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Aphrodite

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Entering Orbit………

***

System Overload; Air Pocket……….

Entering Orbit………

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Activating Available Life-Support Systems; 10 Minutes; 7 7 0 0………

Activating Program 2 0 6………

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Holding Pattern; 7 7 0 0………

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Life Support Systems Activated………

Subject Error; 7 7 0 0………

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Fuel Reserves Approaching Minimum; 5 minutes………

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Subject Error; System Overload; 7 7 0 0………

Holding Pattern; Support Systems Activated; 2 0 6; 7 7 0 0………

***

Activating Self-Destruct Sequence……..

 

 

 

 

 

 

╞═════𖠁𐂃𖠁═════╡

 

 

 

“Uh, Hunk? Some help, please? There’s gotta be a way to open this thing!”

[Muffled auditory signals, coming from above. Overheated, system failure.]

“Uh… I don’t know, Pidge, I don’t usually go around opening up strange, wrecked alien ships!”

“Oh, c’mon! Don’t be such a baby and help me! Put those huge arms to use!”

[Unidentified, analysis failed. Insufficient auditory information. Insufficient visual information. Re-adjusting.]

“Oh, man… this thing is heavy! You sure this won’t, like, activate something? Like a bomb, or a defense system?”

“If I’d had answers to those questions, I wouldn’t be doing this right now!”

[Information analysis: female adult, earthling. Acquiring data. Information analysis: male adult, earthling. Insufficient auditory information for further analysis. Insufficient visual information for further analysis.]

“There! I got it!”

[Information analysis: human creatures. Male and female, beta— positive. Readings: N: 78%; O: 21%. Further readings concluding it sufficient for deactivation of minor life support systems. Deactivating life support systems 2 0 1 and 2 1 2.]

 

╞═════𖠁𐂃𖠁═════╡

 

“Uh… hello?”

“Is that a person?”

“I don’t know, it’s not responding…”

“But its eyes are open!”

“Yes, Hunk, I’m aware. I’m wearing glasses, I’m not blind.”

She sighed and rubbed at her temples. The humanoid thing was currently splayed out on their examination table, unresponsive. They’ve tried everything, and nothing seems to work! The thing is completely dead, butchered beyond repair.

They stumbled upon it during one of their scavenger hunts in the lower levels, level 2 two be precise. After hours without any luck in their scavenging, they were struck with a sudden, quick light-pulse coming from the distance amongst the gray building blocks. This far down, no sunlight is ever witnessed and the city resorts to artificial lightning, which obviously cannot compare to the sun’s strong rays. This is exactly why the sudden, unexplainable light-pulse caught the duos attention, and, well, Pidge being Pidge had to dive headfirst into the newly presented puzzle: A strange, egg-shaped alien spacecraft. The busted invisibility mantel came undone and presented a roughly 7ft long space-craft, its outer layer showing no design or pattern, no buttons or other. Just a sleek, shiny, thrashed, black egg crash landed and wedged between two supporting beams below the city transportation system. How it even got there in the first place is a mystery since there are no open spaces between the structures in Panthera, arguably the most dense city-system.

After some prodding, poking and forcing the opening of practically invisible hatches they finally managed to open the egg-shaped thing only to reveal a humanoid creature resting inside. No doubt had this thing been through it. The outer layers of its matching black armor were torn and ripped, revealing a dark purple inner layer of sorts. There were no signs of blood, although it had been hard to tell. The creature laid immersed in a thick, pitch black, liquid substance that stuck to the thing like it was its lifeline. Pidge, of course, took a sample of it (with major resistance from the freaky substance), and discovered a liquid substance containing nanobots, all swimming around the thick goo. Fascinating, yes. Confusing, even more so.

“Should we tell anyone?” Hunk asked, bringing her down to Earth. The inbuilt ventilation system in their laboratory buzzed actively.

She took a deep breath, “No. Maybe Shiro since we need to properly hide the space craft. But no one else from the Academy.”

“What about Lance?”

Hunk widened his eyes, eyelashes fluttering and lower lip jutting out. Puppy faces don’t work on me, Hunk! She fiddled with the hem of her coat.

“Last time I checked, Lance is not an official member of the Academy.”

“No, but he is our friend.” Hunk supplied fruitlessly and leaned in closer.

“Of course, we have to tell Lance. As much as I hate to admit it, he might have an idea on how to make this thing… I don’t know… do something?”

“Do we want it to do something?”

“We want it to do something that won’t exterminate the human race, yes.”

“And how do we know it won’t?”

“We don’t.” 

 

╞═════𖠁𐂃𖠁═════╡

Chapter Text

 

╭⋟────────────────────────╮

✦✧✦✧

You're from a whole 'nother world, a different dimension.

You open my eyes, and I'm ready to go; lead me into the light.

✦✧✦✧

╰────────────────────────⋞╯

 

╞═════𖠁𐂃𖠁═════╡

 

Apex Leo: the most desired, well refined and gorgeous, last level. This far up in the sky the levels below— visible through the sky-high windows throughout the transportation sector— appear as nothing but specks of light and color, glinting provocatively in the bright sunlight.

Lance can’t help but emphasize with the lower levels and its unfortunate, unlucky inhabitants. He couldn’t imagine a life without sunlight, without clear skies and star-filled nights. For as long as he can remember, he’s been walking below the blazing sun, skipping through air and silken-soft clouds. It was what gave him his bronzed, caramel skin. Lance was living his best life, and for so many years he went about ignorant to the struggling inhabitants below his feet— ignorant to the treasures hidden between Panthera and Felis— which is why he developed a keen interest in the different Levels. That was how he met Pidge and Hunk for the first time, during a purely business-related trip down to AFHI headquarters in Felis.

He fell in love with the duo at first sight and they’ve been inseparable since.

Despite their class differences, the trio venture out into the world below together on a regular basis. Of course, nothing below Canis is allowed for Lance, but rules are made to be broken. Right?

This day was no different. As per usual, Lance had been called upon by Pidge who was screaming gibberish, frantically, over the communicator. Her animatic gesticulations and expressiveness was a surprise in and of itself, but he was no less shocked to hear what his favorite duo had scavenged this time.

 

╞═════𖠁𐂃𖠁═════╡

 

“Remind me once more why you want to activate something that could potentially obliterate the entire planet? You said this thing was, what, immersed in nanbots?”

Nanobots. And, yes, I wanna know what exactly it is.” Pidge supplied, adjusting her glasses, “I doubt it’ll obliterate anything, though. At least not until it’s…” she trailed off and lifted one of the creature’s limp arms, “fixed.” she finished and dropped the dead weight back on the table. It landed with a loud thud.

Lance glanced back down at the thing and gawked once more at the sheer size of it. The creature was at least 7ft tall and must weight somewhere around 220 pounds, if not more. Simply put: gigantic and clearly not of this world. How it managed to wedge itself between two beams below the portal-rails in Panthera— without leaving a single trail of destruction behind from crash landing through the eight levels above— was a mystery.

“Have you… uh…” he started and mimicked Pidge’s earlier arm-examination, “Have you tried touching it?”

“Have we what?”

“You know… like… touching it….”

Hunk choked on his sandwich in the background. Pidge spoke for the two, her face contorted into an expression of plain disgust, “I’m not keen on giving alien handjobs—”

“WHAT! No! No, no, no! I didn’t—” heat rose to his face, just what exactly is she thinking, “I didn’t mean it like that!” he tried clarifying in panic, “I mean it as in ‘have you tried pressing on the armor of face or something’. You know, like, when you slap someone who’s unconscious— WHAT THE FUCK, GUYS?”

He glared furiously at the duo, shocked at their filthy minds and even filthier image of him. Before they could add to the embarrassment, Lance turned and inspected the creature’s head closer.

It had eyes, that much was clear, though they were a matching, shiny black like its armor. Open, but lifeless. He lifted a hand and hesitantly laid it down on the right side of its head, gently, carefully stroking the sleek material. But before his brain could register what was going on, the black of its eyes swished away to reveal a pair of lilac irises drenched in dark purple. As its eyes opened Lance’s arm was pulled harshly and quickly to the side. The air was knocked out of his lungs the second his back hit the cold, metal examination table. Above him loomed the damaged creature, awake and moving as if newborn. In the near distance Lance could make out the frantic yelling of his friends as they scrambled for their bayards, but it was to no avail.

Surrounding the two on the examination table was a translucent, purple, sound-isolating shield. He could hear the electric thuds as Pidge and Hunk repeatedly pounded on it in despair.

Suddenly, the enormous killer-creature above him twitched and morphed down into a much smaller, softer form. The black, shiny armor shriveled up and disappeared to somewhere on its nape and revealed a skintight, dark-purple suit which covered its entire body. On it were carved symbols, wires and various buttons. It looked incredibly high tech, despite the beating it had previously sustained. Lance was stuck staring at the design of it and only looked up at the face of his attacker when he felt something soft brush against his cheek and forehead. Hair.

His eyes met the same lilac irises, except this time they were… human. No weird dark-purple, just white and indigo as it should be. Upon taking a closer look, Lance noticed the whirring mechanics in those striking lilacs presumably scanning his face. It wasn’t human, but it looked human— he looked human, Lane corrected himself. It was definitely a man. Lance’s age, maybe older, but a man nonetheless. His skin was pale but soft, spotless, and the pitch-black hair on his head came down past his shoulders and down on the examination table, successfully covering half of Lance’s face in the process. It was tied up in a loose, low ponytail and shone beautifully in the lamplight.

 Lance forgot how to breathe, and only regained his composure as the man above him spoke. His voice low-pitched and raspy, like sex to the ears.

“Who are you and where am I?”

Lance blinked once then twice. He shook his head in an attempt to rid his embarrassing blush before finally answering, “The name’s Lance and you’re right here in my lap~” he provided with a wink and a crooked grin, face still hot. The man above didn’t so much as flinch.

He did, however, let go of Lance and slowly sat up— on his lap— as if it were the most casual thing in the universe. Though nothing about the action was remotely sexy, not to anyone but Lance— of course— who was sporting half a boner over some alien killer-cyborg. He squirmed at the contact and tried his hardest to remain indifferent about the situation. Pidge and Hunk will so beat him over this later.

“Planet.”

“What?

“What is the name of your planet. Where exactly am I.” he asked, arms crossed. Lance shivered but caught himself before his mind could wander off to places it shouldn’t be.

“Uh… Earth…” he started, “You’re on Earth, in the Milky Way…” he scratched at his cheek, waiting for a reaction, “Does that help—”

“Understood.” he said and slowly got off Lance. As he did, the barrier keeping Lance’s friends from reaching them disappeared and through came the loud, agitated yelling of his equal parts as terrified as furious friends. They immediately raised their bayards, which took the shape of their respective weapons, and aimed it at the alien man.

“Stop right there. Move and you’re dead.” they said, almost in perfect unison. They must have practiced that…

“Yeah!” Hunk added, “Or we’ll— we’ll…” but his voice wavered in fear as the alien took a slow, heavy step forward, showing no sign of neither pain nor backing down.

“Or you will do what?” he asked, voice low and animalistic.

“Uh, you know what? How— how about we just talk this out?” he said instead, de-activating his bayard and turning towards Pidge in alarm, who had also backed up from the approaching threat. Lance finally regained his senses.

“Wait!” he shouted, “Don’t hurt them! They’re my friends!” he said and ran in front of the still approaching alien, stopping in his track and swinging his arms out to either side to stop him from hurting the two people he considered his best friends, “I told you my name and where I’m from, now you do the same!” he said, voice breaking at the end of his sentence. His hands were shaking, and his knees felt as if they would give in any second. Something about the guy made him want to cave in and kneel, but he didn’t. Lance stood his ground as the alien spoke.

“My name is Zero.” he rasped out robotically.

“Zero?”

“Correct.”

Lance turned and looked at Pidge, then Hunk, who were equally as confused as he felt.

“Your name is… Zero…? Zero as in the number ‘0’?” he asked, eyebrow raised.

“Correct.”

To this, Pidge reacted. She took a slow, steady step forward and situated herself right next to Lance as she spoke, arms wrapped around Lance’s right one, “How human are you?”

The alien blinked once before tilting his head to the side, black hair falling graciously over his shoulder, “I do not understand.”

“I mean, how human are you as in what percentage? Are you mostly human or are you just a machine with a human skin?” she clarified to the oblivious creature.

“I was born human but my biological and mental abilities have been either enhanced or replaced in their entirety.” he explained, still puzzled by the question.

“So you’re a human with a robot’s brain?” Hunk suddenly asked, voice steadier than before.

“Mostly.” the alien corrected before turning to pace the room, scanning his surroundings in the process.

“Uh… why are you here again?” Lance asked.

“I have no data on it.” the humanoid replied uselessly, “All the data I have stored points to some sort of escape-plan. So far, I have followed it as commanded.”

“Commanded? Escape plan?” Hunk asked, agitated once again, “Uh, guys? That doesn’t sound good. What the hell were you escaping from?”

“Unclear.”

“And how do we know you’re saying the truth?”

“I am a machine sent here for my own preserving, why would I wish to deceive you? You bear no significance to me and your readings are proof of your garbage biological structure.”

Hunk and Lance both flinched before turning towards Pidge whose jaw hung lose, shocked beyond belief. The same technology she’s devoted her life to just roasted the fuck out of her.

“I can’t believe a machine just shade—”

“Shut the fuck up, Lance.” she bit back, irritated, her head snapped back to the rude alien, “And you have no place to talk like that when I’m the one responsible for your rescue! Had it not been for my persistence we would have never found you and brought you here in the first place!” her fists were tightly clenched by her sides, visibly shaking. With flushed cheeks she took a steady, heavy step forward, “So if you’re really speaking the truth, prove it! Let me examine you. Properly.” she concluded and unclenched her fists to entwine her arms over her chest.

The rude machine in question blinked once more, “It appears as if I angered you.” it concluded, “Your readings are off the chart—”

“Oh, shut up! I don’t wanna hear it.” she said, “And stop scanning me, it’s creepy! Are you even human at all? You have no personality!”

“I told you—”

“Let me analyze you, then we’ll talk.” she finished, leaving no room for arguments.

A long pause ensued, and an uncomfortable silence fell over the room, drowning out any positivity it had once grasped on. Just as Lance was about to propose a different course of action, the machine finally spoke.

“Understood. If that is what you wish.” he said and bowed his head ever so slightly, “If what you said is true and you were, in fact, the one to save me— I owe you as much.” he concluded before moving to sit back down on the cold examination table. Pidge’s eyes shone with determination and satisfaction over her small, momentary victory.

“Great!” she said and clapped her hands, “For starters, where are you from? How much data do you hold? Is your brain purely robotic? Why were you immersed in nanobots—”

“One question at a time, please.” he said with a furrow of his brows. The action seemed foreign, almost unnerving to Lance who could only view the thing as nothing but that— a thing, a machine incapable of emotions. Hunk appeared equally disturbed where he stood behind Lance, a safe, comfortable distance from the freaky humanoid.

“For starters,” the alien started, “I am from a planet far from your solar system. My home planet, Daibazaal, was apparently under heavy attack. Why or how, I do not know. Most of my primary storage systems were destroyed during the attack as well as the flight out to your planet.” he supplied.

Pidge had brought out her trusty notes and was tapping away enthusiastically, now properly concentrated on the task at hand.

“Wait, destroyed on the flight to our planet? How?”

“I am unsure, though my guess is that my ship was altered before departure. It was meant to self-destruct way before reaching the pre-set destination, though Rover discovered the error early on and re-adjusted the route so that I would land on Earth before self-destruction was activated.”

“That’s a lot of fancy words.”

“His ship wanted to kill him—”

“Wait,” Pidge interrupted Hunk’s explaining, “Rover? Who’s that?”

“My AI.”

She visibly flinched to a halt, eyes blown wide and eyebrows pulled down. They cast heavy shadows over her confused expression, “Your AI? As in your own artificial intelligence?” she asked, baffled.

“Yes. Like you said, my brain is mostly hardware.”

“WHAT? You have a computer for a brain?” Lance’s shocked question came through.

“I said mostly.” he clarified before turning back towards Pidge, “His name is Rover. He is not very talkative and does not like structuring full sentences, but he is great at analysis and scanning, which is why he was so quick to discover the implanted error. He does like making fun of me, though.” Zero added, furrowing his brows once more. Lance blanched.

“Ma—” he mimicked Pidge’s expression, “Making fun of you— that’s terrifying!” he exclaimed. Heavy shivers ran down the length of his spine as he uttered the sentence. Computers shouldn’t be able to make fun of you!

“I have been sharing my thoughts and information with Rover since the dawn of my existence, it is hardly terrifying— only annoying.”

The trio stared in shock, incapable of ever envisioning the type of life Zero must have led before his arrival. Imagine sharing every thought and emotion with an implanted brain-computer…

Pidge cleared her throat before continuing, “So, your brain is mostly hardware? What else was enhanced?” she asked and looked him over curiously, lifting his arm and turning his head as she inspected him.

“My spinal cord was replaced, and my bones have been enhanced. Most of my organs were replaced, too.” he answered without faltering.

“Your organs were replaced?”

“Yes. Though my heart and brain were only enhanced, they remain the same. My eyes were also enhanced.”

Pidge’s expression was that of keen interest. She walked around the examination table and pulled out various tools and substances for her examination of the alien man. He watched her as she worked, not uttering a single word of resistance. All Lance could do was stare at the man on the table. He was broad and looked way over-powered to be considered even remotely human, but something about him told Lance that this guy was holding back essential pieces of himself and who he was.

“We can’t call you Zero.”

The words left his lips before Lance had a chance to react, much less hinder them from surfacing. All eyes turned towards him, varying levels of confusion on their faces. Lance decided to go for it.

“Can we keep him?” the question was aimed at Pidge and Hunk; whose attention was now entirely on Lance. Pidge’s brows were turned down into a scowl.

“Keep him?” she asked, “He’s not a puppy, Lance, he’s a killer cyborg from outer space. We’ll have to hand him over to the Academ—”

“No!” he shouted and stood up, causing his friends to both flinch and back away from his sudden outburst, “No.” he repeated, quieter this time, “We can’t hand him over, they’ll torture him! We can’t do that…” he tried explaining, “And besides, there might be more to him than we originally thought…”

“And if he attacks or something? What then?” Pidge asked, arms crossed. She spoke as if the alien in question wasn’t right next to her, listening, “We don’t know what he’s capable of.”

“Which is exactly why you’re examining him, right?!” Lance tried asking, scared for Zero’s well-being. If they hand him over to AFHI there’s no telling whether he’ll even survive. Were he to do something— anything— that the Academy deemed a threat he’d be put down without much consideration. Lance couldn’t let that happen. As freaky as he was, Zero is a human being.

Before he could add to his argument, the alien spoke, “I can assure you that the destruction of you or your planet is of no benefit to me.” he stated firmly, “Unless you intend to lock me up. Self defense is a natural reaction to any strange information-gathering methods you might force me to undergo.” he concluded and intertwined his hand where they rested on his lap.

“See?” Lance asked, more confident now that Zero himself confirmed himself as safe.

Pidge and Hunk both stared long and har at him, and just as Lance thought he had been rejected, Hunk finally spoke up, “I mean, he has a point. It would be cruel to send him to the Academy…” he stated hesitantly, scanning his girlfriends face carefully for any trace of anger.

She let out a long sigh, “Alright. But we’ll have to teach him how to… I don’t know… act human? We can’t let him act like something straight out of my lab.”

“How about a new name?” Lance suddenly asked, question aimed at Zaro who turned to look at him again. Lilac met sky-blue and Lance’s world tilted just a little bit for the shortest of moments.

“A new name?”

“Yup! We can’t call you ‘0’, that’s just stupid! Where did that even come from?”

“It is my subject name.” Zero replied, voice low and for the first time since his awakening— hesitant, “Subject 0. A project name, if you will.” he clarified to the shocked expressions before him.

Lance’s heart broke in two, his gut twisting painfully. Subject? Project name?

“So…” he started, voice barely above a whisper, “You were a project…?” he asked.

Zero broke eye contact, lilac irises plastered on the spotless, steel floor below his feet.

“Yes.”

His face showed no emotion, but Lance could feel his pain from the way his voice broke just a little. He shook his head, ridding himself of the guilt which drowned him. Suddenly and loudly, Pidge spoke, “Wait, wait, wait! You were a project?”

“Correct.”

“And you said earlier that your storage systems were destroyed?”

“Not all, but the main ones, yes.”

She scratched her chin in thought as she paced in front of her desk, turning in quick successions. Then, suddenly, she stopped and turned sharply towards the three of them, eyes glinting with determination and a wide grin plastered on her face. Her glasses reflected the lamplight and shielded her eyes for a brief moment.

“Then how about I fix them for you?” she asked, all her attention back on Zero once more. The alien flinched in surprise, eyebrows raised high.

“You are capable of doing that?”

She scoffed, “Duh! I’m Katie Holt, for fuck’s sake! There’s no one here who knows technology better than me!” she stated pridefully, chest puffed out high.

Then, a chuckle, and the trio all snapped their heads towards the source of the sound. Zero.

Lance stared in awe, relishing in the beauty that was Zero’s gentle, short giggle. It felt like walking on clouds and sounded like siren song, dangerously captivating, hypnotizing.

“You have my permission, savior.” he said and smiled up at Pidge who still stood in utter shock, “But, I would like to ask for another favor.” he said, changing the mood. Pidge snapped back to the present.

“Uh, yeah…” she faltered, “What favor…?”

Zero sat in silence for a moment, choosing his words before speaking, “In order for my physical body to survive the sudden landing, Rover activated a filtering program meant for hazardous situations and life-threatening scenarios. It erased most of what makes me… human.” he said, “I would appreciate it if you could de-activate it.” he finished and looked at Pidge expectantly.

She frowned, “So that’s why you’re acting like a robot more than anything?”

“Partially.” he confirmed.

She stood still for a moment before nodding, “Alright, I’ll se what I can do!” she said and smiled at him.

“Thank you.”

She turned back towards Hunk and Lance who sat still in their chairs, deep in thought. Lance’s eyes were glued to Zero, interest spiked.

“Lance?” Pidge’s voice came through. His head snapped up to her face, “Yes?”

“You said you’d give him a new name?” she said.

Lance had no idea what to name the alien creature in front of him, but he thought it best to settle for something common that wouldn’t raise questions. Something lame but fitting. He looked around the room for clues when his eyes fell on an old article on Pidge’s desk. It was an old article they’d all scavenged during one of their hunts in Cynthia. On it was a picture of a firefighter smiling brightly at the camera, behind him were the remains of what was once a house. The headline read “Courageous Firefighter Keith Henderson Saves the Day Once Again”. Lance remembered how they’d all laughed at the ridiculous picture (“He saved the day, but not the house!”, Hunk had wheezed out).

He turned towards Zero, grin plastered over his face, “Keith!” he practically yelled out.

His friends were confused at first but quickly caught on, chuckling at the memory.

“Keef?” Zero asked, confused and unaware of the history behind the name.

“No! K-E-I-T-H.” he clarified and put a hand on the alien’s shoulder, squeezing firmly and throwing him his most gorgeous grin, “What do you say?”

Zero paused for a moment, as if considering the name-change, before saying, “Alright.”

He rubbed his hands, lost in thought, “Keith sounds good.” he said and smiled.

 

╞═════𖠁𐂃𖠁═════╡

 

Chapter Text

 

 

╭⋟────────────────────────╮

✦✧✦✧

Make me come alive.
Come on and turn me on.
Touch me, save my life.
Come on and turn me on.

✦✧✦✧

╰────────────────────────⋞╯

 

╞═════𖠁𐂃𖠁═════╡

 

Sedated and unconscious he seemed much less threatening. His eyelashes were long and delicate where they rested ghostly still against his contrasting skin— soft and breakable yet left without a single scratch. Pidge explained that it probably had something to do with the nanobots which swarmed his almost-corpse upon crashing. They still hadn’t figured out exactly how he crash-landed in the first place. It hardly looked like a crash, more like a sudden materialization.

Pidge’s eyes were glued to the various holograms in front of her, hyper focused on the task at hand: fixing her newly obtained machine. Her boyfriend equal parts as helpful; repairing Keith’s suit and armor as well as managing the various machines wired to and around the cyborg.

Of course, that left Lance on the sideline as nothing but an observer. Classic. However, before he cold dwell much longer on his self-pity, Pidge’s screen lit up in various shades of red as if on que. The familiar, blue and green glow was replaced with an alarming red, a stark contrast against everything in the room and an aggressive reminder of the potential danger of their task.

“Fuck! What the hell?!” Pidge suddenly exclaimed.

Though shocked at first, she reacted immediately and began pressing and typing feverously on the screen in front of her.

“Uh, that can’t be good, right?”

“No, Hunk, I don’t think that’s a good sign.”

Her fingers worked the display at an astonishing speed, with delicate and purposeful, trained, precision.

“We might have a problem.” She started, but didn’t get to finish her explanation as the screen flashed once more, displaying a wavy communication-line. Though it remained still, no voice coming through, no communication.

Lance dared a glance down at Keith, who was still laid out unconscious and unresponsive on the examination table, though he, too, was glowing at the seams of his suit in shades of red and orange.

“Something just found a way around my commands and is trying to communicate.” She summarized for the duo, eyes glued to the screen.

“Wait, it found a way around your commands?” Hunk asked, baffled.

“Yea—”

But before the girl could finish her sentence, static could be heard, slow at first until it cleared, and a voice came through— robotic but very much a voice.

“[Access denied. Entity unidentified.]”

The trio sat in parts confusion, parts shock. What now?

“Uh, guys…”

“Shh, Hunk!”

“[Access denied.]” It repeated once more, almost as if trying to clarify.

“I think it’s trying to talk to us…” Pidge said, jaw slack and eyebrows shot so far up her forehead that they almost blended with her hairline.

“[Correct. Attempting communication. It seems my attempts have failed. Would you like me to conduct a general communication-analysis?]”

That’s when it clicked. This was no strange, alien race suddenly breaking through, trying to communicate— it was Keith’s AI!

“Pidge, that’s Rover!” he shouted, “He’s talking to us! Say something!”

“Wait, what?!” Hunk cut in, “Rover? The brain AI?” he frantically asked.

“Yes!”

Pidge huffed, eyes still locked on the holographic waves on screen.

“Are you Rover, Zero’s artificial intelligence?” she suddenly asked, voice stern and clear amidst the panic all around.

“[Correct.]” it simply supplied, giving no further information.

“Why are you blocking my access?”

“[Insufficient information deems you a likely threat to host. I cannot allow access. Cancel attempt at infiltration. Self-destructing program 3 4 6 8 will be activated.]”

Suddenly, Pidge threw out her hands in front of her, waving them frantically as if the AI could see her, “Wait, no! Don’t activate anything, we’re just trying to help!” she tried explaining, “Your host asked me to deactivate whichever program you activated that stripped him off his humanity!” she finished, winded.

The screen remained still for a moment, eerily so, before sparking to life once more.

“[I cannot allow access. Insufficient information.]” was the short and simple answer, an attempt at ending the conversation. Had it been a human, that would be the end of it— no room for arguments— but Pidge knew better.

“Listen up here, buddy, either you let me through or I’ll send off your host to AFHI where he’ll be infiltrated in a million ways, much worse than the deactivation of a stupid filtering program!”

Once again, the other end remained still, as if the machine was contemplating her outburst. And maybe it was, because what it said next left them all surprised beyond comprehension.

“[Understood. Activating life support systems. Activating minor protective systems. Deactivating defense programs. Accessing main library.]”

The trio sat in silence, watching as the AI worked right before their eyes, activating and deactivating pre-set programs and systems at rapid speeds. It had certainly outsmarted them and was working on deleting the troublesome program in question by itself, having no need for Pidge’s interventions in the first place.

“[Locating program 2 0 6. Deactivating program 2 0 6.]”

When the program in question was located, Rover wasted no time in starting the deactivation process right before their wide, curious eyes.

“[Deactivation complete.”] it confirmed and closed all relevant files, making it inaccessible once again. Pidge finally came to her senses once more.

“Is… is that it?” she asked, sounding completely dumbfounded. Lance had never seen her look so confused over technology.

“[I located the demanded program and deactivated it. No further infiltration is necessary.]” Rover explained to the confused scientist.

“[No further communication needed. Re-starting.]” it finished and shut down, disappearing off screen together with the eerie, red glow. The holograms returned to their familiar, turquoise color as if nothing had happened and moments later soft grumbling could be heard coming from the examination table.

They turned their heads towards a stirring Keith.

 

╞═════𖠁𐂃𖠁═════╡

 

The buzzing and whirring of machines echoed through his skull and sent shivers below his skin, rattling his bones which ached from exhaustion and a sudden pressure-change. It seemed as if he was re-adjusting to atmospheric pressure, his bones returning to their natural length and girth.

He let out a deep groan, eyebrows furrowed and eyes feeling as if they’d been sewn shut. Suddenly, voices started coming through to him, faint and quiet, as if the hosts were trying to keep from being loud.

When his brain adjusted to the sudden waking— the sudden reboot— his eyes slowly obeyed and opened to gaze right into a bright examination-lamp and three pairs of curious, terrified eyeballs. Blue, green and brown looked down at him in unison as if he were a thing on display.

[Would you like me to activate defense systems?] 

What was the point of having an AI telling you when to fear, when you already have a perfectly functioning, natural, fight or flight response? Well, usually perfectly functional. Right now, as he laid on the cold, hard surface of the examination table, with three pairs of unfamiliar eyes locked on him, he felt neither a fight nor flight necessity. He knew these people.

As he slowly regained his senses, like an old computer starting up after decades of neglect, his memories came flooding back to him. He had crash landed on a planet in the Milky Way— Earth, specifically— and had been found by two strange creatures— also known as humans— and had apparently been given a new name by the third weird creature— that name being Keith.

His name was now Keith.

What were their names again? He could vaguely remember the blue-eyed boy, the man who gave him his new name, calling himself Liam…? Leon? He couldn’t remember.

[Would you like me to activate defense system—]

[For Christ’s sake, no. Lay off.]

[Understood.]

 

╞═════𖠁𐂃𖠁═════╡

Chapter Text

 

╭⋟────────────────────────╮

✦✧✦✧

You're caught in a cycle, you'll never get out.
Afraid of your shadow, and living in doubt.

✦✧✦✧

╰────────────────────────⋞╯

╞═════𖠁𐂃𖠁═════╡

 

AHI— Academy for the Highly Intelligent. A ridiculous name for a company as large as AHI, a company Shiro has been working diligently under for as long as he can remember.

He was scouted in early childhood and immediately rose from the low ranked scum of Cetacea to the high grounds of Felis. At first the change seemed sudden and even haunting; ripped out of the arms of his family and everything he’s ever known. But he quickly adjusted, even grew to love Felis, despite the millions upon millions of snobs which infest its surface. Known for its high class ranked elite: betas, certain humans, those with contacts within the royal family, the military, politicians and presidents, and of course the chosen few of AHI. Few in this case being roughly 2 million people out of the roughly 2,4 billion in Felis and Canis.

It makes him feel small sometimes— to imagine the millions of others doing the same work he does, fighting the same problem he fights. Like a reminder of how insignificant he truly is among the millions.

Yet, despite it he likes to think of himself as a little special. He— after all— has a lover in the royal family. A lover whose arms lay wrapped around his torso as the sun shines through the full-length windows— the only windows available with direct access to sunlight in Felis, linked to the main transportation sector. Were you to look out of them you would be met with a sight few are blessed with. The transportation sector on the east hemisphere is so wide and luxurious— built in stainless steel, glass and iron— that the reflection of the sun above Apex Leo creates its own central star in the middle, where light-fast hyper-speed trains rush through its center every few seconds.

The sight is truly worth the money, for nothing like that is available for the lower levels. Despite the fact that the transport-sector goes all the way down, it certainly doesn’t uphold the luxury as you sink. The descent downwards, through the main axis, makes for a perfect representation of the fall of humanity. As the tube descends, the quality of the sector sinks, and the world on the other side shines its artificial lights through the glass enclosure. There, outside, are people suffering from poverty, hunger, and sickness— all the cause of a massive density of nearly 5 billion people per level. Each and every one of them poorer than the other.

So, he remains at AHI, where he has the power to make some sort of change, regardless of how small it might be.

Adam grumbles hoarsely, voice muffled in his nape, breath hot on his neck.

He barely makes out a raspy: “Ho’ lo’ you been awake?”

A chuckle bubbles up from within, “A moment.” He says cheerily to the grumpy fiancé nestled against the width of his shoulders.

“It’s too bright…” the groggy brunette announces, arms tightening their hold around Shiro’s chest.

“Rise and shine, sunshine!” he mocks, jabbing lightly at his fiancé’s ribs, “Can’t remain here for the rest of the day.”

He lets out a small ‘oof’ at the jab but makes no move to get up and off Shiro.

“I’d love to remain right here—” he makes a point of dragging his hand over his right nipple, “—for the rest of the day.”

Shiro diligently ignores the rush it sends down his spine and turns instead so Adam gets the full weight of Shiro pressed to his face and chest. Muffled protests come through while Adam fruitlessly shoves and pushes at Shiro.

“Not so much of a talker now, are we?” he asks, a smirk on his lips.

He gives in and lets Adam push him off, then wastes no time in capturing his lips with his own. Adam was right, it would be delightful to stay in bed with his fiancé and do all sorts of fun things all day long, but work calls and he’s sure he’s already running late.

“I gotta go.” He smiles down to a pouty Adam.

The brunette sighs, “Fine,” he says, “Fuck off, then.”

Shiro sends him one of his brightest smiles, kisses him once more, then promptly jumps out of bed to get ready for the day.

 

╞═════𖠁𐂃𖠁═════╡

 

His days at AHI are all different.

One day he’s needed in the defense sector, and the other with one of the hundreds of researchers. If someone were to ask him what AHI works for, his answer would stretch through eternity. It’s not that simple.

Usually, regular folks confuse it for a big billion-dollar company, but that’s just not really the case. AHI stands behind most political establishments, major projects, research, development and the defense system on the different hemispheres. This is where life on Earth is upheld, kept safe and sane, and is monitored day in and day out. While it doesn’t hold as much power as the royal family, it certainly does hold stature of its own. Without AHI, Earth would crumble. Both literally and figuratively.

Yet despite the positive aspects of it, it is— after all— still heavily monitored and policed by the Ten Presidents and the royal family.

 

Shiro took the quickest route down to main headquarters, through the park and past the newcomers’ Academy in the heart of Felis. As fast as his legs are, he was still a good ten minutes late in, and as he strode through the door, he was met with the stern gaze of princess Allura.

“Pri— princess!” he rushed out and bowed, brows raised in surprise. He had certainly not been ready to meet the princess.

“What are you doing here? Looking for the king?” he asked, baffled still.

The princess huffed and crossed her arms over her chest.

“Where is he?” she bit out, less like a question and more like a statement of disapproval.

“H-his majesty? I’m not sure, princess. I think he’s in a meeting right now, but I’m sure if you give me a minute, I’ll find him for yo—”

“No, not dad! I meant my brother.” She exclaimed, cutting him off mid ramble, “Isn’t he with you?” she asked.

“Adam? Wha— no… no, he..” He fiddles with the coat still in his arms, trailing off. He can’t tell her he’s not here because he’s slacking off!

“He’s, uh… home… sick…” he started, averting his gaze which the princess was so eagerly trying to catch, “He, uh, got the flu or something…” he continued, drop of sweat running down his neck and into his shirt.

The princess grunted, “He’s slacking off.”

“Okay, yeah, he’s slacking off.”

“Isn’t he aware that he has a duty to fulfill?” she asked, voice softer but drenched in disappointment.

Shiro swallowed. He felt it was necessary for him to defend his silly fiancé.

“Well…” he started, scratching the back of his neck nervously, “He actually loves his job, and is very passionate about it. I just think he’s kind of burned out from running and talking for his family all the time.” He tried explaining, watching his hands as they danced around each other in front of him.

The princess sighed. Her arms finally fell to her sides, slack.

“I guess you have a point…” she said, “I should call him myself. Thank you, Shiro.”

She gave him a weak but warm smile and a pat on the shoulder, but before she passed, she stopped dead in her tracks and gripped his shoulder— a lightbulb flickering to life.

“Oh, right, Shiro!” she said, startling him, “I forgot to tell you, but I just talked to Pidge, and she says she and Hunk discovered something you should see. Not sure what it is, but it sounded important and she was sort of winded so go check it out!”

With a delicate bounce in his step— and a soft flip of her long, white hair— she left him to his own devices.

What the duo had found now he didn’t even dare to think about, much less ‘check out’. For all he knows, it could be a long-extinct disease; back to wipe them out once and for good.

Or maybe it was something entirely different— as he quickly learned— though just as lethal as the first.

An alien killer cyborg, it turns out.

 

╞═════𖠁𐂃𖠁═════╡

Chapter Text

 

╭⋟────────────────────────╮

✦✧✦✧

Your mind is just a program a nd I'm the virus.
I'm changing the station,  I'll improve your thresholds.

And you will kill on my command.

✦✧✦✧

╰────────────────────────⋞╯

╞═════𖠁𐂃𖠁═════╡

 

In his 25 years of life Shiro had seen much.

Hell, there are more things he wishes he hadn’t seen than there are things he’s genuinely delighted to have witnessed. This falls under the I wish I never saw that category.

When the Princess stopped him mid track, and excitedly told him about Pidge’s urgent calling, the last thing he expected was for them to have found a stranded alien cyborg. A surprisingly human alien cyborg.

It sat before him, with its feet firmly planted on the cool surface of the laboratory floor, and had its eyes firmly set on Shiro’s face— not wavering in the slightest, as if analyzing his every movement.

 

“So?” came Pidge’s questioning tone, “What should we do?” she asked, hands on her hips. Her white coat came past her knees, and to her ankles. Too big for her lithe form.

Shiro scratched his chin in thought, eyebrows scrunched in confusion. A looming fear; the cyborg didn’t so much as flinch, not a movement. It seemed so… robotic.

How, pray tell, could she expect him to make such a decision in this situation? Was the trio’s primary goal in life to further raise his stress levels?

He sighed dejectedly, “Why on Earth are you asking me that? Just hand it in to AHI headquarters or something.” He tried reasoning, but the bulky partner stepped up.

“Wait. No, no, no. Hold up. Nuh—uh! Not doing that!” he stated firmly, mirroring his girlfriend; hands on his hips.

“If we hand him in to HQ he’s gone for, Shiro!” he argued, “You of all people should know that!”

“AHI is not some evil manifestation… they’ll know what to do.” He tried, but the duo remained unmoving, like an ancient Everest when combining their stubbornness. To make matters worse, a third demanded to partake. A third whose voice spoke for a million: prince Lance.

“C’mon! You can’t seriously expect us to hand off our buddy Keith to crazy scientists!” he threw his arms out in front of him, a pout exaggerated and plastered on his fine features.

“I’m sorry, your highness, but you seem to be forgetting in whose presence you are.”

As subtly as possible, he inclined his head towards the small scientist whose face fumed with fury.

“Hey! I know you’re talking about me, Scar from Lion King!”

“As creative with the names as ever, I see.”

The prince then stepped forward, and successfully interrupted their argument with merely his physical interference.

“We’re not handing off an innocent being to a group of knowledge-thirsty, paranoid scientists in a fancy lab.” He stated firmly, more like a demand than a request or even a plead.

Shiro could do nothing but lower his head and sigh in defeat.

“Well, if that’s the case…” he said and gestured behind Lance in a quiet request to move closer to the creature and past the royalty. Lance nodded slowly and moved aside for the bigger man.

The alien in question sat there still as the dead, silent as the night, and observed the ordeal. It seemed entirely unaffected by their conversation. Perhaps it didn’t understand their language?

He cleared his throat, taking baby step of hesitance towards the unmoving entity.

“So, uh… do you understand us?” he tried asking, expecting less than a blink but instead got a grammatically correct reply:

“Flawlessly.” He said and nodded courtly, first sign of movement since Shiro first entered the lab.

Every body-part palsied at once when he noted the whirring mechanics behind fields of lavender. It was analyzing him. For sure this time.

“His brain is part AI, apparently.” Pidge spoke up from behind him, her voice a distant murmur in the hissing of his head, “Said his name is Rover.”

“The AI’s name, she means.” The Prince added for clarity.

Shiro could only nod choppily and stare at the problem sitting on the examination table before him. How is he to handle this? Sure, AHI training included mental training, test taking and examination aside from the psychical training, but nothing on Earth could have prepared him for encountering alien life, much less cyborg alien life. It was simply not his department, not his profession, and certainly not his specialty. Shiro specialized in combat and military training. He occasionally worked as research assistant for one of the many scientists in the AHI facilities, but he mostly worked with the younger cadets freshly enrolled in the military sector. His job was to handle an invasion of alien cyborgs— not to communicate with one, and certainly not to decide one’s fate.

And yet here he stands, with nothing but an endless blankness in his head and an insistent buzzing in his ears. Suddenly, as if done with his hesitance, the alien spoke.

“You’re clearly too overwhelmed to even think, much less decide my fate.” It said, “So I’ll spare you the humiliation of admitting defeat.”

Shiro remained in shock, limbs not responding, mouth not working.

“I’m from planet Daibazal, 648 lightyears from Earth. I don’t know why I was sent out on an emergency pod, and I know even less why Earth was programmed to me my final destination. All I know is that I came to be on Daibazal, where I was put through multiple experiments until I was eventually stripped off my memory and given the project name ‘Zero’. Once I came here, that blue eyed one over there gave me the name Keith. That’s all I know—”

“Hey! How dare you!” his highness interrupted— successfully, albeit unknowingly— snapping Shiro out of his paralysis, “I have a name, you dimwit! How could you already have forgotten?!”

The alie— Keith shrugged in response, and that was what finally made it click in Shiro’s head. This creature before him was a human being. Well, to some extent at least. Enhanced in nature but a human being, nonetheless, and definitely not a threat.

“Wait, stripped off your memory?” the scientist interrupted, lab coat making a ruffling sound as she pushed her way in front of Shiro— fixing Keith with a firm, wide-eyed gaze.

“I thought you said you regained all of your memories when we deactivated that stupid program?” her hands swayed around in circular motions, her words lost to an abrupt confusion.

“Well,” the cyborg began, “I certainly did, but not my memories from my youth, and most definitely not memories associated with the empire’s affairs.”

His shoulders, stiff and broad and unmoving, clouded him in something like intense authority— the likes of which Shiro had only seen in his superiors. Perhaps that was the way on Daibazal, or maybe this man had been taught to behave the way he did. It wasn’t entirely foreign, so authority must be a well desired trait even outside their solar system. Or perhaps, since he’s a human grown and raised outside the Milky Way (according to him), he was raised by humans first and foremost. Perhaps that was part of what was erased.  

“Where did you learn our language?” he suddenly heard himself asking. It seems his question isn’t strange, considering the fluidity with which the alien spoke, and his previous thoughts on his origins. Maybe they’d all been thinking the same thing, just weren’t voicing it.

Nothing in his posture shifted, not even a facial feature changed, “Your language is surprisingly simple to learn, that is if you’re equipped with an AGI like myself.” Something like a smirk graced his features and pulled at the skin around his lips.

“I feel like the more he talks, the more he adds information to what he’s already told us…” his highness spoke, voice hushed and insecure among greater minds, “What’s an AGI?” he added, so quiet it came out a whisper— question aimed at Hunk’s hunched form next to him.

Hunk seemed as baffled as they all felt in the moment, but found the stability needed within himself to at least answer the confused royalty.

“Uh…” he started, hands fiddling in front of him, eyes glued to the cyborg, “Well, an AI is an artificial intelligence, an AGI is an artificial general intelligence.”

“And an artificial general intelligence is…?” Lance persisted.

“A super-intelligence.” The scientist interrupted their conversation, “An AGI is a computer, or a robot, so intelligent that it’s basically a God. It’s something the human race has been battling to avoid for eons. It seems the people of Daibazal had no issue with playing with fire, apparently.” She grunted disapprovingly, arms crossing each other over her chest.

The cyborg shifted slightly on his seat, showing for the first time a sign of humanity. He seemed uncertain as he spoke:

“Well, I believe most people on my planet aren’t even aware of what they’ve achieved. I was a secret project, an experiment. None of the research associated with experimentations on me were ever made public, at least to my knowledge.”

A silence simmered around them. Intense pressure oozed out of every pore on Shiro’s body, out of every being that shared the now far too small space with him. How are they to handle this information? Not only do they have to figure out what to do with an alien cyborg with an insanely intelligent being— essentially— living inside of him, but they also have to take into account its reliability. Can they trust this person? Is he speaking the truth, or is all he says a lie? And if it’s not, that means they now must handle an alien experiment gone AWOL (for unknown reasons) with an escape rout that was for some strange, terrifying reason programmed to be Earth of all planets. Earth— more than 600 lightyears from Daibazal. Why Earth? Why now? Why him?

Amidst their silent panic, and the intensity which kept air from filling their lungs, two loud claps sounded and echoed through the lab.

“Alright, alright!” came the preppy voice of their Prince, “Nothing to do but to handle this with care.” He stated firmly, moving closer to the cyborg without so much as an ounce of uncertainty or fear in his step, “Nothing’s gonna happen if we stand here all day, confused and suspicious. Either we believe him wholeheartedly, help him adjust while he’s here, and listen to what memories we can bring out of him— or we kill him off in fear, or hand him over to crazy scientists because we’re too dumb and too lazy to handle something this grand.”

Knowing what the answer would be— no, having already decided on it himself, he continued, with a prideful certainty in his voice:

“And I’d be damned if I ever let any of you mistreat a visitor in my presence!”

 

╞═════𖠁𐂃𖠁═════╡

 

“Now what?”

They stood around a confused, freshly stripped Keith, each holding a piece of fabric. Lance was trying his hardest not to react to the sight before him while simultaneously remaining in charge of making this war-and-space-travel-beaten alien seem presentable, and— most importantly— human.

“Now we clothe him.” He stated, voice wavering.

“Duh.” Came a low reply behind him, waist-level, “That’s what we’re waiting for you to do but you’re just standing there, drooling, and doing noth—”

“I am not drooling! How dare you speak to me that way!” he tried defending himself— cheeks a warm, puffy mess in his frantic flailing.

He turned back towards the naked cyborg, ignoring the hysterical laughter behind him, and looked between him and the clothes they’d tried. Nothing really fit him well, and the few things that did were hideous and stood out too much, and— Lord have mercy on them— were disliked by the picky alien. It came as a surprise to all of them to hear that this seemingly somewhat-human entity actually thought more like a human than they’d been led to believe. He even had his own, personal taste in clothes!

“We need enforcements.” He said out loud, but mostly to himself, before turning towards a slightly startled Hunk who straightened up quickly and half-heartedly brushed off the lingering smile from their little laughing fit.

“Hunk, call Allura!”

That got the other two’s attention, who both stopped mid giggle to stare wide-eyed at the prince.

“Wait, wait.” Pidge said, hands out as if to stop him, adjusting her glasses, “Call Allura? Are you insane?” she asked, genuine, “I thought you said we wouldn’t hand him over to AHI!”

“And we won’t!” he tried arguing, “Allura is my sister! And I think I know my sister the best. She’ll listen and help us, I know she will! She’s always on my side, no matter how dumb my ideas are.” He finished with a huff and a turn of his head.

In his arms were some of the fabrics, bright and obnoxious and unfitting the handsome alien. He brushed a thumb over the soft material.

“I know she will.” He finished.

There was a moment of silence, then came Hunk’s quiet affirmative, and he was off to fetch her highness.

 

 

╞═════𖠁𐂃𖠁═════╡

Chapter Text

╭⋟────────────────────────╮

✦✧✦✧

I've been reading books of old, the legends and the myths.
Achilles and his gold, Hercules and his gifts.
Spiderman's control and Batman with his fists,
and clearly, I don't see myself upon that list.

✦✧✦✧

╰────────────────────────⋞╯

 

╞═════𖠁𐂃𖠁═════╡

 

Allura was surprised— to put it simply. Much like the others she had the same reaction to the trio’s new little finding. However—after a handful of decent arguments on why it was morally wrong to hand him off to AHI from Lance—she finally yielded and promised to help them out.

Many ifs and buts later they had all finally settled on a suitable outfit for the terribly picky alien.

It ended up being a sleek, black, long-sleeved shirt that hugged his figure nicely coupled with a black belt around his firm, slim hips—holding up a pair of loose but fitted polyester pants. They came down to his ankles in a laxed show of perfect fit. Lastly, the whole look was topped off with a pair of regular, black boots.

All in all: he looked good. He had to physically hold back from commenting or—worse—touching the poor creature. Keith, on the other hand, seemed more than content in his new clothes. They were discreet yet classy enough for him to blend in on the upper levels. Perfect, to put it simply.

 

A while after the chaos that ensued in Hunk’s closet, everyone dispersed and went on to their separate work. Endless, sleepless nights of worry and meticulous planning stood ahead of them. Not only would they have to give him a new identity, for starters—it had to be done in secret. Illegally, too. Luckily for Lance there was no one above him but his father. Or, at least he hoped it made him a lucky man.

He grumbled over his options while sorting away the thrown-about clothes. Keith stood dead-still behind him and watched. The prickle of his eyes trailing his every miniscule movement sent wave after wave of unpleasant shivers scattering up his spine. The undeniable feeling of being the fleshy target of a starving predator, no doubt.  

“Alright. What the hell is wrong with you?” He twirled on his heel and stared pointedly at the startled alien, his words coming out harsher than he’d intended them to.

“Is there a problem?” he asked.

“Uh, yes? You’re staring! Stop doing that, it’s creepy! Either help me or leave!” He winched the second the words left his mouth. Where in heavens name would he go? Idiot.

That was exactly what the creature decided, then, to ask—on a smaller, more personal scale unintentionally mocking Lance’s flawed, mortal intellect. “…where would I go? Wouldn’t me suddenly leaving to who-knows-where prove to be quite troublesome to you?”

Damn you.

“Well… you know what I meant!”

“I don’t—”

He took a deep breath, and interrupted the alien before he could finish, “Okay, seriously? Why are you still acting like a robot?” he asked.

That seemed to get through to Keith, who squirmed and backed away from Lance. His expression remained indifferent. Something akin to anger, fury, burned in his eyes for a fraction of a second before dispersing.

“I apologize if I’ve displeased you.” He said instead, in perfect monotone. Not an ounce of genuine regret in a single syllable he uttered.

Lance felt strangely defeated. Why did it feel like it wasn’t what he should have said? He should be satisfied—he won the silly argument—and yet he wasn’t. Something about his reply didn’t feel quite human. Keith was hiding something, or perhaps something was being hidden from him.

He sighed, “Look, man, there’s nothing for you to apologize for, just— I don’t know… Do something. Don’t just stand there.” He fiddled with the shirt in his hands, recently folded back into a storeable state, “C’mon.” he finally managed, “Let’s clean this up so I can show you around.”

 

╞═════𖠁𐂃𖠁═════╡

 

“Listen, if there’s one thing you should know, as a new citizen on Earth, it’s the history of our world as it is today,” he insisted, the delicate sweep of a pointer finger accompanying the statement.

They were walking around the main park in Apex Leo, basking in the sunlight. Around them were strollers out on midday walks, pregnant mothers feeding their babies, and parents watching their children play. Some dog owners were wandering around with their puppies on a leash or playing fetch in the large expanses of grass under the shade of ancient trees in full bloom. Alteans and Humans in perfect harmony. A lake stood dead center, shimmering in the bright sunlight in hues of blue and green, reflecting the expanse above their heads.

“Where to start…” he mumbled, lost in thought for a moment, “Do you happen to know anything about Earth at all?” he then asked, remembering how he’d mentioned having that super intelligence for a brain.

Keith only shook his head in a quiet no.

He perked up at that and continued. “Alright, well, you can trust good ol’ Lance to tell you everything you need to know!” he started, breathing in the fresh air and floral scents as they went, “I’ll try to narrow it down as much as possible, since it’s a long story,” he explained.

 

“Anyways—as far as I know, and I know a lot—” he scoffed with an upturn of a fine-tipped nose, “—many eons ago the humans of Earth all lived on a single level, a population of barely 10 billion people. Quite amazing if you consider how many of us there are now.”

He chuckled but went on, “However, one day it was decided that—since they’d purged the lower layers of all worthy minerals and resources— they would restore what they could but, ultimately, focus on constructing and developing new methods and resources. Ten of the worlds biggest and most powerful leaders came together and decided that they would set all research and money on developing this new era Earth. These ten people came to be known as the Ten Presidents. Since the original announcement eons ago, the Ten Presidents have always consisted of individuals whose lineage dates back to one of the ten original founders.”

The flutter of bird’s wings de-railed him for a moment, and he blinked up at the bright sky to watch their retreating shadows as they weaved through thin air among the bright treetops.

“Earth quickly changed, and so drastically, that it was slung headfirst into a new generation of humans. Those who had once been shunned by society—omegas—were now valuable individuals. Their ability to carry an alpha or beta proved incredibly necessary in order for humans to quickly evolve and adapt to the pressure changes and environments on the different levels. Everything they’d once known had been flipped upside down, after all, and the changes were many.”

He could see Keith react at that; now sporting an intense scowl so dark it cast a shadow over his stormy eyes. “Wait. Are you not an omega?” he asked.

Lance was taken aback for a second. How did he know? He couldn’t smell his pheromones, could he? Could non-earthlings also tell such things?

“What—I—how did you know?!” he stammered, staring at the alien in bafflement. They’d stopped walking and were turned towards each other in the middle of a cemented pathway that slung around the shiny lake. Frogs and ducks sung in the background, adding to the atmosphere, but they paid them no mind.

Lance had never been insecure in his secondary gender. Quite the opposite, actually: he was rather fond of it. Even if there still was a lot of prejudice and judgement towards omegas, especially from the lower classes, he tried not to let it get to him and focused instead on all the things he was giving humanity by simply existing.

“Well, I read it the moment I laid my eyes upon you.” The alien admitted, indifferently.

Lance could only stare. The moment he—those whirring mechanics he’d seen!

“So, when you were analyzing me on the examination table…”

“I already knew.”

Huh. So, his brain could record information about his biological structure immediately, but not bring up information on human society in the hours he’d spent on Earth already?

“How does Rover work? How does he find all this information?” he asked, “How come you don’t already know everything there is to know about Earth?”

Keith seemed to ponder his question for a moment, eye drifting past his head and over the growth of bushes and exotic wildlife by the water. “Well, there are limits to how much information Rover can obtain and how quickly he can do so. There’s also the struggle of not being directly linked to a valid source…” he trailed off, eyes glued to the laughing children a way ahead of them, on a speck of green grass. They were running around each other, screaming in delight, “It requires too much energy and an update of my storage capacity to acquire so much data and so quickly. It’s easier if you just tell me and I store it normally, like any intelligent being would,” he finished.

Lance looked at him for a moment, allowed himself to stare, even. Keith’s gaze remained stuck on the cheerful display, not wavering in the slightest but also not analyzing. He was not very good with eye contact, it seemed— or normal communication for that matter. Still, it made him feel so distinctly… human.

“Please, do continue.” He said and turned to continue walking down their path. Lance jogged over to him once his brain had caught on. He cleared his throat.

“Alright,” he said, “I guess it’s only fair I say B if I said A.”

He cleared his throat once more with a tied fist to his mouth and a tilt to his chin—for the sake of added drama—before continuing:

“Well, as I said, the Ten Presidents of today all stem from powerful bloodlines that date back to the original founders of the new-age policy. Their goal was to build up an all-powerful society of multiple species, all of which would live in harmony with each other. Therefore, once humans first wandered out into space, new species were welcomed to Earth—and that’s where my family comes into play!” he grinned and tiled his head towards the sun, felt it’s warm rays dance across his freckled skin as he continued:

“The Alteans came first. They were very human-like and gentle and quickly grew accustomed to Earth traditions and rules. Not only that, but they came with knowledge and abilities unlike any other race! Alteans lived in perfect harmony with humans. They built their cities, levels, and machines. They helped develop the medical and technological sectors, and even aided Earthlings in their search for other systems and stars. Quickly, one or few became very powerful and very loved, and before they knew it an Altean couple had taken over the throne. They were crowned as the Royal Family of Earth.

He grinned proudly at Keith’s change in expression. The stoic, frozen indifference melting into something akin to wonder. Lance pretended to see amazement in that slip of act.

They’d long since passed through the King’s Garden by that point—a beautiful rose-garden in the heart of the city where bright roses grow from well-trimmed bushes; whose leaves sway gently in the breeze. A few clouds had sneaked their way over their heads and were threatening with rain; heavy and dark as they were. Families and joggers were all slowly dispersing, going their separate ways and picking up their things. The breeze grew stronger and colder, though still gentle on the skin. Keith walked on beside him—not uttering a single word. He continued:

“Then there were the Galras,” he said, this time without smiling, a frown deepening the creases in his grimace. Keith’s head twitched his way ever so slightly at that. Something had sparked his interest.

“They came to Earth one day and, at first, they seemed peaceful, but as the days went on our differences became more and more evident. The Galra were aggressive, animalistic, demanding. Assault rates rose and more and more people started their separate rebellions against the regime and the dangerous Galra disrupting their age-long peace. The first one of its kind ever to grace human history; where all problems appeared to have vanished and all earthlings could finally thrive in peace.”

“One of these rebellions became bigger than all the others. This one had been built on the basis of knowledge, which meant that all their members were formally accepted by the founders who only allowed intelligent and gifted individuals to enter their force. They accepted support from the outside but argued that only the strongest of humans and alteans should be at the frontlines of this internal conflict.”

A few girls walked past, all in their academic dress. They seemed determined as they marched onwards—each one holding a stack of books in their arms, speaking in hushed tones amongst each other. The three of them nodded courtly when they noticed Lance, then kept on walking. He smiled brightly, winked and shot them finger guns. They giggled in delight at the prince’s attention.

“This rebel force came to be known as AHI—Academy for the Highly Intelligent,” he said.

The sky above their heads was now fully clouded in grey as they exited through the back-gates of the park.

“You mentioned something about an academy earlier, I assume that’s them?” Keith asked, voice a little raspy from the prolonged silence.

“Well, yes, though they’re not evil.”

“They’re not?”

“No!” he exclaimed and stopped once more to look at his guest, the purple instruments whirring as usual—storing valuable information.

“The contrary: it’s the Ten Presidents that are evil!” he tried reasoning.

“The Ten Presidents? I thought you said they’d founded Earth of today? That they came from noble bloodlines?” he asked, arms coming up to cross each other in front of his chest. Lance averted his gaze, felt the crease of a frown between his brows before he willingly smoothed it out with an exhale.

“I mean… yes,” he started, fiddling with the sleeve of his shirt.

“But?”

“But that’s all there is to them. They were noble people once. Now they’re… drunk with power…or something.”

Keith was watching him carefully, expression not wavering.

 

Lance couldn’t blame him for his hesitance, his wary. Though he couldn’t explain it to him, either. How could he? Keith wouldn’t understand the years he lived through of attending boring, preppy, noble festivities where greasy, fat, rich pigs felt it necessary to slyly comment on his second gender, or grab his behind unceremoniously. Like they owned him the way they owned the ground he walked on. Everyone knew they were powerful. And if they didn’t, a glance at those heavy golden watches and pristine, heavy, cashmere coats which adorn their sweaty, big bodies was enough. Every inch of their existence screamed “I have money. Look at me. Fear me.”. It was hard to miss. It was even hard to miss the indents those heavy, cold clocks left on his so lightly covered skin whenever he left those parties.

But how could he ever explain that to Keith? How could he, to someone who doesn’t sit on a prepared throne. Who isn’t shoved into the camera lights for the world to see his every flaw, his every mistake, and his every decision. Who was he to deny them whatever they asked of him? Did that make him a rebel? Was he opposing himself to what the Ten Presidents stood for; the plunge of Earth into an era of flourishment? Yeah, no. He wouldn’t get it.

 

“You say that with a wave of uncertainty—fear, even, I would argue.”

He scoffed, ignoring the stinging of his words’ truth, “There’s nothing for me to fear here on Earth. My family holds so much power it’s unimaginable,” he argued hollowly instead, a rehearsed phrase of feigned comfort.

He wasn’t sure if Keith believed it—but if he did, he chose to ignore it and instead marched on forward. “As you will, your majesty,” he mocked, “Please tell me more.” He asked.

Lance didn’t waste a second.

“Anyways. AHI grew and grew and one day won the war against the Galra groups still infiltrating Earth’s different levels. See them as a form of mafia, if you will. The academy was awarded a steady place in the politics of Earth and met up with the Ten Presidents and the Royal Family to discuss the matter. They all agreed on banishing the Galra from Earth’s main levels, and instead crammed them in the lowest level—Plectus—where criminals and Galras live in permanent exile. It’s a sun-less place below the Earth’s surface. I’ve heard it’s terribly hot and that the air is so polluted and thick it makes breathing downright painful,” he said, face grim.

Then, he pulled the sleeve of Keith’s shirt to whisper in his ear, “Between you and me, I even heard that the Ten Presidents purposely pollute and poison the air down there to control the Galra population and make sure that they don’t become too strong.”

Keith’s eyebrows pulled together in a harsh frown, and the corners of his lips turned downwards. The sight apparently served as appealing enough for a pack of young girls to giggle and whisper amongst themselves as they passed, discreetly shoving each other towards the now disgruntled Keith who was entirely unaware of their attention. It brought him back down to where they were.

“Anyways,” he said and let go of Keith, clapping his hands dramatically in a gesture of finishing a job well down, ignoring the heat rising to his ears, “AHI has been the head of all matters ever since, together with the Ten Presidents and with interventions from the Royal Family every once in a while,” he finished.

Around them, now, loomed beautiful skyscrapers in glass and stainless-steel. They stretched high above their heads and reflected the brightness of the cloudy sky in the floor-to-top windows. People were walking down the main street, though there were fewer of them now. Everyone was slowly cozying up at home to protect themselves from the coming rain.

“We should get inside,” he said to the thoughtful alien who was still deep in his thoughts, sporting a now signature frown. Or perhaps it was just Lance who brought such feelings upon him. It wouldn’t be the first time.

“Why?” came the natural question.

“How else are we to manage through the rest of the day without getting badly injured or, you know, dying?”

A low rumble could be heard in the distance, and the wind picked up its speed. Lance shivered in his silken shirt and wrapped his arms around himself protectively.

“Death by rain?”

“Not by rain, idiot!” he said, “By storm. Remember how I told you about the first humans and one-layer Earth? Yeah, back then we fucked up our planet so much that the weather never really went back to what it once was, especially not at higher altitudes—like here” he tried explaining, gesturing wildly with his free arm at the display of frantic, scrambling pedestrians around them.

“Ah, I see,” he said, “I assume it only makes sense for the winds to pick up at such altitudes.”

“Exactly! So, lets get moving!” he said and marched on but stopped when he noticed that his guest wasn’t following.

“What now?”

“You’re cold,” he stated, expression blank.

“Well, I wouldn’t be if you’d hurry up!”

Keith eyed him for a moment. Something flickered in his eyes, but just as soon as it’d arrived it was gone.

“As you wish, your highness.”

This time, it didn’t feel like mockery. It felt like pity.

 

╞═════𖠁𐂃𖠁═════╡

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

╭⋟ ────────────────────────

✦✧✦✧

It's been like a year since I've been home.
Flirting with an addiction I can't shake off.

My mouth is dry, I self-medicate.
This comedown won't cure itself.

✦✧✦✧

────────────────────────

 

╞═════𖠁𐂃𖠁═════╡

 

Their mission to adapt a rigid, alien Keith to Earth and its customs proved more difficult than anticipated. As time went on, fractions of his utterly atrocious personality came through at such speed that by the end of it they were left with the shell of what had been the peaceful, eerily calm Keith.

This Keith—this new Keith—was the personification of chaos.

 

╞═════𖠁𐂃𖠁═════╡

 

“For the last time—Keith, no!”

He grabbed onto the jerky arm, readying to stab the innocent shop clerk; blade held high and mighty, glistening in the artificial lights. Lance’s cloak slipped partially down his face, threatening to flaunt him to the less than appreciative inhabitants of the second level, Panthera. He tugged on it swiftly, before resuming his strenuous effort to keep the frustratingly strong alien from murdering an innocent being. “Stop, I said!” he shrieked as his heels slid on the graveled ground below, slipping on a wet newspaper article.

He grunted and groaned and yelled for Keith to stop, until he was blessed with Hunk’s gracious, burling form tugging Keith by the back of his shirt. “Alright, there, buddy! Take it easy!” His voice cracked into something high pitched and anxious when Keith snapped his head and turned to glare into Hunk’s undeserving, kind, contorted face.

“Hey! Hothead!” Lance taunted from behind him, “Don’t you dare threated my best friend!” he proclaimed, punctuating his statement by shoving at Keith’s shoulder harshly, but found only that he himself got pushed off balance instead. Keith stared at his flustered expression for a moment before scoffing, sheathing his knife and stomping ahead of them through the thick crowd of the Panthera bazar district.

Lance sighed and slumped in their small victory, turning to apologize to the rightfully enraged clerk. Pidge trotted up to them, slurping innocently on a large drink stored in those cheap, silvery packages.

She whistled, “Wow…” a slurp broke the flow of her bafflement, “He’s a handful, huh?” she asked no one in particular.

“I thought he was going to stab me,” Hunk whispered, voice shaky and broken under the layer of fear and anxiety.

Lance groaned and dragged his palms down the clean, blemish-free planes of his face. He knew he’d regret that later but couldn’t find it in himself to care at the moment; to preoccupied with the heaviness in his bones as he dragged his way through the crowd and towards where Keith had disappeared to. “C’mon,” he mumbled, “We can’t let him out of our sight.”

 

╞═════𖠁𐂃𖠁═════╡

 

The streets of Panthera were, as he’d discovered, cramped and dirty. Chunks of soggy, wet garbage made a sloppy, slippery blanket over the grey cement. The shop clerks in their little stands all around him were shouting in different languages, shoving overpriced junk in his face and pointing loudly at their unimpressive display of scam. A man’s burly voice shouted over a megaphone in the distance in a language he couldn’t quite place this far out from the source. He sounded authoritative and demanding, looking for action from scared, sick, weak inhabitants.

Keith’s time on Earth had awaken a part of him he’d long since buried. His years tortured in Honerva’s experiments had taught him that stoic obedience got you the farthest. It had kept him fed and clothed. Even protected. When all odds were against him. But his time here, on Lance’s pristine Earth, had re-opened that old, sown up wound. It spilled its ugly, scorching red fury all over him and reverted him to what he’d once been—glaringly bright in its untainted aggression. He wanted to snarl and snap at everything and everyone. The more time he spent tailing Lance’s royal heels, the more he understood of what exactly this new-era Earth meant. A disaster. A crash of culture. Oppression.

His eyes caught the unsteady, red gaze of a lone mother, clutching the bundle of life close to her chest. Her other hand shook where it strained to reach out to him, not even asking for his money—only begging for his mercy, for his help. Anything he could give.

He swallowed and kept his trudge forward, every new smell and sight sending his brain into override. He could feel the intense downturn of his brows, could taste the bitter, metallic flavor of blood in his mouth where sharp canines had bitten into the tender flesh of his tongue.

The tell-tale itch of Rover wanting to speak up began prickling at his overworked mind.

[Your stats are falling drastically, your blood pressure has risen, and I am noting an incredible level of tension in your posterior chain.]

[Leave it, Rover.]

 

The crammed space around him dispersed into something larger, more spacious. It appeared he’d reached the square. On the podium by the dried out, trash-filled fountain stood a ragged-looking man. Perhaps an ex-marine or something, judging by the prosthetic leg and the multitude of scars on his skin. His grey beard fit the tattered, dull rags with fell past a pair of once-muscled shoulders. Now they were as hollow and purposeless as the fountain he stood by.

[I am only concerned for your general health. Perhaps this trip is not to our advantage. I would advise against further exploration.]

[I said leave it.]

[As you wish.]

 

He continued his trek through the denseness of the city-system. The air around was so thick with smells and pollution that he yearned the stench of cheap refreshment the toilets on level four, Loxodonta, had offered. Cheap, artifical lemon stench and all. The one that had sent his head spinning and his guts churning at a single sniff.

About to turn into one of the sketchy looking bars, he stopped.

[Do you feel that, Rover?]

[Affirmed.]

The megaphone man continued his rant to a decimal crowd, ever growing in the old man’s persistence. Still, he didn’t miss the prickle of eyes on his neck as he begrudgingly entered the tavern.

Inside roamed lively rumble. Patrons sung, danced and clinked their heavy glasses against each other’s in delighted cheers. Tight-dressed women swirled their way around falling chairs, grabby drunkards and undecided patrons. And the smell of cigars, cheap alcohol and sweat filled the air. He took a deep breath, relishing in what was arguably the cleanest section of the city, and started making his way through the warm, stuffy place.

The place seemed surprisingly old, down to its functionality. Old, oil lamps and candles lit up the dimmed room. Patrons were being graciously served by beautiful women, all human and moving. The only aspect of the place which spoke of its time was the jerky robot diligently mixing drinks and handing out beer behind the wooden bar. Its square, steel head housed two sets of lenses. His gaze remained so trained on the strangely animatic robot that he only barely managed to dodge one of the skittery servers.

He grabbed her by her arms to keep distance between him and the brick of drinks wobbling in her hands. “Woah! Sorry!” he began but cut himself off before he could continue. The stare he was met with was empty, void of emotion, and the whirr of machines responsible for it all worked industriously behind the carefully constructed mask of humanity. He sighed and let go of the android, who dodged him carefully on her way to her patrons.

For a moment he contemplated the bar with its close proximity to the stage where a band of barely sober individuals sung and played on through the night. He chanced a glance at the stiff, eerily emotive robot tending the bar and thought better of it. With a resigned sigh he plopped down onto one of the booths where worn leather and grease mixed to create a scent so distinctly welcoming it made his chest ache.

Unbeknownst to him, the booth he sat himself down in had already been taken. Occupied by a beautiful woman; dainty and plum in a feminine, delicate way. The big, black eyes—adorned by rows of long lashes—flickered his way. Something about her entire demeanor told him she’d sat here for similar reasons. The weariness in her posture translated to something akin to exhaustion in her face. Her delicate, beer-flushed features darkened by the shade it cast—by the dark circles underneath those captivating eyes.

“Where-from might you be?” she asked, her voice only slightly slurred. She cast her gaze up and down his body, even let it linger boldly a second longer than necessary on his lips. “Dun think I’ve ever seen you around,” she whispered.

“No, that’d be strange. I’m not from here,” he dodged, averting his eyes and gluing them to the now twitching bartender ahead of them, among the sea of heads and protruding guts.

She hummed and scooted closer, “Mysterious… I like that…” She trailed the tips of grimy, work-worn fingers over his exposed forearms, “Looking for company? Or are you here to drown your sorrows?”

He contemplated her question for a moment, even mocked scratching his chin, “Yes,” he finally settled on.”

“Yes; you’re looking for company, or yes; you’re here to drown your sorrows?” she prodded.

“Yes,” he repeated and grinned when she broke out into a hearty giggle.

Perhaps this wasn’t as bad as he thought. Perhaps he could get something out of this night, something more than gnawing anger.

“What about you?” he asked after a while, once her chuckling had settled. She leaned heavily into him, her head on his shoulder, and her arms wrapped around his right one. The crimson of her puffy cheek and lips rubbed against the leather of his jacket as she thought, eyes shut in comfort.

“I don’t know…” she confessed, “Perhaps I’m looking for the thing I’m looking for,” she answered conspiratorially, “Mind helping me look?” she asked, her chin now resting on his shoulder.

The new position meant their breaths mingled, and the proximity made the flush of her cheeks and the deep red of her lips seem like an oasis in the desert.

 

 

╞═════𖠁𐂃𖠁═════╡

 

From around the corner, sitting hidden in one of the still dish-littered booths, were the trio. Hunk crammed into the deepest corner, Pidge hunched over with her back to Keith and…

And his catch.

Lance couldn’t believe it. There he’d been; worried sick something might have happened to him, that he might have left them for good, and yet there Keith was. Getting real cozy with a pretty lady.

Pidge made a choked sound around her slurpy, shocked to find Keith getting pawned on by some stranger from Panthera. “Okay, jeez…” she whispered, “Our boy’s got game.”

“What’s going on?” Hunk asked from his hunched, uncomfortable position.

Lance didn’t hear the rest of it, all of his senses fine-tuned on the way she leisurely, comfortably—like she knew him—put her chin on his shoulder. He didn’t miss the part of her lips, or the darkening of his gaze as it followed her lips’ every movement. He didn’t miss the way he slowly leaned in, or the—

Or the AHI officer approaching his table—

 

╞═════𖠁𐂃𖠁═════╡

 

He was about to lean in, to steal her breath away, when the music abruptly came to a half and the white noise of chatter died out. Through the silence came the booming, commanding voice.

“You! In the black leather jacket! Rise!”

The beauty in his arms jerked back from him, fright as clear as crystals on her face. He growled lowly and turned towards the intruder. The man by his table was accompanied by what seemed like an entire squad, and his bulky figure was clad in a sleek, black officer uniform—if the holo-badge on his chest was anything to go by.

“Rise!” he repeated and pointedly jerked his loaded gun Keith’s way, “Hands in the air where I can see them!”

[Nothing?]

[I cannot locate a safe, reliable escape route. Minimal damage would entail following the given instructions.]

 

He sighed in resignation, raising his hands high above his head, and turned his back towards the loud officer in full uniform. Even his face was shielded by a thick, black piece of fabric. Over his nose and mouth Keith glimpsed something akin to a muzzle in shape, though clearly not in function. Some strange piece of armory, it seemed.

A pair of rough, wide hands patted him down thoroughly for any weapons. He discovered the blade at his hip and made to grab it, to take it from him, but Keith was a step ahead.

In blind panic he turned his body left and jammed the point of his elbow against the neck of the officer. It was the only part not obscured or protected by the bulky armor, which seemed a weird choice of armory if you asked Keith.

The second it took the officer to jerk back and grab his injured throat stretched out into eternity as Keith swung his leg and knocked him down; face first into the floor. Guns immediately fired then, rapidly; shot after shot, as he jumped over the booth closest to them and made his way to the bar.

Screaming, scrambling patrons made way for him as he leaped over the counter and grabbed a hold of the square head of the bartender as he went, successfully dislodging it from the rest of the robot’s body as he slid down behind. The broken thing fell ungraciously to the floor, camera memory disappearing along its eerie stare.

[Activate code 38006]

[Affirmed]

The moment his hand grabbed the purple handle of his knife, his flesh arm twitched and opened to flaunt a complex array of wires and mech as it morphed and blended with the sword. A second longer and the blade, now activated, shone once then twice before lengthening—bleeding half his arm in violet shades as the once small, fine-tipped knife extended into a beautiful sword.

He rose from his crouched position behind the counter and dodged the oncoming bullets as best he could. A swipe of his other hand and the decapitated robot-head flew across the room and hit one of the squad member square in the head. It wasn’t enough to seriously damage, or even knock him out properly, but it served as a distraction for long enough for him to jump over and run towards the remaining two.

They’d seen it coming, it appeared, for they raised each their own, C-shaped handle as the things materialized sharp holo-blades. His every blow met theirs, and the electric whizz of metal on holo echoed and vibrated through the space.

Blow. Dodge. Jump. Dodge. Slice.

One fluid move was all it took, angled just so, and the arm of the bigger officer came off with a deafening squelch and crack as bones broke. A long, labored wail of agony followed, which served as distraction for the remining officer, who stood frozen in place.

Keith saw the opportunity and jumped. Running to fix the miniscule distance between them. Sword raised high, he readied himself for a final blow, but it never connected.

Instead his body was cast aside as something large, bulky, and animated crashed into his ribs.

 

The last thing he felt was the insistent prickling of Rover trying to connect.

 

╞═════𖠁𐂃𖠁═════╡

 

He had wanted to leap out, to stop whatever was happening. He’d truly wanted to. But Hunk’s wide hand had clamped around his mouth, and Pidge’s arms had found vice-like grip around his torso, and so he was shoved back into the depth of the booth, below the gum-tainted, table as patrons rushed out of the building in blind panic.

All he could do was watch as shot after shot rippled through the air and only barely missed Keith’s head. He saw a few hit soft target, like his thigh and arm, but Keith didn’t so much as flinch. Until one hit his shoulder, right at the juncture where arm met torso.

Lance wanted to jump out, to help. To tend to those wounds Keith himself was to careless to care for. Too reckless, as he always were it seemed.

 

This new Keith was foreign territory to all of them. None of them had ever encountered another being so unhinged, so aggressively free.

He supposed it was only for the better; the comfort Keith had grown so clearly accustomed to during his stay. He had been trained out of that infuriating stiffness, the one that caught Lance off guard so many times. There were still limitations—no; restrictions—in place, like the time he’d seen that fire flash in his eyes for only a fraction before it was determinately choked. He wanted to see it again. To get close to it. To feel it’s scorching heat.

 

Lance watched as their alien friend deflected blow after blow with such fluidity, he felt the indescribable need to rub his eyes clear of dust. But no, that fluid, elastic, strong being in front of them was indeed their alien friend.

Their friend who—with a hefty swipe of an injured shoulder—tore off the larger officer’s arm.

“Guys…” Hunk whispered from his spot behind him. He didn’t have to say more.

They were all frozen in place. Like a breeze, so gently and yet so clearly, it trailed nail-shaped lines up his arms and neck until every hair stood on end.

They didn’t flinch when the loud thud of Keith’s body hit the wooden floor and  echoed between the walls of the tavern.

 

╞═════𖠁𐂃𖠁═════╡

 

╭⋟ ────────────────────────

✦✧✦✧

And I'm a shadow of a ghost;
It's feeling as if somebody has taken host.

 I don't want to make a scene,
but I get self-destructive.

✦✧✦✧

────────────────────────

 

╞═════𖠁𐂃𖠁═════╡

 

 

[System failure. Rebooting]

[Activating all constructive protocols.]

A dull, unbearable pain blossomed from all corners of his body. Starting at the tip of his right-hand finger, and blooming up through every sensitive, overused nerve-ending in his arm it grew and grew until it reached the wet spot at the juncture of his shoulder. That was the worst one. He focused all will on opening his eyes, but the damned things wouldn’t budge.

[I cannot allow movement at the moment. You have sustained large amounts of damage. I must follow protocol.]

 

[Until all major systems are up you are not to move.]

Rover’s voice in his head made his ears ring. He wanted to wince and roll over, hide from the enraged buzzing of each sentence, but his body wasn’t his to move anymore.

All he could do was feel, and perhaps smell—if the coppery stench of blood and iron was anything to go by. He tried bringing his attention to the cold surface he was laying on. Was it an examination table? No, it couldn’t be. In such case Rover would have done something about it, wouldn’t he? This is not Honerva after all. Or maybe it was.

Maybe they sent him right back to where he had come from once they had captured him. Broken ribs and all. The full package.

His lungs rattled and burned with the heave of a breath too big to take. He felt short on air, lightheaded. It made his throat constrict painfully, and the burn on his collar bones insufferable.

[You will be alright. No use in panicking. I am noting a spike in adrenaline. It will only further complicate your situation.]

Keith wanted nothing more than to strangle him, but that would entail strangling himself, and Rover would not allow something so foolish.

 

The silence that stretched, and the ache of every limb, made for the perfect time as any to consider his situation. With Rover in particular.

Suicide was never an option, never had been. Even on the throes of despair, when the itch of his own skin felt too constricting to live with, Rover persisted they push through. It was like sharing your conscience with another being fully deserving of their freedom of choice in life.

When they first implanted Rover he’d not known what to think of it. He’d been only a child, a few years old at most, and entirely unaware of what was happening to him.

The realization—recollection—made something inside of him click to life. If he could, he would have jerked upright.

This was the first time a memory of his past surfaced so clearly in his head.

[Rover! Shut me down for a moment!]

[Excuse me…]

[Just do it! I remembered something!]

[Affirmed.]

 

╞═════𖠁𐂃𖠁═════╡

̣̣̣̣̣ͯ •͙ ✧⃝ •͙ ┄✩ ͯ•͙͙ ✧⃝ •͙͙ ͯ •͙ ✧⃝ •͙ ┄✩ ̣̣̣̣̣ͯ

 

 

Fire.

Fire!

 

The vile stench of burning meat and fried skin was like a slap to the face. He didn’t dare turn around. Didn’t dare to see what he’d be met with if he were to.

Instead, he kept on running as best as his legs could carry him. His left arm and shoulder were throbbing painfully, and he could see the protruding, sharp end of bones sticking up from the soft, pale flesh of his wrist and elbow. Blood seeped into his shirt, heavy and hot against his burning skin.

A whimper lodged itself deep in his throat as he stumbled his way through corpses.

 

Children.

Mothers.

Fathers.

 

People.

 

They lay strewn about around him, among the debris of the explosion. Limbs and heads rolled off heaps that had once been homes, buildings. Some were still moving. As animated as if they were attached to the ghost of their body.

He felt the burn in his throat before the taste, and then he couldn’t hold it behind the seal of his lips. His stomach churned and flipped with all its might until it was certain all contents were spilling out of his mouth and over his already dirty clothes.

The need to bend down made it strikingly clear to which extent his injuries went. Where there’d once been a chunk of his thigh there was no more, and the bone of his lower leg was bent so terribly that the pale, pale baby skin darkened to a disgusting shade of deep, deep purple.

He wanted to throw up again, but the acid which climbed up his throat and burned every inch of it on its way told him there was nothing more to throw up. His insides were as empty as they’d ever been.

 

His sore, bruised legs kept on staggering through the thick fire-smoke until he reached the crossroads of a street he’d once played on happily.

There, at the center of it all, stood a masked figure. High and mighty, it loomed over him in all its power, and for a moment he dared have hope that this would be the end of it as his mind fell into blissful darkness…

 

┍━━━━━━━━━━━━━┑

You can't wake up, this is not a dream.
You're part of a machine, you’re not a human being.

┕━━━━━━━━━━━━━┙

 

When he came to, it was with the buzz of something insistent in his brain.

[Welcome back.]

He blinked his eyes open and surveyed the cold, metallic box he was sitting in. Around his ankles were heavy shackles. Other than himself, there was no one else in the room with him.

[How are you feeling?]

Rubbing his eyes, then his ears, he checked the corners of the room for any hidden microphones. Nothing.

[I understand, from your silence, that you are startled.]

The voice continued.

[I am to assure you that I mean no harm. On the contrary. From this day and onwards I will forever remain at your side, ready to serve your every need.]

 

[Fret not, I will not control you unless the state of your health requires me to. I must follow protocol, after all.]

The buzzing in his head had calmed to something like a very tiny quiver. The disembodied voice continued, much like white noise to a depraved mind.

[My name is Rover, and I am your personal AI, ỹ̷͔̆̔̐̓-̷̞̟̾̆̔͆̽̆̔͐̌̎̅͆̋͝͝ṛ̴̨̧̳̱͑͐̕͘ą̶̧̢̜͉̙̲̯͖͉̘̹͍̣̪̈͗̈́̌͊̽͒͋̈̆͋͗̚͘̚_̴̡̢͉͖̬̘͇͉̥̯̝̻̍̐͑̾̐̓͆̉̈̈͗͑͊͜͜k̸̢̨̖͖̪̣̺͕̫̠͖͐͐̊̈͌̅̓̓̈́͋̾͘͜.]

 

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.

.

.

╞═════𖠁𐂃𖠁═════╡

 

Lance wanted to strangle someone. Preferably, if by his choice, the hunched-over, tortured alien by the officer’s feet.

From Keith’s mouth hung strips of thick, black blood. It dripped tantalizingly slow to the marble floor he kneeled on, forced down by the rough hand of none other than officer Griffin.

“We found it lurking around the square in Panthera, your highness.” The rough pitch of his voice like chalk on blackboard echoed through the large throne-room, between pillars and glass statues. “We tried questioning it, but it’s persistent. I’m afraid no substantial progress has been made. With your permission, your highness,” he slimily added, “I’d like to proceed with throughout examination of it. It poses as a potential threat to the throne.”

Lance and his father both knew very well what ‘throughout examination’ entailed, what it hid behind fancy phrasing. Torture. They wanted to properly torture him into speaking. The hand around his throat tightened, and Lance could do nothing but watch as his own breath lodged itself in his throat. He felt lightheaded at the mere sight of this. Any more and they’d certainly kill him.

“Hmm…” his father grumbled, hand coming up to rub the stark, white beard in thought, as conflicted over the idea as the rest of the council so clearly felt. All but Lance, who was downright furious; fuming in his seat. He wasn’t sure Keith had noticed his presence yet. His head remained down, black bangs shielding his eyes and part of his face.

Griffin was doing it on purpose, keeping him from looking into their eyes. Keeping him from humanizing himself in front of them. He knew it would mean their immediate mercy upon the unfortunate creature, galra or not.

“I don’t know, Griffin,” his father hummed, “Is that really necessary?”

“I agree with officer Griffin,” intervened one of the council members—his sister, Allura. Her hair, as snow white as her fathers, swayed gently in the breeze from the open full-length windows. What a spectacular contrast it made to the crimson color of her cheeks, puffed out in anger and betrayal. Lance couldn’t believe his ears. “Send him off to retainment-quarters.” 

He understood. He really did.

It had come as a shock to both of them the second the now fully examined, beaten up alien they’d helped bring to life stumbled into the room in the hands of Griffin. It had come to a shock to both of them when Griffin, loud and proud, proclaimed him a galra and demanded they punish him after protocol.

He knew her pain.

Years ago, when a force of galra rebel fighters broke through Panthera, the first level right above where all other galra remain banished, neither him nor Allura had been ready for what was to come. It seemed like nothing more than a minor threat at first, mostly keeping to the first few levels, but as time went on their forces grew and their horizons rose all the way to Apex Leo—their home.

And then, on a particularly stormy night, they snuck their way into their home, and in her sleep took their mother’s life.

He knew her pain.

He understood.

But Keith wasn’t them. Keith hadn’t killed her. He knew that.

“I object!” he shouted and rose from the soft cushioned seat of his throne, “I object to such treatment,” he said and cast Allura a glare of a million emotions. “He hasn’t done anyone any harm! Look at him!” he exclaimed, pointing and throwing his arms about. No one on the council said a word, except his father who was quietly urging him to sit down, but Lance wasn’t having it.

In a handful of long, determined strides he made his way down the small flight of stairs and over to where Keith kneeled on the marble floor. A guard tried to block his path, to keep him out of danger, but an annoyed gruff and a puff of his chest was all it took for him to lower and back away.

He strode up to Keith and swatted away Griffin’s hand so that he himself could—ever so gently—tilt his chin and look into his eyes. Keith had already registered his presence, knew Lance had been there the moment he heard his voice. He knew that. Still, it didn’t kill the light with which his eyes lit up, just a fraction, once they landed on Lance’s wobbly smile.

“It’s going to be alright,” he whispered, then turned to the council members still sitting in their respective thrones. With a gentle, swift move of his hand he turned Keith’s chin up so that his eyes could meet theirs.

Standing his ground, he took a deep breath. “Listen,” he started, “You cannot do this. Look at him! Properly look at him. Does he seem like someone who’d want to hurt you?”

“One of my officers lost an arm because of him!” Griffin interjected behind him, ever the dog.

“So?!” he shouted back over his shoulder, “He wouldn’t have had to if you and your men hadn’t attacked him in the first place!”

“We only attacked because he started it! Since you clearly know so much, you were there, weren’t you?” he accused. The gasp of his father didn’t go unnoticed. “Well, then,” Griffin continued, proudly, “You must have seen how he reacted the second I went to check for any weapons on him. He elbowed me in the throat!”

Lance scoffed, his skin burning along with the flame on his tongue.

Fuming, he turned fully to face the snarky officer, “Listen up, dog,” he started, ignoring the shouts of protest from his father. Griffin flinched at the address. “He wasn’t hurting anyone! You had no right to arrest him when he hadn’t broken law!”

“His mere existence is a violation in itself!”

“No it’s not! Only if he were to have escaped from Plectus!”

“Which he so clearly did!”

 

“Silence!” his father’s commanding voice broke through their bicker, loud and raspy with anger, “Silence!” he repeated.

 

“No one is examining the galra.”

“But, your highness—”

“I said no one!”

Lance felt a self-satisfactory grin stretch across his warmed cheeks. Ha! Take that, Griffin! He thought and sneakily sent a tongue-out grimace his way over his shoulder. His father’s disapproving tone, however, snapped him out of his small victory.

“Don’t think you’re getting off scratch free, Lance,” he barked, “You can kiss the outside goodbye for an entire week,” he growled over the bush of his beard. Lance balked.

“A week?!”

But his father wasn’t listening. He continued, “And, unless a compromise can be reached, the galra is sent back to Plectus where he belongs,” he said. His eyes must have caught Lance’s distressed expression, for the next moment they softened as he sighed loudly. “Yes, Lance, I know you care about him. I can tell that.” His right hand went up to card through long, pale hair. “If he can be of usage to you, and can prove absolute loyalty to the crown, I’ll consider giving him a chance to live under close observation.”

He was about to affirm his fathers demands in delight, happier than ever over the success of his objection, but before he could utter a single word a tap on his leg accompanied a shocking phrase from the bloodied lips of the galra by his feet.

“I’ll bend the knee to Lance and serve as his guard for the rest of my life, if that will suffice, your highness,” he rasped.

 

Every nerve in Lance’s body lit up in fiery static, and the skin where Keith’s gloved hand was firmly pressed against was burning so hotly it mirrored the disaster of his face. If only Keith knew what he’d just said; what that meant.

Everyone in the room seemed to think similar thoughts, for their pale expressions spoke a million words.

“If Lance accepts that, as shall I,” his father finally announced, silent thoughts shared with Keith who sat crouched, still, by Lance’s feet. They shared a look and a nod before Keith—pained, huffing in discomfort—turned to face Lance rather than the king.

He re-adjusted; arms draped over his risen knee as the other came to rest over his chest.

 

Lance held his breath as he spoke.

 

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