down to pick up the rest of the drone and toss it into the hallway lightly first, all four of them holding still until it clattered against the wall unharmed. Lance did his damnedest to limp over to the door ahead of the others, only to almost run into it when it wouldn’t open further than the four-inch crack Hunk had gotten open.

“Yeah sorry about that; apparently we borked the door up when we made the deathtrap, it closed and wouldn’t open again.” Hunk shrugged on the other side of the crack;Veronica was leaning against a console in back, rolling her eyes.

“That won’t be a problem.” Lance stepped back out of the Princess’s way at her confident comment, giving her space to force it open.

They made it into the small room to find the other three staring at the Princess and the door; Veronica gave a low, impressed whistle. Lance hurried in, dropping the rifle by the door; Hunk was closest to the door and the first to get grabbed in a tight hug, before Lance continued on to Veronica, who moved away from the wall to meet him, and Pidge, who almost stepped back before resigning to fate and getting picked up.

“I’msogladtoseeallofyouokay-” He put Pidge down, stepping back. “You are all okay right?”

Hunk folded his arms, ruffled. “Well, we got thrown in a cell, locked up with some thing that’d shock the other two if one of us moved too much, had some kind of weird Galra translator implanted, and had all our phones and stuff taken, but other than that, yeah, I guess we’re okay.”

“We’re fine, hermano, they went through our phones for information first and hadn’t had time to think about anything else before we took the first opening to escape.”

“Sendak tried to recruit me, though. They know they’ve got my family, and that Hunk and I are also connected to the Voltron thing.” Pidge scowled.

Keith gave an acknowledging nod to Pidge; Allura looked between all of them in a moment of concern, while Tav had picked up the rifle by the door, glancing out occasionally.

“Who’re your friends?” Veronica nodded toward the other three.

“Well, we found Keith!” Lance gestured dramatically at the red-armored figure.

Keith leaned back a little, helmet turning toward him. “Who found who now?”

“Hey, we’re the ones that picked you two up to get you onto the ship while you were trying to fight half the encampment down there.”

Keith shook his head, turning to keep an eye on the door with Tav; Lance pointed over to the lanky alien. “And this is Tav - he’s the one that was following us all that time. Turns out he was telling them we’d gone all kinds of wrong directions, and when Sendak caught him, they were probably gonna kill him; he’s helping me find the lion!” Tav looked back with an awkward wave; Veronica was already squinting and shifting, recognizing her bag.

“And - uh.” Lance stared at the Princess.

“Princess Allura, of planet Altea.” She gave a short half-bow to the other three; behind her Tav had a brief flicker of confused recognition, then scrunched his face and shook his head, attention turning back to the door. “We’re lucky to have found almost all of the Paladins in one place - I doubt Zarkon would’ve given us much time to search.”

“I don’t think these creeps are going to give us much time to talk, either,” Hunk stated, casting the door nervous glances.

Lance gave a half-shrug, passing Pidge her backpack; she leaned forward to grab it, squirming into the straps in a hurry. “Probably not.”

“Before we start running again - is that my camera?” Veronica’s attention hadn’t left the bag Tav was carrying.

“Yeah, I figured Hunk and I didn’t have anything we couldn’t afford to lose, but Pidge’s computer and your camera gear…” He motioned Tav away from the door; Keith took up the watch so Tav could pass the bag over.

Veronica took the straps carefully, settling it on her back and attaching the extra clips, then hugged Tav, arms wrapped around his chest while he froze, before turning to hug Lance as well. She fussed with a side compartment, finding the camera itself to hang the neck strap over her neck and then adjust settings again.

“You okay with her taking pictures? She’s a reporter, if they’ve got those on your planet.”

Allura gave a half laugh. “Perfectly all right, although we’ll need to get her to safety as soon as we can.”

Veronica took the invitation, catching a couple fast photos of much of the room centered on Allura. “I work war zones; this isn’t new.”

“So do you guys know where things are on this ship?” Pidge was getting the calculating look.

Keith shrugged helplessly; Tav looked back. “I’ve got a general schematic - it’s a basic standard design, but most of the ranking cruisers like this one are modified.”

“Can you get us to the engine?” There was a sharp smile playing across Pidge’s face; Hunk caught the thought and grinned.

Tav blinked, then smiled in a way that would never manage to read as friendly, showing off a mouthful of sharp teeth. “Sure thing.”

“Sendak’s not going to just sit by for that.” Keith didn’t even look back, attention on the hallway.

“I think we can deal with him,” Allura said, coldly confident.

Tav stared back at her. “…Coming from anyone else, I’m not sure I’d believe that.”

She ignored him.

Keith leaned out, peering down the hallway. “We’re going to have company soon, and if they catch us here they can pin us down.”

Allura had the door open enough for them to get back out into the hallway; there was already sound echoing down the halls signaling that they didn’t have much time.

“…Hold up a sec.” Hunk went to the two makeshift trap-turrets cobbled together from parts pulled out of the drones and the wall, detaching a couple of burned-out and half-melted rifles; Pidge and Veronica collected a couple of others that’d been dropped, passing them over to him to replace the burned out ones while Pidge ducked back into the room.

Veronica hurried for the branching hallway, and nobody else really wanted to stay in that hallway knowing what the two of them were re-setting.

Something sparked inside the room. “Alright, live in five!” Pidge was dashing for the cross hallway everyone else was in as she said it.

It was just in time to catch the next team rounding the corner down the hall after them.

It turned into another running fight; Hunk and Veronica managed to salvage a couple other Galran rifles, and Lance just accepted it when Pidge dashed by grabbing the old Altaean sword back, charging ahead with Keith and Allura.

Pidge’s idea of swordsmanship was enough to make Keith want to cringe, but at least straight charges point-first under cover fire and distractions were effective enough for now, and she was a distraction they could cover when she missed.

And, every couple hallways when they had a gap in pursuit, either Pidge or Hunk would stop at any signs of paneling or controls in the wall to take it half apart, occasionally getting Tav leaning in with pointers on the technology or to help sabotage it.

It was hectic, and they were making headway, but it wasn’t working very well to get to the engine room at reasonable speed for the kind of lunatic hit-and-run they were doing. They were starting to run into more and more cross-fire, packs of drones with occasional soldiers setting chokepoints and trying to funnel them into ambushes.

And then Tav directed them into what looked like a dead end, focused on the wall and trying very hard to ignore suddenly having Allura’s staff looming not far behind him.

“What are you doing?”

He was already fumbling with latches; getting an opening to get away from the constant ambushes was prioritized only slightly above angry Altean royalty at the moment. Allura might kill him, Sendak’s troops definitely would. “We’re never going to make it at this rate, but if we can lose them in the maintenance passages -“

Lance’s attention shifted to the Princess, briefly letting the other two cover the hallway; Allura lowered her staff, and he went back to minding everything after them.

“If we all disappear down there, they’re just going to focus on cornering us in those. Somebody needs to keep them distracted if you’re going to reach the engine room in one piece.” Keith was already shifting weight to head out into the halls; Allura put a hand out, grabbing his shoulder.

“You’re not going out there alone.”

“Okay, so, Veronica and I go cover the techs while they wreck the ship, you two keep Sendak’s people busy so we can get there?” Lance jerked his head toward the entrance Tav had open to the maintenance passages.

“Works for me.” Keith looked back to Allura; she gave Tav one last, suspicious and unhappy frown, then nodded.

Allura left Lance with some kind of small communicator, and then the two of them charged into the hallways, letting the rest vanish past the wall paneling. Tav closed it behind them, checking that it’d clicked solidly back into place.

The maintenance hallways weren’t completely unguarded, but it was entirely automated, with small triangular drones floating through the passageways at regular intervals.

After a brief hissed argument in half-whispers, they agreed to try to avoid the drones’ notice as much as possible, even if Lance was sorely tempted to turn them into target practice. It wasn’t that he was bad at skulking around, but it was getting old and making the already tense situation more restless.

Veronica also leveled “We’re trying to avoid notice until we reach the engine” at Hunk, Pidge, and Tav every time exposed mechanisms or bits of cabling that looked important went by. Tav did win a little, pointing out power relay surge monitors that wouldn’t be immediately noticeable if sabotaged, but that would make a cascade failure from the engine worse if damaged.

Mechanical engineering of that sort wasn’t Tav’s specialty beyond bits learned from being recruited to do repairs around the station, but Hunk had no shame about picking his brains as they ran for information on how Galra ships worked anyway.

Somewhere in the middle of the ship, they took cover next to an unusual number of alarms and monitoring gear hooked up to a particular large room or set of rooms that earned four curious and suspicious looks and a “What’s this anyway?” from Hunk.

Tav stared at it, then checked his computer screen. “Looks like a prison chamber, in active use. Probably from places the ship’s been, or they’d be using the central brig.”

“So it’s just people Sendak’s grabbed.” Pidge frowned, glowering at the cables around it. “Can we get them out of here?”

Tav paused, caught off guard and trying to think. “I can probably trick the security for a while, I’ve done it before, but that’d leave getting them off ship without getting caught….”

She was already nosing around the room. “It looks like there’s a hatch here - we can disable the security anyway while you’re thinking.”

Hunk started to open his mouth, but thought better of it and just settled for trying to keep an eye out for the security drones.

“Ugh, I hope this works here.” Tav hooked a cable from the security setup to his wrist computer, setting overrides and smokescreen data and sending it. Red read outs and displays flickered, briefly, then a couple of monitor lights flashed blue before returning to normal red and violet. “You should be clear.”

As soon as she heard it, Pidge had the access hatch open, with some grumbling at more than one layer in the armored wall and the hatch being small enough that it would’ve been hard for Lance or Veronica to get through, much less Hunk or Tav.

There were no Galra in the small space; it was a range of different aliens, all of them bedraggled and battered, in rags, and filthy; the room smelled of must and faint infection-rot. When the panel opened, there was a sudden quiet panic, some of them freezing, others backing up against walls and cringing away.

Pidge concluded firmly to herself that she was not accepting no for an answer on getting these people out of here. The connection that her family had likely been here once, and Shiro, came a moment later, and she resolved to see Sendak, Haxus, Zarkon, and every other ranking member of the Empire she could ended, one way or another.

“Hey. It’s okay, we’re going to try to get you out of here, okay?” She held up both hands empty, hoping the gesture of ‘I am not a threat’ was universal enough to get across.

After another couple moments where she was getting stared at in disbelief, a few of them came over to the small opening; she gave a nervous glance to check the door, but there was only one small, dingy window high in it, with no sign of anyone nearby outside.

Keith and Allura were probably giving plenty of reason for attention to be elsewhere.

After a few quiet whispered exchanges and nervous looks, one of them stepped forward more. “Not that we aren’t happy to hear that, but - how are you planning on achieving it?”

“Well, we’ve gotten this far, we’ll think of something.” She leaned back out of the layered hatch, to where she could see the others. “Can we get them out through the maintenance passages somehow?”

Tav frowned with a rumble and shook his head. “We’re having a hard enough time keeping five of us from getting seen by the patrol drones, we’d never be able to get them out unseen, even this way.”

“Well we’re not leaving them here when we blow the ship.” Pidge’s stern response got a wave of whispers in equal awe and confusion from the prisoners.

There was a moment of quiet; Hunk wanted to have a better idea than leaving them there, it was hard to say that they couldn’t afford to help when these people were right there, but he was coming up blank; they were targets themselves and a hair away from being prisoners.

“She’s right, we can’t just leave them, even if we need to split up to get them off the ship,” Lance said, looking back to the others for any kind of clue.

Tav rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Look, I might be able to get help, but it’s going to take me a minute.” He brought up his computer screen, and went through a messy string of commands as well as putting his hand on the screen for some kind of biometric lock; a second, blue panel opened hovering just over the main red one.

Pidge was briefly distracted again. “What’s that?”

“I’m using a comm relay I built a few years ago based on the Blue Lion’s operating frequencies my ancestor left notes on - it doesn’t have enough range to get out of the solar system, but it’s on a really weird band that none of the Imperial devices pick up on.” He paused, looking up at the sudden attention he got for that. “Look, it was so we could plan sneaking out and getting into things without getting caught, okay? I wasn’t doing anything that profound before this.”

Pidge narrowed her eyes at it thoughtfully, and caught Hunk getting his own speculative look; Tav was going to get mobbed later for copies of those notes.

Now was not the time, however, and if it was going to take a few minutes then she had some other questions. “Okay we’re working on something. We’re going to get you out of here.”

The alien almost leaned as if he wanted to try to look around her at the maintenance passage with an uneasy expression, then closed his mouth and nodded.

“Can I ask you about something while he’s working?” She shifted her backpack half off her shoulder, giving the alien a pleading look.

“We aren’t going anywhere, and if you truly can free us…”

She didn’t have her phone, but thanks to Lance she had her computer back; it was more awkward to pull out, requiring her to curl in the open hatch with it propped on her knees while she found a picture. “I wanted to ask if you knew about other humans that were taken - they might’ve been on this ship.”

There was a wave of recognition and quiet trepidation at that before she even turned the laptop for the screen to be visible - one of the launch photos of the Kerberos crew together.

One of the others that was nearby looked away; the one that had been speaking closed his eye and nodded soberly. “Yes. They were on this ship, until we were separated at the arenas. I don’t know how long it’s been, I’m sorry.”

“Do you know where they might be now?”

The alien shifted uncomfortably, and shook his head. “The older one was sent to the work camps early; the one with hair like yours was sent to one as well, after the Champion injured him in the arenas. The Champion was still there when this ship left.”

Pidge blinked, processing; she didn’t like the sound of any of it, and was debating how much to ask right then.

In the hallway, Tav was ignoring suddenly having two people peering at his screen; Veronica, at least, was still keeping watch on the maintenance passageways for any sign of anything coming. He was sticking to a text channel - he didn’t want to risk one of the others getting overheard on this gamble.

<(T): I need help. Is anyone on the battlecruiser?>
<(D): YOU’RE NOT DEAD WE HEARD HAXUS WAS AFTER YOU ARE YOU OKAY>
<(V): WHAT ARE YOU EVEN DOING ARE YOU SERIOUSLY PICKING A FIGHT WITH SENDAK>
<(S): TAV FOR THE LOVE OF EVERYTHING WHAT ARE YOU DOING WHAT’S GOING ON HOW ARE YOU NOT DEAD>

He closed his eyes with a quiet, frustrated rumble.

<(T): Look the new blue paladin saved me I’m helping him there are two others the old paladin’s stuff reacted to and the Red one stole the lion and came back with the Princess of Altea I’M ON THE BATTLECRUISER AND NEED TO KNOW IF ANYONE ELSE IS I AM ALIVE AND WOULD LIKE TO REMAIN THAT WAY CAN YOU GUYS FOCUS FOR ONCE>
<(V): Wait Paladin you’re not joking are you>
<(S):YOU FOUND THE NEW PALADINS? LIKE ALMOST ALL OF THEM? THEY’RE HUMANS?>
<(V):Man the lions are really going for the humiliation victory on Zarkon aren’t they>
<(D): Are you sure you’re okay before he locked the cruiser down Sendak called most of us back here because he said he didn’t trust any of us Riven’s been growling in a corner since>
<(T): Guys FOCUS>
<(T): I’m serious I need a hand are all of you on the cruiser? Shit you’re going to need to sneak out and evac later too>
<(S): I’m not on the cruiser, I’m with the old cargo carrier. Haxus is still an asshole>
<(V): Daxle and I are on the cruiser I can’t believe you’re doing this what do you need?>
<(D): Wait what am I being volunteered for>
<(D):Oh god we’re going to piss off Sendak aren’t we>
<(D): More>
<(D): I don’t want to die>
<(V): Nobody’s dying Daxle>
<(T): Look the place is a mess I’m sure you guys can find some armor lying around, we’re gonna get the prisoners off the ship before we blow it up and we can’t get them out without them being seen but if we can make it look like something Sendak ordered then we don’t have to worry about being seen>
<(D): WAIT YOU’RE BLOWING UP THE BATTLECRUISER>
<(T): Yes, we’re going to blow up the battlecruiser, it’s going to be pretty obvious once we get there probably because there’s no way Sendak’s not going to react>
<(T): The Princess of Altea and the Red Paladin are trying to keep him and his soldiers busy as long as they can so we can work>
<(T): I can flag you guys to where we are so you can smuggle the prisoners off>
<(T): …Wait Selkor why are you on the cargo carrier>
<(S): Because Haxus wants us to grab the Red Lion while the Paladin’s away>
<(S): Levok is here too>
<(S): I wouldn’t worry about it too much this old piece of sek is barely moving>
<(S): Like, we barely even need to sabotage it>
<(T): You guys are messing with Haxus?>
<(S): What you think you’re the only one that’s had enough and wants to screw things up for these assholes?>

“Do you guys normally go in and out of English?”

Tav looked up at Hunk; Lance was snickering. “Yeah, because most of the military from the main Empire don’t understand a word of it.”

<(V): Look I’m going to talk to Riven we should be on our way there soon>
<(V): I don’t think Riven cares anymore I could tell him we were flossing weasels and he wouldn’t ask>

“What’s the part about flossing weasels about, it’s all in Galra again except that.” Hunk was leaning over the light screen almost.

“Trying to arrange for help, I’ll explain later when we’re NOT trying to avoid getting shot, okay?!”

<(D): Okay but how are we going to get past Sendak’s soldiers if they question us>
<(T): Daxle, I know you can do this, I’ve seen the cons you pull>
<(D): This isn’t like getting campers and cryptid hunters to delete pictures or bargaining Girl Scouts for cookies>
<(D): The humans have SYMPATHIES to play on>
<(T): Daxle you almost conned Riven into recommending you for security so you could make sure the evidence of us sneaking out got scrubbed before anyone saw it>
<(D): Yeah and I got stuck on external vent maintenance for a year for it>
<(T): Only because Riven lived with you. And it still took him months to catch on.>
<(D): Sendak’s soldiers are way more likely to shoot me than cryptid hunters and kind of more likely to shoot me than Riven>
<(V): Sendak’s soldiers are also kinda preoccupied with whatever’s been messing up the ship and camp>
<(T): Yeah that’s two of the paladins and the Blue one’s sister they’re great that way>
<(T): They’re the ones that’re gonna help blow up the ship>
<(V): Okay yeah Riven is done with everything he actually told me he wasn’t asking and not to tell him what we were doing he doesn’t want to know>
<(V): I think I know where you are anyway we’ll be there soon>
<(T): Thanks Veera just let me know when you’re here>

He closed the lightpanels. “Alright we’ve got help coming! A couple of my Reshet that could pass for soldiers are going to steal some armor and fast talk-their way off the ship with the prisoners.”

Lance gave Tav a slightly suspicious look. “And this’ll work better than last time?”

“Yeah, they’re both only first or second generation Kelvet, so they look like they could be from the main Empire. Not like me.” He huffed, running a claw through the thick fur along the side of his face.

“I know I saw something about cryptids and girl scouts.” Hunk was still thinking hard, trying to decipher what he’d seen on the screen.

Pidge leaned out of the small maintenance hatch. “So we’re good?”

“Yeah, we’re good!” Lance gave her a thumbs-up. “You uh, might want to warn them that they’re gonna be smuggled out by a couple of Galra, though.”

She slid her computer back into the backpack, setting it next to the maintenance hatch and slipping all the way into the cell. “Okay, we’ve got a plan to get all of you out of here, and it should work - we’re not going to leave you here.”

“Truly? You’re sure?” The alien was wavering in between awed disbelief and relief; there were more whispers among the others.

“Yeah, but… it’s going to be probably be pretty terrifying going out.”

One of the others that was pressing closer shook their head. “We’ve survived time around the arenas and had others taken by the Druids; what could be worse?”

“You’re going to have a couple of younger Galra smuggling you out.” It came out completely apologetic; it wasn’t hard to guess how much good experience any of them had with Galra.

Sure enough, that earned suspicion and a few of them shrinking away.

She held up her hands, doing her best to be soothing and try to sound confident about it. “Look, it’s a bit of a long story, but there’s a few of them from an outpost out here that don’t like the Empire, either, and they’ve been helping us against Sendak since we got here; two of them are going to pass themselves off as Sendak’s soldiers and say it’s Sendak’s orders to move you out of the chaos we’ve been starting. Don’t worry, we’ll check up on things once the cruiser’s destroyed to make sure you’re all safe.”

“How are you going to destroy a battlecruiser?”

“Sendak isn’t going to let any of this happen…”

“Are you even capable of any of that?”

She inhaled sharply, closing her eyes. They couldn’t get these people out of here without getting them to listen and trust that they knew what they were doing… and they were not the most inspiring group right now even if the aliens might not’ve known enough about humans to know how young most of them were. The only thing she could think of that might be a reason for confidence that they could take down a Galra commander and his ship was something where she barely knew anything about it besides what she’d gleaned from Haxus and Sendak, her own eavesdropping, and a title Allura and Tav had both used; there just hadn’t been time for her to get explanations from anyone that seemed to have a clue.

She’d need to bluff damn well, hope she didn’t make any obvious mistakes, and hope they didn’t ask any questions she couldn’t answer. “Sendak wanted us because we’re the new Paladins of Voltron. We’ve already broken out of another cell and been sabotaging and fighting our way across the ship and the camp below. Once we have all of you clear, we’re going to the engine room; we’ve already caused lethal failures on some of the smaller ships, we know we can do it, and we’ve got others that’re on their way to take care of Sendak.”

There was quiet, and she was being studied, the entire gathering unsure.

“All those alarms going off and the soldiers running around? That’s because of us.”

The ones closest to her listened, then pulled back, a flurry of whispers back and forth that she couldn’t make out. Finally, they turned around, the one that had been doing most of the talking taking a moment to steel himself.

“We have little left to lose, and anything would be better than this, even dying on an attempt. We’ll go with your allies.”

She sagged back in relief, leaning in the maintenance hatch.

Not long after there was a beep from the maintenance passages, then a tall, dark shape outside the window, peering in and ducking back a few times; the prisoners scrambled back away from the door. Lance leaned in. “They’re here, and Hunk’s just about got the door open.”

A moment later, the door lifted up, opening to two Galra that were nervously watching both ways down the corridor, both in armor that they were shifting around adjusting to. The taller of the two was staying more in the hallway, uncomfortably passing a rifle from hand to hand, a wary frown set across smooth hide and scales. The other one was still well over seven feet, rifle hanging from his hand in a way that Pidge was pretty sure wasn’t how the gun was supposed to be handled, helmet tucked under one arm, furred ears twitching at every noise echoing down the hallways.

Tav stuck his head in the maintenance hatch, giving the prisoners another startle. “Took you two long enough. We’re all ready here, and I’ll call Riven to get the others off the ship when it’s about to blow, alright? He can kill me later.”

The one in the hallway gave a sarcastic salute. The one with the helmet off knelt down, mouth partway open and shrinking into his shoulders in dismay. “Uh. Sorry about the armor thing, but they’re not going to believe us without it.”

He was vaguely familiar somehow, and Pidge wasn’t sure why; there wasn’t really any reason for it. Probably looked a little close to one of the random soldiers or something.

Pidge looked over her shoulder at Tav for confirmation; he definitely knew them, so this had to be them. There was just one thing that hadn’t been in their hurried attempt at planning. “You have an idea where to go once you get out of here?”

The two Galra at the door paused, the furry one blinking for a moment.

“…There’s a bunch of human camps just past the perimeter. The Garrison’s probably a better bet than the military ones, right?” He looked down at Pidge, getting a more uncertain frown at her scowl.

They had next to no reason to trust the Garrison right now, and she had less than anyone else, but the military camps were unknowns that may or may not help. She made a frustrated noise. “Okay, the Garrison. We’ve got the Princess with us, we’ll check in after Sendak’s gone to make sure everything’s okay - Iverson can’t argue with her.”

The Galra looked up at the ceiling with a very faint rusty-hinge noise, then shoved his helmet on, adjusting to hold the rifle properly. “Alright, if I’m doing the talking I’ll take lead.” He stepped back out of the cell into the hallway; the other one motioned to the prisoners to follow.

There were several uncertain looks back and forth; the two that had been talking steeled themselves and walked out, and the others followed.

“Okay, I know this isn’t a big stretch, but if you guys act like you’re getting away they’ll catch us, alright?” He looked behind him, and got quiet nods; the other Galra in back had already pulled up to attention, rifle settled straight and steady. “Veera, we’re taking them down to a secure area in the encampment so they can’t be recruited by the escapees, Sendak’s direct orders.”

Veera snapped a salute.

As they left, Pidge heard a quiet mutter as the lead Galra straightened into military stance himself. “Okay, soldier of the empire, victory or death and all of the rest of that garbage.”

She scrambled back through the maintenance hatch; the cell door closed. Hunk was on the other side, reconnecting cables.

They had to get moving again in a hurry, barely getting past two of the small floating drones that intersected that area. A couple more turns, and they were on a straight shot to the upper part of the engine room.

Chapter Text

Not long after they split up, Keith and Allura only got a couple turns and four sentries away before there was a problem.

“You do have an idea of where this Commander is likely to be, right?”

Keith stopped in the middle of leaning around the corner. He actually wasn’t sure on that. “…If he isn’t out hunting himself, he’s probably on the bridge, trying to coordinate this chaos.” One of those could be anywhere on the ship depending on how many alarms Pidge and Hunk had going off.

“Then the bridge is at least worth an attempt; if he isn’t there I’d think he’d come running at a disturbance there.” She waited, expectantly; Keith didn’t move. “…You do know how to get to the bridge, right?”

He was silent.

“I thought you were on this ship making arrangements before! How do you not know where the bridge is?!”

“I was really preoccupied, okay?!” He stood straighter with an audible rumbling growl running through it all, ignoring the other hallway for the moment; Allura was on a better angle to see down it right then anyway. “I’d just been hijacked off my planet and thrown around, I wasn’t being given a lot of time to think, and I had the Druid decide it had to ‘fix’ me looking too human!” He lowered the tint on his faceplate, gesturing at glowing yellow eyes and sharp teeth.

Allura stiffened, suddenly far more fascinated with the hallway and no longer looking at him. “Well, do you at least know a general direction?”

He adjusted the faceplate tint back, resting a hand on the belt of the armor, sword loose in his other hand; the growling took on a little rusty grinding. “Well we’re still near the aft, so… up and toward the center?”

“It’ll have to do. Let’s go.” She turned and started off down the hallway at a brisk pace; he followed after.

It wasn’t quiet at all; the ship was huge and had carried a pretty good contingent, even if he was sure between all of them that they had to’ve made a dent in the drones by now. Most of the soldiers seemed to want to stay back and let the machines handle it. He wondered how many of them were going to get in shit for that with Sendak later in between packs of drones.

Allura was keeping ahead of him. He thought they were doing okay at being aware of their surroundings. They’d already baited out and broken a couple of attempted ambushes.

Then there was suddenly white light and an ominous hum cutting through the air towards him, far too close to his side.

He turned to block, a heavy blade longer than his torso with powered edges glancing off his vambrace and the handle of the bayard. It bit in hard enough to cut into the armor and leave a thin line on his wrist under it, the force of the charge from a Galra easily several times his size throwing him back against the wall; his bayard clattered to the ground on the other side of the hallway.

The Galra’s scaled face was a mess of scars, one eye a simple glass prosthetic. His armor was battered and worn, parts of it too mechanical to have flesh under them, and nothing that big and heavy had any right to be that fast or that quiet.

Allura turned on one heel ahead, calling his name. The heavy blade was coming down again while he was still regaining his footing; the best he had was holding up his own knife, trying to angle it in his other hand to deflect the Galra’s weapon.

The cloth he had wrapping it to hide the rune was a complete casualty as the humming blade slid across it, slicing into the wall over his shoulder, while a heavy clawed hand that was half mechanical pinned him against the wall just short of his throat.

One dim yellow eye, slate scales, and sharp teeth loomed close over him, his inherited knife far too small to do much to stop if the Galra turned the blade. The massive Galra was still, and Keith held his breath; Allura had frozen nearby, trying to gauge if charging to knock the soldier off of him would buy space or just knock the energized edge into him.

The yellow eye narrowed, and the teeth vanished; there was a quiet rattling rumble, something that sounded like it should’ve come from a crocodile.

“You’re one of Antok’s people?”

“Who?” The word barely left his mouth before Keith realized it was the dumbest thing he could’ve done there; he hurried to give the big Galra some reason to not follow through on having him pinned. “You know them?”

“Maybe.” The hum on the blade died down as it was lowered, but the Galra picked him up by his armor, still holding him against the wall; Allura circled to the side warily, slow enough to be quiet on the metal floor. The Galra soldier not even paying attention to her. “Where did you get that?”

“I inherited it.” He could only hope he’d found another one of the strange spies.

The Galra growled, a much louder prehistoric sound, and showed teeth. “And what are you going to do here?”

He closed his eyes, thinking hard; how he answered would probably decide how badly injured he was walking away from this. “I’m going to stop Sendak from destroying my planet, or anywhere else ever again.”

“Why.”

Allura tensed.

“Because he’s done enough, and I’m not going to stand by and do nothing while him and the rest of the Empire slaughter and terrorize entire worlds.” He managed to get the faceplate tint to lighten, the armor reacting to intent, and he snarled right back at the bigger Galra.

The Galra stared at him for a long moment, then let go and stepped back with a faint snort; he barely kept his footing as his boots hit the floor again. “Well you sound just like him.”

Allura lowered her staff, but only partway.

“Are you…?” He held up the knife, point angled down and away, the rune on it glowing and visible.

The soldier leaned in, squinting at it, then shook his head. “All I know is that Antok had a sword like that,” he reached up, tapping part of the more-mechanical looking parts of his armor, “And can’t have been acting alone.”

Allura gave Keith a wary, questioning look; he shook his head slightly, motioning for her to stand down. She frowned, only barely lowering her staff. The old Galra didn’t react to the exchange, or even seem to care about her off to his side at all.

“If you’re against Sendak, why did you attack me?” He took a careful step to one side, and when the bigger Galra didn’t react, he slid his knife back out of sight and edged over to retrieve his bayard; the burned gash on his right wrist hurt when he closed his hand around the hilt, so he switched it to his left hand, where he could rely on it staying steady.

“Habit. There’s people I’m responsible for on this ship - not soldiers - nearby. You were making too much noise. Take your pick.” The old Galra gave a tired shrug, returning his weapon to some kind of magnetic clamp on his back.

Allura finally dropped out of a ready stance aimed at him, her staff hitting the ground; the old Galra’s head snapped to the side with a faint hiss of surprise, and he shifted almost into stance himself, a hand back on the hilt.

She paused in the middle of stepping back, noticing the scars on his face as something suddenly made sense; he’d proven it didn’t make him much less of a threat, even if it was probably exploitable - if he hadn’t caught Keith off guard, the fight would’ve gone much differently. “You’re blind.”

“And I can still put you through a wall, little girl.” He bared teeth again, half-heartedly.

“You can try.” She shifted her staff in her hand, glaring back.

Keith stepped between them, a half-rusted rumble of irritation starting up. “Are you with Sendak or not?”

The old Galra thought for a long moment. “To be perfectly honest, I’ve wanted to see his face punched in since he was Zarkon’s pet trainee. Him terrorizing my people here when I came here for quiet has not helped.”

Allura’s bristling behind him settled back a little, and she stayed quiet, letting him handle it.

“Can you get the civilians out of the way without tipping Sendak off to what we’re doing?”

There was a quiet, thoughtful rumble. “I can get them out of the way. But I think it’s a little late for Sendak not knowing what you’re doing. You and the other children have been good at shock tactics and occasionally avoiding being seen, but you have not been cunning tacticians.”

“We didn’t exactly have much time to prepare,” Allura grumbled; the old Galra half-laughed.

“Tav is with your saboteurs and they are probably aiming for the engine, yes?” He managed to look basically Keith’s direction, even if his tracking was a little off.

Keith had a quiet pause and looked back to Allura; she was staring at the wall, and useless for any guidance.

“The plans he has access to are incomplete. The power systems were redesigned in secret to make them harder to sabotage. There is a power stabilizer halfway across the ship, just below the bridge. If the main crystal overloads, it will ground the cascade failure outward and shift the ship to a backup power source. You’ll need to destroy it to bring the ship down.”

“How do you know about it, then?”, Allura asked, suspicious.

“Because I was second in command to a territorial commander, and our territory before I retired was one of the reasons for the redesign; we had ‘saboteur problems’.” He enunciated that carefully and with a tone that suggested it wasn’t the actual problem. “Looking back on it, it was likely why Commander Antok decided to go out in a blaze of glory; when only a few of us in upper command knew about it, his little pirate friends still being able to take out battlecruisers drastically narrowed the list of who could be feeding them information.”

Allura narrowed her eyes, frowning.

“Well, if it’s near the bridge anyway, it won’t slow us down any to check.” Keith glanced over his shoulder with a shrug.

She shook her head, looking away. “I suppose.”

“Then I am going to go repeat history and take care of the civilians.” The bitter laugh he gave had a few too many teeth showing. “Tell your little Blue friend that if anything happens to Tav, I will skin him alive and use his spine to make chimes.” One heavy claw patted Keith’s shoulder. “And you try not to follow to closely in my Commander’s footsteps, little Antok.”

They headed off again, Allura on the comms as soon as the old soldier was out of sight. “We’re making a small detour to check on a possible complication.”

Lance fumbled with the radio he’d almost forgotten about on the other end. “What kind of detour, how bad is it?”

“Well, if the information can be trusted,” she sounded doubtful on that, “then there’s some kind of stabilization system that was added in secret to counteract exactly what you’re attempting to do.”

“Where did this come from? Are you sure?”

Keith joined her before she could start. “We got caught off guard by some older Galra, I think he’s one of the Kelvet people. He said he knows about it because it was added to deal with some kind of sabotage problem back when he still had rank.”

Lance paused. “Wait, really big, kinda battered mechanical bits, old ass armor, scarred up face?”

“…yeah? You know him?”

In the background they could just overhear Tav - “what about Riven what is it?”

“That’s Riven. He’s basically Tav’s godfather.”

“Yeah he said to tell you that he’d skin you and use your bones for chimes if anything happened to Tav.” Keith paused after relaying the threat. “Can we trust him?”

Allura made an uncomfortable noise that she didn’t transmit.

There was quiet, and then Lance was on the comm again. “Yeah, he really hates Sendak and the Empire screwed him over pretty bad.”

There was quiet again, then Hunk was on the radio. “What exactly did he say this stabilization system did?”

“Uh.” Keith paused in the intersection to check for any further surprises. “If the crystal overloads, it vents the excess, then shuts down main power and shifts to a secondary power source. We’re headed where it’s supposed to be now.”

“Damnit. That means we can’t even start until it’s shut down.” Hunk gave a frustrated groan. “Look, we’ll get into position and stay out of sight, you give us the clear to go when you’ve taken it out, alright?”

“Roger that.”

********************************

Tav stopped in the end of one of the maintenance passages, holding up a hand. There was an actual door at the end, with a lock next to it, cabling and protective grating between the passage and the cabling all over; some of it glowed with faint violet light.

“This is it. The engine room is on the other side of this door.” He turned back, unsure what to do with having all of them looking to him for information. “It’s a pretty big room; we’re going to come out on a catwalk that leads to the upper part of the main reactor. You should have at least a chance to get a shot at the rest of the room, and there’s probably going to be a lot of drones.”

“Looks like it’s my turn now then, eh?” Lance grinned, shifting the rifle; honestly, the longer they sat outside the door the more he was stuck trying not to think about taking on God knew how many drones like this when Hunk, Pidge, and Tav would be too busy to be backup, but they couldn’t afford to panic, so he was sticking to running through bits of movies. He couldn’t afford to lose, so he wasn’t going to. “The hunters become the hunted.”

Hunk rolled his eyes with an affectionate headshake. “Here we go.”

There was an occasional shutter-click from Veronica’s camera, another of the alien rifles setting next to her. “I’ll try to back you up some - break up the lines of fire a little so it’s harder for them to single you out.”

Pidge settled against the wall, wadding up against Hunk, hugging the alien sword; they’d managed to do a lot of damage to some of the smaller skiffs, but they also weren’t getting consistently shot at, and this was a much, much bigger ship with a much more complicated engine. Hunk put a hand on her shoulder, arm practically engulfing her.

She closed her eyes, finally speaking up, quiet in the momentary pause.“…Thank you guys for coming with me. And… not letting me just go after this alone. I don’t know if I would’ve made it this far.”

“Like I’d just drive by and leave you hitch-hiking all the way to Montana. You know how dangerous that is?” Veronica had the camera aimed away, turning back to get a few pictures of the passageway.

“Yeah, seriously. You’re part of my team, like I said before.” Lance waved until he had her attention, then gave her a thumbs-up and a grin.

Hunk squeezed around her shoulders in a hug. “This is all completely crazy, but we’re with you, alright? Not that I’m not terrified out of my wits here, because I am, we’re about to go charge in and try to take apart a giant alien warship, but it’s better than sitting back in that cell!” He laughed nervously, then added a quiet, “…We’re all gonna die.”

Pidge elbowed him in the ribs.

Veronica lined up a picture of Tav, leaning by the door.

Tav stared at the camera, a moment of melodramatic defeat. “You know, I was proud of my record of never ending up in photos.”

“First time for everything.” She smiled over the camera.

Lance looked over, eyebrow raised. “You’ve been to Earth before?”

Pidge looked up, brows furrowing as she stared, then hunched back, distracted by something she was trying to decipher.

“Yeah, I mean, we were supposed to be out looking into things in the system… it was a good excuse to get out and get somewhere with an actual sky. We weren’t supposed to be going near humans, but that’s really easier said than done.” He shifted, folding his arms. “And you know, more of a variety of food as long as you could figure out a way to get it…”

“This is the thing with the Girl Scouts isn’t it.” Hunk was deadpan certain.

“Yeah.” Tav’s ears twitched. “There’s like, three different troupes up in Oregon that Daxle regularly bargains with to trade geothermal shells from Europa for cookies.”

Pidge suddenly went more focused and almost upset looking, fixing a glare up at him. “Please tell me this isn’t going where I think it’s going.”

“It probably is.” He looked away, shifting weight.

I knew he looked familiar from- UGH I can’t believe the answer was in -” She trailed off into frustrated noises, tugging at her own hair. Lance and Hunk looked up at Tav in confusion; Veronica lowered her camera.

“Daxle’s in like…..at least half of the more ‘credible’ Bigfoot photos in circulation over the last few years. I think Veera has a couple ‘lizard people’ arguments to her name, too.” He sighed. “The closest I came to being in a picture before this was one photo where I reached out to grab Daxle and pull him back in cover at the wrong time, so my hand’s in frame.”

Pidge had buried her face in her knees, arms over her head; from the tiny bundle, there came a faint, muffled, “My family was kidnapped by Bigfoot. My life is a fucking tabloid headline.”

Hunk patted her shoulder.

There was a sudden beep from Tav’s computer and a blue light flickering on it; he gave it an uncertain frown and tapped something small clipped in hidden in the fur around his ear.

“Selkor? Why are you on voice, this isn’t a good -“ He paused; there was the sound of multiple engines and large weapons fire in the background. “What’s going on over there, are you okay?”

“No - I mean, I’m just banged up but I’m not okay, I’m working on the outside of the cargo carrier, there’s nobody else nearby right now, we just got shot down by the Castle of Lions and the fighters are trying to swarm it but that’s not what’s wrong-“ The other Galra was tripping over words, shaken and in a breathless panic.

“The Castle of - Selkor what happened, you said the cargo carrier was barely moving?”

“It was and then - Haxus figured out we were stalling, he - Tav he killed Levok, he said any further ‘delays’ would be taken as treason since we can’t be-“

“HE WHAT?” Tav snarled, all of his teeth showing, fur bristling out; it was a surreal moment for the humans there, a sudden reminder that the awkward technician was eight feet tall and a carnivore. “That - that can’t be right - what happened?”

“Levok was reporting about one of the lift generators and how long it’d take to fix and that we didn’t have parts, Haxus brought a couple of their engineers with them, they checked it themselves, he knows we were stalling, if we didn’t get it moving he would’ve already reported to Zarkon - he was going to take the Red Lion particle barrier and all while the Paladin’s away, but then the Castle came down -“

“Look, just - do what you can and try not to die, alright? We’re taking down the battlecruiser, I’ll get help out there soon.” He clicked the call off; too long and Haxus or one of his people might realize Selkor wasn’t working.

He leaned back against the door with a metal-scrape whine.

“What happened?”, Lance asked; the little space had gone quiet again.

“It’s - Haxus took our old cargo carrier to get the Red Lion. It’s a piece of shit, some of us were dragging their feet fixing it to keep it grounded, and - he figured that out.” Tav took a slow breath with a rusty rattle. “He - killed one of us, one of mine, we all grew up together, it’s like you guys… Selkor said the Castle shot the carrier down before they could pick up the lion, there’s a fight out there right now between it and the fighters, they’re grounded and Haxus has them trying to do emergency repairs.”

Veronica swore softly, looking away. Lance got to his feet, off-balance for a moment, and took the couple steps to close distance and put a hand on Tav’s wrist. Tav made another rusted-metal noise with a grimace, then tugged Lance off balance into a sort of controlled collapse against Hunk and Pidge where they were setting. Hunk readjusted, Pidge wedged in between them as he tried to put his arm all the way around; Tav buried his face in Hunk’s shoulder, a mass of fur that was still in and out of rusted-metal whine noises. Lance accepted the whole thing, leaning on Tav on the other side.

Veronica shifted to join as close as she could, half sitting across Hunk and Tav’s legs.

For the most part, the humans had no idea what to say, even. There was an occasional broken half-sentence from Tav - some of it in Galra that sounded noticeably different to Lance from what he’d heard from Sendak and the others, some of it in English. “Not supposed to happen - been threatening forever never actually- can’t be gone-“

Only Veronica was saying anything, squeezing his wrist, leaning in. “We’re with you, alright? We’ll get through this.” It was a steady, quiet stream that never contained an attempt at ‘it’s alright’ or ‘it’ll be okay’, and it wove through Spanish a few times, the tone not changing.

After a few minutes, it subsided into half-curling, half-clinging to the humans in quiet misery.

Lance closed his eyes, swallowing the lump in his throat, and pulled out the communicator; if Haxus was aiming for the Red Lion, then they needed to warn the other two.

********************************

Allura stopped abruptly next to one fairly typical door out of the various doors spaced randomly throughout.

“…Something isn’t right.”

Keith slowed to a stop behind her; there wasn’t anything that looked out of place about it. “What is it?”

“Something feels wrong, and I’m not sure what it is, but it’s behind that door.” She was scowling at it.

“Do you think it’s the stabilizer?”

“Even if it isn’t, I need to know what it is.” She tensed, like breaking the door down was starting to seem like a good idea; Keith stepped forward, putting a hand on the panel next to the door.

The panel gave three beeps and turned solid red, the sound of something in the wall thunking into place among the mechanisms. Whatever it was, they didn’t want him in that room, and that meant it had to be important.

That was enough for Allura, but while the door dented, it wasn’t enough to get any kind of opening; it took Keith carving out part of the wall with his bayard to find the machinery keeping it closed, and Allura using her staff and some brute strength to force it to open so she could push the door out of the way enough to enter.

There was cabling and machinery filling most of the room. It was slightly brighter than the rest of the ship, purple light from sets of tubes hooked into one wall casting an unnatural glow through the gloom. It was enough to make Keith more uneasy, and the tubes drew Allura’s attention immediately. She walked over to study them, hands tight on her staff, while he hung back by the door for a moment before taking the excuse to start looking over the rest of the machinery in the room.

There were a few confused, disbelieving murmurs from her before she finally spoke. “I think we’ve found the stabilizer and secondary power system.”

“You sure?” He didn’t really want to go anywhere near the strange vials.

“It’s - quintessence, more than enough to power this ship long enough for it to get to a larger outpost, but… distilled further, somehow, and something’s wrong with it.” She tapped the side of one of the vials tentatively with her staff.

“It looks like something the Druids would come up with; it’s the same color as some of their magic.” And there was one other place he’d seen that shade of violet glow. “…And Zarkon’s eyes.”

She stiffened at that, turning to stare at him. “Zarkon - what?” She shook her head, half-muttering. “No, that can’t - it shouldn’t -“ After a disturbed pause, she turned back to the vials, eyes narrowing at them, addressing thin air in quiet unease. “What did you do?”

He had enough nagging things to worry about and unpleasant implications, and had probably set off an alarm when he tried to open the door, besides. “Well, if this is the stabilizer, that means it’s the thing we need to wreck, right?”

“…Yes.” She turned away from the vials to the machinery nearest it, and brought her staff down on it with a strangled noise of frustration.

Keith didn’t know how any of it worked, but ran on the vague hope that basic principles of What Might Be Important would hold - larger cables hooking things together, connections to the walls, cords and gaps in paneling that might have something breakable behind them. Allura he was pretty sure was venting pent-up frustrations, laying about with the staff as if the mechanisms in the room had been personally involved in everything that’d happened to her home and family.

She didn’t notice when there were an ominous neon-pale violet arcs starting between the vials on the wall; Keith did, and stopped taking apart the room to back toward the door. “Princess-“

“What?!” She looked up; he motioned with his bayard.

A moment later they were both running out of the room, heading away as fast as they could manage; neither of them wanted to find out what happened when that storage system malfunctioned. The drones that were closing in to respond to the alarm were a secondary concern, as was the beginning of a barricade with a couple of actual Galra soldiers among the machines; Keith charged it with a yell of “GET OUT OF OUR WAY!”, Allura almost beside him not stopping either.

One of the soldiers stiffened in recognition, and Keith had his own vague recognition of it being one of the ones he’d almost threatened in the mess; that one bolted down a side hallway, leaving the other one on the barricade to half-yell after him before turning a rifle on them.

The rifle didn’t survive meeting his bayard, and he didn’t look back to check how much of the barricade and the soldier were intact, only paying enough attention to know that Allura hadn’t really slowed down more than was necessary to get past it, either.

Back behind them, there was a blast and the sound of metal screaming as something crackled along it. They’d thought they’d gained a decent distance on the stabilizer, but the neon-violet lightning arcs ripping across the ship didn’t thin out enough to fade until they were entirely too close behind, leaving blackened, warped scars across the hallway; as it cleared, there were sunbeams visible in places shining through ripped-open parts of the hull.

They were suddenly much lower on the priority list for the ship, as all of the chaos and commotion centered on the destroyed area. Allura found an alcove with a couple smaller doors around it to duck into, leaning on the wall to catch her breath, and Keith followed, back against the wall and lungs burning from the sprint.

Allura managed to recompose herself first, although he wasn’t sure if it was genuine or just her finding the point where she could push past it; she reached up alongside her helmet, activating the comm.

“We’ve destroyed the stabilizer and secondary power system. You’re clear to move on the engine.”

“That’s great news, we were just about to try to call you.” Lance was a little too serious, the sentence clipped and unhappy. “Haxus took the outpost’s cargo ship and was trying to yank the Red Lion. Some of the outpost techs were trying to stall and sabotage, but he caught on.” There was an uncomfortable silence with just the sound of a slower breath as Lance composed himself. “He killed one of them - one of Tav’s friends. There’s some kind of a firefight going on, something about a Castle grounding the cargo carrier and taking on the fighters.”

“They’re killing their own people?!” Allura straightened, tipping her head at the news in restrained outrage.

“The outpost people are on our side, Princess. The Empire doesn’t care about them, and they’re mostly civilians.”

Allura closed her eyes, resting more of her arm against the wall; something in Keith’s armor registered a shift in the range of who was included in the active comm. “Coran, do you copy?”

“Yes, Princess, I’m fine, just a little busy here!” There was the faint sound of various alarms and alerts going on in the background. “They made a grab for the lion, but don’t worry, I’ll hold them off.”

“Coran…” She shook her head. “We’ve heard what’s going on out there. A number of the technicians on the cargo ship are unwilling civilians.”

The comm was live for a couple seconds, but quiet except for the background noise of the Castle’s alerts and weapons systems. “Lovely. Some things just haven’t changed at all.” Coran sighed, audible on the comm link. “Don’t worry Princess, I’ll be careful of it.”

“We’re close to bringing down the battlecruiser; we’ll rejoin you as soon as we have it down and the Blue Lion secured.”

“Understood. And - be careful.”

“We will.” The comm channel shifted, Coran dropping out of it on his end. “Lance - we’ll be joining you at the engine room as soon as we can. We haven’t seen a sign of Sendak yet, so - watch yourselves.”

“Alright. Let’s get this over with.”

The comm channel closed. Allura stood up from the wall, walking back out into the hallway before she looked back to make sure Keith was with her.

They’d have time to rest when this was over.

**********************

By the engine room, the brief break for shock had leveled out; Lance was already getting to his feet as the call ended, shoving the communicator into his coat pocket and taking his rifle back up.

It was a much more grim and focused gathering as Tav wired the door open; Lance went through first, stepping out onto the catwalk and turning a quick arc to paint across half of the large room with the rifle, getting bearings on where the other catwalks were, how the lower level was laid out, where there were the distinctive violet lights of guard drones. The others hurried past, toward the massive shape that loomed out of the back wall at the end of the catwalk, a dark mechanical obelisk covered in glowing patterns of violet and red, a few transparent panels showing some kind of massive glowing-violet crystal contained within it.

The drones were fast to react to the commotion, leaving Lance on the catwalk preoccupied with finding and taking down as many of them as he could, trying to keep up with which ones were in a position to be a threat the fastest.

Then the catwalk tore out from under him in a blaze of violet light and the screeching and snapping of twisting metal.

It was either fall thirty feet or drop the rifle to grab onto what was left of the metal railing - the walkway itself was still glowing in places where it’d been sheared through. The rifle clattered to the ground somewhere below him.

Sendak was down there, snarling up at him, the claws of his prosthetic glowing violet to match the energy tether that held it to his shoulder.

He heard Veronica yelling and gunfire from where she was; two of the shots missed Sendak close on either side, and the Commander blocked the third with the prosthetic. There was an alarmed cry from Hunk, and then Veronica had to change target, covering him as he hid behind part of the engine from a couple of drones on the walkways.

Lance fumbled with one hand for the communicator in his pocket; Sendak looked away, lashing out at a flash of green and white. The glowing claws caught the back of Pidge’s jacket, searing through the bottom edge with the acrid smell of burning fibers before she could take cover in a gap in the engine machinery.

Sendak snarled, but turned his attention back to Lance, unwilling to risk taking out the engine himself.

He barely got out a breathless squeak of “Found Sendak-“ before he saw the claw moving his direction again, and dropped the communicator to try and swing toward a ledge nearby. The communicator dropped to the ground below as the claws passed through where he’d just been dangling; he barely made the ledge, almost driving the wind out of his lungs against he edge before scrambling up on top of it.

It only took Sendak a moment to destroy the communicator.

There was a downed drone further along the ledge; its rifle was propped on the edge, just short of falling the remaining 20 feet down. Lance dove for it, almost tripping when he suddenly had to throw weight on his bad leg to stop suddenly. Sendak’s claw carved a gap in the ledge; the impact sent the rifle teetering over the edge.

The massive claw didn't stop. It turned sharp, catching him across the ribs and around one arm as he wasn’t quite fast enough backpedaling to dodge. Sendak yanked him off the ledge while he tried to squirm loose; the claws were humming quieter and not glowing as bright, but it was enough to leave his jacket smoldering and leave seared marks on the skin underneath.

Veronica’s attention dropped off the drones and back to Sendak at Lance’s cry of pain. Only two shots out of the volley found their mark, carving smoking indents into his breastplate.

Sendak growled, tossing Lance into a wall nearby. The impact left him breathless and dazed, white blazes flashing across his vision.

The upper ledge Veronica had found was high enough to be on the edge of his reach. She managed to flatten back, the claws shearing apart her rifle and passing close enough to her to feel the heat from them.

Tav had found a spot on top of the engine with cover from open paneling and coils of cable, shouting back and forth with Hunk and Pidge as they worked on rigging the engine as they could get openings around the drones.

As his vision cleared, Lance saw what had to be the rifle he’d come in with on the ground a few meters away. It was the best chance all of them had; he dove for it.

He didn’t quite make it, suddenly needing to throw himself down under Sendak’s claw as it tore into the wall where he’d just been.

They had found the threshold on Sendak wanting them alive.

The claws turned towards him; there was no way he could get out of the way far enough, fast enough.

He heard Veronica yelling his name, and saw a fragment of a shredded rifle thrown from where she was that flew wide enough of its mark that Sendak didn’t even bother looking at it.

Then there was a red blur heading toward Sendak with an inhuman howl of rage.

Lance’s relief at Keith’s entrance was short lived. Sendak’s prosthetic whipped back, catching the Red Paladin with a good meter or two to go before he could reach Sendak with his sword. The armor was definitely more protection than Lance’s jacket had been, but the way Sendak squeezed and tossed Keith aside still looked like it hurt.

It did, however, give Allura an opening; she barreled into Sendak in a bull rush, throwing him back against the engine.

Sendak recovered fast, lashing out at her while she stared for a moment, as if she hadn’t expected it to work. The impact tossed her back off her feet, although she managed to keep her grip on her staff and lever back up and out of the way before the energized claws could come down on her.

Lance crept to the rifle more carefully while they had Sendak’s attention. Every time Sendak swung at one of them to ward them off, the other would take the opening to try to close distance. They weren’t managing it unscathed, but they had him pushed back, pinned down by the engine.

He saw white, green, and a flicker of blue above Sendak as he came up with the rifle.

Sendak’s armor would block most shots, but it had joints. Lance took a moment to watch the movements of the fight, how Sendak’s weight shifted as he moved between the two that were harrying him.

His shot took out one of Sendak’s knees. The Commander buckled off balance, only barely catching himself with the prosthetic.

Pidge took that opening to move, dropping down with the old sword, using weight and momentum to drive it down into the opening in the armor around Sendak’s neck.

The tether on the prosthetic guttered and went out as he collapsed, Pidge barely keeping footing on the armor over one shoulder.

She had to struggle for a minute to pull the sword free; Lance returned his attention to looking out for any remaining drones in the engine room.

With Sendak gone and Lance, Keith, and Allura cleaning up the rest of the drones in the area, the sabotage job became much easier. Hunk was staying mostly on the upper parts with Tav, while Pidge climbed over and through the structure, catching things as she saw them and responding to calls from the others of things connected to what they were working on. Once there was a lull in movement that wasn’t friendly, Lance realized some of the occasional flashes of light were a camera flash.

Sure enough, Veronica had her camera back out, sitting on the edge of her small sheltered ledge.

“Seriously Veronica? You’re taking pictures at a time like this?”, he called up.

“The bastard wrecked my rifle, what else am I supposed to do?!”

Her retaliation was a photo of Lance slumped tiredly against the wall, battered and scorched, Galra rifle resting on the ground next to him, one middle finger raised.

Allura collapsed her staff, clipping it to her armor, and walked over to Lance, kneeling beside him in concern. “Are you alright?”

He laughed, wincing when his entire chest decided to be made of angry fire ants at the movement. “No.”

She cringed, but looking him over found that there wasn’t much she could do there; they at least had a good infirmary back at the Castle, once they could get him and the Blue Lion out there. “That was an amazing shot you managed there. That fight would have taken much longer without you.”

Lance blinked, staring dumbly for a moment, then grinned; he was burned, pretty sure he had cracked ribs, his leg was screaming at him, but he suddenly felt a lot better.

Hunk leaned out over the edge of the engine. “We’re almost done here!”

She nodded, and scooped Lance up bridal-style, picking him up as if he weighed barely anything. After an an initial awkward squeak that would’ve been louder if inhaling too fast wasn’t Hell, he went still and relaxed into it, accepting it easily. “…Okay, I could get used to this.”

“Don’t tempt me to drop you,” she grumbled.

There was a faint sound from where Hunk was working as he thumped his head against the side of the engine a couple times overhearing; he called out from the top of the engine. “Please hit on the nice alien lady helping us after we get off the ship of doom and death, okay?! Okay.”

Keith came out from the back of the engine room, shoulders slumped, bayard deactivated and stowed; Lance craned to look over. “Hey Keith, nice timing! You came in exactly when Sendak decided he didn’t want us alive anymore.”

Keith stopped, looking up and leaning back in confusion, the faceplate on his armor still tinted dark as he tipped his head at Lance. “…You’re…welcome?”

Veronica took advantage of her perch for a few more photo-bursts of the inside of the engine room, then made her way down from ledge to ledge; Keith paced occasionally by the engine.

Allura did not even seem to notice Lance’s weight.

Much of the light from the engine went off except for the glow of the strange crystal and only a couple of connections out; the rest of the group came scrambling off of it, Hunk awkwardly picking his way down catwalks and narrow ladders while Pidge and Tav climbed down the side in a hurry. Nobody else really needed to be told what was coming; alarms started going off as they hit the door out, different ones than the intrusion alarms that’d been continual during the entire battle, and Tav pulled into the lead as the only one with a clue which way to go to get to the hangars and escape pods.

The few Galra soldiers they passed were equally intent on escape, a few stopping to shrink away from them; apparently they’d figured out what had happened to Sendak.

When they reached the bay and managed to get to a pod that nobody was trying to claim, Keith pulled ahead with a growl of “Oh no, not again,” sprinting for the pilot’s seat before anyone else could get there.

It was a much smoother flight than the trip up; they got out of the battlecruiser just before it started to buck and twist, the power lines through the ship burning through it and tearing it apart. The pod shook as the explosions and havoc threw out shockwaves and disrupted air currents, leaving Keith focusing on keeping it mostly upright as it was tossed back and forth, dodging an occasional piece of debris thrown in the air.

Once it had mostly fallen, dust and smoke thick in the canyon, he brought it down to the ground near where the bow had been, only glancing away to question Tav about where the correct cave was to find the Blue Lion.

Chapter Text

Getting called to Central Command was bad enough when she was able to just shadow Rannveig. Zarkon did keep track of his highest commander's lieutenants, but not nearly as closely; he relied on delegation for a large part of maintaining the Empire. She'd gotten enough attention to be accepted at her rank with some amusement for the 'vicious enthusiasm' she'd shown in earning it, and then became a footnote as a 'worthy and fitting second in command' for Rannveig.

Now, she was arriving with a small gunship as the object of direct attention.

Technically she wasn't alone. She had her personal staff, along with a few servants and slaves she'd laid claim to; she trusted them far more than the official 'staff', and considering the likelihood her cover was going to end up burning itself off on this, she wanted to find some arrangement to get them out of Zarkon's line of fire. The greatest odds were that she'd barely manage to get out with her own skin intact, but it didn't stop her from considering options.

It was as good as alone; there wasn't anyone else she could turn to for help or backup, and she was even going to need to mind her own thoughts around Haggar and the Druids, where a stray thought or emotion at the wrong moment would risk discovery.

She kept everything and everyone of hers on the gunship, heading for the throne room and its attached chambers; there was no guarantee on how fast Zarkon would acknowledge her, but she'd be expected to make that her first priority. She was at the mercy of his mood swings and whether he decided to lean more on setting her up as a Priority or leaving her stew in a petty show of dominance.

One of the guard drones pointed her to a waiting room, and she found a chair to wait.

She had just enough time to settle and conclude that Zarkon was aiming for 'reminder that he is in charge' when one of the drones came to fetch her, and the roulette wheel of his moods landing on 'both' was not encouraging.

Haggar was attending; she'd known better than to hope otherwise, already leaning into long training and practice to avoid anything that might get the witch's attention to pry at her.

She walked the long carpet up to the space in front of the throne, dropping down to one knee.

"Lieutenant Commander Krolia."

She stayed put, waiting.

"Before anything else, I want to know everything about this half-breed."

"There's going to be gaps; I haven't seen him since he was still small." She was keeping her gaze focused on the carpet in front of the throne until he gave some signal otherwise, humoring his transparent display of 'forgetting' and not testing the potential minefield of assuming she had permission. "The father was one of their best pilots in their exploration program for basic space travel and colonization of their solar system; I'd been able to recruit him into looking for the lion - the results of that investigation were in my existing report. I had left him with the child when I returned to my post. I had expected them to continue investigating any signs of what the former Blue Paladin had been doing in my absence, but had not had a chance to return to check in on their efforts."

"And then your son's investigations led him to cross paths with Sendak."

She could allow the frustration with both Keith and Sendak for that one. "Yes."

"What else would you know about the background on your spawn?" As invested as Zarkon was, there was an undercurrent of irritation - Keith had predictably gotten under his skin; once Zarkon established any sense of control over anything or anyone, he hated having that defied, and Keith had taken one of Zarkon's oldest and longest personal obsessions with him in the process.

"Well, I'd ensured he could pass for the local species, so I'd assume he was raised within their society; we had a few hideouts scattered around the deserts and some wilderness areas that he would likely have known about. The most I've heard of his existence since I left was the flurry of gossip from Sendak's crew when they saw him."

Sendak knew more about where Keith had been and what he'd been doing than she did, and she couldn't afford more than passing frustration with that right now.

There was the tapping of Zarkon's claws drumming on the arm of the throne. "And if you were given information and resources pertinent to the half-breed's more recent activities before his encounter with Sendak?"

She was not going to ask how or why or what here. She needed a way to contact and bargain with Keith, and if she could get resources towards that, she wasn't going to argue. "That would certainly make it easier to get him to listen."

Haggar taking over on something like that was never a good sign. "I may have a solution, then.”

Haggar was already moving to come down off the dais the throne was on, and Krolia caught a gesture to follow from what she could see without moving enough to read as defying Zarkon. She stayed still, tilting her head enough to confirm that Zarkon had settled back to wait, then stood to follow.

Haggar led down the hallway toward one of the transport lifts that ran through the command center like veins. It meant being stuck in close quarters with the witch, enough to make anyone uncomfortable; she folded her arms and kept her eyes on the doors.

“It seems that our Champion was quite close with your son.” The witch was bemused by this, calm and half distracted seeming herself. “Close enough to be what he had requested as a reward.”

And that implied a clear and unpleasant arc ahead for the human they’d captured.

“The Emperor tried to inquire about it, but his answer was almost certainly an evasion, even if it did prove enlightening in other ways.” It was a full statement that was clearly getting no other explanation, a stray musing where whatever else they had learned was not something meant for Krolia.

She mostly stayed still, giving just an occasional acknowledging glance to Haggar’s meandering.

“Perhaps you might have more luck.” The lift doors opened on the wing of the command center that housed labs, research bays and workrooms, and the attendant staff and subjects. Haggar led out into the hallway.

A Druid materialized behind them, following.

“I’m not sure how you expect me to get any better results, at least without a prolonged interrogation.” She wasn’t sure what kind of time scale they were expecting, but she didn’t think they were banking on that much time to gather information before making some kind of recovery attempt.

“Considering how you must have handled your time on their planet to win trust as you claimed, I have faith that you are capable of an attempt at winning confidence.” Haggar was looking up at her sideways with a calculating smirk that made Krolia’s skin crawl. “Lord Zarkon is many things, but he is not given to subtlety, and I am sure you understand that feigning a break from the normal Galran doctrines is a useful tool - something few in the Empire grasp.”

She was already finding herself with a better, less academic knowledge grasp on why everyone hated dealing with the witch, and wasn’t sure how the few Galra that directly worked for Haggar managed.

It didn’t help that Haggar just seemed more quietly amused the longer this went on.

“I can make an attempt. I can’t guarantee it will work under the circumstances.” Prisoners were much less likely to trust friendly overtures, particularly under duress.

“We can gather just information perhaps more easily than you.” It was a calm admission that made Krolia uncomfortable. “But if you can convince him to cooperate, we may have something far more effective to exploit.”

Haggar was altering Zarkon’s plans now that she was out of his earshot, taking over to run things according to her own ideas.

Getting cooperation at this stage was unlikely, but Haggar seemed to consider it worth the attempt, and Krolia was not about to argue with her.

She wasn’t familiar with this wing of Central Command at all; most preferred to avoid Haggar, the Druids, and her work areas unless they had to be there. There were stories that floated around about soldiers, staff, and even officers that passed through it disappearing, and a general consensus that at least some of them were true. Zarkon wouldn’t care if she grabbed an occasional passing Galra for one of her experiments, after all, even if the ostensible rule was that she used prisoners and slaves for her work.

Haggar found whatever door she was looking for and stopped, keying something into the door pad; she stepped out of the way beside it, where she wouldn’t be visible from within the room, and the Druid behind them moved to other side of the door against the wall, mirroring it.

Krolia put a hand on the door for it to open and walked in.

*********************

Shiro had suspected that whatever weird layer of protection he got from being held hostage on Keith had vanished when Keith bolted and pissed Zarkon off. When two of the guards came to collect him, accompanied by a Druid and with no sign of Ulaz, he swallowed the flutter of panic and reminded himself that the only surprise was that it hadn’t happened sooner.

They’d put some kind of restraining device on the prosthetic that brought back the adjustment-period feedback as a constant, low level prickling, his good hand cuffed to it behind his back, and left him there. It was empty and dimly lit; he could make out parts of the wall where it looked like whatever consoles or equipment might have normally been there would have retracted for storage, but the pattern of lines didn’t give him any clues what it was.

However much he hated everything they did when they drug him off like this, he almost hated the waiting and not knowing more.

He’d started pacing the small room, counting steps, then running over it, ten paces to cross the room and turn. Ten paces to cross the room and turn.

Ten paces.

Ten paces.

He didn’t manage to keep good track of how many times he’d crossed it when the door finally opened, and he drew back from it, half-bristling and half-flinching in spite of there being nothing he could really do about it.

The hallway had been empty, and he was now alone with one armored Galra woman short enough by their standards to be almost on his eye level if he stood straight; the armor had markings flagging high command status.

She glanced around the room, raising an eyebrow and getting an odd expression of - frustration, almost? - and rolled her eyes; something about the gesture nagged at him, but he wasn’t sure what or why.

“So, you’re the Champion.” Her tone was tiredly calm, businesslike.

“Does that still count? Last I checked I was getting shuffled around.” He shrugged, trying to play off his own restrained panic. Getting stuck alone in a room, in restraints, with a Galra higher officer was never a good thing - he’d learned well from the trip here with Sendak and Haxus. She was carrying herself less aggressive than either of them, but her armor had the same rank markers as Haxus, and that wasn’t a position earned by being compassionate and gentle.

Showing fear was dangerous. Anything they might read as a direct challenge was dangerous.

“Well, Lord Zarkon and the High Priestess have helpfully not given me your name, if they bothered to get it.” She tilted her head, eyes raised to the ceiling long-sufferingly as she recited it, and there was another of those odd nags he couldn’t put his finger on. “So. Champion.”

He stared at her sidelong; this was already quite possibly the strangest interaction he’d had with a Galra, and he was sure there was a trap somewhere in it.

“I’m here because of my son.” She was staying calm and level with it, but it was enough to give him a chill, and her pause didn’t help. “Keith.”

It hadn’t been hard to realize Keith wasn’t entirely human, being close enough around him; he purred in his sleep, had a list of dietary restrictions that read like a ‘what is safe for your dog to eat’ brochure, was seemingly immune to capsaicin, bared teeth when he was angry or upset… there’d even been a few punch-drunk exhaustion moments when he and Matt had been watching the Galra guards at the prisons and recognized a mannerism or vocal tic.

The nag clicked into place - it was mannerisms he’d seen on Keith often enough.

He hadn’t thought too hard about Keith’s missing mother besides the realization that she’d probably been Galra.

He didn’t want to connect Keith to someone that was maybe three steps removed from Zarkon in ruling this Hell.

He edged back, glaring at her suspiciously. “Prove it.”

Her level stare back didn’t twinge at all as she sighed. “Fine. His father was a pilot for the Garrison that volunteered as a firefighter, and was talking about retiring to do emergency response full-time.”

He hadn’t thought about how he was understanding the Galra here that seriously until he realized that she suddenly had a noticeable accent, a mix of something thick and unfamiliar with an utterly incongruent southern drawl.

“The extended family was in Texas and Arkansas, but he had a house in the middle of nowhere in the Arizona scrub. Keith’s grandparents were Japanese immigrants, although from what I heard, they were estranged from all of their children one way or another.”

She had switched to speaking English - heavily accented, but English, and rattled off Keith’s family history easily. The accent somehow just added more weight to it, a proof that she’d learned from someone who spoke it.

“I don’t know what happened after I had to return to my post, but Keith should have a knife I left for him.”

It was Keith’s mother.

He felt queasy; if she’d been someone lower ranking, it would’ve been easier to accept - even a regime like this one had rank and file that were conscripts or didn’t know or think about what they were signing on for, lower tier who might balk at what they were ordered to do and get away with it.

This was someone in a position of authority that had been carved out in blood and lives.

“What do you want.” It came out in a short snap, and she looked even more weary of the whole thing.

“Emperor Zarkon wants him to come back with what he stole, and I don’t want to see him get tortured and slaughtered trying to pick a fight he has no hope of winning.” The mix of the sharp-edged Galran accent and the drawl should’ve been almost comedic, but it just seemed to make the whole thing more incongruously real. “If we can convince him to come back willingly, it will save his life.”

“I think you’re underestimating Keith.” Keith had managed to get away, Keith had gotten under Zarkon’s skin and thrown off all of his air of control even if it had only been brief. Whatever Keith was messing with, it was important enough for them to be flailing at anything they could for leverage - which meant he was in some kind of position to do something.

He had faith that if anyone would be able to stumble over a way to fight this horrorshow and pull it off, it’d be Keith.

There was an odd edge to her expression he was trying to pin down, something she was covering. “Is this really something you want him throwing himself at?” She motioned widely with a clawed hand, at the walls and the whole Command Center beyond it.

Keith wouldn’t let himself be a part of this. He’d watched Keith get involved one way or another all through the years, even if a lot of it was getting in fights, because someone was getting picked on or hurt. Keith would unrepentantly go off-script and throw the entire Renfaire cast off because of a kid getting shoved into puddles by her peers, he was probably already willing to rip the Empire and all its atrocities apart with his teeth if he had to.

If all he could do was refuse to help them try to corral Keith, then that was what he was going to do. “Takashi Shirogane. Expeditionary Pilot. ID Number 3024581.”

The Garrison didn’t do PoW training, but there were enough ex-military in the Garrison to hear about the expected protocols for capture and interrogation anyway.

She met his staredown with a faint, exasperated twitch. “Is this really your best idea here?”

He answered with another calm repetition; name, rank, ID number.

She buried her face partly in one hand, fingers curled around the bridge of her nose in frustration with a faint growl. “Fine. Do what you want. It’s not going to change anything.”

He was not surprised that this time, when the door opened for the Galran officer to leave, Haggar was waiting as if she’d been there the whole time.

***********************

Ulaz had started making preparations already for an escape route. There wouldn’t be any help from outside; he’d gone dark on communications after one incident of Haggar looking at him a little too long. There hadn’t been much else to go on other than a vague sense of unease and skin crawling, far more subtle than what most of the weaker druids did when they were nosing about. The gauging expression had lingered after the mental brush, even though there was no sign of disturbance in any of his redirects; a constructed persona blended in with bits of reality, a tangle of misdirections and half-truths rather than the more normal pattern of keeping a surface persona over shields.

With Haggar, continuing watching after a prod meant the clock was ticking, and he’d seen the witch set up other agents that’d tried to infiltrate from other groups before; if she was watching, then she’d be trying to outmaneuver as soon as he was out of the room.

He was actually less worried about Zarkon - there was a distinct and increasing risk of getting caught in one of Zarkon’s worse moods, but that was more like a random natural disaster; there wasn’t a great deal of warning or way to prepare other than not being in a place likely to get hit by it. It wasn’t something he had much control over; either they got out before Zarkon decided to remove the potential threat to his claim and likely spread suspicion to Ulaz, or they didn’t.

At least if he ran afoul of Zarkon he had a chance of making it quick and avoiding giving up any secrets to the witch.

Anything that kept Voltron out of Zarkon’s hands would be a victory, and Ulaz knew he’d already gone long past the usual life expectancy of a spy in a position in close orbit to the two of them; he’d like to be one of the ones who lived to tell the tale, however unlikely it was.

There wouldn’t be an option to be completely subtle, either, which made the odds all the more something to not think about while he tried to plan and set up for plausible distractions and diversions to cover an escape - where he could rig explosions, places he could take advantage of other people’s unfinished or abandoned meddling to cause havoc, including a few bits of half-finished viral code one of the other humans - the younger Holt - had been forced to abandon when he’d been shuffled off towards work camps.

He still had to keep to routines, and his post.

There was a Druid in the hallway when he headed to make his routine check on Shiro; he nodded in acknowledgment and deference to the creature, accepting it as something that belonged there. It inclined its head and vanished.

He cut his mental timer on how long he had in half.

The room was silent when he opened the door; Shiro didn’t react, sitting on the bench, hunched over in a tense mass, with lines of violet running along the prosthetic.

The door was closed, but he suspected the Druid had reappeared in the hallway to keep watch; he must have just missed them returning Shiro to the cell, now that all bets were off on outside reasons to worry about keeping the man intact as bait, nevermind Zarkon finding reason to be vindictive. Ordinarily after one of their unscheduled sessions of “working” on him, they’d leave him in restraints, to avoid the ‘annoyance’ of having to replace technicians.

“Champion?”

There was no response; his uniform was only vaguely armored enough for emergencies, and he knew the prosthetic more than well enough to know which would win if it came down to it.

“Shiro. I need to run checks on you, and the augmentations.”

Still no response; he wasn’t sure which part of the timer was shorter, his life expectancy or Shiro’s ability to hold out against Haggar.

He walked over cautiously, tensed to get out of the way at any movement from Shiro; the room was not that big and he wouldn’t have much time to get clear if this was as bad as he suspected. “Shiro.” He tapped the man’s shoulder with a couple clawed fingers, keeping as much distance as he could.

If it’d just been a brief reflexive outburst, he would’ve gotten clear, hands raised in an attempt at defusing the situation; instead, his back hit the wall hard a moment after, the prosthetic around his throat with a warning hum, already halfway channeling.

Shiro was snarling, only half present and still not seeming entirely aware of his surroundings. Ulaz froze, a quick gamble that trying to avoid registering as a threat would work better for both their survival than trying to restrain or disable the human. “Shiro, focus. You are not under threat.”

The energy along the prosthetic arced, starting to burn; of course it wouldn’t help much coming from him. Shiro had definitely been gauging and seemed to be registering him as less of a threat, but he was still mostly Zarkon’s medic as far as the human knew, the lackey of the Druids that had done most of the surgeries he’d struggled to get away from and panicked after.

He stayed still, looking down flat and resigned. “If you want revenge, I am in no position to stop you.” He might’ve had a chance if he’d been fighting from the beginning, but at this point, trying to fight back would trigger the basic programming in the prosthetic itself, even before Shiro himself reacted.

It would be quick and leave little chance for Haggar to salvage any information out of him, at least.

Shiro wasn’t letting go, but wasn’t putting more pressure or increasing the channel, breathing ragged; the burn marks were painful and getting serious, but not life-threatening quite yet.

The room was watched. He was sure they were watching all the more closely now, which limited what he could say or do; most of what might work to drag Shiro out of whatever was going on would draw more attention from Haggar.

All he could really do was stay as calm and still as possible; it seemed like Shiro was struggling, and he wasn’t pressing the attack further, which meant it was a matter of waiting out the haze.

Shiro’s grip on his throat tensed in some kind of struggle reflex a few times, almost tightening; he’d have scars as long as he lived, if he lived long enough for it to heal to scars. There were passing glimmers of recognition clawing through Shiro’s expression, flickers of panic and blank horror breaking up survivalist violent habit.

Then there was enough awareness that Shiro let go, staggering back to the bench to almost fall back onto it, pressing back against the wall. The prosthetic’s hum whined to a stop, his good hand wrapped around the wrist as if to force it to stay still.

As nasty as they were, he had suffered worse than the burns before, and he knew better than to give too much reaction when Haggar was watching; he looked up, about where some of the cameras probably were hidden, with the flat, unamused glower that now encapsulated old “This is inefficient and you are making my job unnecessarily difficult to no actual useful end” arguments.

He wasn’t going to actually attempt one when Haggar was being suspicious and Shiro had Zarkon’s personal ire, but for a while, being jaded and willing to hold his ground and debate Haggar herself when he had a solid case to argue had actually helped him survive, establishing him as something useful and unusual for it, more concerned with effective results than skulking behind their backs when he was displeased.

He had also established that he knew when to keep his complaints to shooting Haggar glares and waiting to see if she deigned to acknowledge an obvious complaint that was blatant enough to not need voiced.

Shiro had curled in on himself with a ragged noise, a stifled sob as he was trying to fight his composure back.

“This isn’t me…” It was quiet, faint. “I didn’t…” He swallowed hard, trying to find his voice. “I don’t want to hurt you.”

Shiro was looking up at him, actually vulnerable, and Haggar was watching.

“Rather surprising, considering how thrilled you’ve been with the augmentations.” He gave a small stretch, testing how mobile the burned areas were with a few points of teeth showing. Parts of it were numb, lacking sensation, the pain concentrated around the outline of the injury.

Shiro winced at the barbed sarcasm. If they made it out of this alive, there’d be time to sort out barbs thrown when the man was vulnerable soon enough; until then, if they were to have a chance, he needed to be the Druids’ coldly clinical pet pair of hands.

“You’re-” Shiro was stumbling over it, staring up at him in confusion.

“My orders are to ensure you’re intact and functional enough to be useful.” His voice was even; he was still keeping a little distance until he was more sure Shiro was entirely lucid.

Shiro had a brief, small war, flickering between glancing up and opening his mouth as if he were going to try to say something else, and looking away with a guarded, wounded scowl; after a couple more beats, he settled into the latter.

Even if he slumped forward to rest his elbows on his knees in defeat, there was still tension in his posture, and Ulaz kept careful watch while he started to work on his checks and basic examination.

Nothing else was said; once Ulaz was done with his work, he packed up his tools in a measured hurry and left.

******************

Restless wandering and insomnia wasn’t a rare occurrence, and made a good cover for working on his preparations, but if he didn’t at least briefly return to his quarters, it would risk the alarm sounding on him that much sooner - before he had a good opening to run.

Besides, he did need to do more than cursory tending to the injuries from Shiro’s magic-addled outburst.

It was a perk of his position that nobody had ever questioned him requisitioning medical supplies, even things more esoteric or involved; nobody in the supply offices wanted to know what an Technician Assistant-Adjunct to the High Priestess wanted anything for. He gathered as much as might be needed, and settled on the floor of his quarters’ bathing area, turning on his computer with a screen set to act as a mirror.

It didn’t take much shifting it and adjusting magnification to get a good look. There was a clear charred handprint around his throat, blackened bits of dead skin surrounded by some blisters and maroon-tinged inflammation.

It was definitely enough to have further effects, and he’d need to get more water than usual among other things. It also should’ve impacted his ability to function more than it had. He knew he’d been more than overexposed to the raw quintessence Haggar worked with for it to be affecting him, but the effects were progressing faster than he’d realized - even if Zarkon hadn’t taken an interest he probably would’ve only had a couple decaphoebs before there’d been enough alteration to his energy system and physical function for Haggar to get bright ideas about converting him into a Druid.

He’d done some cleaning and irrigation earlier as soon as he’d had a chance, but hadn’t had time to do a proper job, which meant starting with a plain cloth and antiseptic rinse, hissing through his teeth the whole time whenever it caught the outer parts of it that still had feeling, sloughing off as much as would come loose on its own.

After that was local anesthetics, sticking to surface-applied sorts that he could easily keep to only affecting what he needed numbed, and clearing away and cleaning out the worst of the blisters. It was uncomfortable and awkward to be tending to himself, but particularly under the circumstances he was not about to trust anyone in the Command Center to tend to it.

It wasn’t incredibly complicated to clean off the rest dead tissue; just a matter of a steady hand after calibrating one of his surgical tools to do a selective breakdown of dead tissue. He was preoccupied with that when there were footsteps in the main room without any sign of any of the doors having opened.

The tools were on the ground and he had a gun in his hand fast, turning to paint the other room.

Krolia had stopped in view of the door, both hands raised and at a healthy distance.

He paused, then lowered the gun. “When did you get to Central Command?”

“When Zarkon decided he needed a backup plan to catch Keith.” She dropped her hands, walking over. He’d done his own searches and checks for any listening devices to either destroy or reroute, and knowing her she’d done her own sweep before she slipped in; it wasn’t even that suspicious for anyone with rank to get testy and go on a removal spree in their quarters.

Her attention was already on the injury with a worried grimace. “What happened?”

“The Druids decided to ‘forget’ to use restraints after working over someone I’ve been made responsible for.” He was already re-adjusting his tools to go back to his work on debridement. “So I walked into a small enclosed space with someone traumatized, still disoriented from them trying to rearrange the inside of his head, and possessed of a weaponized prosthetic.”

There was a moment, then horrified recognition crossed her face. “The Champion’s arm - that’s your work?”

“Mine and Haggar’s.” The injury had a good amount of his focus; the tool’s internal computer would recognize and adjust if he caught living tissue, but it would still be an uncomfortable jolt that could slow healing later. “Zarkon made me responsible for keeping him intact enough to be useful, but she’s been getting suspicious since everything with the lions started.”

An uncomfortable, guilt-tinged look crossed her face, and he glanced up from the screen he was using to watch what he was doing.

“… I know it’s something they would’ve done anyway, but.” She wrinkled her nose, looking away. “When I arrived Zarkon was questioning me and I admitted I didn’t know much of anything about Keith after I’d left. There was an offer of an avenue of information to find out what might be useful. Haggar took over from there.” She made a faint motion towards Ulaz and his burned neck with one hand. “Haggar wanted me to try to convince him to cooperate; there was no way it was going to work, and when he clammed up, the Druids stepped in.”

“You know she was likely testing you more than doing anything to ‘help’ with your mission.” He returned to his work again. “And that means you have very little time.”

“I know.” She closed distance with a faint noise of frustration. “ - Here, let me do that.”

He froze, the debridement tool still. “Last that I’d checked you didn’t have medical training beyond field triage.”

“Do I need it to follow directions here so you’re not operating on your own neck?”

It’d been a very long time since they’d been in the same space - ages ago when they’d entered the Imperial military academy to start their respective infiltrations - but he still knew what the look she was giving him meant. He sighed; most of what was needed with the computerized tool was a steady hand, which would be easier for someone other than the person it was being used on. “Not at this point.”

He held it over to her. “This is for removing the dead tissue to prevent infection and allow proper healing. It’s already calibrated to only destroy that, but if you catch outside the worst of it here -” He motioned with one claw where the worst of it was still visible - “It can disrupt the normal healing process of damaged still-living tissue and cause more scarring later.”

She gave the tool a small grimace while he was adjusting, laying down so it’d be easier to keep still. She did take a moment to reach for the manual controls to raise the light level before she knelt down to take over.

Handing it over to Krolia was far less nerve-wracking than the times he’d been injured in ways he couldn’t tend himself and needed to go to some Imperial medic. She was careful, and steady; between the local anesthestics and the device’s own calibration, there was little more than a faint sort of prickling pressure occasionally.

It was as close as he’d come to being able to ‘relax’ in longer than he could remember.

It was quiet until what had to be close to her being done, with only the background white noise of the command center’s power and environmental systems and the faint hum of the device. Krolia knew better than to expect him to talk when someone else had something like that to his throat, even if the consequences of a slip wouldn’t be dangerous exactly.

She paused when she finished, staying still with the device, and Ulaz took the small indulgence of staying put, half-drowsing for the few short ticks he could manage.

“It’s been a while.” The faint hum of the device powered down into standby.

He made a quiet, acknowledging noise. “You see where I’ve been.” She’d spent most of the intervening time as a forward scout and intel, he’d gone through the medical and research ranks until he’d earned a post in Hell. “Although they haven’t set up something like this intentionally before.” He motioned at his injury as almost an afterthought.

“I’ve barely dealt with the witch directly and I’m not sure how you managed all these years.” She sounded impressed, under the wry frustration. “What else do I need to do here?”

There was that obnoxious reality again. “A last round of cleaning before I need to coat it with something to help it heal and get it bandaged again.”

She gave him a narrow-eyed look partway through, and a hand on his shoulder in warning when he started moving to get up. “That I know how to do.”

He tried to keep track as she went over the kit he had open, finding a mix of mild antiseptics, saline rinses, and a sealing container for clean cloths. She was careful, but took to it with stubborn determination; it was uncomfortable and he was doubly glad he’d made the effort with anesthetics before.

It was, still, somehow more of a chance to rest than he could remember getting anytime recently.

He didn’t realize he’d almost managed to doze off until she was nudging his shoulder, getting him snapping half-upright with a quiet noise of alarm.

There was worry under her teasing humor. “You have gotten sleep some time in the last movement, right?”

He grumbled. “I have had Zarkon himself looming over my shoulder and the witch getting testy… and I’m sitting on a hostage who also happens to be the new Black Paladin, who has a habit of picking at post-surgical sites, being too clever for his own good, and has decided a good way to alleviate boredom is testing his boundaries with Zarkon.”

At first she was clearly about to razz him about it further, then her expression caught. “…The new Black Paladin? You’re sure of that?”

“Well, Zarkon is certain enough, and I imagine he would know if anyone would.” It had made his own position that much more expendable, too.

Krolia winced with a sour frown. “So Zarkon has the one person they’d absolutely need if they’re ever going to challenge him.”

There was more to her discomfort that he could read between the lines, personal ties given a much more direct connection to their mission. “He won’t for very long.” Ulaz turned back to his tools, finding a sealed, shielded container and adjusting another, simpler tool; little more than an applicator made for careful handling.

The salve glowed faintly, more normal compounds for preventing infection and encouraging recovery laced through with traces of filtered and treated quintessence - just enough to jump-start regrowth of missing tissue where there would’ve otherwise needed to be the more time-consuming process of culturing and rooting replacement cells. He’d been overexposed enough around the experiments and Haggar and her Druids themselves that avoiding more contact than necessary was like taking a towel to a flooded room, but he had to take whatever little scraps he could to slow things down.

Krolia was still quiet, gone serious. “I hope whatever you’re planning goes off soon.”

“It will have to; I think Haggar has hit the point where my ‘guilt’ or ‘innocence’ of treason is a matter of semantics, so I will be covering both of our escapes.” The salve was cool, soothing over the parts of the injury that still had feeling. “Your position isn’t going to last long either.”

It was a given that she wasn’t going to hand her son over to Zarkon, even if his ties to Voltron wouldn’t have made it a tactical disaster to do what Zarkon wanted enough to keep her cover.

“I know. I’m already working on my own exit plans when the time comes.” The confident focus was familiar, but more grim than what it’d once been.

He rumbled, quiet and worried himself; the stunt Haggar had pulled earlier had his mental alarms going off that the witch was already playing her. “Haggar is far more dangerous than Zarkon - I’ve survived a position close to her by merely hoping that the information I can slip out might be of use, and giving up on doing anything more meaningful than an occasional ‘accidental’ mercy killing.” There was petty sabotage, yes, but that was more of a stress relief outlet than anything of use, and he only got away with it because he knew the boundaries where Haggar would find it funny. “As soon as she decides she’s done with her current game, she will not kill you - she’ll wring everything she can from you, unmask all of us, and turn you into one of her monsters.”

It was the worst part of being posted so close to Haggar and having seen what she was capable of. Their order had survived this long on secrecy - Zarkon and the witch couldn’t aim at a group if they didn’t have enough to identify it as a group. One slip the wrong way enough around the witch and it would be the entire Blade at stake.

Krolia had looked away, brow furrowed; he took her moment of distraction to locate the sealed container with the replacement bandage roll, tapping the latch that kept the inside sanitized and sealed when it wasn’t in use.

“It wouldn’t be that difficult to adjust my plans for another, you know.”

Krolia’s gaze snapped up, eyes narrowed. She took the container out of his hand, shifting to get a better angle. “I appreciate your concern, Res’ka, but if I have a chance to sabotage them catching Keith again, I’m not going to throw it away.”

He closed his eyes; he hadn’t heard the honorific in near literal ages - back before their cover had sent them all scattered different directions, when they’d still managed to stay a small group. “I’m sure that’s what she’s counting on.”

It wasn’t the first time she’d had to deal with the height difference to fuss at injuries; just long enough for it to not be as well-practiced, and there’d never been an injury this serious back then.

It had also been more frequent that one of them was dealing with her having managed to get hurt doing something ridiculous.

“Them exploiting any ties they can isn’t news.”

She was digging in; Haggar’s idea of ‘exploiting ties’ was a far cry from the blunt menace Zarkon and most of upper command was prone to, and Krolia’s stubborn certainty was exactly the sort of thing he’d seen Haggar prey on and lever against someone.

Unfortunately, it was hard to get across just what someone was up against with the witch’s machinations until they’d seen them in person, hopefully against someone else so they had a chance to live through it. “He may not need your protection here; Shiro certainly has faith in his ability to defy Zarkon.”

Krolia’s sure movements winding the bandage faltered.

“…Has he said much? About Keith?” It was barely audible in the small room.

He couldn’t exactly shake his head without disturbing the in-progress bandaging. “No. He’s been rightfully terrified of me up until recently, and I suspect that is mostly resignation and seeking about for some sign of an ally.” It hadn’t helped Ulaz’s position with Haggar, when Haggar was routinely digging around in the man’s thoughts and memories. “Zarkon’s tried to get him to talk, but he’s avoided that mostly as well, although he was far too smugly entertained by Keith’s defiance and how badly it frustrated Zarkon.” At least, up until Zarkon’s snarling had turned more directly on him. “Apparently he takes after you in more than just looks,” he added.

She gave a quiet not-laugh. “Not just me, there.”

They didn’t have much time, but there was no telling when - or if - they’d be in one place and able to talk again. “So who was your inspiration to vanish for entire decaphoebs and then return in a trail of blood and murder that even impressed Rannveig?”

The cadence of her movement with the bandages paused as her expression softened. "...A pilot and a firefighter. He was so dedicated to helping others as an emergency first responder that when my fighter crashed near his house, he dashed out to see what help was needed without even knowing what he was walking into."

"And you were better at accepting help than when you were in training?", Ulaz gently teased.

She snorted. "I was unconscious. I woke up in his house in the bed, with him dozing in a chair nearby. He'd tended my injuries, and when he realized I was awake he tried to start asking questions to see if there was anything else he needed to worry about, but I couldn't understand him and he couldn't understand me." She cut off part of the bandaging, holding it in place with one hand to sift through the container for the clasps. "There was a while where we were getting by on charades and pointing, until I started picking up enough of his language and he started picking up Galra. The fighter was a mess, there was no way it was getting off the ground, and I ... didn't really want to signal for help when it'd mean drawing more Galra there, to a planet the Empire'd never really paid attention to."

Ulaz made a quiet, acknowledging noise while she secured it.

"Besides, at the time, I thought I could keep the Empire from getting another lion by working from there - run interference and maybe see what they were capable of... and when we managed to get enough across both ways for me to tell him about the Empire and what I was doing, he didn't even hesitate - he was asking what he could do to help as soon as I'd explained everything. He helped me find the Blue Lion, and put me in contact with the leaders of their space exploration force, so they could start trying to prepare."

She sighed as he moved to test range of movement; it would hold long enough to get out, for certain.

"It was ... the more I told him about the Empire and what we did, what we were up against and how dire it was, the more determined he was to help make sure the Empire didn't get the lion - not just for his people, but for everyone else out there, and ... when I commented on how strange it was, being somewhere that'd never been touched, he decided that meant we should do as much as we could to see parts of the world and do little things on the side, that it meant I 'needed' to make the most of it. He'd lament how I couldn't really go into town with him and add stops whenever we went out looking for things, to camp out and go exploring, and he used to ask questions about everything - our people, other worlds I'd been to, what it was like out there. I had never really thought about how much goes on around the wars before that." She trailed off, staring at the ground, face softer than he'd ever remembered seeing.

"That's not a chance many get."

"I wasn't going to leave." She paused, closing her eyes with a faint, bitter pained smile. "We were going to stay there, to guard the lion." She took a moment, inhaling deeply. "I saw it, Ulaz. I walked up and put a hand on its particle barrier and felt it watching us. They're not just the weapons the Emperor paints them as, they're living things. I was ready to stay on that planet, with him, to make sure it was safe and nobody got close that was planning on misusing it or taking it like Sendak took its sibling."

"...And then?" He knew the part that came after; Krolia had left an impression when she returned, carving a bloody path through the ranks, challenging upper officers and chasing promotions with a singleminded and vicious ambition that had impressed even Zarkon.

"Then there was a scout team. We sabotaged their ships, and I had to pursue them into the lion's chamber - one of them took a shot at him while he was making sure their ships couldn't get away. I killed them, but I knew that if I didn't find a way to direct them somewhere else, the Empire would investigate, and they'd just keep coming; one day one of them would get a better shot at him, or they'd find Keith, or they'd just invade and burn everything, and... I couldn't do anything about it if I stayed."

And Rannveig was the commander ruling over the closest territory to Earth. "So you clawed your way to Rannveig's side to have enough authority to redirect everything away without anyone questioning you."

She nodded. "It worked, until one of the Kelvet techs did something stupid, and Keith did something even dumber." It was pure frustrated worry, there.

He raised an eyebrow, but left it without asking; Sendak was the only one that'd been mentioned to the rest of the Empire, but getting contacts in lower ranked areas the officers often overlooked and underestimated was a common tactic among their order.

There was something missing from the narrative there, now that he knew more of the history on her end. "And his father?"

"That's what I'm worried about." She started passing over the tools closest to her, and he took to putting things away, straightening everything. "He should've been there, and - Keith should've known better. From what's been going around, it's like he had no idea of anything about the Empire. The only way for him to be that oblivious -" She stopped, folding her hands in her lap.

Ulaz nodded, putting a hand on her shoulder.

She tilted into it, leaning bonelessly against his shoulder. "I don't even know what happened, or what's gone on with Keith at all - he was still a baby when I left, and now..." She huffed with a faint, slightly pitchy growl. "I want to find the corpse and turn Sendak into windchimes for touching him. And Haxus."

"...we'll be gone within the quintant. I'll need to make contact with Voltron to bring them their Black Paladin, and Keith is a part of that." He hoped she'd take the dangled offer to do something more direct to help - and perhaps there was a little bit of playing dirty; if a reunion got her away from Haggar when it was already a situation a hair's breadth away from going bad for her, then it was a perfectly valid lure that might save her life and their entire order.

Krolia nodded. "Look out for him for me? I might not be here long myself, but I don't know how long it'll take to make any kind of contact after that."

Not the outcome he'd hoped for. He huffed with a nod. "I will."

And they'd burned enough time like this; too much longer and he'd be cutting into time he needed to finalize his escape, and she'd be risking someone noticing she wasn't in her quarters. "I have other things I need to attend to."

She tensed before sitting up, shifting her posture in visible stages, a tally check of every joint and movement to bring it back into Imperial order. "Be careful."

 

******************

Shiro did not manage much sleep; he wasn’t sure he really wanted to try but he wasn’t sure what else to do. He was left staring at the ceiling, dozing occasionally and drifting in and out of half-coherent nightmares.

Some of the bloody, burned phantoms he knew where aftereffects of whatever the weird unnatural things had been doing to his head.

He was never really sure if starting awake to an afterimage of one of the Druids by the cot was real or not; he was pretty sure them appearing and disappearing almost out of nowhere had been real more than once.

It took a couple seconds to recognize, after another case of suddenly starting awake, that the alarms were actually going off, the noise reverberating through the metal walls; lights outside flashed bright red, and there was some kind of acrid, bitter smell that left him gagging and trying to cover his face in ragged cloth.

He’d barely curled around that trying to figure out how to blot it out when the door opened, Ulaz hurrying in with only a bare moment’s hesitation before he was pulling Shiro’s wrists away from his face, shoving some kind of adjustable mask in between.

Shiro stopped trying to squirm when he realized he could breathe easier with the mask over his face, and let Ulaz get it tightened and secured.

There wasn’t any explanation at first, just Ulaz hauling him out, arm awkwardly held over the Galra’s shoulder. With the height difference, it meant he was being drug down the hall more than being helped, his weight barely even noticed next to some kind of other bag Ulaz was carrying over his other shoulder; it at least meant that the few others he saw running in the hallway and choking were even less inclined to ask questions.

There were other explosions and gunfire going off elsewhere, occasional distant echoes and new alarms elsewhere layered over the ones already going off.

While they definitely still seemed to want him alive, he didn’t think hauling him out of the restricted area was part of the plan, and he caught Ulaz hesitating at an intersection as if waiting for something, only continuing on after another of the explosions elsewhere went off.

“So you are a spy,” he slurred, less coordinated than he’d wanted to sound. At this point, after Ulaz’s moment of fishing during the one tiny window he could guarantee they weren’t being listened to, it wasn’t as dramatic a revelation as it should’ve been.

“And you figuring that out did not help me avoid them catching on,” Ulaz grumbled in response.

There was a small pang of guilt at that; the way those things could sift through his head, his suspicions and his memory of Ulaz’s questions probably did help tip them off.

Ulaz stopped at the end of a hallway where there was another heavy door, keying something into the access panel to open it; letting go of Shiro to do that left him teetering to find his balance again. There were a few beats where he was watching as if gauging.

“You are connected to something incredibly important - something that cannot be allowed to stay in their hands. If you follow that hallway straight, there’s a hangar that should be mostly empty, with a long-range pod prepared; it’s programmed to take you back to your world. Sendak is already there.”

Shiro tried to wobble more straight. “What about you?”

“I need to disappear before they form a coherent response, and try to re-establish contact with my people.”

“Are you going to be alright?”

Ulaz just managed tired bemusement at the concern. “I’ve survived this long. Someone else is already in contact with your friends - you need to go.” He reached over to give Shiro’s shoulder a shove through the door, then turned to leave himself, hurrying away with only a glance to make sure Shiro was making his own dash for the hangar bay.

He had a plan, a route mapped out with alternates - once he got out of the lab areas proper, there were internal understructure areas he could get through, places where biosignature scans had blind spots where he could change into his proper armor and get better stealthed, and then the massive center had plenty of ships that came and went he could slip onto.

One hallway, door, intersection, left turn, right past the supply room, another hallway.

The door ahead of him at the other end of one of the longer halls opened.

He’d reversed direction and dropped to a dead sprint before he’d fully consciously registered what was on the other end of the hallway - a smaller profile than most of the other Galra or Druids, glowing yellow eyes, obscuring hood and robes.

He was not even going to attempt to get past Haggar. Haggar, who had existed since the dawn of the Empire, who’d made the Druids,

Who was probably furious at the chaos he’d just caused in her work area and only going to be moreso when she realized her pet project - the prospective Black Paladin - was escaping.

Back past the supply room, right, intersection, hallway, a couple running swipes at some of the pipe conduits in the walls without slowing down - some of the charged minerals normally contained in the feed seemed to interfere with the Druids, he could only hope it would slow down their mistress, that some of the drones he’d managed to infect with a finished version of the Holt’s override program to set against their masters would get in the way -

If she caught him there was no chance she’d let him die.

*********************

Krolia had returned to her quarters to catch some sleep. It was a skill that took long practice in deep cover. Sleeping too deeply was a risk, anything going wrong or disturbing quarters needed to be reacted to fast. Sleeping too lightly meant not getting enough rest to maintain yourself and led to sloppy mistakes and difficulty doing your job.

And there was no such thing as a deep cover assignment that didn’t come with enough nightmares, inner demons, and bits of guilt to make learning to fall asleep in the first place its own trick, even without personal concerns of family and other close ties.

When the alarms went off, she was on her feet with a gun in her hand, painting the room with it in an arc on reflex.

There was no intrusion, which meant something going on elsewhere, and it was two alarms overlapping, one for general intrusion or other disturbance, and one for environmental systems malfunction.

There was already an acrid smell in the air, something caustic and choking; she dove for her armor, holding her breath and scrambling into it with her eyes starting to burn and water by the time she got the helmet activated to filter it out.

When she turned to the room door, there was a flashing pattern on the console signaling a lockdown; she could key past it, but taking a dobosh or so to catch her breath seemed like a better idea, particularly when she was pretty sure she knew what it was anyway.

She opened her comm; it was chaos, the technicians panicking, reports of explosions in multiple sections and decks, multiple reroutes of chemical lines from the labs into the air filtration system, drones being scrambled, Haggar snarling through trying to get some kind of coordinated response.

Ulaz was good at subtle, but apparently it was still like when they were younger; water too still because it'd been brought to boiling so that it would explode when something touched the surface. She rolled her eyes in her helmet.

Haggar was calling for extra forces to the hangars, then there were more alarmed reports of drones acting strangely and a few casualty reports from drones turning on the soldiers; the witch finally snarled that she'd deal with it personally, dropping off comms, and Krolia's blood went cold.

She wasn't equipped or prepared to even try to fight the witch, and neither was Ulaz, to her knowledge; she had to hope he could get himself and Shiro out in time and rely on him to be good at his job, because if she ran to help and it went badly, it'd just mean one more casualty they couldn't afford.

She hit a command on her console to set her viewing window to one of the exterior drones, a view of the side of the command center and the hangars used for running supplies to and from the labs below.

There wasn't any movement for a few long, awful ticks, then one of the bays suddenly shot open with a silvery puff of air on an emergency override, a long-range pod tumbling out of it drunkenly before its engines fully started and caught to right it.

There were the shifting lights of the hyperspace drive engaging -

And then Haggar's black lightning arced out, tearing rents out of one of the engine and shooting black-violet through the circuits and lights just as it engaged, the pod vanishing into hyperspace.

She didn't know Ulaz's plan. She didn't know if he'd been going the same direction as Shiro, if the pod had carried one or both of them. She did know the odds of it surviving that were almost nonexistent.

It took a few nervous ticks to bring up the secondary interface from the comm chip - a basic status-trace.

There was distress, unknown position, and then the chip offlined, flagged destroyed.

She closed the light screen, sitting down heavily on her bed. There probably hadn't been enough time or avenues for Ulaz to break away too far, which meant that had probably taken both of them. She hadn't seen Ulaz in almost a century besides last night, but it still hurt, another of her people lost to the Empire.

She didn't want to think about Keith; she didn't know any details, just that the man had been important enough to Keith for Zarkon to use him as a bargaining chip. She'd hoped he wouldn't need to deal with the Empire in his life ever, that if he did it'd be when he was old enough and trained and prepared to handle it; he was too young to go through that kind of loss, and she knew Zarkon would throw it in his face as a punishment, 'the consequences of disobedience'.

And one of the few things that could challenge Zarkon was missing a piece before it even started.

There wasn't anything she could do but stick with her current, off rails, ad-lib mission.

*********************

At the end of the stretch of hallways, Shiro had reached the hangar, unnerved to find that the mechanical hand worked to get the doors of the pod open. It had to be the one he was supposed to be taking, there weren’t any others.

He stared in the back of the small ship; it might’ve had a drive for a long-distance jump, but it wasn’t something meant to be lived in comfortably for long at all, a room barely bigger than some dorm rooms he’d seen behind the pilot’s console with no dividers.

A tiny little paranoid nag wondered if it was a good idea to trust the surgeon that’d been helping vivisect him all this time, but really, it didn’t matter if Ulaz had told the truth about sending him back to Earth; anything would be better than staying where he was, with Haggar and Zarkon and whatever the Hell they wanted to make him into.

The door into the hangar opened. He turned as something chimed in the console by the door, the external hangar bay doors opening with another warning alarm he didn’t like the sound of.

And then a large freight train in light armor hit him, tackling him into the pod.

Something loud clicked and thunked heavily between the pod and the bottom of the hangar, the doors of the pod closing fast as the hangar started an emergency decompression.

The pod lurched forward, sending both him and whoever had just hit him sliding forward toward the pilot’s seat before it moved past the boundaries of the command center’s artificial gravity, a brief, sharp, nauseating moment of no gravity before the pod’s own generator kicked in and he was face-first on the floor.

Somewhere in trying to get his bearings from the floor of the pod, he knew enough to have a flicker of explanation running distractedly.

Manual disengage on the docking clamps.

Emergency decompression sucking the pod into space in lieu of a normal launch.

The pilot’s console was already up and running. He sat up, trying to shake off the disoriented vertigo from the sharp transitions in gravity.

There was something dropped nearby that he recognized as the bag Ulaz’d had slung close before. An odd sword with a glowing violet marking on it that nagged as familiar in a way that was both comforting and made his head hurt was wedged in a compartment handle to keep it from clattering about in the chaos.

Ulaz was growling faintly at the controls, trying to get it to skip standard computer checks for the engines. He had kept a monitor screen on the docking bay behind them.

Shiro opened his mouth to ask what happened, then saw a figure in the docking bay, utterly ignoring the lack of atmosphere; black-violet robes and glaring yellow eyes, the glimpse on the screen enough to leave him frozen and forgetting to breathe.

Ulaz’s faint growl flattened, the screens throwing up various alarms about forced overrides. Haggar was gathering power around her, a swirl of black lightning-streaks.

The pod lurched into a hyperspace jump, the engines and machinery around them wailing a complaint as Ulaz skipped all normal system warmup. It wasn’t fast enough to avoid the strike that lashed out, the pod shuddering from one side as the lights and controls flickered and came back with even more alarms.

Shiro didn’t have a great knowledge of Galra hyperspace drives, particularly not on a small ship, but he was sure the way the pod was shuddering and making occasional high pitched noises was an incredibly bad sign. Ulaz’s occasional slightly-rusty growls of frustration trying to get it to stop bucking weren’t inspiring any confidence either.

“Can you jettison the port engine?”

Shiro scrambled to his feet, then stopped, staring at the controls on the wall of that side of the pod. Ulaz obviously couldn’t afford to step away from the console, but whatever bits of information they’d coded into the arm, they didn’t go that far on technical skills. He wasn’t sure which panel might work for that or how it would even happen, and wasn’t even sure he could confidently tell the difference between the emergency manual overrides to jettison the engine and the ones to open the back bay doors.

He was pretty sure he knew how to work the flight, controls, however.

“I don’t - give me the console!”

He dove for the chair, wedging in between the lanky Galra and the controls to take over getting the ship stabilized; Ulaz tried to keep hold with an indignant noise, then gave up, twisting out of the pilot’s seat it as if his bones were liquid in his rush to get to where the engine access was.

There was no external view on the readouts; the screens were entirely taken up by a fly-by-wire shifting readout of conditions around the ship, constantly changing, a visual display that was like colored particles dumped into water to track different currents interacting. It was a small mercy that there was no time to dwell on being able to read it, or having an idea what it meant and what was wrong -

They were cutting through a sort of liminal understructure to normal space, a normal jump involved slipping into a ‘current’ of sorts that would carry the ship to the destination while remaining stable and direct enough to be sure of where it would come out, he was looking at a mess of chaos outside of any stable currents, they needed something that would at least give them enough stability to get spit back out, identifying where they were going was probably a lost cause, the damaged engine was dragging around erratically and corrupting data in the ship’s computer, the navigation system was already incoherent gibberish, he couldn’t check anything else, some of the control readout was starting to flicker sketchily.

There was a flicker through the power system and another alert - the engine had been manually disconnected, the still-working systems were trying to maintain power while he was left struggling to keep the ship from getting drug into worse undertows or chaotic snarls with only one side of the ship to work with.

There were a few loud metallic clanking noises, then the ship bucked again as it was suddenly lighter, the engine detached completely.

All he had to do was find some way to direct the ship so it skipped through currents to something less tumultuous so he could get them out -

There was enough data corruption that the computer wasn’t able to predict that past right on top of the ship, which was way too narrow of a bubble to tell how to get the ship back to normal space on its own, nevermind have any hope of a guess where it might come out.

It was like trying to skip a rock across heavy waves blindfolded.

“I need navigation data - something to know which direction to throw this thing!”

Ulaz was leaning over his shoulder, making no attempt to interfere, scanning the screens for any sign of a clue and occasionally trying to navigate parts of the computer on a side panel. “The navigation systems are completely corrupted.”

“Well, I need something,” Shiro snapped.

Ulaz gave a frustrated, rusty growl, staring at the console, then fumbled with his guantlet, pulling out something small. The Galra closed his eyes, muttering something quiet to himself, and then slid the chip into part of the computer and started a flurry of adjustments, rearranging data sets and bits of programming to reconnect.

The navigation computer managed to give him a direction, but there was already the beginning of multiple other data points it was trying to keep track of in a structure its systems were not meant to deal with, power flickering on less essential systems.

Shiro aimed for the one angle it was showing as a way out and gunned everything he could get that would throw the ship that way.

Chapter Text

When the battlecruiser blew, it took the control systems for the automated fighters with it. The small ships stalled out, dropping from the sky deactivated across the desert.

The Castle landed, between the lion and the cargo ship, but made no movement towards the ship itself.

Haxus killed the external view screen, climbing out an upper hatch to stand on the top of the ship. The massive Altean support ship was still and silent, taking no interest in the still partly functional carrier.

The cargo ship had no weapons, but he doubted it not being a threat was the only reason.

Turning back to the canyon and the smoke and still-settling dust, he tapped a communicator line open to any officer attached to the ship - a semi-public address. “Did anyone keep eyes on the Kelvet security lead after the cruiser was locked down?”

“As best we could, sir? Half the ship was on the fritz and some of the damage was causing false alarms all over, we couldn’t afford to not respond with more than one angle of intrusion.”

“And I imagine the Kelvet personnel on board made a full evacuation.”

There was a awkward pause. “I didn’t really see them leaving while we were running and there’s no sign of them in the wreckage…”

“Of course there isn’t.” He didn’t growl at the wreckage, but the temptation was there. “All surviving officers gather whatever personnel and drones can be salvaged. I will set a secure beacon at a meeting point off the ship. We aren’t beaten yet.”

Sendak’s signal had shut down, a documented death, leaving him in command just before the battlecruiser’s engine and power system had the cascade failure.

Something that shouldn’t have been possible that easily without shutting down countermeasures first - countermeasures only four people in that area knew about.

He’d go back over the drones’ recordings of Sendak’s meeting with the Earth diplomat again later, but he wasn’t sure he needed the suspicions confirmed.

“Had no knowledge of the saboteur indeed, you sly old fossil.”

He had a few soldiers, a handful of drones, and a few of his own engineers with him; it was enough to work with until he could bring in backup. With the Castle present and two of the lions active, he was up against the clock to find a way to end this before they had Voltron completed.

He switched channels to a local-area address. “Gather the local technicians by the secure storage. Allow them no tools or weapons.”

He waited until he had the return report that the order was complete to fill out the rest of the plan over comm channels, then walked down to join.

They were cringing away from the armed soldiers who had correctly read the situation as addressing treason; there were a few minor injuries but no sign of an actual fight having been put up.

The isolated little outpost barely counted as Galra anymore, really, even for civilians.

“As a start, you should all know that your history of casual insubordination and almost willful incompetence has not gone unnoticed.” He walked along the rough line the soldiers and drones had marked out. “And yes, I have been documenting your…editorial commentary over the times we’ve been here.”

There was a frozen silence. Just about everyone there had resorted to other languages at least once around him.

Translator implants were messy and unstable; higher-grade ones capable of understanding languages not known to the larger Empire required Druid work. If the procedure went smoothly, they were reliable once settled; until they were settled, the interference could spike lethal or do large amounts of brain damage - a risk not many ranking Galra were willing to take.

That meant across the universe people just didn’t expect to encounter them often. He and Sendak had exploited it many times, letting people believe neither of them understood when Haxus was listening to everything they said.

“I was military intelligence, do you think I achieved my rank by shying away from taking a few incredibly useful risks?” He turned back, eyes narrowed and teeth bared for a moment, and at least three of them flinched. “I now have ample evidence to prove that your ‘incompetence’ was false, and actually willful sabotage… and that your little outpost has been guilty of far worse than simple disobedience over the last few days.”

The higher ranking of the soldiers looked to him, a gesture to raise rifle. Haxus waved it away, walking back to stop in front of one of the younger technicians, who flinched at his approach, shaking faintly. “You’re logged as being on several survey flights with the surveyor who narrowed down the possible locations of the lions.”

The one that had turned traitor almost as soon as the prospective paladins had approached.

“Y-yes, sir.” The technician had frozen.

“You might be useful yet.” He nodded to the soldiers and his few engineers. “Proceed as planned.”

He only lingered long enough to ensure that everything was proceeding smoothly, then turned and walked back to the hatch leading to the top of the ship; he had a report to make, and was certain the Altean ship wouldn’t fire on them.

He had no way of knowing for sure if Zarkon would answer the emergency report that minute or if he would have to leave it recorded when the call went out; considering the random timing, he was almost surprised when it was actually answered.

“Has there been a problem with the mission?” Zarkon seemed … less than pleased, but mostly unsurprised.

“The Paladin candidates managed to kill Commander Sendak, and caused a cascade failure in the battlecruiser’s engine that destroyed it.” He stepped aside on the screen, giving the small drone recording it a view of the canyon and the smoking wreckage. “I’ve confirmed sabotage from the Outpost technicians in interference with our mission, and the only way they could have known how to make that work would be if they were told to remove the stabilization systems - and our lead engineer was accounted for.”

Which just left the outpost’s security chief for potential sources of that information, as the only person besides Sendak, Haxus, and their lead engineer in that area that would have known.

Zarkon growled quietly.

“I have assumed temporary command in Sendak’s place, and I request permission to retaliate against Kelvet Outpost while securing the Red and Blue lions.”

“Permission granted. Complete your mission and I will finalize your promotion, Commander.”

He let the screen go, waiting a moment before he turned back. Zarkon hadn’t called him on the political dodge, but it would give him enough leverage to bring in a few more ships, and if he could return with the lions and reports of having dealt with treason on a mission of that importance, it would more than save face for losing a battlecruiser and his Commander to three unarmed, unarmored, not-even-proper-military primitives, Paladins or not.

And give him resources for revenge.

*****************************

The dust was still settling on the wreckage with the occasional further-off explosion of another power junction getting caught in the remnants of the cascade. The pod was on the ground, intact, if barely, with part of the broken bow of the battlecruiser hanging over it.

Hunk and Pidge were the first two out of the pod, clambering up onto a piece of debris that would grant a better view of the wreckage. Veronica trailed after, fumbling with her bag to switch lenses and re-adjust settings; the sunset was still brighter than the interior of the ship, and they didn’t have nearly as much need to worry about drawing attention to their position.

Hunk was smiling, serene and proud, overlooking the destruction. The battlecruiser’s hulk was huge, and it’d neatly destroyed much of the ground encampment under it. “That is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.”

Pidge nodded in agreement. Veronica joined them on the raised bit of debris, carefully adjusting focus on the camera.

After a minute of watching her take photos of the wreckage, Pidge nudged her with one elbow. “You’re going to share those after this, right?”

“Of course! It’s your victory here, after all.” She paused, looking back speculatively at the pod; the top of it would be a better vantage point to get more of the downed cruiser into one frame.

“I think I’m gonna frame it and never take it down off the wall, wherever I am,” Hunk said, still smiling.

Behind them, Keith had taken a few steps out of the pod and flopped down heavily leaning against it, taking a tally of the dents, clawmarks, and scorchmarks on his armor. It didn’t feel like he’d he had any long-term awful injuries, but he was sure he was a walking bruise, with new sympathy for toddler’s toys. Allura found a rock a few feet away, doing a similar set of checks - she had somehow managed to not get thrown around as much, but she hadn’t gotten out unscathed.

Lance sprawled on the ramp, arms folded behind his head, not bothering to move any further. The burn across his leg might not’ve been enough to stop him, but cracked ribs and burns around his chest and arm were a compelling reason to take it easy. Destiny was just going to have to give him a breather.

Tav settled on the ramp next to Lance, on the other side of the entrance from Allura, staring at the wreckage.

“We shouldn’t linger too long. The commander may be gone, but Haxus is still out there, and we also need to retrieve the Blue Lion and get Lance to the infirmary.” Allura said it, but even her attempt at authority was tired, and she wasn’t moving to get up herself yet.

“It’s almost hard to believe - Sendak has been one of the Commanders looming over us for my entire life, always making it clear what would happen if any of us actually defied them in a way we couldn’t play off as incompetence…”

Allura actually turned to look over, then looked down at the ground. “…I believe I owe you an apology.”

He startled with an awkward short rumble noise.

“Lance was right; you risked your life for us, and you and yours have kept faith through this entire battle with ample opportunities to save face with the Empire.”

Tav froze, suddenly awkward with his mouth half-open. “I - uh - thank you?”

Allura shook her head; she was still looking away, keeping focused on what was going on and what she needed to do - what was the right thing to do - rather than the jagged ball of emotions that wanted to be a ball of shrapnel. “You and the others helped us, against all orders and pressure, knowing what their response would be. That is worth a great deal, and took all the more courage for you mostly being civilians.”

“…Thanks. I mean, I spent most of that scared out of my wits, and not all of us made it, but…” He looked away himself, lowering his head.

“You weren’t the only one scared there,” Hunk tossed back over his shoulder with a faintly nervous laugh. They’d won, and he was doing what he could to hang onto appreciating that moment before he let himself start thinking about how many other things could still be a problem.

Except that it might be a little too late for that. “…And I mean, this Haxus guy, he’s pretty bad, right?”

Lance didn’t even bother sitting up to answer. “Yeah?”

“And he’s waiting for us somewhere around the Red Lion.”

Pidge buried her face in her hands with a few muffled curse words at that; however much she’d been loudly wishing horrific violence on him when she’d been caught, she didn’t actually want to see him ever again.

“So we’re just going to have to deal with him, too.” Veronica shifted to sit on the debris. “At least he’s only got whatever handful of survivors he can round up and no ship, right?” She motioned with her camera still in hand.

“You mean we just switched genres to be in a bad slasher movie,” Lance said, before draping an arm over his face.

Allura put a hand to the front of her faceplate in lieu of being able to actually rub her temples. “We are not leaving a hostile Galra commander loose on an utterly unprepared planet. We should get moving before he has too much more time to plan.”

“Right. Destiny waits or whatever.” Lance drug himself sitting upright, and got to his feet, still unsteady and wincing at his ribs and the stabbing pain that went with attempting breathing and moving at the same time. Tav hurried to help him up, leaning down with an arm for him to lean on. Hunk hopped down and started over to help.

Allura turned to Keith. “Keith, can you take the other two and the civilians to the Castle? It shouldn’t take Coran long to bring it in, then you can retrieve your lion.”

He nodded, but before he could respond otherwise, Veronica cut in; she’d stood, straightening the backpack with her supplies and camera gear, jaw set and pulled up as tall as she could manage - even if that wasn’t incredibly imposing. “Oh no, if you think I’d miss this even if it wasn’t my little brother, you’ve got another thing coming.”

Allura straightened to respond, but didn’t even get a chance; Veronica continued, stalking over to loom over where the Princess was standing, a finger jabbing the air occasionally. “I was here through all of this mess when we didn’t even have you or anything more than a couple old hunting rifles, and this isn’t even my first warzone, either - I’m going with you.”

For a moment, it seemed like a staredown to anyone not on a good angle; the truth was that Veronica was having a staredown while Allura had her mouth open, processing what had just happened.

Tav raised his free hand for attention. “And uh. My family has spent the last ten thousand years looking for that lion? I’d kind of like to actually see this through all the way, yanno. I mean, I also know exactly which cave it’s in, I don’t know if that helps or if you can find it yourself as fast.”

Allura sighed. “Alright then. Keith, you take the other two to the Castle, and we’ll go retrieve the Blue Lion.”

Hunk hovered next to Lance. “You gonna be okay there, buddy?”

“You kidding? I’ve got some kind of grand destiny thing and a beautiful princess willing to carry me. I’m golden.” Lance grinned, giving a thumbs-up with his other arm; he was still leaning on Tav for support, and didn’t think he was going to do well standing on his own.

Allura groaned quietly; Hunk turned to her. “I know Lance is … well, Lance, but please don’t kill him the rest of the way.”

“Don’t worry, Hunk, I’ll be there, and I think he’s got a clue when to shut up. Sometimes,” Veronica quipped.

“I won’t kill him. …Or maim him.” Allura looked over, narrowing her eyes as Lance grinned back. “…Much.”

Keith stood, stretching; he’d be more than ready to rest by the end of this, but it wasn’t over yet. Hunk sighed and gave Lance one last long, pleading look before he turned to follow the Red Paladin; Pidge hopped off the rock finally, tailing behind.

“Alright, I think I’ve got this.” Lance held up a hand to Tav to let him try to walk.

He made it down to the end of the ramp before his injured leg decided to not cooperate, leaving him stumbling into Veronica, with Allura and Tav hovering close. There was fresh red visible spreading on the bandage around his leg. “Guess I must’ve torn it open or something in the fight.”

His voice was thin and breathless - the cracked ribs weren’t helping, either.

Allura sighed heavily with resignation, and moved to pick him up again. She looked to Tav, who was hovering over them anxiously. “Well, if you already know where it is, that will be faster, particularly when I cannot use the Castle to amplify the signal.”

He paused, almost not catching at first. “Right. This way.”

The carvings in the cave began to glow as they walked by, growing brighter as they went further in; Veronica’s camera became a near-constant piece of background noise. Nobody had really paid attention to the trickle of water around their feet, or the way there were glowing lines forming between some of the carvings that also ran around the ceiling and floor of the cave. Allura actually looked slightly dazed, more aware than anyone else of the amount of energy flowing through the carvings, although Lance was becoming oddly aware of the tugging sense of calling, of something trying to get his attention and waiting.

It was almost dragging him into the trance he’d woken up with the last few times he’d been asleep, visions of oceans and water calling like a siren.

Veronica and Tav did notice the lines of light starting to converge in a circle around them on the floor, stopping in confused concern.

Then the circle opened, and they all dropped down with a chorus of yelling. Allura curled around Lance, trying to protect the already injured Paladin from the impromptu waterslide and the drop into a pool at the bottom; the tunnel separated them some, and Veronica couldn’t do much more then curl around her camera.

They all crawled out of the pool at the bottom, Allura still carrying Lance; ordinarily he could’ve handled that part, but hitting water with cracked ribs had left him half-conscious. It wore off partway out of the water, Allura sitting beside the pool cradling him, worried, Tav and Veronica hovering over her shoulders.

“Lance?”

“Hey Princess.” He smiled, more coherent but still a little dazed; even with her faceplate only just retracting, it was a good distraction from injuries.

She made a quiet, frustrated noise and looked up. Veronica let out a breath of relief, sitting down next to her to check the camera and thank God she’d spent the extra money on her professional camera to make it about as abuse-proof as it could be.

Tav’s attention wandered as Lance was about as okay as he was going to get, then locked onto the larger chamber and the source of the faint blue light filling the room.

The Blue Lion loomed in the center of the room, surrounded by the hex-grid light of a particle barrier. It took Lance a few seconds to recover enough to follow two looks of awe, Veronica’s camera shutter in burst mode, and Allura’s look of relief close to a sob.

There was loud purring in his head, a sound much larger and deeper than any small cat. He squirmed away from Allura, for a moment forgetting his injured leg and everything else. He was still hobbling as he made his way over; his limp had grown more pronounced with the extra abuse from the last fight.

He held a hand up to the barrier, and it faded back; the lion roared, and lowered down, jaws open.

Lance only barely noticed the other three scrambling to catch up, Veronica the last one onto the ramp. He’d always thought having something else in your head was supposed to be unsettling. The lion’s presence was huge, big enough to feel small next to it, but it was curling around with affectionate pride, somewhat aware of everything they’d been through getting there.

He settled into the pilot’s seat heavily; the lion drowned out the sting of his ribs as the consoles came to life.

The Blue Lion erupted out of the desert next to the canyon, landing on the edge and prancing back and forth along the edge overlooking the twisted wreckage of Sendak’s battlecruiser. A couple of stray fighters that had fallen out of the sky littered the ground, and the lion batted them into the canyon at the rest of the ruins before walking to the edge with a triumphant roar.

The Castle was nearby, close enough to reach at a leisurely lope.

**********************

Red’s speederbike was not far away from where they’d landed; part of the bow had only narrowly missed landing on it, and it was coated in dust, sand, and smaller fragments.

A battered, singed Galra soldier was poking at it. Keith growled as they rounded the debris, activating his bayard, and the soldier startled, staring at them slack-jawed before tearing off in a panicked scramble.

The cockpit of the speeder was only meant for one person; Pidge could wedge in beside him in the seat, but Hunk had to situate himself awkwardly, sitting between the back of the seat and the edge of the outer body. It didn’t seem like a bad place to sit when the speeder rose off the ground, humming to life.

When Keith angled it sharply up with a sudden burst of thrust to jump between pieces of debris, Hunk decided it wasn’t such a good idea, wrapping around the back of the pilot’s seat as best he could.

Then the speeder shot across the tallest piece of debris in a long jump to the edge of the canyon, and Hunk regretted everything in his life leading up to this point, stomach doing a few flips before it reached proper ground, kicking up a massive cloud of sand and bits of rock.

At least the rest of the trip was along level ground, at a sane altitude for a hover-speeder, even if it was at a speed that no terrestrial vehicle built by a sane being would move. That was easier to ignore as long as he didn’t try to watch the terrain around them too hard.

Keith slowed down after what felt like they’d barely started moving, skirting around a massive, blocky Galra ship that had shabby panels half-attached and scorched scars across its sides. Not far from it, the Red Lion’s particle barrier was visible, just past a towering white ship. The lion was huge, but was dwarfed by the ship between them and it.

Keith pulled the speeder to a stop beside the castle, turned so that they could keep watch on the Galra ship, but didn’t land it or kill the engine. “Coran, I’m here. Any sign of what Haxus is up to?”

Coran sounded much calmer, and the background noise was gone; the bridge of the Castle was quiet. “Well, after the battlecruiser went down and the fighters died, there was a group of soldiers that left the cargo carrier, but I didn’t want to interfere without knowing whether or not they had any of the civilians with them. They headed into the bluffs.” There was a pause on the comm. “We have been hailed very clumsily by some of the locals, as well; I told them the Princess would be back shortly - ah, there we go, the Blue Lion is online!”

“Alright. I’m going to bring Red in, then I’m going to head over to check the cargo ship and see if there’s any sign of the outpost technicians.” For him it was a foregone conclusion that at least the less-injured of the others would follow after, and he doubted Haxus had turned his back on them easily or nicely - assuming they were still alive.

“You’re not thinking of going over there alone, are you?” Hunk leaned over the back of the seat, the panic of the trip forgotten in favor of attempting to loom at Keith.

“You up to coming?” Keith tilted his head to look up; he still hadn’t reduced the tint on his faceplate.

“If you’re in that big of a hurry, then, yeah.” Hunk set his jaw, squaring his shoulders.

Pidge elbowed the black material over the stomach of the armor. “I’m with Hunk on this one, if that thing’s booby-trapped, you might need us.”

“I don’t know if your armor or bayards will activate properly without your lions.” He turned the speeder around, heading for Red.

“We just took down an entire battlecruiser with pretty much our bare hands. I think we can handle a few traps.” Hunk rapped the top of his helmet with curled knuckles.

“Alright, suit yourself.” Red’s particle barrier went down as the speeder approached and he brought it into the lion.

Coran met them at the hangar as Keith was already on his way out to the lift that would take them to the ground, Pidge and Hunk trailing behind; Pidge ended up turning to talk awkwardly as she tried to keep up, walking half-backwards.

“Hey, great to meet you, we’re just going to go check that carrier in case there’s anybody trapped in there, we’ll be back right after?” She shrugged; Coran paused, then just answered with a shrug of his own before waving after them.

“Alright then. Good luck and you know where the comm is if you need anything!”

They made it across the open scrub between the Castle and the cargo ship without incident, although Keith led in a hurry, glancing aside both directions; the bluffs nearby would be good cover to shoot from if they were still watching the carrier.

The ship was a blocky, scorched mess that looked even more shabby and threadbare up close, with areas that probably shouldn’t have been exposed bare and open. Hunk made a few noises of incoherent frustration at the state of it, but couldn’t stare too long to see what he could figure out of the mess, with Keith and Pidge already heading into the hulk.

It didn’t stop him from keeping up a running narration as he walked behind them. “-not such a bad thing for us I guess since it meant they couldn’t take the lion, and I know they were trying to make sure it didn’t really work but man that’s more than just a few day’s worth of neglect here, this poor thing looks like it hasn’t been kept up in years, decades even…”

There was only barely power to the doors, and no lights came on. Pidge fished for a flashlight in her pockets, remembered that Haxus had cleaned out her pockets, and grumbled as she fished a bigger one out of her backpack. Keith didn’t seem bothered at all by the dark, and she could only guess that the armor had something in it for night vision.

They were nosing through the dark hallways aimlessly at first, Hunk flinching at the occasional shift of creaking metal; there was no sign of anything moving on the ship at all.

Partway in, Keith suddenly straightened, and fixated a direction, pacing hallways until he found ways closer to whatever he was tracking. They made a couple of turns in the darkened hallways before he looked back with, “My armor’s picking up on several biosignatures closer in - it doesn’t have great range,” only pausing long enough for that before hurrying on.

He finally stopped in front of a door that seemed mostly deactivated, parts of the wall around it and down the hall gutted; the scanner at the side wasn’t lit at all and didn’t react when he put a hand on it. There was an open panel with what looked like some kind of emergency release catch; pulling on it opened the door.

He stepped in to Pidge and Hunk behind him almost talking over each other with “Something isn’t right here-” and “I don’t think that’s a good ide-” that overlapped with a couple other voices chiming in with “Don’t walk in here-” and “-PEN THE DOOR!” and then the door closed swift and sudden behind him.

He turned on the door, then back to the room; there were several sets of gleaming yellow eyes in the dark. There were a couple sets of goggles and face protection, but none of them were in armor past heavy gloves in a few cases. There was a range of builds, but most of them seemed to have the similar sort of oddly thick fur Tav had, albeit with different markings and patterns to it, with a couple that had scales or lighter, more typical fur in the group.

“You really shouldn’t have come in here.” The one closest to him had stopped in mid-movement to either stop him or push him back out the door before it closed, and now just looked frustrated and resigned.

“…You’re the Kelvet technicians Haxus was terrorizing?” He deactivated his bayard, stowing it.

“Yes.”

“We came to get you out of here.” He paused, looking back to where the door was; there was a hand-scanner, but it was as dead as the one outside, and there was no sign of anything else to open the door.

“Well, for starters, you can stay put. The entire engine is booby-trapped and it’s rigged to that door. They didn’t say all of what they did to it, but they did say that opening that door from the inside would set it off immediately - and so would destroying the door.” The young Galra by the wall motioned at the door, and gave Keith’s bayard and then Keith a pointed look.

Another few minutes of silence; Keith shifted weight - it was starting to get uncomfortable standing there, even if he was telling himself the door would open any minute.

“…So do you guys have Voltron together yet?”

“No.” He had enough to know that; Hell, if Pidge and Hunk had their lions, it would’ve been easier - he could’ve just called them on the comms.

“When you do, can you check if it has the whole ‘power over time and space’ thing that was in some of the old legends?”

“Why?” He turned, giving the young Galra a confused, suspicious look.

“Because I wanted to know if you could to go back in time a little over a year ago and make sure Zarkon never hears that there was a lead on the lions, so none of this ever happens.”

They were keeping level for the moment, but they had a leg drawn up to their chest and were leaning on it, and it actually sounded simultaneously too detached and teetering on the edge of being very much not detached. He looked back, suddenly connecting the call before they’d fought Sendak.

“…You’re the one that called with the warning while we were still in the battlecruiser.”

The young technician looked away, shrinking in a little. There were a few whispers from some of the others in the room that quieted fast when Keith looked over; apparently not all of them had been in on it.

Keith looked away himself; he wasn’t sure what to do with this. He trusted that Hunk, Pidge, and Coran could disarm the trap and get them out of there - he didn’t have much choice, really, and they had just managed to bring down a battlecruiser on pure sabotage - but he also hadn’t really made a stunning entrance as a Paladin here to save everyone…

And there was no way they could’ve made it soon enough for someone who’d just watched Haxus kill a friend of theirs.

“…I’m sorry we didn’t get here sooner.”

“…It’s Sendak and Haxus. We all should’ve already been dead.”

There were a few more uncomfortable noises, then one of the others grumbled, noticeably audible, “You don’t know that.”

“Eh?” The technician looked up, and Keith turned to look over at the older mechanic, who had either forgotten about him or was willfully ignoring him.

“Sendak and Haxus have been in and out occasionally for years, and yeah, they’re terrors, but they’ve always left without doing worse than snarling and threats. Then you and your friends had to go and help screw everything up-“

The younger technician snarled with a growl, fur bristling out. “Screw what up?! They get the lion, Sendak gets the glory, nothing changes.”

“What do you think is going to change like this?! At least we’d get to go back to the rest of the Empire instead of living in some frozen underwater Hellhole!”

There were mutters that seemed to go both ways from the other few in the room, and nervous glances at him; his presence was probably the only thing keeping anyone else from joining in the argument.

“You think Zarkon cares that much?! He forgets about us for centuries! We’re the laughing stock of the Empire, even if we did go back, we’d just be living with people like Sendak every day for the rest of our lives, and I’m done being a - footstool to get kicked around!”

“And now Haxus is going to kill all of us because of you!”

The older mechanic was standing and had stepped forward; Keith stepped closer to getting in the middle. All it apparently did was draw attention to him.

“And this is what you’re relying on to get us out of this?! Some half-breed idiot that Haxus doesn’t even have to try to outsmart and a bunch of humans?!”

There was a quiet little growl from Keith; he was finding that he had more luck dealing with the tells if he focused more on trying to distract his temper than trying to shut down the noise.

“As a matter of fact, YES, I am! Those humans and that half-breed just killed Sendak and took out his cruiser! Mostly unarmed! Without the lions even!”

“And you throwing in with them is why Levok is dead, Selkor!”

Selkor gave a pained snarl, claws out, teeth bared, all rust and rage, and for a moment, Keith thought he might lunge at the older mechanic; he put a hand out, about to step in the middle, but it turned out to be unneeded. “Haxus would kill us either way, at least we might die doing something instead of just cowering like kicked dogs, and we aren’t dead yet.”

“We may as well-“

Keith finally stepped in between them, voice raised to drown them both out, hands raised both directions in what was hopefully a universal sign to back off. “BOTH OF YOU SHUT UP FOR ONE MINUTE.”

They were both looking down at him, and he was much smaller than either of them, but the armor apparently made up for lack of stature; Selkor straightened, still growling and showing teeth, while the mechanic backed up a step, eyes narrowing at him.

“Look, even if Zarkon gave you some kind of post in the Empire, it wouldn’t make anyone respect you - I know, trust me, if you think having his personal attention meant I got any less shit? It didn’t. You’re tools to him, nothing more, and you can try to go crawling back to that if you want or try to do something about it, but I’m not going to just lay down and die, alright?” He looked between them; the confrontation hadn’t really shifted. “Right now the people that took apart Sendak’s cruiser are out there to get us out of here, with help. Haxus left you here to die not caring who was on what side here, and we’re doing everything we can to stop that, so you can think about that while you’re deciding who you’re going to listen to, alright?”

He looked between them again; Selkor had straightened, with less bristling and his claws pulled back, but had also shifted to be standing a little closer; the mechanic and two of the others were shifting uncomfortably, avoiding looking directly at him.

“Now, all we need to do is wait for them to get us out, and I’d like to not have to drag anybody off of each other to get you all out of here alive.” The first part of the pointed look was aimed at the three who were suddenly unsure and had probably been clinging to the Empire, but he did look back at Selkor, who stiffened a little and looked away.

He did tone down the last of the posturing, so there was that at least.

Outside, in the carrier, after the door shut there was a brief moment of silence.

Pidge looked at the exposed mechanism that had opened the door, then at Hunk. “Should we try to just open it?”

Hunk grimaced. “I dunno. I mean, we found them, but they seemed pretty afraid of it opening. Maybe it’s booby trapped and there’s a timer somewhere with a bomb and this whole thing’s going to go up any second.” And sure, they’d just taken down a battlecruiser, but that’d been their explosion, and the easiest way to turn a place like this into a trap would be… More explosions. Not their explosions this time.

“Well, we can’t leave them in there, and we can probably disarm whatever the trap is, right?” Pidge knelt down next to the exposed mechanisms, angling the flashlight to look around inside. “Ugh, I wish we’d stopped on the ship to get tools or something, all I’ve got is the stuff we managed to grab on the cruiser and I’m still not sure what half of it does…”

“Same. But, yanno, the ship’s another alien ship, so it’s not like their tools would be any less alien.” Hunk leaned in over her shoulder. “…Yeah look at that, see that cable there? The box it’s hooked to had to have an extra gap cut for it and those cut marks look fresh.” Hunk squinted. “…They’ve got stripes like there’s markings for identification but half of them are clear and they’re right next to each other.” He could still pick out the cable that was added on the side, but it was harder to follow when it didn’t have a proper marking to differentiate it.

And even harder when it went under panels that were closed, although he could at least tell where they’d been moving panels by where there were scrapes along the edges that hadn’t been ground in with dust and grime yet. “Man, this poor ship really hasn’t been taken care of,” he grumbled.

“They might have markings, just in more of a color range; a lot of nocturnal creatures can see more of the ultraviolet spectrum than we can.” Pidge swept around the open part with the flashlight again, looking for any other signs of something out of place.

“Great. That’s probably why it looks like nothing has labels or anything, too. Not that it matters that much, I mean, we wouldn’t be able to read any labels even if we could see them.” He paused in his grumbling, reaching the end of what he could see well enough to tell where the paneling had been disturbed. “Can you bring the flashlight over here? If that cord’s going to part of whatever Haxus rigged, then we’re gonna need to find the other end of it.”

“ - Sure, be right there.” It didn’t look like there was anything else in the torn open areas that’d be an effective trap; there were attachment points that looked like sensors and triggers, but she wasn’t sure how to remove them without setting them off, so she left them be when she went to follow Hunk. Better to take apart whatever went boom first if they could.

They ended up going up a level and tracing further along the ship when there was noise behind them, footsteps echoing below.

Pidge reached for the alien sword, but no, she’d left that back with Lance and the Princess.

Hunk had a moment of patting himself down in his own flurry of realizing they were completely unarmed.

The footsteps were brisk, but not in any particular hurry; there was no light below, and the halls were dark enough that a human would need light.

Pidge killed the flashlight, grabbing Hunk’s shoulder and tugging him into an alcove she’d spotted before the light went out; the upper levels of the ship were almost pitch dark, with only faint glimmers of status lights in the black.

There was metal on metal; the hatch they’d had to come up a ladder through had been opened, then clanged shut.

Hunk scrunched back flat in the alcove as best he could, trying to disappear, while Pidge shrank into the corner, holding the flashlight and praying it’d be heavy enough to do some damage.

The footsteps had slowed, and moved closer to the wall, softer and almost inaudible; whoever it was, they were being cautious, as if expecting an attack - or stalking something.

If they could avoid distance, they might have a shot at disarming a Galra soldier and taking their rifle, Hunk’s aim wasn’t great but it wouldn’t matter at close range and they had enough rate of fire to make up for it a little, they might be able to make it back out to the ship - no, if there was only one inside then there’d probably be more outside, with the one sent in to flush them out into an ambush, that wouldn’t work -

The footsteps had almost vanished, and they were both straining to try to figure out if they were getting further away or just being more careful.

Something small ran across one of Hunk’s feet and stopped on the other one and he flinched with a tiny whimper, then put a hand over his mouth and froze, praying whatever was out there hadn’t heard him. Whatever it was that’d startled him, it lingered for long enough to have him imagining scorpions and large venomous spiders before it left with a faint skittering sound in the dark.

There was the occasional quiet scuff of muffled footsteps again, coming closer, switching to the other side of the hallway from where they were hiding; Pidge wanted to curse - the other wall didn’t have any hiding places, and they’d see the two humans before there was any chance to react or move.

She shrank a little closer to Hunk; if she could knock legs out from under them, Hunk could move and get any weapon they had.

Then there were eyes in the dark, but too low - not tall enough for Galra, and it was small glittering pink ovals instead of full glowing yellow.

“Ah, there you are!”

The first reaction was both of them screaming; Hunk picked Pidge up, holding her out as if she’d ward off the threat, while she had the flashlight raised in a grip like a baseball bat, pulled back to swing. It did sink in during the reflexive panic that it was the same voice as the man that’d briefly met them on the ship, but it didn’t do much for the nerves.

The alien man tapped something on his coat, and a dim, soft light radiated out; it wasn’t very bright, but it at least was enough to see by. There were three large, oddly-colored mice on his shoulders, a fourth on his sleeve where he’d just lowered some kind of small pistol. “You’re two of the other Paladins, yes? I believe we missed a chance for proper introductions.”

Pidge lowered the flashlight partway; Hunk was frozen, still holding her out in front of him.

“Coran, advisor to the Altean royal family and lead engineer for the Castle of Lions.” He was smiling and holding out a hand for a moment, then shrugged; they weren’t really in a position to react properly anyway, with Pidge finishing lowering the flashlight and Hunk carefully setting Pidge back on the ground. “Keith radioed out and said there was a pretty nasty trap and you could probably use a hand. Didn’t mean to startle you like that, but this whole setup looked ripe for an ambush, so I thought, better safe than sorry!”

Hunk laughed nervously. “Yeah, that’s… probably a good idea really. So uh, do you know much about Galra ships, because we’re basically figuring things out as we go, and it’s a lot easier to break things than it is to fix them. Or make them not break.”

“Well, they’ve probably changed some over the last ten thousand years, but I’m sure I can make do.” Coran straightened his jacket, confident.

There was a beat as Pidge and Hunk both stared at him. “…How long with the what now?”, Pidge finally asked.

“Oh. I guess there wasn’t much time for explanations, was there?” He motioned to them to return to the hallway; Hunk shrugged and put a hand on the flashlight, which Pidge let him take so that he could return to tracking the stray cord he’d been following before. They followed him, Coran looking around the ship studying the walls as he spoke. “King Alfor put us into cryosleep ten thousand years ago. He’d planned on returning if he could once it was clear, and, well, set contingencies in case he didn’t. Keith bringing the Red Lion to find us finally met that contingency.”

Pidge grimaced, and Hunk paused for a moment looking back, remembering the sword they’d taken from the tomb - with the time scales that meant it probably belonged to someone they knew. “So uh. How close to - whatever happened to the old paladins - were you guys put into cryo?”

Coran looked down at her with a scrunched expression of vague discomfort. “…Practically in the middle of it, why?”

She swallowed. “So uh.” There was no good way to say this. “One of them has a tomb on Earth and Keith kinda took their bike and rebuilt it and I may have kind of borrowed a sword they were buried with because the Galra were already messing the place up and it seemed like it was important and I didn’t want to just leave it like that? But I kind of also took out a couple Galra soldiers with it, and, uh, Sendak.”

“Do you know whose it was?” His voice had dropped low, softened.

“We - think it was Blue’s, the paintings around the tomb were kinda indistinct but were of a blue figure with fins and swords.” She was torn between regretting saying anything and feeling like she hadn’t said enough about what’d gone on there; Hunk had followed his loose panels up to the wall, and was tuning the conversation out in favor of not getting blown up.

Coran nodded quietly, putting a hand on her shoulder. “I think he’d have been happy to see you lot using his old things for this.”

Hunk leaned around the corner, squinting in the dark as Coran’s light came close enough to see; there was a door on short hallway.

And there were a few sets of louder footsteps with harsh voices echoing from the lower level of the ship.

Coran tapped something small and shining on his collar. “Princess, what’s your ETA with the Blue Lion?”

Allura’s voice could be heard from it, quietly. “Not long, we’re on our way - why?”

“Well, when you get here, we’ve got some company at the cargo ship. I’ll do what I can, but some extra hands that’re better armed would be appreciated.” He was already retrieving the pistol, the mice fleeing off of him to move to Hunk’s shoulders. He looked up to address Hunk, voice a little more serious and urgent. “That’s the engine room there - I’m going to go keep our company busy and come back to help once they’re clear.”

Hunk nodded, swallowing hard, and made for the door; Pidge looked between them, and followed - she was unarmed and the Galra rifles were large enough to be unwieldy for her.

Allura came back on the comm. “Shouldn’t Keith be there? What’s he doing?”

“He’s locked into a booby-trapped room with the civilians; the other two are working on getting it open. I’m going to go off the comm, better odds if I can get the drop on them and all.” He shut it off, and turned off the small light as well.

The hatch to the second level made a convenient choke point; Coran found a spot with enough range on it to give him room while still being a sure shot, and steadied himself where he could easily duck around a corner for cover, the small pistol trained on the hatch.

It opened; Coran waited until he had a solid bead on the head of the drone, taking two shots that sent it tumbling back down the hatch with a loud metal crash. He took out another drone that way before he heard movement in the hallways behind him - there was another route between levels that was still working.

Turning to address the new threat from the other direction would mean leaving the other emergency hatch unwatched; he darted forward, slamming it shut and taking a couple shots at the latch before anything else could try to open it.

That’d at least mean it’d have to be battered open, which would buy some time; hopefully the Galra hadn’t wanted to commit too much to this ambush.

He hoped. Really, he just needed to keep them busy and out of the engine room until Allura could get there with backup.

*******************

The engine was somewhat similar to the battlecruiser’s engine on a smaller scale, and apparently built to just be accessible on more than one level rather than having a big open area of catwalks. One corner of the maintenance room they were in had the transparent window into the crystal in the center; there were a couple of round devices attached to the outside of it that were newer and in better condition than the rest of the ship, with ominous small lights flickering occasionally. Pidge had briefly shone the flashlight into the crystal compartment, to get a better look at the glowing violet mass; there was no sign it’d been opened, but the crystal itself looked like a mess compared to the one they’d blown up in the battlecruiser, chipped bits marring the edges while fractures and inclusions clouded the inside.

The mice had scattered off Hunk’s shoulders once the door closed, and were climbing in and around the machinery; occasionally one would pop up out of an opening or on top of a cable, pointing and squeaking, the others listening intently or chattering back. It was like there was an entire conversation going on that Hunk and Pidge couldn’t understand.

“Okay, so.” Pidge stepped back, sweeping over the room with the flashlight. “We’ve got a bunch of weird charges that will probably blow up if we do the wrong thing to disarm them. And we’ve got some cords and other crud scattered around this room, most of them hooked into a console over there.” She turned the light on it.

“But if the charges are set to go off when that room downstairs is messed with, then that means the detonation controls aren’t internal, and have to be hooked up to whatever they built around the thing downstairs.” Hunk walked over to the console paneling, staring at it with a frown. “Which all seems to converge on this thingie, so maybe they set the -“

There was the sound of gunshots from some kind of energy weapon down the hallway, then a loud metal crash; they both froze, Pidge killing the flashlight, leaving the room almost completely dark.

A few seconds passed in silence; she turned the flashlight back on.

“As I was saying,” Hunk worried at the edges of his gloves with one hand, sidling a little closer to the console, which was tall enough to duck behind, “Either there’s some kind of detonator control thingie in this room somewhere, or they just patched one into the computer here.” His skin crawled turning his back to the door, but the rigged engine would kill them just as surely as any Galra drones or soldiers, and it was the thing right in the room with them.

At least Coran was out there; Hunk hoped he could cover the area and keep anything from getting close.

One of the mice popped up on top of the console, jumping a couple times and waving to get their attention, then pointing just above it and squeaking.

Pidge and Hunk both looked above it; there was nothing.

“Right. If it’s hooked through the computer then we’d need to bring up the actual hard-light interface thingie like the ones on the cruiser.” Hunk leaned over the console, rubbing his chin; there was a screen of sorts on the paneling sized for a hand bigger than his with some kind of pulsing dim red light running across it.

The mouse was shaking its head, pointing and squeaking more insistently.

Pidge came closer, shining the light across the console. “Look - there’s some more new scuffs where they opened it; I bet you’re right and there is a detonation control device attached in here. The computer must not’ve had the right kind of sensors for what they were trying to do, so they had to rig them up in a hurry.”

Hunk nodded, and put his hand on the oval panel; nothing happened.

The mouse facepalmed, with a very small noise of frustration, then pointed at the empty air above the console, squeaking and waving. Two of the others climbed up, and there was a flurry of some kind of three-way exchange with a lot of pointing up and frantic squeaking, and occasional points at them.

Hunk considered questioning, or commenting on, the fact that they were taking advice from what were apparently hyper-intelligent multicolored alien mice, but after the last week, he wasn’t even sure that registered as strange anymore.

They both were trying to listen, straining for anything that made sense; something had the mice upset, but the flailing, waving, and pointing didn’t have any good close. Hunk shook hi shead. “…Sorry little dudes, I don’t have the slightest idea what you’re saying.”

The red-eyed mouse that’d been the first one up buried its face in its forepaws, curling in on itself. The other smaller one hopped forward, pointed up at the air above it, and then started tapping a foot and waving one paw in unison, in evenly spaced measure.

Pidge and Hunk watched, going back and forth trying to figure out what it meant.

“Metronome?”

“Music? No-“

“Ticking?”

“Time! There’s a timer?”

All three of the mice nodded emphatically, pointing and waving again.

Pidge angled the flashlight, squinting. “…I … don’t see anything.”

More frantic pointing and squeaking; some of it sounded almost disbelieving.

“No seriously, whatever’s there, we can’t see it-“

There were heavy metal footsteps closer coming down the corridor; Pidge killed the flashlight, and they both dove around the console to put it between them and the door, the mice ducking down to huddle on their shoulders.

There was gunfire, not as loud as the Galra rifles, and a heavy crash of metal hitting the ground, then silence.

They stayed put for a few seconds; the mice were the first ones to move, tugging on whatever clothing they could to urge Pidge and Hunk to follow before they scattered across the room. The largest of them clambered to the top of the console and stood, pointing around the room and chattering to the rest as if giving directions.

Two of them ran for a lower part of the console, the third smaller one waved to the humans and followed.

Hunk found the catch to pry the panel open, Pidge holding the flashlight over his shoulder; as soon as it was open, the mice ran inside, a flurry of motion in the cabling and thin sheets of some kind of translucent flat panels going every which way investigating.

“Oh hey, the cord that we followed up here comes in here!” Hunk leaned in; the mice zeroed in on the same box patched into the cables he had. “This must be the thing attaching the sensors downstairs to the detonator.”

There was noise further off in the ship, faint echoes of crashing metal; Pidge looked back at the door uneasily, but kept the light steady. It wasn’t close, they could afford to try to focus on disarming the device turning the entire ship into a bomb for now.

“…Okay, so there’s the cord coming in from the sensors, if they rigged it to blow if the sensors are disturbed, then detaching that’ll probably blow everything, too… there’s four other cords coming in and out of it.” He frowned, squinting at it; there was no labels that he could see to tell which one did what. “Cutting power to this module should disarm this part of the system. I don’t suppose you guys can tell which one is the power cord, can you?”

The mice looked between themselves, then spread out to check each of the cords, one of them waving for Hunk’s attention to squeak and point.

“Thanks, little dude.” He reached in; there was a small catch on one side of the cable, narrow enough to take a little fumbling with a fingernail to detach it.

The lights on the box stopped blinking; Hunk held is breath for a moment, half expecting there to be something rigged to that, but the moment passed and there was no explosion.

There were footsteps heading for the door, but they were lighter, less metal; Hunk dove behind the panel, peering over, while Pidge wheeled with the flashlight, brandishing it like a weapon.

The mechanical override for the door clicked and it slid open; Coran had his light back on, and Tav was behind him.

“Well, backup came! Allura is holding the lower entrances in case they send any more dro-“

Tav was tapping Coran’s shoulder and pointing at the console and the empty air above it; Coran followed the gesture and froze with quiet mutter of “quiznak”.

“…Okay so you guys can see it? ‘Cuz I’m gonna start carrying UV reactive paint or something.” Hunk stood from behind the console, pointing at the empty space.

Tav growled quietly in frustration, running forward and tapping something in the air, sliding a finger down; the light panel came visible, fading through colors to a more normal-for-their-systems red color.

There was a set of symbols in the upper corner about where the mice had been pointing. It was a string of three digits, one of them on the end flickering to change, sightly slower than second-to-second, in time with the pattern the mouse had tapped out earlier.

Pidge stared at it, flashlight trained. “Crap. That doesn’t have much time on it, does it.”

“No, it doesn’t.” Coran was already circling the room, surveying the visible devices and cabling; the mice were running ahead of him, pointing to different parts of the room and squeaking, flagging where all the parts were to him.

“Okay, we found the detonators and parts of the rest of the system, we managed to disarm the sensor part, what do we need to do now.” She kept the flashlight steady, and both of the humans looked to Coran.

“The charges are different from the ones we use around the outpost and I don’t recognize this detonation system…” Tav was still standing at the console. “And - I’m locked out, it’s restricted-access on the computer controls, I can’t shut it down.”

“Well, I’ve seen the basic design before, even if it’s a bit changed.” Coran curled the edge of his moustache around a finger. “And this ship isn’t that big of a difference from some of the cargo carriers I remember, so - there should be a control module for the ship itself to disconnect engine output over there, that’ll minimize the splash damage if the charges do go off.” He pointed, and Hunk saluted and followed, one of the mice on his shoulder. Coran started to continue, then paused and tossed the mouse some kind of small object; the mouse jumped up to catch it, giving a salute of its own before turning on the small device, holding the light up over Hunk’s shoulder.

“This ship has an emergency containment system for the crystal, yes?” His attention snapped to Tav; Tav looked up from the console, mouth open, then nodded and scrambled to a panel next to the crystal.

He turned to Pidge. “As for the detonator itself, it’ll have a transmission module somewhere nearby - probably in the central console, not far from where the sensor alarm was.”

“Got it.” She got down in front of the console, working on getting the rest of the front open; Two of the mice ran in, searching it with her.

“I’ll see what I can do about the charges themselves - Plachu, can you give me a hand here?”

The last and largest mouse squeaked with a nod and salute, and ran up to sit on Coran’s wrist.

Hunk knelt down, pulling open the panel to get to the back part of the control module; the alien technology wouldn’t respond to him, but it looked like it was a mechanical shutoff anyway, so he could probably bypass it pretty easily.

He’d ignored the slightly stronger sickly salt-metal smell, but when he shifted his weight and his knees were sticking to the ground slightly, it became hard to ignore.

He looked down; there was dark red splattered over the ground and wall, streaked out below, sticky and half-dried.

It was more blood than he’d ever really seen in one place; he’d managed to mostly avoid going anywhere near or looking at the few actual Galra caught in their traps, or Sendak’s corpse, and this was somehow worse, because there was really only one reason for it to be there, and that just brought to mind Tav back on the cruiser and the news about -

Haxus killing his friend for sabotaging the ship. He was in the spot where Levok had been killed for helping them, with the blood from it all over his knees and smudging his shorts in places, probably trying to work on the same part of the engine he’d been working on.

He swallowed hard, stomach turning, feeling part of his jaw go tense and rubbery. “Guys there’s blood here, I think - I - there’s a lot of blood and -”. His voice was wobbling, and he heard Tav’s beeping conflict with the terminal fall quiet and a whining-hinge noise; Tav was wobbling and pointedly not looking over.

There was already a bitter, stinging acid taste in the back of his throat; he ran out of the room, to an alcove partly down the hallway.

“It’s alright, I’ve got it!”, Coran called after, before running over to take his place - containment first, then disarming. He tapped the communicator line open as he leaned in, finding the central piece of the disconnect. “Allura? We’ve got the trap on that room downstairs disarmed, but there’s still a timer, so if you could get everyone clear to the Castle just in case, it’d be appreciated. We’re trying to contain the damage.”

There was a quiet, exasperated “Oh thank god” from the Red Paladin on the channel, mostly drowned out by Allura’s reply of “Got it. Coran? …be careful.”

“Don’t worry princess; I will.”

The line went quiet. Tav’s efforts found some headway, heavy shutters closing over the inside of the crystal compartment.

Hunk came back into the room. He was still queasy, but he had his jaw set as we walked over to the detonation charges.

“You brought tools with you right? I need something to get the outer casing off.” There was a squeak behind him, then the largest of the mice ran to snatch something off Coran, carrying it over his head to Hunk; Hunk reached down for it. “Thanks.”

He set to working around the edge of the upper casing, finding the seam and the joints, working them loose; there was another set of heavy metallic sounds from within the ship. “Alright, we’ve got the power systems disengaged! Any damage should be contained to this room and maybe the crystal.”

There was a strangled noise of frustration from Pidge, head and shoulders inside the console. “IF I HAD SOME KIND OF INTERFACE I’D HAVE THIS THING IN THREE SECONDS!”

Coran frowned at that, but didn’t seem alarmed yet, walking over to Hunk and Tav. “Well, if we can get one of the charges disarmed, that should limit the damage enough to not put out radiation into the area or hit bystanders.”

Below them, Allura found the mechanical override for the door easily; it opened, and she pushed it further, setting her feet and intentionally breaking the mechanism so it couldn’t close again.

There were several pairs of bright yellow eyes and one set of armor all intent on her. She swallowed, closing her eyes and waving at them to follow. Keith must have already relayed, because they looked to him and then were fast to follow, more than happy to get away from the ship.

They made it to the Castle before Keith broke away, running to the hangar, leaving Allura alone in the entryway with several disoriented and uncertain Galra technicians.

Keith sent a fast comm message to Coran once he had Red at the ship, her head down by the cargo ship’s hatch, jaws open. “Just get out here, I’ve got Red by the door!”

“Already on our way!” came back.

They hit the hatch at a run, the lion’s jaws closing as soon as they were all in its mouth.

After another couple seconds, Keith had a cockpit full of anxious engineers, the mice climbing all over the pilot seat in fascination, and Coran leaning over the back of it. The lion paced back a few steps, watching the ship warily.

The first charge going off was little more than a muffled “boof”. Then there were three more of them a little louder; part of the ship buckled, collapsing in on itself.

The dust began to settle.

“We did it.” Coran stood up proudly, clapping Hunk and Tav’s shoulder on either side of them, then ruffled Pidge’s hair to a small “hey!” in protest.

Something was nearby on Red’s sensors, barely registering - one of the small, maybe socker-ball sized triangular drones by one of the bluffs arching near them, watching.

He swung the lion around, darting forward to bring a massive clawed paw down on it before taking them back to the Castle.

Chapter Text

Allura was keeping watch on what was going on outside from the bridge. She wasn’t sure what to do with the technicians they’d just rescued. They couldn’t leave them outside where Haxus would aim at them, but she didn’t really want to leave them roaming the castle, which meant that she had seven disoriented, dazed Galra civilians behind her on the bridge, with a couple of the younger ones occasionally getting distracted and almost poking at things.

It wouldn’t do much if they did - maybe bring up one of the basic directory and standard-access computer panels. The Castle’s system automatically recognized them as guests for arriving with her, but that didn’t give them much for security permissions.

A few days ago for her she’d been with her father, on the Castle, fending off Galra ships after a string of attacks. Now she was on some tiny little middle of nowhere planet with ten thousand years between then and now, protecting a bunch of Galra near-exiles from their own Empire.

Lance’s sister was keeping watch on him in the infirmary. The last Allura had seen, he was alternating between being vaguely whiny and upset with being expected to stay put and wanting to get up and do things, and regretting getting up to try to do things and not wanting to move for a week.

The Red Lion settled in its hangar; the mice were going to get to the bridge ahead of anyone else, mostly just by virtue of being able to cheat and cut across parts of the internal workings of the Castle nobody else would fit in.

At some point later when there was more of an actual lull, she was going to have to ask her father if he’d ever felt as thoroughly like he had no idea what was going on or what he was doing, because she was stuck doing an impressive amount of making things up as she went, and the universe seemed determined to throw new problems and confusion at her at every turn.

Having that entire downward spiral of destruction before he’d hidden her away feel that close looming over didn’t really help her nerves right now, either, even if she knew more than well enough that the group on the bridge with her was about as harmless as you could get.

An access panel for the central computer terminal she was sitting at popped open from the inside; Plachu took a second to look around, then ran out to sit on top of the terminal, the others right behind him.

“Did everything go well?” She had to assume it had; the mice weren’t alarmed, everyone that’d gone to the ship had boarded the Castle, and the cargo ship hadn’t done anything apocalyptic or even very impressive.

“Pretty much, yeah. We got everything locked down so it wouldn’t wreck the area. The big guy stumbled into some kind of mess of blood and had to run out to throw up.” Plachu shrugged, then curled up on the console.

She’d been on the comms for just enough context to have a clue what’d happened. It was a little unexpected, but it had been a stressful few days for everyone, most of them didn’t seem to have any military training or an experience, and she couldn’t say she’d have taken entirely well to stepping in the leftovers of a murder when there was time to process and all herself.

“The ship was a mess and we’re gonna have grease in our fur for weeks,” Chuchule complained, already fussing at some darker sticky spots.

Chulatt picked up after, continuing, “Definitely a good thing we were there though. Everything was in small tiny places and the Paladins couldn’t even see half of the labels on the cords.”

She stroked Chuchule’s head sympathetically. “We should have time to get you all a bath soon. Thank you for your help.”

Platt just hopped up onto her shoulder, settling in comfortably against her neck.

A moment later, the door opened to Coran, the Galra tech that’d been with Lance, and two of the would-be Paladins; there was no sign of Keith with them. “Is everyone alright?”

The mice may have reported, but it was better to check, anyway.

“Perfectly fine here, Princess! We managed to at least disarm the worst of it, and even if it had gotten the crystal, we had the Red Lion there for cover.” Coran gave a half-salute. Pidge was already distracted, looking around the bridge as if forgetting there were other people there; Hunk was sneaking glances himself, but was at least trying to make a show of paying attention.

Tav was completely distracted, breaking from the others to hurry over to one of the younger of the technicians she’d brought on board, hands on the other Galra’s shoulders and leaning in fussing; she caught an “Are you okay?!” and the other technician shaking his head while Coran was speaking.

Hunk definitely noticed, and looked a little queasy again; he was trying very hard to ignore that he hadn’t had a chance to clean up the half-dried sticky blood that’d gotten on his shorts and knees.

“I’m glad we were able to salvage something from that mess.” It was hard not to notice the two younger Galra, who were now settling down to sit leaning on each other in silence, or the way the entire rest of the small group had gone quiet and subdued. “Although I wish we could have done more.”

Coran frowned, face falling; Hunk fussed with his gloves, and Pidge snapped out of her distraction ogling the inside of the bridge. “Sometimes that happens, even at the best you can do.” He put a hand on Hunk’s shoulder, a gesture that got a short startle out of Hunk and broke some of Hunk’s attempt at shoving back his own lingering unhappiness with the murder, leaving him looking even closer to either crying or getting sick again.

“We did at least manage something, and should focus on looking after what we did manage to save.” Coran gave Hunk’s shoulder a gentle squeeze, just enough of a sideways glance to make sure Hunk knew he was being included in the advice Coran was giving to Allura.

Hunk nodded, swallowing, and then turned to walk over to the two younger Galra, getting two very uncertain looks that went briefly alarmed when he did his level best to try to hug both of them. It was a mixed effort; neither of them were as broad as he was, but it was an awkward mess when they were both sitting on the ground in the back of the bridge. The confusion passed, a little faster for Tav than for Selkor, and after a moment they just accepted Hunk’s attention.

Two of the older Galra looked away, shrinking back toward the wall a few feet, looking oddly guilty.

A few days ago she was running from, and fighting for her life against, the Galra. Now she was sheltering some of their own people - civilians - against them.

It caught up to her to notice that there was one missing from the group that’d come to the bridge; she turned her attention back to Coran. “Where is Keith?”

“Oh, he went off by himself back at the hangar. Said something about getting cleaned up.” Coran shrugged.

Allura could feel the mice all casting a pointed look at her back.

Hunk looked back up, stepping away from the still slightly bewildered Galra. “I should do that too, but…” He fidgeted for a moment. “How’s Lance? I mean I’m guessing he can’t be too bad since he was still making jokes and all and he did get the lion out here, but…”

Allura smiled. “He’s in the infirmary, with his sister. I think he’d be happy to see you.” She paused, shifting to glance at the mouse on her shoulder. “Platt, if you could?”

“Sure thing!” The mouse gave a salute, and ran down her arm and dress; Hunk blinked, tracking the mouse, gave a resigned shrug of acceptance, and followed Platt out.

Even with the apparent confusion, she could hear Hunk starting to say something about “Thank you guys for the help” before the doors closed.

Allura was left with one immediate thing to deal with; she took a breath, composing herself, and turned to the side of the room where the handful of Galra were.

There were several sets of yellow eyes on her, and it took her another moment to collect herself suddenly. It was obvious there were things fundamentally wrong with the universe as it stood, but it was somehow punctuated and underlined by her having a bunch of Zarkon’s citizens looking to her for protection against him.

“I apologize for the confusion; we came here with very little time to plan or gather information.” Probably not the greatest way to start, but she definitely couldn’t bring herself to lie and say everything was fine, even if she did need to be In Control and seem like she had a clue. “We will do everything in our power to prevent any further harm coming to you or any of the others that Haxus may be targeting as a result of our actions. While we’re sorting everything out, you are welcome to claim asylum within the Castle of Lions. Your access to some areas will be restricted for security reasons, but we are all committed to preventing any more innocent deaths here, and will do our utmost to make this as comfortable as possible.”

Selkor raised a hand tentatively. “What about the outpost?”

Most of the others shifted uncomfortably; Tav straightened, giving Selkor a quick, worried glance.

Selkor was tense himself, keeping his focus on Allura as if looking away might shatter it. “When Haxus called treason on us, it wasn’t just those of us here on the ground - it was the entire outpost in the outer system. He’s probably already reported back on it, and after all of this, they’re going to send ships and be aiming at us as much as at you.”

Allura closed her eyes, taking a breath. Their options for predicting what to expect were limited - they had whatever these engineers might know and whatever Keith might remember from his brief time on Sendak’s ship. They were far enough out that there’d be at least a few days before any Galra hyperspace drive could get this far, which would give them some time to prepare. They’d need the rest of the lions if they were going to fend off battlecruisers with green pilots, some kind of plan for defense, probably an evacuation plan in case of the worst or just to ensure no civilian lives were lost, they’d need to find some way to make sure Zarkon wouldn’t continue to pursue the ‘traitors’, and they’d need to make sure Haxus couldn’t continue reports back.

“I stand by my statement; we will do everything in our power to prevent any further needless deaths, and to protect you from retribution against our actions.” They had allies among the engineers, yes, but they were the ones responsible for most of the damage. “While we appreciate what aid some of you have managed to give and will not take your risks and losses lightly, we do not expect any of you to risk your lives on our account, and this is primarily our fight - we should be the ones taking fire, not you.”

It didn’t do much to lessen the nerves in the room; they had the Castle and now two lions, and it’d been a mad scramble to deal with one battlecruiser that was not moving at the time.

“We can easily have the rest of the lions active within a day. We’ll use the rest of the time we have before they arrive to plan, prepare, and ensure Haxus can no longer threaten you.” It wasn’t an idle statement; she could open wormholes to send recovery missions to get the other fledgling Paladins to their lions far faster than anything the Galra had. Failure was not an option, and they had the makings of everything they would need to handle anything the Empire could throw at them. “Voltron’s first mission in this era will be to ensure the safety of this planet and the people of your outpost; we will not stand idle while Zarkon slaughters his own people.”

They had a chance, and for the first time since she’d awakened in this future, she actually felt like she had a clear path and knew how to fight back.

There was something the mice were sitting on saying, and doing an impressive job of staying quiet while she couldn’t afford to not sound confident in their chances.

“For now, we have to assume that Haxus is watching the Castle; as long as he’s a threat, I can’t, in good conscience, put any of you into his path. Coran, if you could show them to quarters and other necessities? I’m sure we have more than enough room.”

Coran saluted; he was smiling proudly, even if there was something just barely, faintly off that she couldn’t quite put her finger on. “Of course, Princess!”

Whatever it was, he’d probably have plenty of chance to talk when they weren’t herding traumatized civilians.

He turned to them with a bow, motioning to the door. “If you could follow me?”

It was an awkward, uncertain group; Tav and Selkor hung at the back, Tav turning with a hand raised in hesitation before leaving the bridge, but he dropped it with a headshake, following after Coran.

The door closed; she was left alone on the bridge with Pidge perched on the side of one of the terminals and the mice.

And Chuchule finally voiced what they had been sitting on until the technicians left. “You don’t have a plan for what to do with the Black Lion, do you.”

Allura froze with a tiny, terrified squeak.

******************

Coran’s basic tour of the area of crew and guest quarters that would be easiest to loan to the outpost technicians was calm and cheery. Some of it was genuine; the original inhabitants of some of these quarters had been Galra who’d chosen to stand by the Alteans, killed in the fighting as their kin singled them out as traitors.

It felt like a strange relief to be arranging for the rooms to be used, and at the same time too soon for the weight of silence and lingering memory of the dead to have moved on.

Most of them were withdrawn, unsure of him. He knew what the story and rallying cry had been for the original assault, he doubted Zarkon had changed it any over the millennia.

He wondered if any of them would know who he and Allura were, to connect them personally to the stories passed down to them, or if it was just that they were Alteans.

The younger two weren’t afraid - about expected of the one that had come on board with Lance and then insisted on helping with the cargo ship; Coran remembered well how deeply Galra invested themselves in what bonds they allowed, and Haxus had probably alienated more than just these two of the younger generation with his bloody “example”.

He was almost surprised when they continued following him like a couple of newborn duflax after he’d finished settling everyone and turned to go see to the infirmary, but Tav had already been through half of Hell with Lance. Of course they’d want to go join Hunk in fussing after that.

Coran could only hope Lance was prepared for getting adopted into a pack of Galra.

When they got to the infirmary, Lance was sprawled out on one of the tables, coat off and draped over his face, his battered, scorched shirt tossed aside. His coat didn’t look any better, a ragged mess with wider burned holes across and around it. Hunk was pacing along the back part of the room.

Veronica had settled on a bench along the wall nearby, using her backpack as a pillow. She looked up when the door opened. “Oh good. We got down here and I realized I didn’t know what any of this was or how it worked. We did what we could to get everything cleaned up and make sure there was nothing urgent, at least - then I almost had to sit on him to keep him from trying to go help.”

Hunk stopped his pacing. “You guys can do something right? I almost tried but everything in here is like, alien hypertech, and I’m a mechanic, I fix machines, I’m not that great at fixing people even if I have stuff I’m familiar with outside of like - first aid training.”

Tav and Selkor shared a look, and a headshake, stepping back. “Daxle’s the biologist, he specializes in geothermal aquatics and he doesn’t read Altean…,” Tav added, apologetic.

“I’m not dying, guys, you can chill, okay?” Lance’s voice was muffled by the jacket draped over it. He shifted it to drop it on the floor, sitting up on the table.

It wasn’t the most convincing gesture; he was a mess of bruises and scrapes, black and blue patches all over with red patches, and there was a visible imprint from Sendak’s claws around his ribs, blisters mottled with angry cracked red.

Hunk winced, all the more distressed again, and Veronica moved from where she’d been sitting with a hiss of “don’t you even dare-,” looming next to Lance within a moment to catch him if he did try to get up and walk.

He didn’t try to move off the large exam table, although he was definitely sulking about it.

Coran winced at the burns.

“Well, I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that the extent of my own training as a medic is handling emergencies and acting as support for the previous Paladins. The good news is that we’re on the Castle, not in the field, so we can rely more on it to handle the worst.” He paused, taking another moment to look over the burns. “You’re lucky you still have a ribcage after that.”

“Yeah, Keith and the Princess came in right as he decided he was done trying to take me alive.” Lance was leaning on his hands on the table, trying to play it off, but he was also holding far more still than usual for him.

“Well, we need to get you into the next room then; you’re not quite to where we’d usually resort to the pods, but you’re close enough for us not having a proper medic.” Coran took a half step forward, but was beaten to Lance by Hunk, Tav, and Veronica converging at once. Hunk was the closest before, and it resolved into Lance leaning heavily on Hunk for support with the other two hovering close, Selkor staying back by Coran.

Hunk stopped almost to the door Coran had indicated, looking back. “Wait, pod?”

Coran stepped around him to go through the door, motioning to follow. Once inside, he walked to the center of the room, where a control pillar rose out of the floor; right after, one of the pods rose out of a circle set into the ground. Tav broke away from hovering to watch over Coran’s shoulder with Selkor.

Veronica folded her arms, giving it a skeptical look. “So how does it work?”

“Altaean alchemy and medical technomagic for tissue repair and regeneration with a very sophisticated internal sensor array for guidance and monitoring.”

Coran’s answer was very offhand while he was checking over something on the screens; it took a moment for him to notice the stares he was getting from all of the humans in the room, stares he met with bewilderment.

Tav leaned in, half-whispering without putting the effort in to not be overheard. “Humans have less aptitude for magic than we do even, so they haven’t figured it out yet - like, at all.”

“Don’t they make fun of the idea?”, Selkor added.

There were a couple beats where the humans were still staring.

“Oh,” Coran said. “Well aren’t you lot just a bunch of adorable little fledglings, then.” He tapped something on the screen. “It looks like everything is clear and in order!”

The three humans continued to stare for another couple seconds; Hunk looked to Lance, who shrugged with a small wince.

“How long will this thing take, and, uh, what is it going to do to me?” At this point, it wasn’t that he didn’t trust Coran - the aliens were new and a little weird but had been a huge help - but it was still a little nerve-wracking to climb into a weird alien magic tube.

A little weirder to have it actually called magic, but he also had a giant legendary robot lion purring in his head that was apparently familiar with the tube and thought it was a perfectly good idea to get in it.

“Well, with your injuries, maybe a solar cycle? A little longer if there’s any other internal damage or if you took a good crack to the head, and you’ll be asleep for all of it - a little woozy when you wake up at first, but mostly good as new!” Coran was upbeat about it, Blue supported the idea, Hunk looked nervous but was giving him the ‘up to you buddy’ look, Platt was on Hunk’s shoulder and just looked bored, and Veronica actually looked like she wasn’t sure what to make of any of it.

She opted for a brief look to Coran, taking a deep breath, and shrugging herself. “Well, they know more than we do here.”

Lance reached over to it, letting go of Hunk’s arm, and limped into it, standing in the middle of the pod waiting for something to happen.

The pod closed with hiss, then a low hum.

There was a good half minute with Hunk and Veronica still hovering next to it uncertainly; it was both anticlimactic and a little unsettling. Coran checked the systems one last time before he crossed the room, putting a hand on each of their shoulders and briefly startling Hunk. “Don’t worry, he’ll be fine, and I can check up on it from anywhere within range of the Castle.”

“And he’ll be okay in a day or two?” Veronica tilted her head toward the pod.

“Absolutely fine. Might have some scars from the burns, but not as bad as he’d have otherwise.” Coran smiled. “Trust me, I’ve helped wrangle the old Paladins into one of these when they were much worse off.”

“Well…” She looked over to Hunk, who was still focused on Lance in the pod, still with worry. “I don’t think staying here hovering will make it go any faster, and it looks like we’ve got the first real break we’ve had in a couple days, much as I’d like to camp out here. We should get something to eat and see about catching up with the people who actually know what’s going on.”

Hunk’s frown deepened, brows knitting, but he finally gave a hesitant, jerky nod. “Yeah, I guess.”

Coran stepped back to give them space, and Veronica nudged Hunk’s shoulder; he finally tore away from watching the pod, turning back to the rest of the room.

Coran started on another basic tour of the castle; it was a strangely comforting old habit, a familiar routine from the days when he’d occasionally end up handling parts of orientation for new crew. Hunk was the only one that they were sure was staying on board, but it didn’t particularly matter - Lance’s sister was close enough and would’ve had more clearance than most new crew for it, and the two young Galra had already been risking their lives helping and might be stuck on the Castle for a while.

They didn’t get very far before Tav’s wrist started beeping, a blue notification light blinking; the entire little tour stopped, although everyone else seemed to already have some clue what the notification meant.

Tav brought up the variant blue interface, answering a video call. Coran watched with interest and curiosity.

Daxle was mostly out of the armor and entirely too gleeful about shedding the rest, outside in the desert with a bunch of small temporary buildings There were dark green uniforms darting around behind him, a few camo-print that weren’t Garrison, and handfuls of both that didn’t seem to be doing anything at the time past getting distracted gawking. “HEY GREAT YOU’RE OKAY we made contact with the Garrison humans!”

He motioned at the chaos behind him, not seeming to care about the audience; Veera was visible edging back and forth, far less happy with the amount of attention they were getting and not bothering to get out of the armor just yet beyond the helmet, thrown on the ground behind them.

“They’ve got their medic and xenobi people trying to look at the prisoners, they’ve been kinda freaking out about it a little though, I’m probably gonna have to go help them.”

There was a voice audible in the background, raised, hitting a couple of impressive pitches of hysteria. “OUR WORK HAS BEEN ALMOST ENTIRELY THEORETICAL-

Hunk covered his face, stifling a chuckle.

“Aren’t you field biology?” Tav supposed it meant something, but Daxle wouldn’t have been near his first choice for medic duty.

“Yeah. I still know more about some of this than they do here.” He leaned a little, motioning back with a grin to the man Hunk recognized as the head xenobi professor that’d been wailing a moment ago, talking to someone else in uniform in a degree of animation that spoke to near-panic. A couple of others that were more mission-personnel in that field were hovering nearby, going over tablets with varying mixes of confusion and alarmed concern.

“Are the prisoners gonna be okay?” Daxle might’ve been okay with it, but Hunk could see a glaring problem if the prisoners they’d rescued were going to be relying on human medics with no more than hypothetical ideas about alien biology and one Galra marine biologist.

“The humans are being ridiculously fussy - they’re kinda terrified of doing something wrong and making it worse than it already is, but, yanno, anything’s better than what they were pulled out of.” Daxle shrugged. “We’ll figure something out.”

Tav looked up from the screen at Coran, who was out of the frame the other end could see.

“Well, we might need to… to…” Coran frowned deeply suddenly. “How open is this area and how secure is the place they are?”

Tav winced and looked to Daxle.

Daxle looked around, suddenly uncertain, and Veera stiffened, leaning in over his shoulder. “It’s all human. They’ve got a perimeter fence and some of the local military are helping, but…”

Hunk and Veronica both groaned and there was a quiet whine from Selkor.

“How bad is it.” Veera was already making a strained expression Hunk was pretty sure he’d seen on cats with gunk in their fur, which looked a little incongruous on grey-violet hide and scales.

“Haxus,” Hunk said simply, with an uncomfortable, apologetic nervous smile.

“HE’S NOT DEAD?!” Daxle took a step back, the screen moving with him, and was suddenly a lot less still and relatively calm, giving the screen a pleading look with occasional half-finished panicky motions the direction of the wreckage; there was suddenly more attention from the Garrison people in the area, and Hunk saw a familiar uniform coat and beret stop and turn in the middle of what looked like trying to disperse the gawkers.

Veera hissed, grabbing Daxle’s shoulder.

“Yeeaaah he was uh. Not on the ship when we blew it up. Or in the camp.” Hunk shrank into his shoulders a little.

Coran edged around to lean in over Veronica’s shoulder, more in frame. “He was trying to take that old clunker of a cargo ship you lot apparently had to grab the Red Lion while its Paladin was away - that failed utterly, and he retreated before we could get out there.”

“Took the-” Daxle froze; Iverson had redoubled efforts to scatter anyone that didn’t need to be there, harsh yelling audible in the background as most of the random Garrison personnel and soldiers started to disperse. “Wait - Selkor, where’s-”

Selkor shrank behind Tav, both of them looking away; Coran shook his head, and Hunk looked queasy and was fighting feeling ill again.

Both of the other Galra on the other end went quiet, suddenly still. Once the crowd dispersed, Iverson walked over to stand a couple feet behind them, awkwardly at attention, quietly clearing his throat to get their attention.

Both of them jumped; Veera bristled with a hiss and bared teeth, and Iverson leaned away with a flicker of nervous tension. Even if they weren’t much older or more experienced than any of the cadets, they were still both at least a good foot taller than he was and in parts of alien armor.

It only took a moment for them to recover from the startle, Veera stepping back out of frame; Daxle looked down at Iverson, back at the screen, and reached over to angle it so that more than Iverson’s hat would be in frame if he stepped closer. He wasn’t succeeding at any kind of explanation even if he did weakly point at it with one clawed finger.

Iverson stared at the screen in confusion for a moment, finally just settling on Hunk.

“Cadet, what are you doing? What’s going on here?”

Hunk stiffened with a flinch and took a step back, almost running into the wall. Veronica stepped almost in between; Hunk was taller and broader than her, but that didn’t stop her from trying to pretend she could be cover for him. “He just saved all of our asses is what’s going on here. Also he’s on break, so there’s no chain of command right now, anyway.”

Coran looked between Hunk and the screen, and pulled into something closer to military bearing himself, sidling in a little more to the center; Veronica caught it with a half-nod and stepped back to stand beside Hunk, while Tav just stayed still, suddenly more nervous with the entire thing. “You must be one of the leaders here! My name is Coran, and I’m the lead advisor to the Altean royal family.”

Which made him the highest ranked person there, at least until Hunk was more officially a Paladin… but Coran had the feeling Hunk would need time to wrap his head around the fact that he was no longer under his old chain of command and probably outranked everyone he’d taken orders from before.

Iverson nodded, attention centering on Coran with only an odd flicker of a still-confused glance at Hunk and Tav. “Commander Iverson, of the Galaxy Garrison, Earth’s joint space exploration effort.” There was another, more awkward glance at Hunk. “My apologies for the abrupt introduction; we’re still making sense of what’s going on here.”

“Oh, no apologies needed, this has been a sudden string of emergencies for everyone involved.” Coran was handling it with easy, affable calm.

Iverson was making stray glances occasionally, as if there were someone he was looking for. “So was your mission successful?”

Coran paused; he hadn’t really had much time anywhere to catch up on everything that’d happened, just that they’d gotten to the Battlecruiser, taken down it and Sendak, and the mess after, which left him with little more than the inference that Allura or Keith must’ve explained something in passing to some of the Earth forces en route. “Yes, it was, although I confess we haven’t even had time to properly debrief here - we had a few other crises to handle in the immediate aftermath, and I was staying with the support ship during.”

Iverson nodded. “Will you have time to give us an explanation soon?” He was mostly reigning in a habitual brusque manner. Mostly.

Veera shifted weight behind him with a heavy headtilt and an expression of exasperation.

“A full one, yes, as soon as we all manage to properly catch up. For now, though, you need to step up your security. How much do you know about the Galra commanders who’d been about to dig into your planet?” He doubted Allura had time to explain much.

“We met one of them before the ship blew up - Commander Sendak.” Iverson made a distasteful face, and Coran recognized the silence of someone sitting on a tirade out of uncertainty what would be allowed in protocol. He raised an eyebrow and nodded with a sympathetic noise.

“The good news is, the bastard’s dead,” Veronica chimed in behind him. “Went down just before his ship did.”

Coran just nodded; not protocol, but it worked. “The bad news is, his second in command is not. Haxus only has a handful of soldiers and drones, but has proven to be clever, deadly, and very vindictive.”

Selkor cringed behind Tav, looking to the side and shifting weight, almost moving to step out of frame but still sticking close, not wanting to put distance between them.

Iverson was very still, but there was a moment where he was visually tracing the screen he was talking to, the people on the other side, with a sidelong glance to the two Galra beside him, who were still keeping quiet, and the mental click was almost audible.

“So he’s likely to target the defectors and the rescued prisoners.”

“Definitely, yep. I’m going to talk to the Princess and we’ll be lending you our support, but, sooner warned is sooner wary.”

Iverson was stiff and distinctly uncomfortable. “Any help you can provide would be greatly. Appreciated.” It was flat and a little acid in tone. “One last thing then -” He turned his attention behind Coran. “Cad-…” He closed his eyes, face crinkling in uncomfortably. “Hunk. Where is the rest of your team?”

Hunk blinked. “Uh. Well, Pidge is upstairs on the Castle ship thingie on the Bridge.” He hesitated, fidgeting and looking at the wall above the screen. “Lance - is in the infirmary and he’s gonna be there for a while.”

“I want to know exactly what happened out there later.”

Hunk swallowed and nodded.

Coran raised an eyebrow; he had a feeling it was going to be a fun conversation explaining to the human commander that the ‘cadets’ were no longer under his command. “We’ve got that situation under control here, Commander.”

It was a passive, diplomatic reminder that Hunk and the others were on their ship, and under their authority for the time being. It would be easier to simply call the ‘cadets’ theirs once they all had their lions and armor and could be formally presented as Paladins, but explaining their new rank and status in this call would unnecessarily drag out an unplanned emergency communication.

“At any rate, do what you can to increase your security and be careful out there - Haxus is dangerous. We should be along and able to open a more official channel shortly.”

Iverson nodded. “Understood. I’ll get the UN rep and see about getting more cooperation from the NATO camp.”

There was a pause, but before anyone else could come up with something else, Daxle had recovered enough to be giving Iverson a dim, irritated scowl. “Can I have my call back now?”

“Uh. Right.” Iverson sidled out, suddenly reminded of the two aliens, and lapsing back into uncertainty. Daxle watched after until a bit after he was out of the visible frame of the video call.

Hunk watched Iverson leave, something processing in his head about the interaction. “…Aren’t you guys like… barely out of training yourselves?”

“Yeah pretty much. We’ve got some kind of weird special status here for being the first Galra in open friendly contact after we did the whole seeking-asylum thing.” Daxle shrugged. “So we’re basically foreign representatives or something right now.”

“So you really can just tell Iverson to piss off and he can’t do anything about it.”

“Apparently yeah. I don’t think he knows what to do with us, either.” Daxle shifted, looking way, then looking up at Coran. “Are you guys gonna be over here soon?”

Coran paused, idly fussing with his moustache in thought. “Well, I have to check with Allura and the others, but we can’t really properly help or watch out for Haxus and his people from over here, and I don’t think he’s stupid enough to mount an assault on the Castle with what he has.”

Daxle turned his attention back to Tav and Selkor, who was still half-behind him. “Alright. So we’ll be careful here and see you two soon, then?”

“Yeah. Don’t worry about us, we’re pretty safe here.”

There were a couple long seconds before Tav closed the call.

“Well, then. Perhaps we should hold off on the tour and go get the Princess.” Coran motioned to follow, and they started toward the bridge.

*******************

On the bridge, Allura had brought up a console, several screens up with every area sensor readout she could bring up. The Castle had a limited range from the ground like this; she had a good map of the local terrain, a couple of the Earth camps were easy to pick up on, but it looked like Haxus was taking pains to avoid anything too easy to spot.

From what Coran had reported and the last record the Castle had, Haxus had headed into some of the dramatic bluffs around the canyon.

They were hunting Galra in a region of sharp, winding rock formations with crevices, holes, caves, dropoffs, and cliffs.

It was less confusing and honeycombed terrain than the parts of Daibaazal she’d seen, but it was the next best thing.

“The only way this would be worse would be pursuing them at night,” she muttered.

“Well, we’re not dealing with that many, right? And they don’t have a giant warship anymore.”

She had almost forgotten Pidge was on the bridge with her at first, and startled at the response to her moment of talking to herself.

“I suppose, yes. We’re in a better position now than we were when we landed in most respects.” She stared long at the maps and sensor readouts; the rubble of the battlecruiser was clear on it, with every sign that it’d done enough damage to seriously restrict what might be salvageable. “We’re just…trying to find a group of Galra in terrain that is as close as your world comes to where they originated, if less harsh.”

“Huh. I guess that makes some sort of sense. I mean, human bipedalism in humans evolved from a previously partly arboreal species suddenly needing to handle covering larger flat distances quickly, so rough terrain where they'd get an advantage being able to both climb and move quickly in open areas would hypothetically be another way to get there.” She wasn’t very concerned with it, but then, she was also still distracted by the bridge itself.

“It means that we need to know more about this officer and what he might be planning.” She scowled at the screens.

Pidge flopped down in one of the console chairs, sprawling with her legs over the side. “Wasn’t Keith on their ship? He’d probably know more than we would.”

Allura sighed. “He wasn’t there very long, and from what he was able to tell us while we were on the way here, he was kept disoriented as much as possible - he didn’t even know how to get around the ship beyond a few vague general directions.”

“I guess it was only a couple days.” There was silence; Allura studying the maps, Pidge staring at the ceiling. “What about the Galra engineers? They weren’t from his ship or anything, but they dealt with it enough that they seemed kinda familiar.”

Allura’s expression soured; she closed her eyes and put one hand to the bridge of her nose. She could handle having them under protection, but trusting them for something that potentially important when they’d been posted for the purpose of finding the lion for Zarkon didn’t sit well with her. “I’d rather not rely on them for necessary intelligence if I can help it. We don’t know where their loyalties really are.”

“Didn’t you get directions to that stabilization system in the battlecruiser from one of them?”

Allura grimaced. Riven had also almost killed Keith in ambush, even if they could’ve taken him if he hadn’t surprised them, and the big ex-soldier hadn’t been easy on her nerves. Still, they might not’ve been able to bring the ship down without his help, even if she wasn’t sure where he stood either, besides hating Sendak and having some kind of weird sympathetic recognition of the symbol of Keith’s mysterious allies.

Mysterious allies that still made her uneasy, but they didn’t have much choice there right now.

On the other hand, Tav and Lance both were inclined to trust him and believe he had grudges against the Empire. Her reflexes were still wanting to scream at her to watch for some kind of plot or knife aimed at her back even with the young surveyor, and she was very suspicious of how convenient it was that he’d been researching ways to find the lion right around when Sendak zeroed in on Earth, but all other evidence was in his favor, and she knew she did need to try to untangle what was actual instinct and what was wounded paranoia.

Besides, if he’d known how to find the lion’s exact location, he could’ve handed it and Lance to Sendak easily - although that would probably also mean Sendak getting all the credit...

Plachu nudged her neck from where he was sitting on her shoulder. “You can chase that in circles all day and not get anywhere.”

She didn’t like it but he wasn’t wrong.

“If the one who’d given us those directions were here,” she said, deliberate and still considering, “I would probably take him for a decent enough potential source.”

Riven had evacuated; there wasn’t any sign of another Galra group, which probably meant he’d taken what he could of his people back to their outpost - the little skiffs and escape pods on the battlecruiser would’ve easily been able to make the trip.

“But…,” Allura started to continue.

She still hesitated; it felt like it’d been easier to charge Sendak than it was to actually seek out help from a Galra, even one she had plenty of proof was on their side. She finally just schooled her bearing; she had to at least try to lead, here, and not let her emotions make things worse for all of them. “Your teammate’s new friend might know something.”

Pidge frowned, hands folded behind her head; she was starting to get the feeling the Princess wasn’t always this prickly, and that there was a simple general explanation for it. “Well, yeah. I mean, he already helped Lance get past the guy.” Calling it out was a bad idea, but she was also bad at just walking away from things like that. “I’m a little surprised he wasn’t your first thought there.”

Allura went still; Pidge froze herself, waiting for a sign whether her backhanded jab had hit a land mine or not.

Pidge only heard squeaking, so Chuchule’s “Pidge’s right, you know,” was lost on her.

Plachu wasn’t going to let go of it either; Allura could feel the pointed stare from her shoulder. “You have someone right there who might not be military or close or anything but knows more than we do and has plenty of reason to help - it doesn’t sound like this is the first time the guy’s terrorized them and he just killed one of Tav’s friends on that ship.”

Allura closed her eyes, taking a moment that was a mix of sulking and working on shoving her own lingering bits of panic into a box. “It would be a start, yes. I don’t have him registered individually in the Castle’s system yet unless Coran did something, but Coran will know where he is either way.”

She toggled over on a screen, but gave up on calling Coran; he was about to enter the bridge anyway, and not alone, either.

The door opened, and Coran led the way in, trailing the small entourage from the infirmary.

“Princess, we may have a problem.”

Allura stared at the screens in resignation. It really should’ve been more upsetting or jarring, but this entire few days had been randomly spaced strings of new, unexpected problems and things going wrong; the novelty was starting to wear off.

There wasn’t much to do but find out what it was and try to deal with it. “What sort of problem?”

“Well, apparently our Paladins and some of our new young allies managed to rescue a group of prisoners from Sendak’s ship before it was destroyed; the problem is that they’re in one of the human encampments right now, and… well… Haxus. I doubt he’s going to take kindly to them, and they’re a much easier target than we are right now.”

Of course they’d aim at the vulnerable targets.

She rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Do you know about how long we have before his backup arrives?”

The young Galra counted off for a moment, doing mental math. “About three local days.”

“Do we know anything about how much he can summon?” That didn’t seem like a long time, so the sooner she got a better plan together, the better.

Selkor looked back, hitting the end of his rope for this; Tav walked forward, putting a hand on his shoulder as he passed. “Whatever’s at the nearest galactic hub that was under Sendak’s command - the usual response to that sort of thing is reducing the moon or planet to rubble. I don’t know how many ships that’d end up being.”

Pidge shot up in the chair, twisting around, and Hunk jerked upright. “He’s going to blow up Earth?!” came from both of them, garbled as they talked over each other.

Tav stared at her, mouth open. “Uh - well, Kelv - Europa will be the primary target? Earth’s not a part of the Empire, it’s only interesting to the Empire because of - well, Voltron. I don’t know if Haxus would destroy it over Daxle and Veera. They take treason pretty seriously, though, so they’ll probably keep coming until Kelvet’s gone, and…”

Allura folded her arms; her head hurt, and it felt safe to assume that this commander would not only be every bit as vicious as she feared, but find new depths of it she wouldn’t think of herself. “If the colonists were brought on board the Castle, would that remove his reason to aim at this system?”

If it was between her discomfort and innocent lives, she would just have to find a way to deal.

The bridge was silent; Coran was trying to keep from drawing attention or making an issue of it while the others were there, but Pidge noticed a smile of quiet, sad pride.

Tav paused, mouth open. “I - …probably?”

“Then there will be no Galra traitors here for him to aim at.” The Castle was a better defended target anyway. “We will move the Castle to cover the human encampment, and bring your people on Earth on board first; since we cannot guarantee we can respond quickly enough should he choose to check later to be sure, I will not leave any of them here to find. We’ll hunt him down and deal with him as swiftly as we can, then contact the colony for an evacuation.”

They could deal with figuring out which ones could be trusted to help around the Castle afterwards, and maybe find some outpost or something that was free of Zarkon’s rule or at least less vulnerable for them to stay on later; for now, the important part was preventing needless civilian deaths to the Empire’s brutality, whether it was humans or Zarkon’s own people.

Coran was smiling, a broad grin spreading across his face. “Ready when you are, Princess!”

It was a short and anticlimactic task to move the Castle from where Coran had initially landed to an open space near the Garrison camp. Allura gathered herself to head out, straightening her dress; Pidge hopped down from the chair, fully intent on following her and Coran.

Selkor almost begged out, choosing to stay on the ship, then thought better of it when he realized Tav was going. Hunk tried to follow suit, but Pidge grabbed his wrist in mid-sentence, tugging him after as they left.

She figured that they were fine as long as they stayed behind the Alteans.

Veronica had left the bridge briefly to gather her camera and bag, rejoining them on the way out.

Allura made a call over the comm on the way out; when they got to the lift out, Keith was already waiting, in armor, the faceplate on and tinted again.

Hunk raised a hand to say something, then let it go, shaking his head. “Knowing Iverson’s out there, I can’t blame you.”

Allura stopped before they got out from under the Castle, looking back with a heavy sigh. “I realize your relationship with your former commanding officer is not the best, but looming around with faceless armor is not good diplomacy.”

There was an actual, rusted, rattling-metal growl that got a nervous moment from both Pidge and Hunk, but Keith reached up, the faceplate retracting as he took the helmet off and tucked it under his arm, already starting to hunch into the human equivalent of a cat that didn’t want to move. His ears were low and flat back, points sticking out of his hair, yellow eyes narrowed.

The growl had thinned out, but was still going; Tav edged away nervously, Selkor making a small squeak and ducking behind him, while Pidge and Hunk both stared. Hunk might have been the only one that remembered seeing Keith directly before, but Pidge had seen some photos of Matt’s from the Garrison, and Keith hadn’t looked like that before. Veronica had a moment of startle, then suddenly found the perimeter fence fascinating, taking her time lining up photos.

“…Uh…Keith? …Buddy? You’re kind of.” Hunk blinked. “Purple.”

Keith didn’t look at Hunk, but his scowl and hunch deepened; Tav gave another nervous glance.

That was where he finally snapped. “Oh give me a break. I’ve only actually had the vocal anatomy for this bullshit for maybe three days, yes, I am still learning to control it.”

It took Hunk a second to register at the amount of teeth points that’d been visible as he talked that it actually was an expression and mannerism he’d seen Keith do before, it just made a lot more sense when there were fangs to go with it.

Tav just edged sideways a little further away from him, trying to tune it out but not really managing to relax or act like it wasn’t happening. He was also trying not to look at Keith; it was a little too easy to see a taller armored shape with the same coloration, same markings, and a dramatic history of Reasons To Not Want To See Her Angry.

Allura shook her head, and waited for him to get composure enough to stop growling quite as loudly before she continued toward the gate.

The two men in uniform at either side gave half-confused salutes, motioning to the others inside to slide open the hastily constructed gate in the fence; Allura winced inwardly looking over the defenses. There were guard towers that were partly open, the fence was metal that didn’t look like it would hold up well against Galra weaponry, and the handful of soldiers definitely didn’t have anything that would hold up. She doubted the rifles they carried would do much against Galra armor, either.

The humans were trying their best, but they were easy targets.

When they walked in, there was a sudden jumble of Veera and Daxle both yelling names and almost charging forward at Selkor and Tav. Veera was the first one to stop, glancing back at Iverson and the diplomat in the suit; she grabbed the back of Daxle’s shirt, stopping him and nodding over at the humans, where the UN representative was covering his face to try not to laugh while Iverson just looked long-suffering.

Tav had immediately perked up, but did a better job of keeping composure; Selkor leaned over his shoulder, then cast nervous glances back, at the bluffs around them. There was a moment where Daxle and Veera both noticed Keith was a visible double-take, Daxle’s jaw dropping before Veera elbowed him.

And the quiet, rusty-sounding growl had started up behind Allura again. She wasn’t going to look, she could already guess about what tier of narrowed glare Keith was giving Iverson.

Pidge was right at her left, with Veronica a little behind her and Hunk starting to edge behind Veronica again. It wasn’t anything like what she’d have pictured the first diplomatic appearance of the new Paladins to be, and she didn’t want to think about how much better at it her father’s team had to’ve been; she just kept telling herself none of them had any experience or exposure to diplomatic settings of any kind, unlike the old Paladins, and squared her shoulders to take up the slack.

The UN representative was a markedly different figure than Iverson, a bit shorter, and much more composed about the whole thing, with an air of calm that made him stepping forward with a careful bow seem natural even if he had no outward marks of station; it was definitely the same voice as the earlier, brief call when the Garrison officer had interrupted their path to the battlecruiser.

“Princess Allura, it is a pleasure to finally be able to meet in person.” There was genuine relief; she could only imagine what it must’ve been like trying to negotiate with Sendak.

“Same, although I wish it were under better circumstances.” She returned the bow, a little more uncertainly; it was hard to tell if it was the normal gesture here or just something used as a guess at safe and neutral. “I understand you’ve already been warned about the current threat?”

“Yes, although we would be grateful for any help you could provide - we’re all very uncertain about our chances and have had very little say in anything that’s gone on here.” He paused. “Or explanation of what is going on, really.”

Allura caught the hint, covering a faint grimace. “You do have my apologies for that; we’re a little short-handed, and were rather preoccupied with the immediate threat.”

He nodded. “I realize we’re still under threat, but it would be easier to respond if we actually knew what we were up against. I would presume the machine that appeared after the ship went down was a part of your father’s weapon?”

And he was right; they were the most at risk and did deserve answers. “Yes; that was one of the five lions of Voltron, although I admit I was even more pressed for time on my earlier explanation - they are living things in and of themselves, and more than just weapons… although I suspect that may be all that the Galra Emperor is thinking of them as anymore.”

“How did it come to be hidden here?”

She paused. She didn’t actually know much of that herself in detail, thanks to how it happened; she hadn’t been awake for it, just checked what records the Castle had. There pointedly wasn’t anything documented on the locations or how and why they were chosen; they’d left as little trail as possible to follow, and she was going to need to rely on her own connection to them to find them now. “Well, when it was split up to hide when he first turned genocidal, each of the previous Paladins tried to take their lion to somewhere they could construct an effective seal that would also be hard to find and as out of the way as possible. I doubt the previous Paladin had realized your people’s ancestors were even here when it was hidden; he wouldn’t have willingly placed a people that couldn’t defend themselves at risk.”

He was studying her, an awkward moment where his brows knitted in partial confusion. “…Forgive me if this is personal, but how long ago was this?”

“Ten thousand years ago. My father placed myself and his most trusted advisor in cryosleep to keep us safe until a new group of Paladins managed to find the lions.” She motioned behind her, still a little unsure about looking back to see if Keith was even paying attention or if he was too busy growling at Iverson; he was the only one in armor, at least. “Sendak took Keith off of your planet after realizing that the Red Lion was calling to him; Keith managed to escape with the lion and found us, then brought us back to protect this planet and keep the Blue Lion out of Galra hands. We found out shortly after arrival that the Blue Lion was already calling to a new paladin itself, and that the rest of the likely new choices were already fighting.”

The diplomat nodded, giving them all a considering, thoughtful look. Iverson had been trying to ignore the death glare he was getting the entire time, but Allura’s explanation threw a wrench into that, and he actually stopped to squint at Keith with a look of quiet, growing horror. “…Kogane?”

“What.” It didn’t even manage to interrupt the growling.

“The Hell happened to you?”

There was a quiet grimace from the UN representative and four younger Galra giving Iverson a wary stare, while Keith hadn’t budged.

“They decided to ‘fix’ me being able to pass for human.” Keith was, sort of, managing a level tone, but even without the growling underneath it the bait being left out and simmering resentment was hard to miss.

Iverson stared, turning incredibly and openly awkward. “You, uh. Really take after your mother.”

Keith’s ears flattened back enough to almost vanish into his hair with a sharp, loud rattling hiss of surprise, and Hunk was suddenly debating how to get further away from Keith and still keep Veronica and Allura between him and Iverson. Iverson flinched back. The Kelvet Galra all edged a little further away from Keith, shrinking.

What do you know about my mother?!

Iverson threw his hands up in surrender. “Not a whole lot - wasn’t even sure you were hers ‘till you hit me that one time - I would’ve said something sooner if I’d figured it out!”

Keith growled, teeth bared. Kadi raised a hand, edging carefully in between. “We’ll need to be in the same space while handling whatever is going on here. Surely there will be time for full explanations after we’ve sorted out the more urgent threats?” He looked between the two of them, imploring.

Keith took a step back, looking away with a sharp noise cutting off the growl. Iverson nodded, straightening himself.

Allura cleared her throat. “That does bring up something I do need to discuss with both of you. I am given to understand that Keith, these two accompanying me, and their teammate who is temporarily unable to be present were being trained by this organization previously?”

Iverson froze, suddenly more on the spot and stuck with another set of Implications. “…Yes?”

Keith was Former by a good bit longer, but he did have enough sense to know better than to comment on Hunk or “Pidge”.

“I would have given more warning if I could have, but since they have been chosen by the Lions, they are now effectively under my command and will be unable to remain on Earth after we’ve dealt with the current threat, as we would rather not give the Galra more reasons to threaten your planet.” Hopefully it would be enough to head off any conflicts at the pass; if Iverson was giving them space and treating them as under her command, then she’d only need to worry about making sure they weren’t starting unnecessary fights.

She was beginning to get the sinking realization she couldn’t just worry about Keith starting unnecessary fights, as she’d realized that Pidge was also giving about the same level of attempt at glaring a hole through Iverson’s head, and now that she was aware of that, Iverson pointedly avoiding looking at Pidge was becoming more noticeable.

“Understood,” was Iverson’s short reply; he was looking increasingly uncomfortable with the entire situation, but thankfully didn’t seem inclined to start any fights. After a slow pause with an odd expression causing his face that almost read as guilt, however, he added, dragging the words out of himself: “Can I ask why Lance isn’t here?”

That raised her suspicions, although she was staying cautious for now, even if she did catch a flicker of an shift of ears from Keith.

“He was wounded in the fight with Sendak, and is recovering in our infirmary.”

Iverson nodded, looking away and letting out a breath with some kind of tension released; it was hard to tell if the diplomat knew anything, but he had paused during that, eyes closed.

“Is there something that I missed before my arrival?”

Iverson stiffened, and didn’t answer.

The diplomat’s words were carefully chosen, tone calm and measured. “We made an attempt at contacting and negotiating with Commander Sendak. Among his implied and outright threats, he brought up there being a trio of Garrison cadets causing trouble in his camp as a strike against us, with two of them in custody. There was an attempt to contact the third to call him out of harm’s way so there wouldn’t be any further loss of life, but it was refused, and we think Sendak dropped that information so that they could try to use our attempt at calling him back to trace his location.”

“So we were getting written off as dead?”, Pidge snapped.

Both of them flinched, Iverson more obviously.

“There was nothing we could do.” Kadi motioned at the camp around them. “Sendak made it quite clear that if any of us moved to intervene, it would be taken as an act of war against them - everything we have, they could easily brush aside if we did try to fight. When I contacted Allura, knowing they could monitor our calls - I couldn’t even ask for help and I was still bracing for the fighters to turn against this camp, possibly the towns and cities nearby in retaliation.” He held up his hands. “Your teammate was the only person in a position to move against them without at least the entire population of this general area essentially held hostage.”

Pidge bristled, and Allura put a hand on her shoulder. She didn’t like the idea of them abandoning their own people to Sendak without a fight, either, but she was biting her own tongue on that while they were there to provide protection.

She didn’t know what they might’ve had available, but Lance and the others had managed to sneak in, and she would think the military bases would have some kind of intelligence or scout personnel present that had to be capable. The outpost Galra had shown more spine in standing up to the Empire so far, in her opinion.

The diplomat turned to Iverson, nodding towards them. “I think it’s about time you came clean to the family members.”

Iverson’s expression fell with a sour grimace, but he nodded, even if he had his eyes closed and took a moment to find somewhere to start. “We did know we weren’t alone. Between the Europa probes getting sabotaged, other probes seeing ships in the outer solar system, and picking up on strange transmissions, and Krolia slipping us intel quietly, nevermind Bigfoot here-,” he jerked a thumb at Daxle, who shifted nervously, “it was hard not to know.”

Keith snarled, and Pidge tensed, on the verge of ignoring Allura’s hand on her shoulder.

“They’d ignored us for years, including the previous outer solar system missions, and ignored every attempt we made at opening contact. We weren’t sure what to do with it, but we got the idea they were damn intent on not acknowledging us, so we weren’t sure how they’d take it if we reacted more than a few scientists trying to flag them down.” Iverson folded his arms, shaking his head. “Kerberos was the first time they didn’t ignore us, and by the time we realized they’d actually reacted, it was too late and they were far out of our reach.”

“And you couldn’t have warned them there were hostile aliens out there?” Pidge almost pulled away from Allura, hands in fists at her side as she snapped at Iverson; Keith’s posture had shifted, the snarling growl louder, teeth bared, hands curved with the gloves of his gauntlets shifting to accommodate extended claws.

“What good would it have done?! They hadn’t cared about us before, even Krolia had said we were probably fine until they got close enough to annex the area!” He made a couple sharp gestures and the Kelvet Galra were staring at him in shared confusion, while Keith’s ears twitched. “Besides, Commander Holt knew, he knew to avoid doing anything to get their attention while they were out there, they did everything they could to avoid it! That ship came out of nowhere after they’d landed - damn thing moved too fast for anything of ours to touch or outrun it, too fast for us to know which way it might’ve been going!”

For a moment, Allura thought she might need to grab Pidge’s shoulder to keep her from launching herself at Iverson - then there was an off-balance, strangled noise. “You - Dad - what do you mean Dad knew?!

Daxle might’ve been shrinking away, but Veera had edged a little closer to Iverson with a nod to Allura; at least there’d be a good shot at making sure it didn’t escalate if one of them did move to do so, although the commander, as much as he had lapsed angry, wasn’t making any move forward.

“Do you think I didn’t go over everything we could’ve possibly done - that I’d send a mission like that out without at least one person knowing about them?! We’re rabbits, skittering around hoping the hawks don’t stoop on us!” Some of his anger included motion up, at something past the sky.

Something broke in Keith’s growl, the rumble draining out of the rusted-metal sound, and he took a half-step back, looking away. His voice was only barely audible. “Save it for the Galra.”

Pidge glared up at Iverson, mouth open, hands moving in betrayed shock and confusion, before finally hissing through her teeth and stepping back, shoulders hunched, arms folded, glaring at the ground, the buildings, anywhere but in front of her.

Iverson had an off-guard moment, staring at Keith uncertainly, before he shifted weight, falling back into visible discomfort as he fished something out of a pocket and took a cautious step forward to hold it down to Pidge, looking away, voice a mumble. “Sendak tossed this at us. Pretty sure it’s yours, Miss Holt.”

She stiffened, drawing back and giving it, and him, a suspicious glare before snatching it out of his hand.

“We know he was fishing for any conflict he could to isolate you,” the diplomat added quietly.

In the back of the group, there was an odd beep from Keith’s gauntlet, that got a very confused pause from him; as soon as he lifted his wrist to try to check on it, a small form of one of the computer screens came up, just enough to warn of in an incoming message - via some secondary shell inside the normal window that looked more like the interface from the Galra armor.

The actual message played on the local comm; after the first two seconds there was a faint sense of Red’s attention, and then Allura went from a briefly distracted glance to stiffening and turning to stare back.

The transmission sounded like nothing so much as the starship bridge equivalent of an accidental call, far too much background noise for a normal message.

The unfamiliar Galra voice barking orders made it clear it wasn’t an accident.

“-excavators on the ground now - we know the Yellow Lion’s down there and this is our chance to finally get past Sendak!”

Allura’s eyes narrowed; everyone else was watching the two of them in varying mixtures of confusion and concern.

“Do we even have the proper equipment for something of that size onboard currently?” That voice was close to whatever terminal or device was sending, probably right on top of it.

“We should have enough - you’re clever, I’m sure you can make it work!”

The transmission abruptly ended, but Keith’s computer was showing a readout that Red was able to recognize as coordinates.

Allura turned back to Iverson and the UN rep, fishing out a small device that she handed to the diplomat. “We’ve just received a message that an emergency situation has arisen. This will allow you to contact the Castle; my advisor should be able to help further planning and any other sudden crises.” She took a breath, looking back over what she had with her.

They only had two lions active and one of those wouldn’t count until the next local day. They couldn’t afford to move the Castle, so they would need to send Hunk with Keith; it had been urgent enough already to find the rest of the lions without the Galra tripping over one of them, and the sooner they had the other four, the sooner she could figure out something to do about the Black Lion. There wasn’t anyone else but her to accompany Pidge.

That left Coran, Veronica, and the two younger Galra that were already on the Castle to handle things for the time take to gather the last two lions. Coran would need to stay close to the ship.

“Tav, was it?”

He blinked, staring wide at her.

“Can you gather the rest of your people that are here and the rescued prisoners to get them on the Castle?” She paused, realizing she’d forgotten something, and turned to the two human leaders. “They’re going to be higher priority targets for Haxus, to make ‘examples’ of the ‘traitors’ and punish the escapees.” Despite herself, she had a faint lipcurl of disgust at that. “Coran can keep an eye on this area via the Castle’s sensors run through his own computer, and will help with setting a better perimeter.”

Iverson shifted a little more to attention uncertainly; both of them nodded.

She turned around to Lance’s sister behind her, folding her hands in front of her. “Veronica, I know you’re essentially another civilian caught up in this, but if you could help Coran in coordinating with the local authorities until we can return?”

“You know I was there for most of the fighting on that ship, right?” She raised an eyebrow, motioning with one hand vaguely the direction of the wreckage. “Of course I’ll help out.”

The diplomat behind her sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose.

“Alright - Hunk, Pidge, Keith, come with me. We need to secure the other two lions before the Galra can get to them.” She turned back long enough to bow to the two human leaders, then turned to return to the castle, the other three hurrying to follow.

What was left behind was an awkward moment with Iverson and most of the Galra staring after Allura and the others, Tav staring after trying to process that she’d just included him in orders and apparently concluded he was the one in charge of his little group, while Veronica and the diplomat had their own gauging staredown.

“Miss Espinosa. I see your talent for finding the most dangerous situations possible hasn’t diminished.”

“I can’t even take credit for this one.” She held up her hands. “I was just being the driver for my little brother.”

Iverson looked between them, suddenly more uneasy; he’d met Lance’s sister a few times, not always because of Lance, making it something he both hadn’t expected and should’ve seen coming. “You two know each other?”

“Most of my work has been mediation and negotiations during crisis and conflict situations. She’s been one of the first cameras on the scene in the last few years more than once.”

Iverson decided he’d rather not be in the middle of that and took a half-step back, even if that left him with the gaggle of aliens that were mostly head and shoulders taller than him.

“So, usual press gag order until things are more sorted?” She motioned to the camp.

He started to answer, then shook his head slowly, scanning the area with a brief, pained frown. “This has already made the news with much more panic and sensationalism than is good for anyone; having another person posting something closer to the truth can only help, and we may not have time to properly review what you’re writing - this situation is a little outside of any existing protocols. Just try to mind security and safety concerns?”

She gave a mock salute. “I’ll be careful. We’re just lucky Lance managed to save my work tablet.”

Iverson stifled that tiny added migraine; a reporter that had just been given an all-clear to publish where they couldn’t really restrict her movements very well was going to make his life more complicated. He turned his attention to the young Galra, choosing to ignore it for now.

Specifically, Tav.

“So you’re the leader of this group?”

Veera snickered behind Iverson. Selkor stepped half-behind him again, and Daxle held up his hands out of Iverson’s line of sight, stepping back himself. ‘Leadership’ had been a very hazy term when they’d been doing survey work before, and he’d only been nominally in charge of dealing with Sendak because Sendak’s interest was his work specifically so he automatically lost the usual ‘game’ of ‘last person to have a good reason to bow out is stuck dealing with him’.

Then Allura addressed the one of them she was most familiar with, which wasn’t that bad since it meant she was actually accepting him being there, but was a problem because Iverson had apparently taken it to mean he was in charge.

And nobody else wanted to be ‘in charge’ for this, so they were running with it.

“It sure looks that way.”

“Then we need to start arranging to get the people you sent to us to that ship.”

Iverson turned to lead away, and the others trailed behind him, very pointedly letting him be the one talking.

****************************

The first priority was the Yellow Lion, since they had coordinates from Keith’s mysterious contact and the battlecruiser present made it much more urgent.

It also meant there was no question that they had to send a lion with Hunk, and only one lion was active with their Paladin conscious and available, nevermind that Keith was the only one who could reliably contact with their spy on the inside - who was apparently on that ship.

Before Hunk had even had a chance to get much input, he was rushed through getting his armor and bayard, then hurried off to the Red Lion’s cockpit again, alone with Keith, with Allura priming a wormhole with power fed into the Castle so they could leave immediately and she could walk away from it. The Red Lion launched, Keith focused on getting there.

“So… why is it a big deal that Allura needs to set things up special to walk away from it? How do these wormhole things work, anyway?”

Keith blinked, not quite looking up at Hunk, who was leaning over the back of the pilot’s seat. “…I don’t really know.”

“Didn’t get time for all the explanations of how things work or anything?”

“Not really.” Keith wasn’t sure what was going on now or why Hunk had suddenly gotten chatty at him while they were making re-entry, Red’s scanners already zeroed in on the battlecruiser and the cave entrance below it.

“I mean if it’s something that’s a part of the ship then it should work, right? But it’s apparently something to do with Allura? Hey, maybe it’s related to that thing where she can bend doors open and stuff!”

The swarm of fighters that went with the battlecruiser had swung upward, already on approach to greet them en masse with weapons live. “Talk later fighting now!”

Hunk braced as the lion went into a dizzying roll through the storm of metal and enemy fire, cutting a path through it with her own weaponry; by all rights he should’ve been thrown around the cockpit like a ping-pong ball in a box thrown down a hill with no restraints or safety gear, but there was only minor senses of motion, enough to keep bearings on what was going on without getting thrown.

“Hey does this thing have some kind of inertial damper and - dude you’re upside down and gravity here is still me standing on the floor how does this work oh god that’s a lot of fighters what’s that warning screen about the ship.” Hunk’s rambling trailed off; Keith was tuning it out, attention fixed on everything aiming at them and the warnings about some kind of heavy weaponry from the battlecruiser itself trying to lock on.

The cannon was visible turning and shifting to try to track them, although it didn’t seem like it moved fast enough to draw a good bead on them as long as he kept moving.

Which…was going to be a problem, since it was tracking just fast enough to get a lock if he landed to let Hunk out.

“I need to do something about that cannon before I can let you out.”

The Red Lion swung hard as he said that. The cannon had some limits in the angles it could aim at because of how it was placed on the ship, which meant he might be able to get an angle of attack under its range of movement, leading the entire swarm of fighters on a chase around the bottom of the battlecruiser, its side guns tracking and firing much faster.

That meant a lot more weaving erratically to dodge while he tried to get under the cannon.

His clear shot was a running one, but he got it, Red pouring power into trying to disable it.

Red’s line of fire raked across some kind of energy barrier as the lion shot up past it, Keith growling at the defenses - of course they’d have it built to not be that easy to take out, of course they’d know it’d be one of the primary targets for an attacking enemy.

And the giant canon was still trying to track for targeting. He didn’t want to find out what it would do even if Red was supposed to be nearly indestructible, and Red supported that decision.

The fighters formations were ridiculously neat for the numbers, almost too mathematically perfect, and every time he’d gotten a shot they’d shown next to no sign of self-preservati