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Sunset Symphony

Chapter Text

Keith always liked sunsets.

The warm glow embraced entire landscapes, with a cotton candy carousel of colour painting the skies with orange, pink, yellow and sometimes a striking streak of purple.

A sense of nostalgia accompanied these natural wonders, memories from a simpler time as vivid as the day before. Ghosts from the past whispered past him, from his late father watching the arrival of the first stars of the night with him to racing Shiro across the desert outskirts of the Garrison.

Keith smiled, realising how long ago those days felt, but they were far from the only times he shared a sunset with Shiro. It framed their friendship perfectly, something in this rich and expansive world - in the universe they defended - that they could enjoy together.

 

Then his smile faltered. Since Keith was discharged from hospital, Shiro felt distant. He tried to tell himself it was because his well deserved new position as Captain of the Atlas and all the responsibilities that came with it.

But Keith was unable to deny the pang of loneliness that came with the space between them. Starved of those reassuring touches to the shoulder, he regretted missing the bulk of Shiro’s ward visits while unconscious.

Those words - spend time with the ones you love - made Keith feel empty, as he sat with Kosmo upon the Black Lion, staring out at the sunset soaked desert before him.

Wishing with all his heart the man he loved was by his side.

 

His talk with Lance came and went, leaving him alone with his thoughts once more, along with the Blue Paladin’s parting words.

Remember, if you’re so preoccupied about what could go wrong, you might miss the chance to do something great.

Burying his head against his crossed arms, Keith let out a harsh sigh. Easier said than done when he won’t even look at you.

Shiro, what did I do?

 

Kosmo whined, nuzzling against the lonely man’s elbow. Appreciating the kind gesture, Keith raised his head, giving his loyal wolf a sorrowful smile. “Hey. What do you think I should do?”

A loud bark erupted from Kosmo, and Keith knew he was on his own for this one. “Shiro… He's kind of different, and I don’t know what to do. We barely talk now, and…”

Keith touched his own shoulder, lamenting the loss of Shiro’s warm hand. Sensing his friend’s dilemma, Kosmo rested his head upon Keith’s shoulder instead, licking his cheek comfortingly.

The young man laughed sadly, scratching the back of he wolf’s ear. “You’re no Shiro, but thanks, boy.”

 

As the first twinkle of a star rebelled against the sunset sky, Keith felt wetness prick his eyes, and he bit his lip, as a surge of agonising hollowness overwhelmed him.

Where was Shiro?

The sunset bled from the sky, and Keith was still alone with his thoughts and a loyal wolf for company. Even Lance, preoccupied with his date, kept him company for a short time. Then the reality hit him, a dizzying awareness that accompanied the painful reminder that on his last night on Earth, Keith was all alone.

Shiro didn’t come.

A lump formed in his throat, and Keith knew he was losing the battle, mourning the loss of his closest friend. Kosmo attempted to lick away his hot tears, whining with sympathy for his heartbroken master.

Shiro, I need you. Please.

 

The first sob left his throat, releasing the floodgates for the rest. No amount of clamping his hands over his mouth could smother the anguished cries shuddering growth his slender frame.

Don’t leave me.

In harmonised heartbreak, Kosmo drew his head back, letting out a long, loud howl. Meanwhile, Keith cried his eyes out, fearing that Shiro was lost to him, by this unfamiliar distance forced between them.

Distressed, Keith kept envisioning Shiro turning his back on him, casting him like a burdened shackle. His hand reached out, desperate to stop the man he loved from leaving him for good, but he never could halt his departure.

Keith watched helplessly, the ghost of Shiro vanishing off the bright of the Black Lion’s nose. That cruel voice taunting him from the deepest corners of his mind.

 

Then you’ve chosen to be alone.

They saw that you were broken, worthless. I should have seen it too.

I should have abandoned you just like your parents did.

 

The warm glow melted into the hills in the distance, slowly plunging Keith into the last gasp of a dying star. He doubled over, heartbroken and alone. As he often was, without the one thing that gave him reassurance.

Guess I’m just Keith, Keith lamented thoughtfully, helpless to the feelings of loneliness. Destined to be alone as always.

His heart physically ached, too heavy for his chest, and he pressed his hands against the wounded part of him he always suspected would be the death of him. Keith screwed his eyes shut, not wanting to witness his last sunset without his source of strength, the true light that pierced his personal darkness.

Why did I even think that Shiro would love me too? When he won’t even -

 

Suddenly, a friendly voice caught him off guard for the second time that evening, causing him to open his eyes and turn towards the direction of the sound.

“Hey, stranger. Sorry to have kept you waiting.”

Embraced by the last kiss from the retiring sunlight stood Shiro, smiling as warmly as the setting sun. As Kosmo enthusiastically leaped up at the man still in his Captain regalia, he ruffled the top of the happy wolf’s head with his free hand, the other protecting a food container.

“Hey, boy. Happy to see me, or the treats?” Shiro’s gentle laughter soothed Keith’s turbulent heart, though his watery eyes gave him away. As soon as Shiro saw them, his face fell, and he swiftly approached Keith, kneeling down and placing a concerned hand upon his shoulder.

“Keith, are you alright?” Shiro asked, troubled by Keith’s tearful expression.

 

The Paladin sighed, relieved by the supporting hand upon his shoulder. Keith’s gaze softened under those affecting eyes. He realised just how much he missed that consoling touch, those reassuring eyes and the intimacy of that compassionate voice saying his name.

Keith readied his unsteady voice, only to falter at the last stretch of his words. “Shiro, I thought you weren’t coming.”

Guilt touched Shiro’s face. “I’m so sorry, Keith. I wanted to come sooner, but I got held back with personal matters from the crew. I’d never leave you alone here.” He popped open the plastic container with his free hand and held it out to Keith. “Little peace offering? I figured you might have came right here without something to snack on, so…”

The scent of freshly baked cookies enticed Keith’s nostrils before he caught sight of the gooey chocolate chips and the warmth from the morsels drew him in. A touched smile tugged at the corner of Keith’s lips as he gazed down at the treats, prepared and offered with a kind heart.

“Let me guess…” Keith chuckled softly. “Hunk?”

Shiro grinned, completely willing to acknowledge his lack of cooking skills. “You got me. I thought this called for a professional touch.”

Lifting one of the soft baked cookies to his lips, Keith enjoyed the fresh scent of chocolate and rich, buttery goodness, which alone made his mouth water. He gazed at Shiro, giving him an appreciative smile. “He’s got a gift, as do you.”

 

Once Keith took a bite, he all but moaned in sheer bliss, savouring the warmth of the melting chocolate and heavenly softness. Every piece of doubt he had from earlier vanished with every bite, along with every tender gaze from the other man.

Why had he ever distrusted him?

 

“Me?” Perplexed, Shiro tilted his head like a confused pup, unsure of the meaning behind Keith’s words. “I’m no Hunk. All I did was bring you these. I hardly have a hand in perfection the way he does.”

Once Keith swallowed, his soft lips dusted with sugar crumbs, he gave his answer with complete assurance. “But you know when someone needs cheering up, and you know exactly what to say at the right time. You always have.”

Shiro settled back into a comfortable seating position beside Keith, amused by the sight of Kosmo nestling between them for attention and the prospect of delicious leftovers. He scratched the back of the wolf’s ear, receiving a pleased whine in response. “Patience yields focus?”

“Something like that,” Keith laughed, taking another mouthful of the cookie as they watched the sun dissolve into the low hills. Though he missed watching the entire sunset with Shiro, he sought solace in their shared experience witnessing the twilight descend.

 

Slowly, starlight christened the ebony velvet, flourishing across the endless sky that united so many, but for Shiro and Keith, and of course Kosmo, they observed the beautiful passing of day into night together.

As Keith always wanted, and always hoped they would.

The Paladin turned to Shiro, who gazed fondly at the night sky with all the wonder of a child, taken by the fascinating world around him. For a fleeting moment, Keith saw Shiro from the past, the impassioned young man sharing every little thing that excited him about the Kerberos mission, the marvel of the universe and all the spellbinding spectacles that existed therein.

Shiro’s stunning dark eyes mirrored the entire sky, glistening with the very starlight he was mesmerised by. To Keith, the galaxy, his universe, sat right beside him, pulsating with all the life of the brightest star.

 

Maybe I was imagining things, after all, Keith thought, captivated by the sight of Shiro happily viewing the constellations above and pointing to his favourite ones with vigour. If he were as distant as I thought, he wouldn’t be here with me, sharing cookies and talking about the stars.

Then why? Why did it feel strange? And if it wasn’t me, was it Shiro?

 

The one-sided conversation caught Shiro’s attention, and he turned to Keith. “Still with me, Keith?”

Daring to ruin the long overdue moment with Shiro, Keith blurted out his innermost feelings, ones that had been building up since his time in hospital, perhaps even before then. “Shiro… Did I do something to… disappoint you?”

The sudden question took Shiro by surprise, his eyes widening in disbelief. “Keith, I’m not sure I follow.”

Buried by overwhelming fears of abandonment and rejection, intensified by weeks of feeling ignored and alienated, Keith’s pained eyes reached out to Shiro’s very soul. His voice was strained with anguish, even causing Kosmo’s ears to prick to attention.

“Why have you been so distant lately? Since I woke up at the hospital, you’ve barely talked to me, said my name, not even touched my shoulder like you always do…” Keith’s lower lip trembled, and he hated himself for feeling so helpless, but he kept pouring his heart out. “I thought I did something, said something, that made you angry or annoyed, and when I came here, I waited, and waited, then I thought - I…”

The earlier quivering of his hurting heart resurfaced, and he felt the tears, the stinging song of his soul, threatening to escape. He knew Shiro saw it too, given by the sudden gasp that fluttered from his lips.

 

Keith’s last words came out in a quiet sob. “ ...I thought you gave up on me…

 

His shuddering cries were silenced temporarily by the immediate sensation of those familiar strong arms around him, holding him close. Keith stilled, surprised by the physical contact after too long without that tender touch.

Connecting against his warm chest, Keith lost himself in the comforting scent, breath catching in his throat from the relaxing fingers massaging the back of his head. Finally, he surrendered to the heartfelt embrace he longed for, clinging weakly to the other man’s chest and letting the tears fall.

And Shiro buried the side of his face against Keith’s unruly hair, disgraced by what his actions had done to someone he cared for so deeply. His own eyes shimmered with emotion, a tremor of remorse hitching his voice.

“Keith… I will never give up on you. Never…

 

Only the spirit of the nocturnal world witnessed the strength of their inseparable unity, with Shiro and Keith holding each other beneath the stars, and the two of them remembering the significance of their bond. Keith’s relief from Shiro’s commitment to him invigorated his faith in what they had together. In kind, Shiro’s understanding that his best of intentions had struck a painful nerve inside someone he cared for almost resulted in disaster.

Never again , Shiro reminded himself. Never, ever again. Keith’s too important.

 

With a steadying breath, Shiro raised his head, still gazing at the man in his arms. “Want to watch the stars a little longer before we head back? The night’s still young?”

Keith’s heart skipped, and he nodded ardently before lifting his own head to meet that gentle face he adored. He smiled shyly, still a little embarrassed after unloading all his feelings, but relieved that everything settled at last. “Yeah, I’d like that.”

With a playful smile, Keith shook the container with remaining cookies inside. “Want to share? Don’t think I could stomach all these by myself.”

Delighted at the sight of Keith’s cheerful expression, Shiro gave him a smile of his own, reaching his hand across to take a cookie of his own. “Sounds great. Sharing is caring, right?”

 

As Shiro kept his arm around Keith, stargazing together with lovingly baked treats and a space wolf for warmth by their feet, the Captain knew then that he made the right choice to seek out his friend.

The man who never gave up on him, and expressed his love for him. And perhaps, one day, Shiro could find the courage to offer his heart in kind...

For now, Shiro had this blissful moment with someone he loved with his last night on Earth before the war began anew.

His family, his friend, his soul mate.

Chapter Text

The first step on their journey to free the galaxy took them towards a heavily fortified base run by remnants of the Galra Empire.

 

From the first day since Shiro was declared Captain, he felt a wonderful sense of purpose, of belonging, since bowing out as a Paladin. He strived to find himself useful towards his Paladin friends, fearing that his capabilities as a combatant and a source of support were stretched.

His strategic mind still held great value, but as for being there, fighting alongside Hunk, Pidge, Lance, Allura, and Keith, Shiro felt sidelined completely by his own circumstances.

Shiro's bond with the Black Lion was severed, and he only just had his prosthetic arm restored. And that, naturally, led him back to his darker thoughts. The ones that came to him in fleeting glimpses at first, but by now, were stronger visions of the clone that took his place for a time.

Barking at an eager to help Lance, assaulting his friends when Honerva took control…

Nearly killing Keith.

 

That was the first shard of memory to pierce the fog, not long after Shiro awakened. The thought horrified him, scared him, that the clone body he now inhabited scarred Keith's face.

When the opportunity came to switch Lions on their journey back to Earth, Shiro reluctantly took it out of guilt, unable to look at someone he cherished beyond measure without remembering the distress he caused.

As he traveled back with Pidge in the Green Lion, Shiro kept obsessing over that haunting memory, which only slowly expanded overtime. He recalled the taunting, the abusive words striking their intended target, and every piece that returned to him intensified the shame.

How could I say those things to someone that I…

Something deep inside in stirred at the unfinished sentiment, the uncertainty tormenting him. What other dark seeds of memory was he destined to uncover in the coming days, weeks… months?

 

Shiro shook his head, trying to remain focused on the bridge. His crew needed him, the Paladins needed him. And so did Keith.

As the conflict continued, Shiro was unable to hide the absolute pride on his face at hearing Keith's determined voice ordering the Paladins to him to form Voltron. His heart pounded with excitement, watching as the man that had come into his own as Leader led not just his fellow Paladins, but his close friends into the fray.

Finally, beaming with satisfaction, Shiro sent out his own communication to his friends. Even if he referred to them simply as Paladins, the unwavering sense of love and respect still held in his authoritative voice.

“Great job making quick work of the satellites, Paladins. We've successfully gained control of the base.”

 

xxx

 

Within the captured base, Shiro and Keith walked side by side down the hall towards the main hub, ready for an interrogation. Behind them, determined as ever to back them up, were Lance, Allura, Hunk, Pidge, and Matt.

“Good work, everyone,” Shiro announced, turning his head to give them a smile, before shooting a small smile his close friend’s way, softening his voice. “Keith. You ready for this?”

Keith returned the gesture, flexing his leather bound hands and wrists in preparation. It felt like such a comfort wearing fingerless gloves again after needing replacement ones. Home baked treats from Hunk were not the only gifts Shiro brought during their sunset viewing together. “Without a doubt. Thanks again for the gloves, Captain.”

The playful edge to Keith's tone caused Shiro to smirk. “Come on, Keith. What have I told you? You never have to call me that, or is it just a one sided thing, Leader of Voltron?”

“Fine, fine, just Keith,” the Paladin replied, shooting Shiro a mischievous grin.

Someone that sounded suspiciously like Matt whispered “are they always like this?” only to have his question most likely answered by mouthed affirmations behind them.

 

Back to business. Shiro and Keith exchanged nods of the head before the doors to the central sector opened, revealing suppressed Galra who seemed less than pleased at their current predicament. MFE pilots, James Griffin and Ryan Kinkade stood by the largest Galra, very likely the ring leader.

Once the tall, intimidating Galra turned towards the Paladins, Hunk suddenly laughed, approaching the stranger enthusiastically with a “Holy Kaltenecker!” and a stream of questions for him.

“What are you doing here? Remember me? Paladin of the Yellow Lion? We worked together once?”

 

Keith and Shiro exchanged confused stares. They shouldn't have been surprised at Hunk’s ability to make friends of all kinds seamlessly because he had that accepting nature about him, and a knack for bringing people together.

Even the Galra.

As Keith and Shiro came to Hunk’s side, intrigued to know more, Shiro vaguely recalled a time when their kind hearted Yellow Paladin wanted to learn more about the Galra, even being personally tutored by Lotor’s nanny. His suspicions were confirmed by what followed.

 

“Wait, Hunk, do you know his guy?” Keith asked, gesturing towards the captive Galra.

Hunk nodded, that positive beam never leaving his face. “Yeah, from the Omega Shield.” Shiro felt relieved that some part of his memory matched up with Hunk’s version of events, though Keith was still completely clueless. “Oh, that's right, you were on a space road trip with your mom. Keith, this is our friend, Lieutenant Lahn.”

The Galra known as Lahn sneered. “It's Warlord Lahn now, and you and I are not friends.”

 

The Princess conveyed sorrow, while Keith and Shiro held thinly veiled anger at the self-proclaimed Warlord for his contempt of their friend. Permitting temper to spill when drawing an ally to their side could be costly, but there was no denying that anyone who dared insult one of their tight knit circle risked the wrath of a Leader and a Captain on their head.

Surprisingly, Hunk still held his own, attempting to downplay the demeaning comment with his own brand of feedback. “It's cool,” the Yellow Paladin insisted with a delivery that expressed saving a Galra-occupied planet from harm was all in a day's work for the Voltron team. “No big deal.”

From the front monitor, where Pidge stood with Matt, punching codes into the system, the Green Paladin turned her head curiously, concerned about Hunk. Matt sensed his sister’s troubled interest in the scene before them.

“Hey,” Matt whispered. “Want me to head over? Back him up?”

Pidge gave Matt a small smile, grateful for the consideration. “Thanks, but I think he can handle it. He’s not alone.”

 

The stern stares from the Paladins of Voltron did little to deter Lahn’s aggressive streak. “Sendak only attacked the Omega Shield after we pledged loyalty to Voltron,” he stated firmly. “Then you disappeared and left us vulnerable to more attacks. I vowed to never let that happen again.”

Distrust emanated from the bitter Warlord, who was clearly not in the mood for small talk or empty words. Allura's attempts to soothe his troubled soul were quickly shot down by allegations of a take over, and only Shiro's firm suggestions seemed to do the trick.

“If you want peace, if you want to end this war, there can be no alternative.”

The strength of his resolve resonated with Keith, pride surging for the man that had always been his hero. Shiro’s continuous source of inspiration and support always roused Keith to want to better himself, to forge his own difficult path.

Shiro… You always come through for us, hold us up through hardship. You really are our Atlas.

 

Lahn’s stubborn streak persisted, even as he relented control of the base. “You've attained victory, and I accept defeat.”

Hunk sighed with relief, grateful to avoid a worse conflict with the Galra Warlord. Even Allura's face relaxed, and Lance, standing with his bayard gun a short few feet away, gave his new girlfriend a smile.

Being part-Galra himself, Keith recognised the fatalist sentiment behind those words, as if no other compromise could be reached. To Lahn, a Galra never worked alongside other species as equals, unless they were the captured.

“It doesn't have to be victory or death,” Keith said soundly. The Captain listened carefully to his friend’s words, sensing Keith's desire to offer an alternative take to the unyielding Warlord.

 

Warlord… Even the words unsettled Shiro, reminding him a little too strongly of his year in Galra captivity. He tried to suppress it, blotting it out to focus on the road ahead. For Shiro, there was simply no time to dwell on the past.

But sometimes, sleepless nights were a harsh reminder that recovery was still a long way away, especially when the most inconsequential of everyday things, like strong lights, the cheering of a crowd, and his own prosthetic arm reminded him of his time as Galra Champion, of torture…

Of what he had done to survive.

If not for Keith's constant presence to ground him, Shiro might not even have managed to address the Garrison when they left Earth. The soaring cheers of excited crew were a little too akin to the baying for blood in a packed Coliseum.

But Keith never judged him, never thought less of him for it. The Paladin stood by his side, giving him encouragement through soft glances and a touch on the shoulder, as he himself often did.

Without Keith -

 

Shiro was forcibly snapped from his thoughts by an aggressive bark from Lahn. “And what do you know of the Galra?”

Furrowing his brow at Lahn’s insolence, Captain Shiro then turned to Keith, observing the frown on his face as the Paladin spoke. “My Mother is Galra. She's a member of the Blade of Marmora. So am I.”

Without missing a beat, Lahn shot back. “The mutinous Blades have all but perished. Are they so diminished in numbers that they're forced to enlist a half-breed and his mommy?”

 

The reaction was instantaneous. Shiro bridged the gap between himself and Warlord Lahn, unfazed by the size difference between them. Clenching his teeth did little to quell the boiling rage inside of him, at someone daring to insult Keith right in front of him. Hardened eyes pierced the confidence of the Galra lurking in the background, but not of stubborn, prejudiced Lahn.

Tension descended upon the communication room, with everyone in attendance watching in disbelief as Captain and Warlord sized each other up, unwilling to budge an inch. By this point, even Pidge and Matt neglected the computer, mesmerised by the showdown. James stared bug eyed in fear and admiration at his hero. As for his pilot comrade, Kinkade caught the panicked eyes of the Yellow Paladin, who was surprisingly the first to move into action.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, guys-”

Only to be thoroughly ignored.

 

Until this point, Keith remained frozen, shocked by how naturally Shiro came to his defence, but at how swiftly the situation spiralled out of control. Lahn's words had hurt, tapping into a personal heartache of his that only began to mend.

Keith had always felt isolated, but when he first learned of his Galra heritage, he felt more alone than ever. Confused, the Paladin knew the Galra were responsible for much of the universe’s conflict, and even Allura struggled to process the revelation at first.

Knowledge did not always console a curious mind, and Keith was left with more questions than answers.

But Shiro never gave up on him. He always saw Keith as himself, with his Galra blood only being one part of him. When Shiro embraced him, never hesitating for even a moment to reach out to him, he still felt confused, but reassured by the acceptance.

And once Allura offered her arms to Keith, apologising for doubting him, he knew his place was with this found family.

 

Despite all that, Shiro's aggression towards the insulted of Keith's honour still surprised him. He finally took a step forward, placing a hand on Shiro's shoulder in an attempt to calm him.

“Shiro, it's alright-”

“Let me set the record straight,” Shiro said with an ominous displeasure. “I am offering you a place on the side of the Voltron Coalition, and I respect your decision on the matter. What I won't tolerate is your bigoted vile directed towards my Paladins, so unless you want to incur my wrath, Lahn, I suggest you rethink your behaviour.”

“On whose authority-”

“The Champion’s authority.”

Shiro's steely stare never left the Warlord, who reacted with surprise to those words. Keith never imagined the day when Shiro would openly express the moniker that held too many negative memories to it.

And yet here was Shiro throwing the Champion’s gauntlet down for him .

 

Suddenly, an electronic sequence of sounds broke the tension, and Pidge returned to the monitor. “...Guys, incoming communication.”

Giving Lahn one last long stare, Shiro exhaled through his nose, attempting to wind down. “Patch it through.”

Once connected, a distorted voice broadcast the same words on loop, Yordam Bering Exus . Everyone was perplexed by the phrase, but Lahn was well versed in its meaning, and gave a firm explanation. of the situation.

 

Yordam Bering Exus was a distress call from mechanical sentries, and was being transmitted from Klytax V-Three, one of fifteen ships that the Warlord sent on an assignment six phoebs ago.

And was presumed dead.

 

Determined as always to assist, Keith turned to his fellow Paladins, then Shiro. “We need to get out there. Shiro, how long before the Atlas is ready to launch again?”

Concerned, Shiro finally backed away from Lahn, returning to Keith's side, giving him an apologetic look for losing his temper. “...Hours. We still need to process all the Galra, and prepare the planet to continue operating on its own.” As much as it pained Shiro, he knew the Paladins were needed wherever the distress signal came from. “This is our mission. We need to see this through, but Keith…”

The Paladin Leader shook his head, knowing exactly what his friend wanted to suggest. “No, Shiro. You're needed here. Voltron will go.”

The Captain sighed. “Alright. You stay safe out there.” His worried eyes glanced across to the others. “Everyone. First sign of trouble, hail us.”

Smiling with appreciation at the thought, Keith held his hand out, only for Shiro to grasp it immediately. “Thanks, but we’ll be okay, Shiro. I promise.” They led into an embrace, their hands still connected as Keith buried his face against Shiro’s chest.

They drew great strength from their friendship, not at all minding the expression of their profound bond in front of others. Being this close to Keith even soothed his temper, acting like a calming balm to his anger.

 

As Shiro watched the Paladins, along with Lahn, leave with a heavy heart, he prayed for the safety of his friends, his family. Although he took great pride in his new found position as Captain, assisting the Paladins of Voltron whenever he could, watching them leave was always the hardest part of any mission.

And reminded him of that terrible moment he watched helplessly as the Lions fall to the Earth like shooting stars.

 

xxx

 

It's all my fault , Keith told himself over and over again, the enormity of the situation weighing in.

The rescue team were aboard the Klytax V-Three for a short time before uncovering the truth. Thankfully, Lance and Hunk survived the encounter with the threat, though Keith barely escaped it's vicious claws.

Once Lahn confirmed that his own men perished from the Beast’s attack, that is when Keith realised what they were facing, and that he was to blame.

 

Warlord Ranveig’s base. The experimented creature trained to attack the Galra, only for it to indiscriminately slaughter any Galra regardless of affiliation. Including its own captors.

And Keith, along with his Mother, Krolia, unleashed the Beast to escape the clutches of Ranveig's quarters. Like a strange karmic justice, he returned to face the super weapon he had unleashed, one that continued to maim and destroy its way across the galaxy, one Galra at a time. He even felt a strange lure towards the creature, even if he did not understand it at the time.

He knew exactly where to proceed when he came upon the malfunctioning sentry that pinged the distress call, only to find the Beast.

 

Pidge's self destruct program set to a timer gave them a very tight window of opportunity to escape, while taking out the threat. However, in an instant, the doors to the corridor slammed shut, sealing the Paladins on one side, and Keith with Lahn and the Galra killing monster on the other.

As bleak as the situation became, Keith felt relief at knowing his friends were safely out of harm's way. Facing his impending demise, his thoughts were of his family. Even if the Beast posed no threat to them, collateral damage still remained a horrifying possibility. And if harm befell them because of his actions… if the Beast came across his Mother and Kolivan, the Blades...

No. I’ll protect them, and I’ll protect Lahn.

 

As a defiant Lahn roared the Galra motto - “Victory or Death” - as the Beast charged forward, resigned to a heroic death, Keith leapt in front of the Warlord, raising his bayard. Before their eyes, the Paladin weapon transformed into a firearm, and Keith released a hard, concentrated shot of energy at the Beast, slamming it against the furthest wall.

And I'll get back to Shiro.

 

Securing themselves a golden chance to escape, Keith and Lahn sped down the emergency exit corridor, catching up with the others. Suddenly, Keith felt compelled to turn his attention towards the rear, only to wish he sorely hadn't.

The Beast had recovered, and was quickly gaining lost ground.

Realising they had precious seconds before disaster struck, Keith once more raised his bayard gun and fired at the wall of the hangar they reached, melting a hole into space.

 

The sudden gravitational pull from outside the ship sucked the Paladins out into the infinity of the cosmos, their Lions ready to snatch them to safety. One after the other, the Paladins designated Lions drew them in, protecting the panicked pilots from the inevitable release from the self destruction.

Once the Black Lion took in Keith and Lahn, the Paladins drove as far away to safety as possible before the entire base exploded, and the Beast with it.

 

xxx

 

On the journey back to the Atlas, Keith and the Paladins filled in Shiro on what happened by communication. The Captain, understandably, looked horrified, and he repeatedly questioned if everyone was alright.

Even though Keith said that they were, something in the Paladin’s quiet voice did little to reassure Shiro.

“Shiro, it's okay, really,” Keith stressed, despairing at the thought of Shiro fretting over him this badly. “Everyone's safe, and we’re on our way back.”

The pregnant pause before Shiro spoke chilled Keith to the core, knowing full well that someone as close to him as the Captain read his evasive eyes and small voice. Was there anything Shiro could not glean from him in the span of a few ticks?

 

“Keith…” Shiro cleared his throat, remembering they were not alone. “E-Everyone, good work. I'll meet you at the landing point. And Paladins?”

Keith, Hunk, Pidge, Lance, and Allura curiously stared at their screens, while Lahn furrowed his brow, not taking kindly to being growled at by a protective space wolf.

On their colour coordinated monitors, Shiro smiled warmly, those gentle eyes softening. “I'm glad you’re all safe. See you soon.”

 

After terminating the call, the Paladins reacted with smiles of their own, touched that Shiro still regarded them so fondly, their safety a priority above all else.

Princess Allura gazed out towards the Red Lion, and Lance returned the gesture, their happiness spanning across the distance even if they couldn't see one another.

Pidge grinned, tapping at her screens to scan for signs of obstacles on route, while Hunk practically gushed at being on the receiving end of the Captain’s favour, from Shiro’s favour.

And Keith reclined back into his seat, trying not to think about the Beast, and his own sickening guilt.

 

xxx

 

Eventually, the Lions returned to base where the Atlas crew just finished processing the rescued citizens along with their captors. For the past hour or so, Shiro stared out, arms folded as he waited for his friends to return.

While they had tried to persuade him of their safety, Shiro had been unconvinced, especially by Keith’s forced insistence. He tapped his foot, trying not to return to the Communication station, and send another call.

Asking if they're sure? If they're really sure? And if something happened to Keith?

 

Once he caught sight of the Lion formation descending from the stars, Shiro sighed with relief, though he wasn't done yet. He had to be sure, he had to see them, see Keith.

One by one, the Paladins departed from their Lions,and they didn't appear to be hurt. As a matter of fact, they seemed… chipper. Lance even shot Shiro the double barrel fingers, a sure sign of success.

So why did Shiro still feel uneasy?

 

As soon as it was Keith’s turn to leave the Black Lion, his unsteady gait became apparent, the reality of his harrowing ordeal - and the guilt from his survival - crashing into him. Dizziness set in, and he fell from the protective jaws of his own Lion…

...And right into the supporting arms of Shiro, who raced towards him to hinder his fall.

For anyone else to catch him, Keith would have been humiliated, but he only felt safety for the first time since encountering the Beast. His mind still buzzed from the aftermath of the draining adrenaline, but he managed to mutter a few words.

“It's my fault…” and “I did it.”

Shiro shook his head, never letting go of the Paladin in case he fell. He confided in Keith in a soft voice, permitting them privacy. “No, it's not your fault, Keith. You did what you had to. To live. Like I did.”

 

Keith's startled eyes widened, knowing exactly what Shiro referred to. He still blamed himself for his survivalist actions under the Galra rule. Fighting back in the arena, surrounded by blood thirsty jeers and baying for blood, enduring unspeakable torture and torment at the hands of his oppressors… Shiro understood all to well the sacrifices one made to return to loved ones.

And Keith always supported him, held him during those sleepless nights aboard the Castle of Lions and told him time and time again that nothing that happened was Shiro’s fault.

You did everything you could to survive, Keith always reminded him. To live, to return to Earth. To us.

To me.

Pulling back, Shiro gave Keith a kindly smile. “Welcome back.”

Unable to resist a callback of his own, Keith grinned, albeit weakly. “Good to be back.”

 

Later on, as Warlord Lahn publicly pledged his loyalty to the Voltron Coalition, the Paladins watched proudly from the sidelines. Keith rested his back against the wall, relieved to have gained another ally in the fight against oppression, and that the feeling was very much mutual in Shiro who came over to place a hand on the young man’s shoulder.

Slowly, but surely, things were slowly progressing towards the greater good, and it was hard not to bask in that positivity after so much loss and pain.

 

xxx

 

Aboard the Atlas, another problem resurfaced. From Pidge’s newly downloaded intel, the possibility of another one of Honerva’s Robeasts being out there seemed highly likely.

Lance gulped, and Veronica gave her little brother a sympathetic look from her place by the monitors. Beside him, the strong-willed Allura emphasised the importance of discovering where the Robeasts were originating from, and tackle the problem at the source.

 

Conflicted, Shiro shared a troubled look with the Princess. “I understand where you’re coming from, however, thousands of innocent souls are waiting to be liberated from what remains of the Galra Empire. If we change course…”

“Maybe you don’t have to,” Keith implied, the importance of his suggestion causing everyone on the Bridge to turn towards him, Shiro included.

Anticipating what the Paladin Leader was about to advise, the Captain stiffened, the sound of his voice quiet and almost fearful to his own ears. “Keith, are you saying…?”

Keith nodded firmly. “We’ll split up. The Atlas will continue working with the Galra while Voltron searches for Honerva and her beasts.”

 

Even Commander Holt and Veronica traded uneasy stares, and Shiro closed his eyes monetarily, taking a readying breath, as he considered Keith’s plan. “You’ll be out there on your own, without backup. It’s incredibly risky.”

I almost lost you today, Shiro wanted to elaborate further, but the apprehensive glint in his eyes more than delivered that fear. And I don’t think I could bear the thought of something happening to you again. Any of you.

 

Reading Shiro’s disquiet as readily as if it were his own, Keith gave him a comforting smile, along with Lance, Pidge, Hunk and Allura, uniting to put their fellow friend and former Paladin at ease.

“We’ll be okay, Shiro,” Keith said, taking steps towards him. “Voltron is stronger now more than ever. We’re a team, a… family, and if we need you, we’ll call for you.”

“Promise?” Shiro held out his hand.

And Keith took it without hesitation. “I promise.”

Once more, they led into another embrace, only this time, they were not alone. Hunk raced over, throwing his arms around Shiro and Keith, followed by Pidge, Lance, and then Allura. Coran was not long for shooting up from his seat and joining in.

 

As everyone beamed with happiness, with perhaps a few tears, something sparked inside Shiro, a lingering memory that grew stronger in the arms of his loved ones.

Another time, another hug.

Hunk and Coran crying.

Keith saying goodbye.

 

Drowning in the heartache of that point in time, even knowing from the others of Keith’s temporary absence, Shiro’s entire body stilled. His wide eyes brimmed with tears, and Keith noticed the change in his demeanor.

Keith gazed up at those wet eyes, with clear concern in his own. “Shiro?”

Their Leader’s voice drew attention, causing the others to catch sight of the vulnerability in Shiro and grow worried. Allura gasped, and Lance shot Keith an alarmed expression. Pidge peered up at Shiro, gently touching his arm, and Coran asked if he was alright.

Even Hunk panicked. “Oh God, did I hug you too tight? I’m so sorry!”

 

Within the ultimate Paladin hug, the tension from Shiro finally released and the first thing he did was bury his face against Keith’s shoulder. It was now Keith’s turn to freeze, shocked by the very sudden display.

“Stay safe. Keith, everyone. Come home safe, alright?”

The Paladins relaxed expressions showed that Shiro’s loving words carried over to them, to the friends he called family. For Keith, hearing the man he loved pleading for him to return home to him flooded his heart with warmth.

To you, Shiro.

Always.

As many times as it takes.

 

xxx

 

In the mystical realm of Oriande, Honerva planned and schemed.

As another Robeast vanished through the wormhole of her creation, the former Galran Empress stood before the crowd of idolising Alteans from the Colony. These revering souls loved her son, still remaining faithful to his vision even after his disappearance.

For her son, all she did, she did for her son.

For Lotor.

And for that to happen, to settle an old score and unite her beloved son to her once more, she needed him.

Chapter Text

Lifeless. That was the first thing that Keith sensed when he landed on Olkarion.

Once a hospitable and vibrant planet, lush with life and a strong green pulse from nature itself, Keith and his fellow Paladins surveyed the desolate and decaying planet. The abundant environment shrivelled up, the vitality of every living plant and tree absorbed by unseen forces.

 

Pidge closed her eyes, mourning the fate of the Olkari she had grown close to and learned much from. Heartbroken at the sight of Olkarion reduced to ruins, she blinked away the threatening tears. “They were our allies. Our friends.”

Hunk touched Pidge’s shoulder, empathising with her grief. “I know, Pidge. We’ll find them. Don’t you worry.”

 

“Everyone, I know this is a difficult moment,” Keith acknowledged softly. “ Pidge. ” His sympathetic gaze rested upon the Green Paladin, who bowed her head to shield her delicate expression. “I know it’s tough, but we need to get to work. That Weblum is headed here right now, so time is short.”

Something strange in the atmosphere caused him to feel edgy, apprehensive, but he stayed firm. His Paladins needed him to remain strong. “Our top priority is search and rescue. If there are survivors, we need to find them, and we need to find out what happened here.”

Allura’s expression hardened, outraged on behalf of the Olkari. “There is only one thing capable of this.”

Keith understood Allura's steadfast stance, giving her a nod. “It's highly likely, but let's confirm it.”

 

The Paladins split up. Pidge and Allura searched through the withered forest on the chance that the Olkari sought refuge there. Not that there was much that offered protection, bare trees stripped of leaves, leaving any poor souls open to the elements.

The Altean Princess touched a few dead trees, lamenting the loss of life. Her affinity with the natural quintessence of life only healed living things, not those already passed. The state of Olkarion was a far cry from the healing she managed to provide for the park on Earth, or what remained of Balmera.

Pidge reached out to touch the only leaf she came across, still clinging to the branches of a nearby tree, only for it to disintegrate between her fingers. She bowed her head, clearly heartbroken at what had happened to this once lively planet.

As Allura touched Pidge's shoulder, trying to comfort her friend, Hunk scanned the remains of the abandoned city from the Yellow Lion, illuminating the broken down remains of sky high structures.

Nearby, Lance searched on foot, using the light on the wrist of his Paladin Armour to find survivors. The Yellow and Blue Paladins kept in close contact, though they were united by the same unspoken goal.

They had to find survivors, they just had to.

Hunk strived to stay positive, always clinging to that silver lining with every part of him, but even he grew worried. Lance knew Hunk wanted nothing more than to find someone, anyone , among the ruins, but with every passing dobosh, the possibility of finding the Olkari, or any life at all, grew bleak.

 

xxx

 

From the dull skies, Keith surveyed Olkarion from the Black Lion. Every acre of wasted land filled the Paladin with regret, that he let down the Olkari people down when they needed him most.

When they first came to the beautiful planet, Keith remembered the feeling of peace that came across him. He always associated it with the tranquility of the natural world, a safe place he could seek solace in.

Keith quickly realised that there was more to his initial impression than just the lack of noise. He craved the peace of natural life without becoming overwhelmed by the presence of people.

 

The Paladin always grew irritable and distant by the loud and noisy world around him. Stuffy Garrison teachers labelled him as ‘anti social’ and an introverted ‘troublemaker,’ but not to Shiro.

Shiro had always understood him, and always insisted there was more to the lonely child than appearances.

Keith closed his eyes, resonating strongly with a past memory that always gave him comfort.

 

A patient Shiro had turned to Keith, who had once more been disciplined for storming out of a team building exercise. ‘You want to know what I think? You're a perceptive kid, more in tune to what's happening than others realise. And sometimes, when you're as aware of the world as you are, it gets a little overwhelming. Like sensory overload.’

Keith's young eyes widened. “...Overload?”

Shiro smiled. “Like a computer with too many big, loud, distracting programs running at once. Others can't see what's happening around them, but you can.” He placed a supportive hand on Keith's shoulder. “You're not a troublemaker, Keith. It's just a little too much, right?”

Relieved that someone finally understood him, Keith lowered his head, nodding.

“Then don't worry,” Shiro reassured him. “You know what it is and when to remove yourself from a situation before it escalates. Take a deep breath. Find your calm center. Listen to your inner voice.”

“But the others…”

Shiro shook his head. “Listen, you know your own self better than anyone. Don’t let other people bully you into suffering in silence, and telling you how you should or shouldn’t be. Being around others is important, but those that matter, those that care about you, will understand when you need to recharge. That’s why trust among friends is important.”

Keith stared up at Shiro with red eyes. “Friends?”

“That’s right. They’ll lift you up when you need support most, and in kind, you can be their strength. It’s all about mutual respect and consideration. They’ll have your back, and you’ll have theirs.”

 

With a relaxed sigh, Keith came to with a private smile. The Paladin had indeed been blessed with friends that supported him and backed him up when things were difficult, and he was prepared to do whatever it took to protect them in return.

In the deepest regions of space, the Paladins were his family, and nothing would ever happen to them, not on his watch.

No. He never wanted to lose loved ones ever again.

 

Suddenly, Keith caught sight of strange circular markings on the ground. They were large fractures in the hollow ground, and once he flew closer to the first one, there left little doubt in his mind.

“I think our worst fears have been realised,” Keith told to his team. “The physical wreckage and destruction patterns are just like those on Earth.”

From the empty woodlands, Allura gazed sadly at the few dead leaves left before turning her attention to her crestfallen companion. “Our findings are the same. It appears the Quintessence was siphoned out of Olkarion as well.”

In the Yellow Lion, Hunk gave his own report, keeping a protective watch over Lance who scanned a nearby material. “Lance and I took readings. We picked up trace elements of Psyferite. That’s the same metal the creature on Earth was made from.”

“Why did this Robeast attack Olkarion of all places?” Allura asked thoughtfully, trailing her fingers across a creaking branch. She wished with all her heart that her touch could restore the beauty of the natural world back to life like she had done on Earth.

Lance raised his head at the sound of Allura’s voice. Even from a distance, he sensed his girlfriend’s confliction. “Maybe because it was a central part of the coalition.” He sighed, lowering the piece of metal he scanned with a troubled frown. “Because they were our allies.”

Something in Lance’s voice connected with Allura. She understood all too well the burden of others endangering themselves for a united cause. The Great King Alfor gave his life for the ‘greater good,’ and that sacrifice was still felt deeply by the Princess and Coran.

“Maybe,” Allura speculated. “I just get the feeling there's something more to it.”

 

Keith's penetrating stare traced the circular markings with deep gouges right in the centre. He knew that was the sign of a Robeast’s greed, sucking the life out of entire worlds, and he felt that emptiness.

Without the residents of Olkarion around, the silence of the planet was deafening to Keith, the presence of his friends and the Lions blinding .

“You're probably right,” Keith agreed, curious as to what else the Robeast stole from the planet. “But until we can confirm it, let's focus on finding survivors.” He kept his decisive eyes on the world below, watching for any signs of movement or even the faintest ripple of life from something, anything.

There has to be someone out there, but… there's nothing.

All I think I feel is… them. The Lions.

 

xxx

 

A Princess and a Paladin walked deeper into the soulless woods, growing more worried with every passing dobosh.

Allura knew this mission was taking its toll on Pidge, who only just gushed excitedly about meeting the Olkari again, and seeing what other scientific wonders they had discovered. Instead, Pidge's keen mind struggled to process the enormity of the devastation. The Green Paladin stared up at a broken tree, and Allura understood what memory she recalled.

The Mechs, brought to life by channelling the complex information network of the brain, a marvel of both scientific and natural wonder. Pidge had loved it all, but she stood hurt and confused.

“I know this place,” Pidge said quietly, lowering her head. “This is where Ryner taught me how to bond with the forest. The Olkari people helped me to make that connection.”

“Don't worry, Pidge,” the Princess sadly, patting the Holt daughter’s back. “We will find out what happened here, and why they targeted Olkarion.”

Appreciating the gesture, Pidge managed a small smile before turning to the opening before them. “Thanks, Allura. I'm just… I can't believe they'd do this to such a peaceful planet. I learned so much from them, more than I ever thought possible.”

As the tears fell, cascading like a light rainfall onto the protective glass of her helmet, Pidge's voice cracked, causing Allura to pull her friend into a supportive hug.

“Allura, they had so much more to teach the universe. And now, they're gone.”

The Green Paladin fell to her knees, with Allura still holding her, as she began to cry.

 

xxx

 

As Lance walked side by side with Hunk in the Yellow Lion, he contemplated the wide scale damage of the city, and how spiritless it felt. Cities were supposed to be buzzing, thriving places with plenty of excitement and fun.

When Lance saw Olkarion now, the reality of Honerva’s destruction hit hard. His earlier suspicions that the Olkari became a target because of their association to the Voltron Coalition stirred forth a great wave of sickening guilt.

Lance’s passiveness worried Hunk, though he understood why. The outlook for the Olkari people grew grim. But the sight of the normally animated Sharpshooter of their team so troubled weighed on the Yellow Paladin.

 

“Hey, buddy,” Hunk began, staring down at Lance from Yellow Lion. “Kinda brings back memories, doesn't it? You know, Hunk and Lance? Side by side? Treading ground? Except less wet.”

Lance’s initial confusion then melted, revealing a tiny smile. “With you ready to abandon Voltron for being ‘safe and warm?’ How could I forget?”

“Hey! I wasn't the only one! At first…” A pregnant pause followed before Hunk relented his defensive stance. “Okay, maybe let the awesome merfood go a little to my head.”

Lance rolled his eyes playfully, then he stared out at another crater like the ones Keith saw from the sky and his tone turned somber once more. “They really did a number on this place, huh?”

“Yeah,” Hunk replied, saddened by the possibility that Olkarion's fate could have been Earth too. He turned to Lance. “So, how's Allura holding up?”

Lance shook his head. “She's trying so hard, but all this stuff with the Robeasts and the Alteans is really difficult for her. She's spent all this time thinking she and Coran were the last ones, then she finds out they're not, but…”

 

Hunk understood the unspoken end to Lance’s words, even if he himself could not completely relate to the Princess’ exact situation. He sat and listened to Lance unload his deepest fears and insecurities, encouraged by Hunk’s kind and gentle understanding.

 

“Like, what if I can't be the rock that she needs me to be?” Lance lowered his hand, his source of light hitting the ground. “What if I can't be the family she needs me to be? What if I can't be the boyfriend-”

“Hey.” The Yellow Paladin’s soft voice somehow got through to Lance’s fretful nature. “You're worried about her. That shows you care. That's what loved ones do for each other.”

For a fleeting moment, Hunk paused, unable to ignore the image of Keith in his head, and everything the other Paladin had done for his friends, for Shiro. It emboldened Hunk’s reassuring words.

“We're all family, Lance. You're exactly the support Allura needs right now, but you're not alone either. You've got us. Never feel like you're alone, buddy.”

 

A tremor of emotion passed through Lance, knowing that the he and his friends had grown closer not just as Paladins, but as family every day.

“Hunk and Lance, huh?” the Blue Paladin repeated.

Hunk smirked. “Brothers for life.”

 

xxx

 

At first, Pidge thought she imagined it.

As she sobbed her heart out, the sudden sound of laughter caught her attention. A child's cheer, a sound that felt woefully out of place in such a forsaken graveyard for nature.

In desperation, Pidge scanned her surroundings, causing Allura to lean close, asking if she was alright. Before the Green Paladin could respond, her entire world was enveloped in a blinding white light that obscured everything around her.

Including Allura, her strength.

 

Once the endless nothingness evaporated, Pidge's surprised eyes widened, processing what she desired to see most. Olkarion as it once was, with green wonder everywhere.

In the meadow, two Olkari children chased after one another, laughing and tossing a ball back and forth. Pidge watched in fascination as the girls basked in the gentle glow from the nearest solar star, unaware of the unsettling horror the Paladin envisioned.

She reached out, calling for the Olkari, only to be ignored completely. The laughter grew distant, then Pidge felt like her soul was being drawn away from the world.

 

When she came to, the Green Paladin was still kneeling on the ground, arm outstretched, but the woods around her were no longer vibrant and hearty with green life. She had returned to the real nightmare, the Olkarion with no pulse, and not a soul in sight.

Allura's hand rested upon Pidge's shoulder, concerned for her friend. “Pidge? Are you all right?”

Pidge flinched. “You didn't see it?” Only Allura's confused face greeted her. “The forest. It was back to his it was before.” She nodded over to the clearing. “There were girls playing.”

Afraid that she sounded disillusioned, Pidge was relieved when Allura lacked any dismissive air, only respect. “Maybe this place is trying to show you something, Pidge. The Olkari had a profound connection to the land, just like you do. Their history could be etched into the very soil for you to see.”

The Princess closed her eyes, demonstrating to Pidge how to connect to the quintessence of the planet. “Concentrate. See if you can tap into its energy.”

 

Pidge mimicked Allura, closing her eyes, and trying to connect to the Olkarion of the past. Worried that it was a bluff before, and that time was much too short, she screwed her eyes shut harder, trying to will it forth.

The Paladin Princess sensed her tension, resting her helmet against Pidge's in a comforting gesture. Pidge gasped, feeling something inside, like a spirit wanting to be set free.

“Believe, Pidge,” Allura whispered, their eyes connected. “Believe.”

 

In the blink of an eye, Allura vanished once more, as Past Olkarion filtered into view. Pidge turned her head towards the sounds of the laughing girls, only for something else to catch her attention.

Falling from the sky, a hot angry comet, searing with malevolent purple energy, screamed towards the city.

“We need to get to the city!”

 

The Altean Paladin faithfully followed Pidge through the Olkari city, jet packing from one surface to the next. Her friend phased in and out of Past, observing with keen vision unseen events from the last day.

Allura could not help, but remember Altea’s last day before falling into a long slumber. She wondered if her people met an end quite like this, falling prey to a destructive plague that sucked the very life from every living thing.

As Pidge stared, transfixed in horror at the space around a crater, Allura knew without hesitation what she saw. A Robeast, plunging its weapons, shimmering with malevolent energy, into the fertile ground and draining it completely.

She could only imagine the fear on the faces of the Olkari people, watching helplessly as their home was harmed. Murdered by Allura's own, worshipping the brooding zealous of a traitorous Altean menace.

 

And of course, that always returned her thoughts back to him , causing her heart to ache as it often did when she remembered.

The Quintessence field, fertile with the lifeblood of existence. That smile. Those promises. The first time she truly felt another kindred spirit.

Her first kiss.

 

The Princess’ inner turmoil was short lived as Pidge talked to her, returned to the cruel present. “Ryner. She was there. It seemed like she was talking to me. Or it could have been the soldiers. I don't know.”

“What did she say?”

“The civilians were escorted to evacuation pods,” Pidge answered, relieved that at least some of the Olkari were spared. “The Olkari fought back to buy them some time, but Ryner… where was she heading? What does she want me to see?”

Determined, Allura placed her hands on Pidge's small shoulders. “All the answers we’re looking for could be here. We may be able to find out where this beast came from and where it's going next. There might be some clue here about the Alteans.”

Pidge nodded, equally as focused. “If there is, I will find it.”

 

xxx

 

Nothing. There was nothing out there. And it bummed Hunk out.

Apprehensively, Hunk thought about the Balmera, and Shay, of their strife at the hands of the Galra Empire, and how it might have ended in tragedy. No . They were safe. Shay was safe.

But the Olkari…

 

He sighed, wishing for a galaxy united by mutual understanding and respect, where innocent people didn't face enslavement under tyrannical rule, or losing their homes or even their lives.

Especially for aligning with the Voltron Coalition.

 

Suddenly, Hunk’s melancholy was replaced with a brooding sense of foreboding as the alarm pinged on his monitor. He frantically tapped the screen, growing very worried.

“No, no, no, no, no, no, no way…”

Lance turned to Hunk, growing anxious himself. “Hunk? Don't tell me…”

“Guys? We have a, uh…” Hunk blinked, trying to process his thoughts at the worse case scenario flashing before him. “We have a major problem here.”

 

As Lance ran towards the Red Lion, who opened its jaws in anticipation, he blurted out nervously. “Hunk released some low-orbit trackers outside of Olkarion on the way in! The Weblum just set them off! We have about ten minutes to evac!”

From the Black Lion, Keith urgently gave his orders. “Copy that. Everyone to their Lions. Let's go now!”

 

Feeling that a golden opportunity was slipping from them fast, Pidge sat firmly on the ground, closing her eyes and quickly trying to reconnect with the Past. Meanwhile, Allura pleaded with the other Paladins.

“We can't leave yet! We need more time! How long do you think you can hold it off?”

Lance’s eyes nearly bugged out of his sockets. “Hold it off?! It's a giant space worm, Allura! We can't hold it off! If we stay here, we risk getting wiped out! You could get hurt, or - or -”

 

Hunk’s trembling voice piped in. “We couldn't find anyone… The Olkari, they… They were…”

“No,” Allura said firmly, trying to reassure Hunk. “Most of the Olkari might have evacuated already.”

After staying silent for a spell, trying to settle his nerves, Keith backed the Princess up. “They might be right. No one’s here. The planet is completely empty.”

Curiosity took a back seat to priority, as Allura quickly explained. “Pidge found a way to tap into Olkarion's history. She may be able to find out what we need to know, but we need a little more time.”

 

Still buzzing from the adrenaline, Keith felt himself losing control of the situation. Every part of him overreacted to the stress, sounds deafening and sights blinding his attention.

As he tried to calm himself, Keith sensed a presence beside him. Stiffened with too much awareness to the energy of the other Paladins, a voice rang out inside his mind.

Keith…

Startled, the Paladin snapped back, only to find himself alone, but he swore he heard him.

“Shiro…?”

The voice echoed in his mind once more, and he knew he wasn't imagining it. Keith… Relax. Deep breaths. Find your calm centre.

Patience yields focus.

Latching onto Shiro's reassuring voice, Keith slowly breathed in, breathed out. He closed his eyes momentarily, focusing only on his own breathing, and his absent friend’s supporting voice.

You can do it, Keith. Focus.

 

When the Leader of Voltron finally spoke, his firm voice betrayed nothing, only being the pillar his Paladins needed him to be. “...Alright, we’ll buy you as much time as we can, but don't take any more risks than you have to.”

Relieved, Allura answered. “Copy that. Thank you. I shall stay with Pidge. She won't be alone and vulnerable.”

His hesitant heart fought against his direct orders to the Yellow and Blue Paladin. “Hunk, Lance, we need to hurry!”

“I've got your back, Keith!” Lance replied, trailing after his former rival I the Red Lion.

Hunk followed suit in the a Yellow Lion. “And me!”

Keith smiled. “Thanks. Hunk, you take the lead. You've got the coordinates. Don't worry. I'll be right beside you.”

 

Allura watched as the three Lions soared into the sky, prepared to slow the approaching Weblum by any means necessary. She prayed their intervention would be enough, and once Pidge opened her eyes, she shot to her feet.

“The tower!”

 

xxx

 

For such a large creature seemingly drifting through space, the Paladins were uncomfortable with how little distance they had between the Weblum and its target, the planet if Olkarion. With Allura and Pidge focused on gathering Intel, Keith, Hunk and Lance were the only force between their friends seeking answers and absolute destruction with no hope at all.

The Yellow Lion’s attempts to force a diversion of course by ramming into the Weblum proved ineffective. The Red Lion’s lasers were just as fruitless against it, merely bouncing off the giant beast.

After a brief period of swerving to avoid the Weblum’s own beam of energy, formed to destroy entire planets, Keith came to a horrifying conclusion.

“It's still heading for Olkarion! We haven't slowed it down at all! Pidge and Allura need us! Come on!”

 

Keith piloted the Black Lion, rebelling against the advice Coran once gave him, by maneuvering around the head of the Weblum.

He had to distract it. He had to buy them time.

Allura, Pidge… I trust you to find the answers. Trust me to protect you...

 

xxx

 

A derelict tower. Pidge stood upon its unsteady summit, praying it held long enough to gleam important information. Phasing in and out of the Past, she observed helpless Olkari fleeing for their lives, or soldiers and Mechs fighting back to buy their people time to evacuate.

Two Olkarion communicating with Ryner, accessing scanner logs, and among the electronic chirping and information, the bombshell by the one of the Olkari engineers.

“The anomalies are from the warping of space-time. The creature came through a wormhole.”

 

As the Robeast just outside the tower struck the earth once more, the entire building shook, but the engineers were they were, clinging to the control panel. On screen, Ryner ordered them to transfer all the data from the facility to a safe location off planet, then evacuate themselves.

Pidge watched with halted breath as the Olkari engineers worked frantically to prepare for a mass information transfer, as the Robeast edged ever closer to them. For a dizzying moment, the Paladin sensed their determination and fear as if it were her own, preparing for one frightening possibility.

That hopes of evacuation were nothing more than a dying star.

“What we just discovered could save billions of lives,” the Olkari said solemnly, tapping furiously at the screen.

Pidge everything around her still, as the Robeast’s chest illuminated, powering up its laser to take out the tower… and everyone in it. With one last touch, the Olkari sent the invaluable information out into the cosmos, closing their eyes once the laser hit.

 

And Pidge fell her to knees, placing a hand against her helmet, overwhelmed by witnessing the last moments of two living beings.

“A wormhole,” Pidge exclaimed, turning to Allura who ran over to comfort her. “That's how they travel!”

Before Allura could respond, Hunk’s anxious voice pierced through their communication. “Pidge! Allura! I'm sorry, but you've gotta get out of there immediately!”

Pidge shook her head, adamant in her mission. “I need more time. I'm so close.”

The Princess closed her eyes briefly, disliking everything about this situation, but she understood Pidge's determination, and that only she could uncover the secrets of Olkarion.

She touched the side of Pidge's helmet, as if touching her face, before turning and running to the edge of the tower’s remains, leaping off. “I'm coming up to help.”

 

In a flash, the Blue Lion raced into the skies, with a focused Allura at the helm. “Stay safe, Pidge. We’ll all try and buy you time, but please… come back to us.”

Jet packing off the tower and into the city centre, the Green Paladin took a steadying breath, trying to mask her own apprehension. “I will. Thanks, everyone.”

 

xxx

 

On the bridge of the Atlas, Captain Shirogane observed the star maps, assessing the best course of action with his analyst, Veronica. Their last rescue mission had proved a success, freeing more downtrodden beings from the clutches of warring Galra.

Honerva and her Altean driven Robeasts were certainly a threat, but the aggression of the remaining Galra were also a problem, especially when other races were caught in the crossfire.

Lotor's absence meant a power grab was at play, drawing in anyone foolish or unfortunate enough to be close. Stealing whatever supplies they could, the proud warriors tried to make a stand in any territory within reach, whether it was already occupied or not.

 

Shiro had just finished liberating Arusians from the fighting of two stubborn Galra, hungry for land to call their own, when a call for Coran came through.

An animated Hunk begged for the Altean's help, but the signal was very poor, and from his position on the far end of the bridge, Shiro only gleamed so much from the conversation.

Something about face boils, a runny nose,and radiation poisoning? Shiro grew gravely concerned, especially given that his friends were out there, facing who knows what.

Pop like a balvax? Okay, I'm getting to the bottom of this.

 

“Coran?” Shiro's stern voice called out from across the bridge. “What's going on?”

The Altean in question twirled his moustache, turning towards his Captain. “Oh, nothing too serious. Just an inquiry about how to stop a Weblum, that's all.”

 

Shiro, however, did see the serious side of things, remembering how dangerous these giant space creatures could be. A stark silence descended upon the bridge, as everyone turned towards the Captain, the very picture of displeasure.

Thoughts of Lance, Pidge, Hunk, Allura, and especially Keith, caught in the overbearing shadow of such a dangerous beast horrified him. Shiro had been anxious enough the first time Keith and Hunk sought a Weblum, and that was strictly to harvest scaultrite.

This time, the Paladins were trying to stop a Weblum, and Shiro was nowhere near his friends to help.

They’re in danger.

Keith’s in danger.

And we’re entire systems away from them.

My God.

 

Finally, Shiro snapped across the bridge, causing everyone to jump in their seats.

“A Weblum?!

 

xxx

 

In the end, Hunk learned nothing from the heavily static conversation with Coran, and was only saved in the nick of time by Allura in the Blue Lion. Mesmerising waves emitted from her Lion’s mouth, causing a disruption with the Weblum’s senses.

“Oh, Allura, thank you!” Hunk smiled with relief, grateful for her divine intervention.

“Anytime, Hunk,” the Princess replied, before turning her attention back on the Weblum.

All too aware that time was short, Allura gritted her teeth, thinking of the Green Paladin still alone on Olkarion.

“Please hurry, Pidge. We can't lose you.”

 

xxx

 

Pidge stood in an opening where the evacuation ships left from. She entered the Past, finding Ryner ushering her people onto the pods, as a Robeast continued to destroy a nearby facility.

Regardless of how grim the state of Olkarion was, the leader of the rebellion stayed calm and collected for her people. She needed to save as many lives as possible, and direct those that stayed behind to defend the civilians.

The Green Paladin was in awe of her drive in such a difficult situation, watching as Ryner single handedly commanded the Olkari army and the evacuation process together.

 

Booming footsteps got her attention, the Robeast barely impacted by Olkari lasers from their own machines and guns. Ryner gasped at the sight, and Pidge wanted nothing more than to reach out and comfort her. However, she knew it was pointless, her presence strictly as an observer rather than an active participant.

Pidge was in the Past to gather information, with everything she saw a taste of what had already been. Nothing could be changed, and she knew this, but it was still a difficult pill to swallow.

 

Suddenly, the Robeast slashed at another building, only to halt its advance. Pidge watched closely, determined to uncover what Honerva’s mind controlled worshipers were after. The shock of the Robeast suddenly taking to the sky was second only to familiar cube shapes being drawn away with it, surrounded by a dark pulsating energy.

“Oh no, the cubes,” Pidge gasped. “It came for the cubes. But why?” She turned to the Ghost of Ryner, guiding a small Olkari girl to one of the evacuation ships. “Ryner, what do the beasts want with the cubes? Please, tell me, leave me a clue, anything!”

 

The Olkari girl sobbed, nearly drowned out by the sound of gunfire around here. “I’m scared. I don’t want to leave!”

Placing her hands gently on the girl’s face, Ryner tried to put her mind at ease. “You musn’t cling too tightly to the past. The Olkari have always been able to adapt and move forward. It is our greatest strength. And it will live on in you.”

“But…” The child gazed at the falling structures around them, unable to handle the destruction of her world. “But our home…”

“My dear child, the old must give way to the new,” Ryner explained softly, brushing away the girl’s tears. “But fear not, our hearts will always be connected. We are from the same cosmic dust, after all. Now, please, go.”

Ryner and the girl shared one last embrace before parting ways. From the evacuation ship, the Olkari girl gave one last sad look as the doors closed between them, sealing Ryner outside on the planet destined to die.

 

As the ships soared to safety, Ryner permitted herself a sole tear, knowing that Olkarion was destined for death, but at least her people were safe. She turned towards where Pidge stood, and in the distressing desperation of it all, the Paladin thought she had, at last, been noticed.

A kindly smile reached Ryner’s gentle black eyes, and her whispered words reached Pidge shortly before the Past vanished for good.

“The old gives way to the new. The rest is up to you.”

 

Pidge stood back in the deserted landscape, tears falling down her face. The likelihood was that Ryner’s last words were given to the faith of the universe, but Pidge heard them loud and clear. The Olkari sacrificed much to give them this chance, and the Paladin was not about to let that bravery be in vain.

“Don’t worry, Ryner,” Pidge said quietly, as if the Ghosts of the Olkari were still present. “We won’t let you down, I promise.”

 

xxx

 

The Weblum drew ever closer to Olkarion, and Keith panicked. Pidge was still there somewhere as death drew near. The Lions circled around the colossal space creature’s head, desperately trying to divert its attention.

As the Red Lion unleashed a hot curtain of fire upon the Weblum’s head, Keith screwed his eyes shut, overwhelmed by the intensity of the flames. The frantic movements, the urgent shouting of his friends, even the gunfire died out as the hellish red glow cast upon the Leader’s face.

 

Suddenly, Keith saw a burning building, engulfed by starving flames, and his entire body went rigid with fear. Traumatised by the severity of his heightened senses, mind and matter melded in one frightening spell, Keith cried out.

“Not again!”

Without warning, the Black Lion swerved, and shot towards Olkarion. Lance panicked when he realised what Keith was trying to do.

“Keith!” the pilot of the Red Lion cried out. “Get away from there! You’ll be killed!”

 

The concerned sounds of his fellow Paladins were muffled by his determination to save Pidge from being destroyed by the Weblum. Narrowing his eyes, Keith repeated over and over again in his mind.

I’ll save you, Pidge. I’ll save you.

I won’t lose anyone else ever again.

 

Thankfully, the Green Lion was already descending from Olkarion, but with the Weblum already parting its mouth, a safe escape was growing distant with every tick. Keith saw her, and wasted little time.

“Pidge!”

Shocked, the Green Paladin realised not only was the Weblum doboshes away from obliterating the planet she barely cleared, but that one of her own was in harms way coming for her. Pidge shook her head, crying out with fear and panic.

“Keith! You shouldn’t have come here!”

 

With expert piloting that only Keith was capable of, he positioned the Black Lion behind the Green Lion, securing its jaws carefully around the other’s body as Shiro had once done trying to save him, and blasted away from Olkarion.

Pidge’s life was in Keith’s hands, and he was prepared to do anything to save his friends.

 

As the Weblum gave one last starved bellow, the other Paladins could only watch in horror as a strong beam erupted from its mouth towards Olkarion. However, Hunk caught sight of the two Lions out the corner of his eyes, and his relieved voice barked across the communication. “There they are! The planet is clear!”

Keith asserted his final order. “Everyone fall back away from the Weblum!”

The Paladins obeyed, shooting after the Black Lion in formation, with Green Lion still safely carried in its Leader’s mouth. The beam finally hit Olkarion, and for a few ticks, nothing happened.

Then the horror set in as the planet ruptured upon itself, leaving barely a core left of the proud and noble Olkarion. Fragments of the planet drifted through space, and the Weblum came in close, parting its mouth and beginning to feed.

 

After an eternity of silence, Lance’s somber voice broke through the communication, sharing the bewildered sentiment of everyone present, witnessing the death of an entire planet, once teeming with life.

“It's… It’s all gone.”

Pidge teared up, watching helplessly as the Weblum feasted upon the remnants of the shattered planet. Allura, sympathetic from losing her home world, fixed the Green Lion with a sad expression.

“I'm so sorry, Pidge,” the Paladin Princess said softly.

Keith took the opportunity to finally release the Green Lion from the jaws of his own Lion, aware of how raw the heartache must have been. “I wish we could’ve done more.”

 

Blinking away the tears, Pidge thanked everyone with a quiet voice, her head lowering, unable to watch something as natural as the Weblum, the ‘galaxy's giant space bee’ (as Hunk affectionately nicknamed it,) feasting upon what was left of the world where she learned so much, and had hoped she could have been taught more.

Sensing his great friend’s inner turmoil, Hunk softly told Pidge exactly what she wanted to hear. “Hey. If you think about it, this isn't really the end of Olkarion. Weblums eating dead planets is just the first step in a process that leads to the growth of new stars, planets, and galaxies.”

Hunk’s words struck a profound chord in everyone. Keith smiled, grateful for such a positive influence in his team. Allura also appreciated a private smile, recalling all the events that came to pass after her awakening aboard the Castle of Lions. Lance reclined back into his chair, still shocked by the death of a planet before his eyes, but managing to tug his tight lips upward.

“Well said, buddy,” Lance agreed quietly.

The Green Paladin smiled. “The old gives way to the new.”

 

Unexpectedly, a surge of warmth flooded Pidge, her heart close to spilling, as she realised that the Black Lion still remained close, and in fact rested its protective head against the Green Lion. The others suddenly followed suit, and Red, Blue and Yellow Lion nuzzled against the Lion they almost lost.

The Lion, and its pilot, who was one of their own.

The emotional barrier Pidge kept up on Olkarion finally broke, and she cried deeply, mourning the loss of life, but comforted by the strong bond she had with her Paladins, her found family and loved ones she valued dearly.

Keith, Hunk, Lance and Allura stayed close, letting their intellectual companion know she too was loved, and cared for. Without words, they shared unspoken sentiments with Pidge, melding their minds together into a beautiful network of emotion that rendered her speechless and caused her to shed more tears.

We love you, Pidge.

I’m sorry you’re hurting, but you’re not alone.

You’re one of us, Pidge.

I’d save you again in a heartbeat, Pidge. You’re our family.

 

After sobbing her heart out, Pidge finally broke the silence with a new order. “Thanks, everyone, but we need to contact the Atlas right away.”

“Why?” Allura stared at the Green Lion with confusion.

“Because it turns out the Olkari weren’t done teaching us a few things,” Pidge said, resolved to not let the Olkarion’s sacrifice be in vain. “They showed me a way to track the Robeasts. Their information is going to save billions of lives.”

 

As Keith prepared to hail the Atlas, relieved that he could once more see Shiro's face once more, he sensed that unsettling feeling again. A dark essence of unease spread inside him, something he had felt sporadically over the years since his birth as a Paladin, but the events of Olkarion awakened that peculiar feeling.

While it was difficult to put into words, Keith knew one important thing.

He had a bad feeling about what was to come in their fight against Honerva and her Robeasts.

A very bad feeling.

Chapter Text

Veronica never saw it coming.

 

Listening to rough and tough Iverson, the fear of newbie cadets everywhere, gushing about his childhood dog, Old Sally, felt like a dream.

As Bae Bae, the Holt’s beloved canine, rolled on his back, tail wagging as he happily received belly rubs from the gruff commander, Iverson recounted the tale of a drool related accident caused by his dog, all with a big smile on his face.

He almost seemed human , not at all like the enduringly antagonised force within the Galaxy Garrison.

“I once tripped over her,” Iverson explained, slowly maneuvering his arm in slow circles, resulting in more cracking sounds. “Slipped on her drool and went shoulder-first into the refrigerator.”

 

As crew members Veronica and Curtis sat nearby, cringing at the uncomfortable clicking sound coming from their commander’s shoulder, they barely registered the Altean Advisor briskly walking past them in the gymnasium, swinging his arms back and forth, followed by a line of the Space Mice, squeaking softly as they marched.

Who Veronica did spy out the corner of her eyes was the former Galra general, Acxa, training by herself in the corner of the spacious room. There was something intriguing about the strong woman, once fighting for Lotor, taking her place among the Voltron Coalition that made Veronica want to know more about her.

Although she did keep herself at a distance, staying to her own self, even during exercises. Acxa held the entirety of her body weight with one hand, and Veronica was mesmerised.

That is until Iverson’s voice disrupted her thoughts, and she turned her attention back to her superior, not desiring to ignore him when he was showing actual vulnerability to his cadets.

 

“Yeah, and that's where this clicking came from,” Iverson said, still letting his arm click away unashamed.

“Is that why you were struggling with the pull-ups, Sir?” Veronica asked, instantly regretting the words as soon as they left her mouth. Next to her, Curtis tensed, awaiting a verbal beat down like any other.

Strangely enough, Iverson answered back in a matter of fact tone, averting his eye in reflection. “No, that's because I'm old and overweight.” However, his defensive edge came out immediately after, but without the unholy wrath one might expect from no nonsense Iverson. “And watch your insubordination.”

Panicked, Veronica projected a sharp “Yes, Sir!” before resting her head upon her hand, grateful to have been spared a far worse disciplinary action. Her gaze once more rested upon Acxa, who surprised her by staring over at Veronica with a curious expression.

 

The two women were lost in a peculiar exchange, unable to tear away from looking at each, but wanting to in order to break the awkward spell. Veronica was sincerely surprised that someone like Acxa took notice of her.

She wanted to know more about the mysterious woman, drawn to that quiet nature and that calculating blue gaze accentuated by a golden halo-like sclera.

Finally, the trance was broken by Acxa returning to her one hand stretches, her legs cast out like an arched bow. Embarrassed, Veronica returned to Iverson's conversation with Curtis, who listened carefully.

 

“Yeah, that dog meant the world to me,” the commander carried on wistfully. He patted Bae Bae affectionately on the head, clearly taken with the friendly creature.

“I know how you feel,” Veronica chimed in. “My brothers and sisters adopted every stray animal they could find.” She smiled softly, reminiscing of her little brother, Lance, and his big tearful eyes every time he brought home a homeless dog or cat to the house. “There was this one cat. ‘Flash’ we called him. He hated everybody except me.”

Flash, a panther assassin in a little fluffy cat body. Lance had been distraught that such an adorable little creature seemingly despised all except his elder sister. And Veronica, who was used to being overlooked for affection by their new pets in a house full of loving, warm people, being the sole object of Flash’s respect felt wonderful.

Veronica smirked, missing those gorgeous green cat eyes already. “Smart cat.”

 

Curtis smiled before turning to the long silent Acxa in the corner, eager to include her in the discussion about adorable animals. “What about you, Acxa? Did you have pets where you're from?”

Suddenly, Veronica was invested, wishing with all her heart that she had the courage to talk to this stranger. Quiet, unassuming Curtis somehow managed to string a few words together, surprising the bespectacled cadet.

What surprised her even more was the fact that Acxa answered, slowly lowering herself onto her feet with a careful backwards cartwheel. When she spoke, her voice held factual importance. “I never had a creature companion, but one of my partners, Narti, was bonded to an immortal cat named Kova. That cat gave her the ability to experience the world.”

As Veronica felt an immediate connection to Acxa over their familiar feline circumstances, Curtis blinked, unsure of how to respond to such a straightforward explanation. “ Oh… That's great.”

Acxa continued. “Until Lotor killed Narti and we had to abandon the animal on our destroyed ship, so we could escape without being trapped.”

Oh. Poor cat ,’ Veronica thought sadly, questioning how much more she could gleam from the enigmatic Acxa.

 

The brief silence was cut short by the Atlas warning call blaring and the tannoy bursting to life, with Shiro's authoritative voice broadcast to every room on board.

Crew, report to the bridge immediately.

Veronica quickly got to her feet, darting out the door with her companions, but not before giving one last curious glance towards Acxa, who stared at the floor. In the swiftness of the call, Veronica still identified the fleeting emotion on Acxa’s face as she departed.

Loneliness.

 

xxx

 

Captain Shirogane stood at the command centre of the bridge, awaiting his dependable crew.

Well acquainted with bond building with his team, Shiro regarded the Atlas crew as an extension of his Paladin family, personal friends that he trusted dearly with his life along with those on board, but he knew in his heart of hearts that the finality of everything fell upon his shoulders.

Every decision ultimately came from the Captain, and responsibility bore the heaviest weight on his shoulders. Any casualties or harm inflicted were a direct result of his authority and decision making, and combining that with his deeply paternal instincts over his team burdened him further.

The thought of losing anyone, especially due to his negligence, presented at his heart like a thirsty knife, ready to strike his most vulnerable soul.

 

Being this distant from the Paladins also magnified those feelings of fear and protectiveness. He still had his part to play in saving the galaxy, but his bond to them - forged by their experiences as Defenders of the Universe - was not as easily severed as his role as a Paladin.

Still, he missed those days riding in the Lions with his small circle of friends. He missed Black Lion. He missed being by Keith's side.

Then the guilt manifested. Keith earned his place as the pilot of the Black Lion. He deserved to be the Leader of Voltron. He was his own man, allowed to choose what he wanted, and who he wanted to share his experiences with for himself.

After everything Keith had endured to save him, what Shiro wanted felt selfish and inconsiderate.

 

The Bridge doors parting awoke Shiro from his thoughts, and his crew in their orange Garrison uniforms entered. Iverson, Curtis, and Veronica took their seats, preparing themselves.

“Welcome back, team,” Shiro greeted with a smile. “I've got an incoming transmission from the Paladins.”

Thankfully, Veronica kept her cheeky comment to herself. She knew that Shiro had been just about bursting from the anticipation of his friends getting back in touch, letting him know they were safe.

Her Captain was a strong and inspiring presence onboard the Atlas, but everyone knew he bore a personal weakness when it came to his original crew, the Paladins of Voltron, especially Keith.

However, Iverson muttered under his breath. “That explains the spring in his step.”

Coran, who sat at the monitor next to the snarky commander, stared upward thoughtfully. “A springy step, eh? Might have just the thing for that.”

And as always, Iverson pinched the bridge of his nose, lamenting what complex circumstances brought him here, with an eccentric Altean for company?

 

With a light chuckle, Shiro tapped away at the transparent crystal screen, rolling his eyes at the banter of his crew. “Okay, settle down, everyone. Transferring call. Go ahead, Allura.”

Suddenly, the Paladin Princess appeared onscreen for every crew member, the gentle blue lights of the Lion’s interior contrasting against the striking orange screen. Her firm voice projected from the communication. “Greetings, Altas. We've managed to track down an Altean Robeast.”

“Oh, you found one!” Coran exclaimed, surprised by their swift success.

“Where is it? Did you engage the creature?” Shiro kept a reassuring form for his crew, but the concerned edge still touched his voice.

Allura sighed. “I am sorry. Unfortunately, we were too late. It attacked the Olkari, and stole the remains of the weaponised cube.”

A sharp inhale caught in Shiro's throat, and Coran's own anxious stare met Allura onscreen. “Is Olkarion okay?”

The Princess’ downcast expression said it all, her pained blue eyes gazing out the side panel of the Blue Lion. To Shiro's surprise, Keith interjected, his face popping up on the monitor beside Allura's saddened portrait.

“...No. Olkarion is gone.”

 

The first thing Shiro noticed was how tense Keith's face was. Whatever happened out there, it had troubled the Paladin Leader profoundly. Leaning forward, as if comforting Keith with his close presence, the Captain supported himself with both hands on the panel before him, trying to read the unsaid in the other man's expression.

‘Keith… What's wrong? What else is on your mind?’

The Paladin, from his throne in the Black Lion, shivered under Shiro's scrutinising gaze. He wanted to tell the other man everything he felt on Olkarion, all the intangible fears he felt, but had no name for. Only Shiro existed as a calming presence, but they had more important matters right now.

‘I'll tell you later ,’ Keith expressed with his intimate eyes, knowing only Shiro could read the meaning there. ‘ I promise.’

 

Shiro understood loud and clear. He connected to the Green Lion, his heart breaking at the sight of the youngest Paladin troubled by the reminder of Olkarion’s fate.

He remembered how animated and excited the intellectual Paladin had been when they arrived in Olkarion for the first time. The destruction of the planet she uncovered so much knowledge in must have hurt hard.

“Pidge, are you alright?” Shiro's voice softened, a gentleness only a protective figure could be towards the Holt daughter.

 

Taken aback by the public acknowledgement of her grief, Pidge smiled sadly. Trust Shiro to still sense when something was amiss with his friends, even across the universe. She nodded, determined to hug the heck out of him upon her return.

“Yeah,” Pidge answered, dizzied from emotion. “...I'm okay. Thank, Shiro.”

“The loss of Olkarion is devastating to us all,” Allura said with a heavy heart, crestfallen by Coran’s troubled face. “But we were able to acquire some vital information.”

Keith’s gaze fell on Pidge's portrait on the monitor. “Pidge? Do you want me to…?”

Pidge understood Keith’s suggestion, and replied with a voice warm with appreciation. “Thanks, Keith. I think I can handle it.”

From the Bridge, Shiro smiled proudly, murmuring under his breath. “Atta girl.”

 

“We learned from Olkarion that the Robeasts have been travelling via wormhole,” Pidge carefully began to explain, “which leave behind unique energy signatures. I created a program that can identify those signatures and pinpoint their exact locations.”

“Like the Galra Finder?” Lance suggested with a playful smirk, trying to lighten the mood for all, especially Pidge, knowing she still felt the loss of her Olkari friends.

Pidge could only roll her eyes, remembering that old chestnut, with a smile of her own. “ Yes , Lance. Kind of like the Galra Finder.”

 

A screen popped up at the front of the Atlas, illustrating constellations and planets, connected by a programmed line detailing the path of Honerva's Robeasts. The crew stared in astonishment at what the Holt daughter had achieved. Familiar with her technological prowess, her creations never ceased to amaze and enthrall.

Iverson’s initial surprise melted into an acknowledging grin, and Curtis was enchanted by the map of stars in front of him, muttering a bewildered “wow” under his breath. Veronica exchanged a smirk with the commander, proud to have such an intelligent person on the side of the Voltron Coalition.

 

“Are you telling us these are all Robeasts?” Coran asked, pointing to the pulsating circular marks on the map.

“Within a highly statistical certainty, yes,” Pidge affirmed, proud of her own colour coordinated beauty on full display.

“There's more,” Allura added, highlighting a part of the map with a red triangle mark to draw everyone's attention to it. “After studying the map closely, we came to a startling discovery. Every signature radiates from a single epicentre. Oriande .”

“Oriande?” Coran grimly regarded the Princess he swore his life to. “So Honerva could be on Oriande? But I thought only worthy Alteans could get there.” He frowned, unsettled by the possibility. “Could she have the mark of Chosen?”

Allura brushed her fingers along her pink Altean makings, lost in a memory of herself and a shadow from the past. From the Black Lion, Keith contemplated the real threat of such a powerful being taking over the purity of Oriande, and all the quintessence within.

“There's a lot we don't know,” Keith said firmly. “We need to rendezvous to come up with a plan.”

Shiro nodded, turning to Coran. “Where's the nearest point we can meet safely?”

The Altean worked away on his computer, scanning nearby ranges between them until a planet appeared on screen. “The Baltuf Nebula would make a good rendezvous point for us both. It's not too far away.”

“Sounds good,” the Captain agreed, working away on his own panel. “Sending coordinates. And Paladins?”

 

In their individual Lions, the Paladins listened carefully, expecting a stern warning about avoiding danger, and staying safe on route, something the over protective man was commonly stressing on distant missions.

Shiro smiled heartily. “Stay safe, and see you soon.”

The Lions of Voltron shot through the asteroid fields, heading towards the designated rendezvous point. Each and every one of the Paladins sported a smile, touched by Shiro's kindness.

“Fancy Captain garb, and he never changes, does he?” Hunk cheerfully piped in, breaking the silence.

A cacophony of agreement followed from every Paladin pilot, solidifying Hunk’s statement. Endeared by their Captain’s tenderness, the light-hearted nature of the moment was broken by the communication crackling to life one last time.

“Still online, Hunk...”

 

xxx

 

Even in the energetic bustle of the Atlas cafeteria, Acxa felt the sting of isolation, sitting alone in the furthest corner. Away from prying eyes, and hushed whispers, always somehow finding their mark on the lonely warrior.

Faintest flicks of conversation drifted, but she attempted to shelter herself from the curiosity driven exchanges about the former Lotor General. Something tugged inside her heart, a longing for old comrades under the rule of the son of a Zarkon.

 

Narti .’ Acxa still dejected by her battle sister’s fall. She always felt a strong kinship to the quiet warrior, and felt her loss with an intimate mourning. If ever there was a moment that sowed the seeds of doubt regarding Prince Lotor, it was the ruthlessness of her death.

Still, Acxa persisted, along with Zethrid and Ezor, who began to question their exiled Prince’s intent. Those lonely nights on the run gave very little time for reflection, but Acxa saw it on the faces of her battle sisters.

Ezor in Zethrid's arms, contemplating the unsteady path they descended upon with their Emperor. From the corner of her eyes, Acxa could only catch glimpses of wavering loyalty unfolding before her.

Worried, hushed tones much like those in the cafeteria. Unspoken questions, averted glances, faint gestures of the head towards her. A distrust that extended towards Lotor's most loyal general.

 

As Acxa prodded her curious cuisine before her, she was summoned from her thoughts by someone calling her name. Raising her head towards the disturbance, she recognised the source of the noise.

The girl with the glasses and a perplexing fascination with her. Acxa frowned, suspicious of the human’s motivations for wanting her attention. She was surrounded by other Garrison crew members, ones that always seemed to hang around with her.

“Acxa!” the strange girl repeated, thrusting her hand in the air, drawing the attention of others in the canteen. “Come join us!”

Acxa froze, sensing every stare in the cafeteria upon her. Attention was the very last thing she desired, given how eager others were to talk about her as it stood. Contemplating whether to ignore the stranger or surrender to her demands, Acxa finally relented, carrying her barely touched food over to the painfully crowded table with the MFE pilots.

Immediately, the former Galra General regretted her decision once everyone stared at her, especially the girl with the glasses.

 

“Sooo,” Veronica began with slow exaggeration. Her playful blue eyes remained fixated on Acxa, causing the Galra woman to cringe. “ Acxa . We were sharing our thoughts on the space goo.”

Beside Veronica, James Griffin stirred the sauce next to the steak, very seldom glancing up from his meal. On the other side of the table, Nadia Rizavi and Ina Leifsdottir sat side by side, assessing their new guest with curiosity, with Ryan Kinkade attempting a small smile, understanding that Acxa was probably feeling awkward.

Veronica smirked, her mischievous blue eyes shimmering behind her spectacles. “What's your verdict?”

With a curious tilt of the head, Acxa tried to understand what the fascination was with this strange girl. She seemed harmless, but she was reluctant to let her guard down, not yet.

Not when she knew so little about this sister of Lance’s and her circle of friends.

I let my guard down before, ’ Acxa recalled, tense from the possibilities that friendships like these exposed her to. ‘Never again .’

 

“It's nourishment,” Acxa stated, poking at the steak upon her tray.

“...I see,” Veronica murmured after a brief pause, adjusting her slipping spectacles. “So, how did you meet the Paladins?”

Recognising that human meals were less about sustenance and more about social gatherings, Acxa finally placed her fork down. “I met Keith when I was stuck in the third stomach of a Weblum. He saved my life.”

The pilot with the ponytail raised her eyebrows curiously. “What were you doing in a… stomach?”

“Gathering scaultrite to help enable Lotor to conquer the universe,” Acxa firmly stated, already tiring of the conversation. ‘ Why should I entertain them? I know exactly what they think of me.

It's only a matter of time before they grow tired of their curiosity…

 

An expected silence followed, and Acxa knew they hit their limit with her already. Her hands touched her food tray, and she was about to remove herself when Rizavi continued.

“I once got stuck in a ball pit when I was a kid.”

Confused, Acxa placed her hands back on the table, blinking at the young woman across the way from her. Locations like “ball pits” were a foreign concept to her, but from the general context of Rizavi’s response, she sounded as if she were trying to… connect with her?

 

As Acxa mulled the answer over, Veronica leaned close, raising her eyebrows suggestively. “Well what do you thinker the crew? It must be a pretty different dynamic being that we don't try to kill each other, huh?”

Beside Veronica, James lowered his head, closing his eyes in quiet disbelief at his co-pilot’s bluntness. The others watched, and Acxa almost believed for a moment that they were interested in what she had to say.

A fleeting daydream lingered, of her three long lost battle sisters, and of Lotor, the man she placed such faith in, and her heart ached.

“...Perhaps, but the Galra have an expression,” Acxa said, keeping her awkward gaze downward. “ ‘Combat is the searing light that burns away imperfections.’ ’”

 

As Acxa let that old saying sink in, praying that was an end to it, the freckled girl with the thoughtful face broke the difficult silence.

“It would appear the mood at this table has become rather awkward,” Ina interjected, causing everyone to stare at her in reprimanding shock. Rizavi elbowed her, signalling for an end to her insinuation. That did nothing, Ina continuing. “Most likely due to your prior affiliation?”

That did it. Rizavi buried her face in her hands, while the mortified Kinkade lost the grip of his spoon before slowly sliding down in his seat, wanting to escape the awkward situation. Meanwhile, James was face down in his own food, as if praying the mushy meal would swallow him whole.

Burning from second hand embarrassment, Veronica clenched her jaw, widened blue eyes glaring at Ina, before turning to Acxa, who stared sadly at the floor.

Oblivious, Ina took a bite of her food. “Yep, definitely awkward…”

 

xxx

 

On the Bridge, Shiro stood at the command center, trying to keep himself occupied, until a communication patched through. The sound of Keith’s voice crackled through, surprising him.

Hailing Atlas. We had some technical difficulties. We’ll be delayed.

Concerned, Shiro placed himself on video, but Keith did not return the request, amplifying his worry. “Copy that. How long do you think you'll be?”

We're still assessing that ,” Keith's voice stressed. “ Might be a few hours. We’ll keep you updated.

“Roger that,” Shiro replied apprehensively. “Do you need some assistance?”

Negative. We’re working on it. Paladins, out.

The call terminated, and the anxious Captain stared out at the stars, flexing his arms, and trying not to stress himself out.

Keith… What’s happening with you?

 

xxx

 

Approaching a rocky planet, with magma veins and an oppressive darkness that smothered everything, the Lions slowly landed. The Paladins steered through the thick, dark clouds, lowering into a desolate valley with only blackened, gnarled trees.

In the distance, a large volcano belched out toxic smoke and bled streams of lava, most likely the cause of the barren woodlands. As Pidge analysed the planet with her computer, she kept thinking of Olkarion, of lost green life similar to this world.

Not a single leaf or blade of grass existed.

 

“Guys, I'm reading high CO2 and low oxygen in the atmosphere,” Pidge informed the others. “We’ll need our suits to breath if we go out there.”

From the a Yellow Lion, Hunk frowned at the thought of having to leave the safety of his current position. “Funny that Shiro changed the rendezvous point to this place. Not exactly the safest place, am I right?”

“Maybe it's the only place that's closest for us all,” Lance suggested. “Don’t worry, big guy. Shiro and Coran and everyone are on their way.”

Hunk smiled, believing in his friend’s words.

 

In the Black Lion, Keith stared into the sky, catching sight of the Atlas slowly descending through the smoke and clouds. His friends cheered, knowing they were moments away from reuniting with the Atlas after a difficult mission.

As Allura announced their visual on the Atlas, the world around Keith quietened, his entire focus on the ship above them. His relief of Shiro being on board was short lived by a peculiar sensation that overcame him.

A heightened awareness, much like his bewildering experience in Olkarion, flooded him, and he felt drawn to the ship above. He couldn’t quite explain it, but the Atlas felt… strange . In a spaceship full of life, including the inspiring source of his own, Keith felt a woefully dwindled presence aboard.

“Something’s not right,” Keith muttered to himself. Once the protective barrier around the Atlas to flicker ominously, like a glitching optical illusion, his worst fears were confirmed and he snapped to attention.

 

“That’s not the Atlas! Paladins, get airborne immediately! This is a trap!”

 

As the other Paladins fell from their cheerful camaraderie, the Atlas changed in the blink of an eye. The large, protective white space ship, their literal guardian, transformed into a slender grey craft accentuated with red and purple streaks of light, the structure of a Galra fleet, and the Paladin’s hopes of safety were dashed.

Once the shock wore off, the Paladins launched their Lions into the air at Keith’s command. As the Voltron Leader tried to keep his eyes on his friends, to assure they were safely out of harm's way, he caught sight of a curtain of blood red light raining down around them.

Suddenly, Keith felt the Black Lion falling hard to the ground, unable to move. He grunted, struggling to control his Lion, and he cried out to his comrades, only to witness their own Lions forced against the ground too.

The Paladins were all trapped by an intense force.

 

“It’s just like when we were caught by those pirates!” Hunk whimpered, punching every button drastically. “And it’s coming from the ship!”

“We’re about to be captured again!” Lance shrieked, watching helplessly as the Galra fleet drew ever closer. Allura and Pidge desperately tried to relaunch their Lions to no avail.

Realising that time was short and they had very little other options available, Keith gave one last urgent order to his fellow Paladins as his fist slammed down on a control on the panel. “Emergency ejection!”

 

One by one, each Paladin followed suit, accessing their own emergency exits. Keith crawled out of the access opening upon the crown of the Lion’s head, relieved that the others did the same. He pointed towards the nearby cluster of bare trees, calling out to the others as he leapt from the top of the Lion.

“Follow me!”

The Paladins obeyed, kicking their jetpacks into gear and dashing away from their beloved Lions and the gunfire from the Galra ship. Determined to keep his friends safe, Keith kept to the back of the group, focusing on the location of enemy fire to avoid being struck, and being prepared to put himself in danger to protect the others if need be.

The heartbreaking sight of the Black Lion growing distant weighed heavily upon the young man, the strong bond strained by the stress of the situation and the further he went. A nearby tree exploded into broken bark beside him, and Keith turned his attention back to the front.

I’ll be back ,’ Keith communicated with the Black Lion, the last flickering presence fading. ‘ I promise…

 

Fearing that the Atlas might have gotten interceded on route, the Paladin gritted his teeth, worrying over the safety of the crew, and of Shiro.

 

‘Shiro… where are you?’

Chapter Text

Behind the safety of the rocks, Keith and his Paladins managed a sigh of relief.

As a Galra cruiser surfed overhead, they felt calm after a stormy escape. Allura stared skyward, supporting herself with a hand against the very rock that shielded them. By her side, Lance stood, gun out, ready to protect Allura and his friends come what may.

On the other side, Pidge kneeled down, giving a worried glance to Hunk who stood behind her, placing a hand on her shoulder in comfort. With clenched fists, Keith stared out at the direction they came, the main fleet still securing their Lions.

To add insult to injury, the Atlas failed to respond to their calls for assistance, leaving Keith with a sense of confliction. He knew Shiro would never leave them in danger, but being cut off from him only magnified his stress.

 

Shiro ,’ Keith thought over and over again, the very name giving him strength in such a dire situation. ‘ Please come to us. We need you.

I need you .’

 

A faint whimper caught his attention, and Keith kneeled down beside Pidge, putting a supportive hand on her other shoulder. He followed her worried gaze, and saw a drone flying overhead, scanning the environment with precise attention from the glowing red orb in the center of its y-shaped body.

They had scarcely avoided its uncomfortably accurate lasers during their escape, and in a frightening discovery, Pidge’s attempts to cloak the Paladins from detection did not work. That latter problem discouraged the Green Paladin, who was visibly upset.

With all her emphasis placed upon her keen mind and intellect, the thought of failure clouded her confidence like a dark storm.

 

Keith turned to Pidge, squeezing her shoulder gently, letting her know she had not failed them. No one had. By working together, with Hunk and Lance providing gunfire, Keith and Allura shielding Pidge with their Paladin shields, they managed to buy themselves time in reaching their current safe space.

By working together, as a team, they found safety for a time, and Keith could not have been prouder of his friends.

 

Reforming his shield to protect them, Keith stared at the drone threat, contemplating his options carefully. “I have an idea, but I need something to draw its attention.”

“I’ve got it,” Allura replied, darting off from behind the rocks.

Lance panicked, fearing his girlfriend was in serious danger, but the urge to jump out and become a distraction halted when he saw a blue lasso of light whipping around a tree behind the drone.

He smirked, pride filling his heart. ‘ That’s my Allura .’

The lasso squeezed any lingering strength from the dead tree, and with a hard charge, Allura slammed her entire body against it. Breaking in half, the heavy tree fell towards the drone, which darted to the side to avoid being crushed.

A sharp, red beam struck the distracted drone, slicing the technology clean in two, and causing it to erupt into flames as it fell lifelessly to the ground.

 

Among the hungry embers, Keith’s sword penetrated the devastated threat before returning to the Paladin’s hand and transforming back into a bayard. As Pidge smiled at her leader on her way to investigate the dead drone, Lance smirked at Keith.

Hey , good job, Keith,” Lance complemented, shrugging. “I mean, I was just about to do that too, but that’s cool.”

Shooting his ‘rival’ an incredulous smirk of his own, Keith let his bayard vanish, crossing his arms. “Sure you did, Lance.”

 

Crouching over the sizzling mechanical shell, Pidge accessed the scanner on her arm, preparing to analyse the technology. Hunk hunched over the Green Paladin, fascinated by the simplicity in which his friend hacked into the object. Lance reclined against a nearby tree, crossing his arms, while Allura stood over the drone, hands on her hips as she watched the Holt magic happen.

“Interesting,” Pidge murmured, recognising something very familiar in the drone. “This is Galra tech, but it looks like it’s been infused with Olkari elements.” Her face fell. “Why would the Galra have access to Olkari technology?”

“What if they kidnapped one of the Olkari that got away?” Lance suggested. “Or stole their technology during an invasion?”

“Maybe.” Pidge continued to tinker with the drone, digging deeper, and trying to hide her worst fears. “The subatomic micro-filament is single modulated before it goes through its attenuator. Wow .”

The Yellow Paladin watched in wide-eyed wonder. “So, it's pretty amazing, huh?”

“Yep,” Pidge said with a smile, basking in her element. “Whoever manufactured this little baby knew what they were doing, especially…” She froze, her keen eyes trained on her arm scanner.

“What's wrong, Pidge?” Keith uncrossed his arms, heading over towards her.

 

After a brief moment to collect her thoughts, Pidge turned to her friends, worried. “I think I get why that drone shook off my earlier attempts. This thing has been locking on to our key encryption protocol that's built into our suits and bayards.”

Keith frowned. “How did they get that?”

“I… don't know,” Pidge admitted, stinging with disappointment. “Only a genius could do it, especially with how specialised our equipment is. Someone must have gained intimate knowledge of our Paladin armour and weapons somehow.”

“That's crazy,” Hunk said, staring at his own yellow Paladin armour. “Our suits are one of a kind. Well, six of a kind. For someone to get that kind of information, they'd have to be some super hacker, or something.”

“What if it was when we were on the ship that one time?” Lance pondered. “When they took our helmets and bayards? What if they got the code that way?”

Meanwhile, Keith stayed silent, fearing more was at play than he cared to admit, as his friends continued to shot theories and speculations at each other.

 

“Anyhow, can’t we just, y’know, turn our suits off?” Lance snapped his fingers. “Problem solved.”

Pidge shook her head. “I'm afraid it's not that simple. If this drone had our encryption protocol, then so does that cruiser and anyone on it.” She hesitated, hating every inch of what she was about to pose as a solution. “...If we want to avoid detection from more of these things, we need to lose our suits and our bayards.”

Shocked, Allura glared at her friend. “Remove our armour? In this place?

Hunk was equally as incredulous, gesturing wildly with his arms. “Hold the phone! Remember the readings of this place? Oxygen low , CO2 high! We won't last long! Like, a few hours tops!” He turned to Keith, the ultimate decision maker of their team. “We need our suits to survive!”

Apprehensive himself, Keith clamped a hand on Hunk’s tense shoulder. “I know, Hunk. The situation is far from ideal, but at this point, we'll survive longer without them.”

 

Between the imprisonment of their Lions and the customised drones, Keith came to an unsettling conclusion. ‘ Whoever it is, whatever they want, they're after us.’ Attempting to calm his frazzled nerves, shimmers of light peaked his consciousness on the dead planet, and they seemed to be coming from the sky. ‘The cruiser. They’re in there, watching, waiting.’

Keith’s attention then diverted into the never ending ocean of trees, lost of life, and a small smile tugged at his lips. ‘Not all hope is lost.’

 

As Keith mulled over that thought, Lance sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose in frustration. “So, catch 22? Keep our suits on and risk getting blasted, or take our suits off and live long enough before dying from the poisoned air.”

Pidge frowned. “According to my calculations, removing our armour would give us an hour… two at most. Approximately.”

“An hour or two, then…” Hunk gulped, clutching his helmet protectively. “I don't wanna, you guys.”

No one liked the sound of being exposed to such a dangerous element, least not all when they're being hunted. Allura even wrapped her arms around her in a similarly protective gesture, meaning Alteans too felt the effects of CO2 poisoning like humans did.

 

After an uncomfortable silence, Pidge spoke up, his voice trembling slightly. “...I'll do it.”

The other Paladins stared at her in shock. Hunk’s hands fell down from his helmet, revealing wide, surprised eyes. “Huh? Pidge, you can't be serious.”

“Hunk’s right,” Allura shot back, absolutely mortified. “Why would you even suggest-”

Pidge held her hands out, gesturing for quiet. “I know it sounds crazy, but hear me out, okay? Whoever’s in that cruiser up there is controlling everything, including the drones that will never stop hunting us no matter how many we take down. If one of us sneaks on undetected, they can take them down, and disable the drones. We disable the drone mastermind…?”

“Our suits and bayards aren't a threat to us anymore,” Lance finished with a spreading smirk. “Operation Sneaky Time Junction is go!”

“There's only one small problem to that equation,” Pidge added.

Lance tilted his head, like a confused puppy. “What's up, Pidge?”

“Galra cruisers are normally full with soldiers and warriors,” she stated, recalling past fleets. “Even small ones. They might only send out some of their hunters or put their stock in the drones finishing us off. And even small fleets are still big. You could be searching for awhile, or worse, bump into hunters there all by yourself.” Before Lance interjected, Pidge added. “Fighting the effects of CO2 poisoning, might I add. I don't doubt your abilities, Lance, but a lengthy amount of time out there would dampen anyone's skills.”

 

Allura squeezed Pidge’s hands. “Then I shall come with you.”

Keith frowned, his mind reeling from all the ways this mission could fail. “I really don't like this, you guys.” When Hunk placed his hand on Pidge’s shoulder, Keith sighed. “If you really want to be so bone-headed, and rash, and…”

By this point, all his friends were gathered together, staring hopefully at him, praying for him to give the go-ahead. Keith hated it. He hated everything about it, but he knew, deep down, he would do the same thing.

And the Paladins together, even without their armour, posed a far better chance than alone.

He sighed and gave a resigned smile, knowing he lost. “...the bravest idiots in the entire galaxy. But there's only one way this will work.”

 

Keith took a step backwards, away from his friends, whose faces dropped. Without words, they knew what he was suggesting, and it was their turn to squirm.

“Keith?” Lance offered his hand out.

“I can't,” Keith stated firmly. “For this plan to work, the hunters and their little pets need a distraction.”

Pidge closed her eyes, the reality dawning on her. “He's right. If we're all running around without our armour, there's still a high chance we might be discovered, and then we’re all goners. If the drones seek out a target, and the hunters go off the same way, the rest of us have a higher success of reaching the cruiser without incident. At least, with only the atmosphere to worry about.”

Gazing softly at Lance’s worried expression, Allura spoke. “They speak the truth. If we risk the toxic air, we cannot encounter the enemy when time is short. Baiting the enemy might give us the chance we need to take them down from within. In safe numbers.”

Her worried blue eyes met Keith, who tried to give the Princess a reassuring smile. “It'll be alright, Allura. It'll be just like a Blades mission, and then once you guys take down the command center from within, we’ll meet up.”

 

Reluctantly, the Paladins came to an agreement, knowing what they had to do. As Keith kept a lookout, the others swiftly removed their Paladin armour, placing everything, including their bayards, on the ground in a pile. Dressed only in their black undersuits, Hunk, Pidge, Lance, and Allura turned to their Leader, ready to put their plan into effect.

With a united clasp of the hands, everyone parted ways, with only Keith darting off solo, his heart heavy with responsibility.

‘Shiro, am I doing the right thing?’

He closed his eyes, attempting to relocate a familiar presence on the planet and find his way to it. Once he had, traversing the unfamiliar planet and finding his way back to the others would be a much simpler affair.

‘Hold on. Just a little longer…’

 

xxx

 

From a nearby cliff, six mercenaries landed on the dry earth, surveying their surroundings with peaked interest.

The Captain of the band concealed her identity behind a rusty skull-like mask, the sockets glowing blood red, and cloak tattered from the elements trailing behind her.

Even the pitch black armour bore a menacing glare, symbolising the assertion of a fierce figure.

The tall, brooding leader stared down at the subdued Lions, tightening her jaw. Their technician aboard the cruiser sent them the drone’s last known coordinates, sealing the fate of their prey, along with another secret prize to sweeten the deal.

 

In a distorted voice, the Captain announced her order. “We're going after them. Be ready to split into teams.”

A bounty hunter by the name of Fentress raised her brows, widening her ruby red eyes. With a mask obscuring only her mouth, she still spoke eloquently. “Why would we do that? It'll risk the entire operation.”

An intimidating silence followed, but Fentress continued, her purple pompadour hairstyle dampened from the heat of the volcano. “We already have the Lions, Boss. The Paladins have no value.”

“...They do to me,” the Captain asserted. “We're going in.”

The bounty hunters remained silent, all except Fentress, who suspected much more intimate motivations were at play, especially with the insistence of splitting up to tackle this unknown element. “But-”

Spinning towards the insubordinate whelp, the leader growled menacingly. “I am the Captain, and my authority will not be questioned!” Aggressively asserting  herself in Fentress’ personal boundaries, the Captain gave a threatening hiss. “You do as I say, or you will spend the rest of your miserable days right here on this planet. Is that understood?”

A quiet disturbance settled among the team, and Fentress narrowed her eyes. “...Yes, Captain.”

 

Satisfied, the Captain accessed her communication with the Galra ship, barking her last orders before the hunt commenced. “Do not let those Lions move. No one takes them until the hunt is over. And make sure the Atlas stays put.”

“And what of our bait, Captain?”

The Captain, beyond her mask, narrowed her eyes. “Ensnare it. If it struggles, apply force .”

 

xxx

 

Acxa fired. She hit her mark with ease.

Within the Atlas firing range, the isolated former general found her place, away from the bubbling crowd and their assumptions. Every bullet fired gave her a focus, her spirit travelling with the blank into its intended target, away from her complicated memories and feelings.

And how much she missed her sisters, even Lotor.

 

Assessing the perfect precision of her shooting, Acxa heard nearby firing and saw Veronica beside her, training with a handgun settled in her smooth hands. Something about the sight of Veronica, normally trying her hand at firearms, sparked Acxa's suspicion.

The girl with the glasses was normally cosied up in the command center with the likes of Captain Shirogane, and his crew, far removed from the harrowing life or death stakes of the battlefield. And she was an analyst, not a gunner.

 

Acxa lowered her weapon, glaring with increasing irritation at her neighbouring gunswoman. “I know you have little trust for me, but your constant presence is tiresome. If you have a problem, let's end it now.”

Veronica stopped firing, turning to Acxa with a disappointed look. “Acxa, it's not that I don't trust you.”

“Then what is it?” Acxa shot back.

 

Almost ready to abandon the firing range altogether, anything to get some respite, Acxa was halted by Veronica's answer.

“I… Honestly, I just wanted to get to know you .”

After a reflective silence, Acxa slowly put her gun away in its holster on her hip. Why in all the galaxies did this strange girl want to know her? The request sent a peculiarities dancing in her brain.

“By sneaking up on me at a firing range?” Before Veronica could answer back that wasn't the case, Acxa continued, curling her soft blue lips in a bitter frown. “First the training room, then the sustenance hall, and now here? Besides, you know exactly who I am.”

 

‘I'm Galra, am I not? Those responsible for your suffering. You don't think I hear the hushed whispers, and witness those curious glances?

These delicate senses are both a blessing and a curse.’

 

Veronica frowned. “Look, I'm sorry that I may have been following you around.” Acxa exhaled softly, her point proven. “It just seems like you could use a friend.” Veronica's gentle faze returned to Acxa. “I know it can be hard to fit in sometimes.”

Sadness clouded Veronica's beautiful blue gaze, drawing Acxa inside with a sense of almost familiarity, and something intimate. She had not felt this sort of connection since the day her sisterhood shattered.

In Acxa's mind, she felt Narti there, along with Zethrid and Ezor, battle companions and kinsfolk. They were united by their status as inferior within the Galra Empire, brought together by a common goal to assist their exiled Prince.

In Veronica's sympathetic stare, Acxa saw herself in a fleeting spell cast by a sorrowful ocean, and against her better judgement, her heart opened just enough.

 

“I've... spent my entire life not fitting in,” Acxa admitted, averting her trouble eyes. “I'm used to it.” She hesitated, unfamiliar with confessing her innermost feelings to someone. Her glare hardened, along with her heart, reminded of her societal imposed place in life. “I was a outcast, born and bred in war. The only way I survived was to become worse than my enemies.”

Veronica listened, never judging. “Sometimes people do difficult things, make tough choices, to survive. You may have had to do that in the past, but the fact you're telling me all this now shows there's more to you than that.”

A surprising tremor of emotion touched Acxa, gazing at Veronica with a foreign vulnerability. It was as if someone reached out to her troubled heart, caressing it softly.

Her anguish and anger soothed by understanding, without a shred of judgement for once in her life.

That strange tenderness still failed to reach her face, a frown cast outward. “But some people only see Galra, and I understand why. Sometimes, even I question if my people have the ability to change.”

 

When Veronica smiled, Acxa felt no malice or cruelty there, but something resembling pure radiating sunlight. Those sapphire eyes twinkled behind her spectacles, friendliness reaching them from the glistening heart of her mouth.

“Acxa, by choosing to join the coalition, you're living proof that it is possible,” Veronica said sweetly. “I guess I wanna get to know the Acxa who turned her life around.”

She took a step forward, her hazel brown curls framing her gentle smile perfectly. Acxa widened her eyes, but was unable to look away. A soft hand rested upon Acxa's shoulder, and that initial fight or flight response from a life of battle tensed every muscle.

But Acxa only saw Veronica's smile.

“I have a feeling everyone would like that person.”

 

xxx

 

From a towering cliff, Keith stood alone.

He kept himself low to the ground and close to the edge as possible, spying on a handful of mercenaries, pointing their guns at the discarded Paladin armour and bayards at their feet. In a desperate attempt to buy themselves an opportunity to avoid detection, Keith ordered them to strip down to their light suits, and run.

Only Keith remained in his Red Paladin armour, bayard in hand, ready to implement the second part of his plan.

He jet packed off in the opposite direction his friends departed, knowing that the drones, and most likely the bounty hunters would follow him. First, Keith would find the presence of life he sought, and everything would work out.

Don't worry ,’ Keith thought, leaping from rock to rock on his way to the volcano. ‘I'll keep you all safe.

You too, buddy.’

 

xxx

 

Meanwhile, the remaining Paladins past dead trees with throbbing red veins on their way. Unarmoured and without weapons left them vulnerable, but Keith insisted he would be the traceable bait.

The others hadn't liked the idea. In Lance’s words, it “sucked.” They were a team, and no one should be a sacrifice when they were stronger together.

Keith had insisted, promising them he would be fine and could hold the enemy off if the others sought a way to contact Shiro at the Atlas. They didn't have time to argue, they had to do this.

 

Watching their Leader dashing off into the woods, bearing the risk unto himself was one of the hardest things they ever had to do. As they ventured further across the scorched earth, they kept glancing over their shoulders, searching for that red star burning bright.

“Hey,” Hunk said, fidgeting with his fingers anxiously. “Keith’ll be okay… right?”

Lance gave his friend a playful nudge, trying to put his mind at ease. “Pfft. Of course. He's Keith The Man. He's survived tougher scratches.”

Pidge observed her surroundings anxiously. “Are we sure the Lions are this way?”

“Every direction looks the same,” Hunk moaned, gesturing to the identical trees that surrounded them.

“Oh, what I’d give for a GPS right now,” Pidge groaned, touching the space on her arm where a scanner was once located. “My beautiful technology…”

Princess Allura touched Pidge’s arm comfortingly. “As helpful as our tech has come to be, clearly, we’ve relied on it far too much. Don’t worry, Pidge. We cannot allow ourselves to panic.” The Green Paladin turned to Allura expectantly. “We just need to focus if we’re going to make our way to the cruiser.”

Motionlessly, the Paladins stood and observed their surroundings, only to find the answers failed them. Allura furrowed her brow, displeased. “Okay,” she admitted with a sigh. “I’m lost.”

“What do we do?” Hunk asked, panicked with every passing second.

 

Without missing a beat, Lance pointed his finger even deeper into the wood. “Our Lions are that way.”

Pidge gasped, mortified that someone knew something she did not. “How do you know? Do you have a scanner you’ve been hiding?”

“No, I just looked at the volcano,” Lance stated naturally, nodding his head towards the towering volcano beyond the woods. “It was on our left when we came in, so I put it to our right side, and that’s the way out.”

Allura bunched her fists, smiling proudly at her boyfriend’s natural knowledge. “You’re a genius!”

“Oh, snap!” Hunk crossed his arms, grinning at his friend. “Well done, Lance!”

Feeling somewhat foolish for not figuring it out sooner, given her element of nature, Pidge shot the party a disapproving look. “Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

Lance leered indignantly. “ Hey!

 

And that’s when the shots rained down around them, and the Paladins fled.

 

xxx

 

Keith paused, turning back with a worried look. He felt a disturbance within the dead woods, and fought every instinct he had to turn back.

Turning back would jeopardise everything.

Turning back wasted precious time for his friends.

He had to find what he was searching for, something he sent out upon their arrival.

Something that headed towards the volcano...

 

xxx

 

The Hunter Captain touched the ground with her clawed hand, sensing the fleeting vibrations of faded footsteps. Beside them, Fentress stood, her gun cocked and ready. As their mercenaries chased after the vulnerable Paladins, the Captain basked in the satisfaction that her plan was coming into fruition.

Suddenly, the Galra space pirate known as Hawkins spoke through the communicator. “Captain, we’re on the trail of four of the Paladins right now.”

The Captain stood, pleased by the news. “Which four?”

“The Altean, the big one, the tiny one, and the loud one,” Hawkins replied, referring to Allura, Hunk, Pidge and Lance respectively. “They removed their armour to throw us off their scent, but we’ll have them soon.”

 

The Captain smirked, knowing that left the final Paladin all for her, being tracked mercilessly in a desperate bid to protect his friends. ‘I know you. I know you and your kind all too well.

We have something you want, and by nightfall, someone else…’

 

“Good. The one I really want is on his way.”

She turned her head, gesturing a large clawed hand towards her companion with an unseen grin.

“After all…”

 

xxx

 

“Apologies for the delay. We experienced a glitch in navigation. I will have to get back to you.”

For the first time in his life, Shiro felt perturbed by an anticipated message from the Paladins, and it was difficult to put it into words.

 

Every message prior was a mess of voices, eager to communicate with the former Paladin, only this time, it was just Keith.

Only Keith, someone whose voice flooded him with spirit and warmth, but this time left him feeling cold and apprehensive.

The Captain never left the command center of the deck, awaiting something that could relieve him of this troublesome feeling. Despite his crew’s insistence that he was over exaggerating, that he should catch up on rest before the next big mission, Shiro did not have it in his heart to leave.

No matter how many times Curtis told him he should take leave and let his crew handle it, Shiro stayed, determined to figure this out. He re-listened to the same curious recording of Keith’s voice over and over again, trying to rationalise why it sounded off.

 

Eventually, Veronica bent over backwards in her chair, getting a strange look from Acxa. She knew Shiro was not the sort to fret for no good reason, and she wanted to put his mind at ease. “Hey, Captain. Want me to try and intervene? Maybe I can analyse the sound of the recording or something?”

With a grateful smile, Shiro nodded approvingly. “Sure thing, Veronica. Maybe an unfamiliar voice will uncover something. I hate to say it, but something seems… off about Keith. He feels…”

‘Cold, formal, distant… Like I almost could have been to him if we never talked that day.’

Shiro thought back to the sunset, the last light before they left on their mission, and he realised that moment changed everything. They talked after Shiro almost ruined everything by trying to keep Keith safe, only to realise that he did more harm to him that way.

Shiro needed Keith too.

 

Veronica shot a trademark family smirk, double barrel fingers, and a confident “leave it to me, boss” remark before turning to her monitor. Beside her, Acxa - accompanying the other woman to observe her everyday routine - rolled her eyes, a strange tightness forming around her mouth.

The bespectacled young lady activated her communication system, and once online, she spoke calmly and clearly. “Everything okay out there, Keith? Do you need help from the Atlas?”

As expected, Keith’s voice responded negatively. “No assistance required, thank you. Lance will figure it out.”

Shiro and Veronica exchanged confused looks. That was new, and unexpected. Veronica returned to the system, resisting the urge to chuckle openly.

“Right, Lance,” Veronica said, rolling her eyes. “The navigation genius.”

“Affirmative.”

 

This time, it was Acxa’s turn to widen her eyes in surprise. She met Veronica’s puzzled expression, then turned her head to find Shiro’s own face transform from confusion to absolute fright.

Instantly, Veronica cut the transmission, and dared a glance at her Captain’s face of horror.

“I knew it,” Shiro said with cold fear. “I knew something wasn’t right.”

“How long have they been delayed?” Veronica asked Iverson urgently.

“They should have arrived when we did,” Iverson answered, frowning at the current signals on screen.

 

“Everyone?” The crew members, and Acxa, turned towards the small voice. Curtis anxiously tapped his screen. “I… I’ve been analysing the signals, and realised that their frequency has been pinging off a decoy. I’m intercepting it-”

Shiro span towards Curtis, enraged. An infinity of unspoken sentiment poured from his hardened eyes. Why didn't you find this before? They could be hurt or worse because -  Instead, the angry Captain thrust his finger at Curtis with a brewing anger unseen since his rescue with Slav, and he growled.

“Get it up. Now .”

 

Frantically hammering at the keys, Curtis released the hold on the frequency, and suddenly, the entirety of the Atlas’ front screen was flooded with messages.

Messages of emergency, requesting assistance.

From the Paladins.

The first one from Pidge was heartbreaking enough, her desperate cry - “ Atlas! This is an emergency! Come in! Shiro, where are you?

The last request came from Keith, fractured by static, and the last of his resolve broke.

Shiro! We need you! I need you! Please! …So much I… Need… Shiro!

 

The Captain nearly buckled from unsteady legs, clutching desperately to the control panel, and realising with a crippling sense of horror that his friends had been out there for a long time since their rendezvous call.

How much time had passed since those emergency messages were sent?

Oh, God. Keith, everyone, what if you- ’ Suddenly, he felt a hand on his back, and he raised his head to find Acxa at his side, regarding him with concerned eyes.

 

“Veronica, can we trace where that message came from?” Acxa gave her friend an inquisitive look.

“Might be tough,” Veronica replied, working her magic on the keyboard. “Whoever did this wanted to hide their homework with firewalls.” She paused momentarily, gazing across the bridge, before working away at her panel. “Best I can do is analyse the background audio, and all I can tell you is it’s probably on a ship with all that computer noise going on.”

 

As Veronica played a subdued sample, Shiro gasped, tensing even more. Acxa held onto him, unsure of how to help, though her suspicions were confirmed.

“Shiro,” Acxa asked softly, knowing she tread on tender ground. “Are you thinking what I'm thinking?”

The Captain nodded, slowly raising his head to reveal widened eyes and sweat glistened skin.

“What is it?” Iverson barked, causing Shiro to flinch. The commander lowered his voice. “Sorry. Where do you think this fake Keith came from?”

 

After a few deep breaths, Shiro clenched his fists, suspecting the worst with his and Acxa's shared understanding of the situation. He heard those unique sounds for an entire year, captured and at the mercy of the Galra Empire.

There was only one answer.

“A Galra battleship.”

 

xxx

 

With the flick of her wrist, the Captain ordered Fentress to drag the cargo they just seized with them. The hunter threw the large furry lump over her shoulder, giving the poor beast with a drowsy a sympathetic pat.

“...we have the perfect bait.”

 

And the two hunters dragged the barely conscious creature towards the volcano, knowing without a doubt that Keith would follow.

Chapter Text

Groggy, and oh-so very sleepy.

The giant space wolf growled weakly, subdued jaws struggling to work from the effects of the strong tranquilisers. His large paws twitched, reminiscent of a canine submerged in a deep slumber.

Even Kosmo’s desperate attempts to teleport somewhere, anywhere , were interrupted by the pulsating signals of the vine entwined collar forced around his neck upon capture. The tall people forced it around his neck when they ambushed him, and now he was helpless.

As the barely conscious creature was carried to the summit of the volcano, heat bursting from the dry ground, Kosmo’s instincts still latched onto one thing.

 

‘Keith.

Keith.

Find Keith.

Must find…’

 

xxx

 

‘...Keith…’

Shiro stood, unyielding, from the command center.

He tried everything he could possibly think of, punched every protocol and system check he could possibly think of to no avail. Nothing he, or any of the Atlas could do, connected them to the Paladins.

No signals of life, nothing.

 

Every attempt to remain in command, his voice a bell of authority ringing across the Bridge, fell short as his heart took over. The lingering panic from earlier still set him on edge, his loved ones far from him with no hope of rescue.

He remained, clinging to the belief that the Paladins, his Paladins, were still out there, that Keith…

‘This is all my fault. I should have known something was wrong sooner. That was not the Keith I remember.’

Somewhere inside his mind, a cruel voice resembling his own resonated from a dark place. ‘ That’s the Keith I remember .’ The Captain screwed his eyes shut, a screeching noise short circuiting his brain, and when he finally opened them, he realised he was not on the Bridge anymore.

 

 

White. Shiro stood in a ward, drained of colour.

A hospital ward, a place Shiro never desired to be in again.

 

Palaces of healing held a vastly different meaning for Shiro, someone who grew up in one, and lost too many loved ones there. His almost daily visits at the onset of his illness felt like a terrible reminder that his chronic condition, his muscular disease, was for life.

He fought on, spirited forward by his ambitions, his dreams, and the stars above.

That discomfort inside the cold walls of hospitals never left him years later. With Adam by his side, a source of warmth and light, Shiro felt an unsteady shadow creep upon him.

His late former boyfriend’s loving words of support kept him resolute, kept him from breaking, but his heart wavered with every ticking of the clock and the sanitised scent of his own mortality in pale walls.

 

Today, Shiro stood alone, offered little comfort in a sterile ward that lacked any life and warmth, staring down at a small, unconscious body in a bed. Whatever his heart and mind feared, nothing deterred Shiro from visiting Keith at every available opportunity.

He sat with him every day, praying with all of his soul that the sleeping ember of his life would awaken. The white bed sheets and bandage around Keith’s head only accentuated how pale and listless he appeared, intensifying Shiro's fear of the death that surrounded him.

 

On that very day, Shiro reached out to touch Keith's hand, wondering if today was the day the young man would awaken. As his fingers brushed against those cold hands, he caught a glance of Keith's blade glistening on the bedside table.

Sunlight caressed the eye of the jewel, and the Captain, captivated by its glistening glory, felt his mind awakened with forgotten knowledge. The first time had been on the journey home to Earth, frozen shards of memory shattered from a complete mirror.

Attacking Keith, searing his cheek, taunting him cruelly.

The guilt of hurting someone he cherished sickened him, and when the opportunity arose, he jumped to the Green Lion. Ashamed, and loathing every part of himself. However could he share the same space as Keith and his mother after hurting him? Scarring him? Nearly killing him, wiping his perfect existence from the cosmos?

 

And another broken piece of his body's memory thrust another painful scene into his mind.

Dangling precariously over the infinity of space, that dagger the only thing supporting Keith and the man he refused to let go.

Even as they fell.

 

Reality returned, Shiro clasped his hands to his chest, rendered breathless by the recollection. Keith never stopped saving him, ready to throw himself and the galaxy to oblivion’s embrace for him.

So soon after slaying Sendak to defend Shiro, Keith's life lay in the balance, and the Captain was unable to take it any longer.

If he keeps this up, endangering himself for me, he'll die… ’ Shiro's horrified gaze set upon Keith's pale face, the faintest twitch upon his lips, and as relieved as he was, he knew he had to make a difficult choice.

For Keith, for the man flirting with death to save him.

Reluctantly, Shiro walked out, his heart heavy as he passed by a concerned Krolia and Kolivan. He kept his head down and walked away.

 

 

And Shiro opened his eyes, back on the Bridge, drowning in guilt. He had only just reconnected with Keith after his disastrous attempt to keep him at arm's length, for his own sake.

Shiro tried to stay strong, but he crumbled at the sight of Keith's crestfallen face as his self imposed distance began. He referred to his friends mostly by ‘Paladins,’ rarely lingering close to Keith, though the temptation was always present.

Holding back from touching Keith's shoulder or saying his name like the old times killed him. But he swore it was for the greater good, to keep Keith safe from himself.

 

On Launch Date’s Eve, everything reverted back because Shiro relented.

Listening to Keith's heartbreaking admission had made Shiro realise just how much he hurt the other man, and his determination crumbled. He wanted to protect Keith, but not at the cost of breaking that trust.

Shiro realised then he had been truly foolish, that they were stronger together than apart. With Keith, with all his friends.

 

But now they were trapped on a planet somewhere, in mortal peril, and Shiro was clueless as to their location. His loved ones were lost, dangerously close to the precipice between life and death.

And Shiro couldn't save them.

 

‘Everyone…

Keith…’

 

xxx

 

‘Shiro, you'll come for us… I know you will…

Leaping from rock to rock, Keith slowly began to ascend the volcano. His heart beating wildly, holding onto the hope that he would unite with Kosmo and the others, and the Atlas would come for them.

That Shiro would save them.

 

The heat from the greedy lava engulfing everything in its path soared with every step up the volcano, and Keith's worries grew. Why did Kosmo seek sanctuary at the summit of such a dangerous place anyway?

To shelter from the hunters?

To observe much more of the land from a higher point?

And to find Keith?

 

Something tugged at his consciousness the higher he climbed, and he realised that all his earlier assumptions were very wrong.

Two energies. They had been suppressed until now, but he felt them the closer he got. They were with Kosmo.

 

Gritting his teeth, Keith shot up the volcano as fast as his jet pack could take him, surged with panic.

 

Hold on, boy! I'm coming!

I’ve not forgotten you.. .’

 

xxx

 

You think I forgot about you, tiny Paladin? I’ll make you pay for what you did to me!

 

Lost in the underground after an unexpected fall, separated from Allura and Lance, a frightening voice echoing down the tunnel was the last thing Pidge and Hunk wanted to hear. With every step, the Green and Yellow Paladin felt their lungs tighten, and dizziness overcome their sense of alertness.

Being attacked and split up from their friends with an encroaching time limit was not ideal for their plan.

The suffocating heat from the underground lava river, bubbling with anger, did little to help the debilitating effects of the CO2 coursing through them, robbing them of precious oxygen. They collapsed, with Hunk completely face down, and Pidge on her knees, panting harshly, desperate for cleansing air.

 

Ngh , not good, Pidge,” Hunk gasped, clutching at the hot ground in an attempt to push himself back onto his knees, then his feet. “They’re right behind us, but everything’s...”

Dizzy , Hunk wanted to say, but his light-headed state made thinking difficult. He gently eased himself onto his backside, reaching out to Pidge in concern, as she struggled to breathe.

Pidge took big deep breaths before speaking, the panic starting to set in. “...The CO2 is poisoning us by the minute, and we’re lost with no idea where the others are.” Slowly, she stood up, fighting the unsteadiness of her legs threatening to give way at any moment. “...We can’t keep running when time is short. We… We have to make a stand.”

“Literally?” Even in dire straits, Hunk managed a small smile, throwing himself onto his own feet and nearly stumbling backwards as a result.

With a smirk of her own, Pidge snatched his hand, steadying his gait. “Something like that. I might have an idea, but we need to literally retrace our steps, which means…”

Coughing, Hunk stared backwards into the abyss where they came from. “Fighting back, but first we better get out of here. The heat’s not helping.”

 

Securing her arm upon her exhausted friend’s back, Pidge guided Hunk out of the scorching tunnel, ready to implement the first part of her revised plan into effect.

We’ll get through this, Hunk. Don’t worry.

We have to get through this…

 

xxx

 

We will survive this.

Above ground, Lance ran with Allura, their minds an explosion of terror and jumbled thoughts trying to formulate a plan. In one confusing moment, they were attacked by hunters and fled, but somewhere along the way, Pidge and Hunk vanished without a trace.

Their entire plan was falling apart, and they felt no closer to the Lions than they did before.

Lance swore he could figure out roughly where the Lions were if he remembered the volcano, but everything felt like a blur. He had to remember, for Allura’s sake, for everyone’s sake.

Get to the Lions, clobber the mastermind, save the world?

 

“Okay,” Lance panted, charging on while turning towards Allura. “If my volcano logic is correct… the Lions should be on the other side of this -”

Suddenly, Lance’s words were cut off as he propelled backwards from a fist slamming into his face. From the thorn bush, a bounty hunter leapt from hiding, striking the Paladin, and rushing in for the capture.

Allura screamed his name, but the two hunters jumped Lance, subduing him roughly to the ground. As he was crushed against the hard ground, he felt a hard boot against his back, preventing him from moving.

Unable to catch a glance of his girlfriend, Lance gritted his teeth. “Allura, get out of here! Go!”

 

The whining charge of a blaster signaled too close for comfort near his ears, and Lance gulped. He weakly raised his head, as one of the hunters stood over him, gloating with victory.

“Looks like your sweetheart left,” the hunter sneered. “But don’t you worry. We’ll find her for you, and reunite you very soon.”

Lance held his breath, a poor idea once the lack of oxygen rushed to his head, dizzying the world around him. ‘ At least Allura got away. She can help the others.

Allura, I'm sorry.’

 

Before his blurry eyes, Lance saw his entire world shift, become less clear, as hazed shapes danced before him. An angel in white emerged from a nearby tree and thrust her mighty arms at one of the cackling hunters, sending him flying across the opening.

And straight into the other distracted hunter, and neither of them moved, just a single lump on the ground.

 

Once he blinked, everything cleared, and only Allura existed before him, offering her hand.

“Still awake, Lance?” Allura asked, smiling softly.

As the young man took her hand, he grinned, wondering why he ever doubted she left. “Guess the old saying is true. ‘The couple that games together…?’”

The Princess shook her head, laughing softly, the clouds that often plagued her mind about this whole new world of love evaporating. “...stay together. But don't get too confident, Lance. We still have a job to do.”

She edged over carefully to the knocked out hunters, warily reaching out her hand, and taking hold of a small radio-like device with a screen. After a few taps brought the technology to life, Allura realised the power she had in her procession.

“It's a tracker,” Allura gasped, pointing at the glowing red markers on the onscreen map. “That's how they've been tracking us. It must be connected to the drones as well.”

Lance peered over, catching sight of another life form gathering not too far away. “Hey, is that what I think it is?”

Allura followed his gaze, and let out a surprised sound. “Our suits and bayards. We are nearly heading back in the right direction, after all. But what is this?”

Breathing heavily, Lance struggled to focus on Allura's point of vision, but once he did, he felt great relief. “Is that… Hunk and Pidge? They can't have gotten too far, so it must be them. They're not heading for the suits too, are they?”

“No.” Allura shook her head. “It seems they were facing adversaries also, but they enemy appears… stationary. They must have subdued them.”

 

Shaking his head, his mind as light as cotton, Lance placed a hand against his chest. ‘Wow, that guy really knocked the wind out of me. Can barely… breathe. ’ His difficulties did not escape Allura's attention, and she came to a revised decision.

“Lance, we’re getting our bayards and suits back.”

A gasp startled his delicate lungs, causing him to cough uncontrollably. Allura touched Lance’s chest, trying to project a gentle blue light to ease the symptoms. As fleeting as the healing touch was given her own weakened state, Allura had given Lance enough to aid his breathing… for now. She took holding his hand, gesturing in the direction from the map.

“I understand your apprehension, but the circumstances have changed,” she stated, masking her own worry for Lance’s sake. Holding out the electronic tracker at where the Lions were located, Lance froze.

More drones birthed from the cruiser, and that put them all in danger, especially Pidge and Hunk, who were further from their protective armour.

Lance understood, even before Allura's gentle eyes begged for his cooperation.

 

“...Please, trust me,” the Princess pleaded, clasping onto Lance’s hands. “Together, we can do this, and save them.”

Lance grinned, slowly sitting up with Allura’s help. “Together. You and me. It’s not over yet.”

 

xxx

 

“It’s over. It’s all over.”

Hunk paced back and forth, mumbling over and over that ‘this can't be happening’ along with every cliched ‘game over’ sentiment he committed to memory.

Pidge's plan went off without a hitch, and sure, the hunters were unconscious upside down in a tree, because swinging log diversions and snares worked a charm, but seriously, why?

Why, why, why did the tracker have to hit the ground, and shatter beyond repair? And why did a team of two only carry one? Like a series of unfortunate comedic bloopers, Hunk and Pidge stood there, unable to process the absolute nightmare this situation put them in.

They needed that tracker to get a good grasp of where they were, but like their hopes and dreams, their salvation was broken and bust at their feet.

And to freak Hunk out beyond the chill zone, Pidge - the Paladin genius - just stood there, staring out into the wilderness, like nothing was amiss in this wild and wacky situation.

Oh, no ,’ Hunk cried to himself. ‘That's it. Pidge is broken. We're done. We're toast.

 

The braveness from their eerily slow drift into space madness felt like a long distance away. Out in the endless vastness of space, Hunk still felt hope, even when he was afraid, but the presence of death lingering at his back and separated from many of his friends snapped the last of his restraint.

When the Yellow Paladin finally talked, his throat clenched, mouth run dry, as terror took hold. “Pidge? Please, talk to me. I can't…” He choked back a sob, which only inhibited his breathing further. “I can't be brave without you… without any of you, please.”

 

Slowly, Pidge opened her eyes, turning towards Hunk, and stilled, as if in a trance. She held out her hand, taking Hunk’s trembling one in hers, and guiding him back the way they came. As the Yellow Paladin observed his friend with confusion, blinking away his tears, he realised the gentle squeeze she gave of his hand, and the softness of her voice as she walked.

“Everything will be alright, Hunk,” Pidge assured him, her determined gaze focused on an existence the other Paladin could not see. “I promise. We’ll make it out of this, and save our friends.”

Hunk sniffed, confused. “But how?”

The Green Paladin turned to give Hunk a smile, revealing glowing green eyes tapped into a natural power she had slowly begun to understand. “By retracing our steps. Don’t give up, Hunk.”

 

xxx

 

I will never surrender…

Allura ran, carrying a wheezing Lance upon her back.

Every tight breath from his struggling chest was felt against her back, the fear of losing him stealing the very life from her own. Everything she worried about since losing him raised to the surface, blinding her thoughts with irrational and unhelpful feelings.

‘No! ’ Allura screamed at herself, charging ahead and trying to focus on the electronic map in her hand. ‘ Not now! Lance needs me, the others need me !’

 

Once she saw a familiar sight, their discarded uniforms and bayards still where they left them, a surge of relief burst through her, nearly causing her to buckle under the pressure. She still kept on, only falling to her knees when salvation was at an arm’s reach.

I'll save you, Lance… ’ Allura sought for Lance’s blue helmet first, lowered the Paladin onto her lap, then placed it over his head. The first breath of life from within his helmet reassured the Princess.

‘And then we shall save the others.

I shall see this through.’

 

xxx

 

“I can see them,” Pidge whispered, guided by ghosts among the trees.

She saw herself and Hunk, spiraling backwards through time, eventually united with the past spirits of Lance and Allura as they fled from gunfire. Her vision blinkered in and out, but she stayed strong, reconnecting with herself during those terrifying moments of escape. Readying her breathing, trying not to succumb to the poisonous atmosphere stealing her life, Pidge followed their past selves closely.

Every so often, the Green Paladin squeezed Hunk’s hand, smiling at him, trying to ease her anxious friend’s worries. She had to accomplish her mission, disabling the enemy technology and advantages if they had any chance of surviving this harrowing ordeal alive.

 

Once she came to an opening where the spirits of their past selves came to a halt, Pidge too faltered, her breath catching in her throat. She saw Past Keith in the moments before he vanished to pose as a distraction.

The Past faded, her gaze fell, and she saw the pile of their Paladin uniforms still present. But what shocked her was the absence of blue and pink among the cast off armour and weaponry. Before she could voice her reasoning, Hunk’s quiet voice beat her to it.

“Their stuff,” the other Paladin said disbelievingly. “It’s… gone.”

 

Pidge narrowed her eyes as she walked over, lifting her helmet in her hands before placing it overhead, motioning for Hunk to do the same. “We have to hurry. We can’t keep these for long, so let’s get some oxygen before we continue.”

After setting his own helmet overhead, Hunk took in a much needed breath, relieved for the most fleeting source of oxygen. He understood the meaning in Pidge’s words. “Can’t suit up in case the drones or hunters find us. So why are Lance and Allura’s stuff gone?”

Another thankful gulp of oxygen, then Pidge shared her thoughts. “They took them. Not only that, they’re heading back to the Lions.”

“But why?” Hunk gasped, scanning his surroundings with the real fear of being targets just for wanting to regain their oxygen levels. “They’re putting themselves in danger! We’re sitting ducks just with these things on! The whole point of us ditching our gear was to survive!”

 

Pidge took hold of Hunk’s trembling hands, trying to ground him down. “Hunk, it’s okay. Listen. They’re giving us a chance. Even with Keith distracting the first wave, the closer we get, the higher the chance that we’ll bump into others like those hunters. Lance and Allura are helping us get to the ship without being caught again.”

The mechanic slowly regained his breathing, and he focused only on the warmest brown eyes, bursting with compassion and hope. The Holt daughter reached out to Hunk, taking the time to calm his fears, even with danger forever at their back.

“We can do this, Hunk,” Pidge assured her nervous friend, her hands finding their place on the sides of Hunk’s helmet. “Together, okay?”

Fighting his natural urge to run away screaming, Hunk nodded.

“Do you trust me?” Pidge asked firmly, relieved when Hunk answered positively.

“I trust you, Pidge.” Hunk’s heart pounded like a jackhammer, but he held onto his faith in his friend. “Scared out my mind, a little gassy, but I trust you.”

 

Slowly, Pidge lifted Hunk’s Yellow helmet from his head, apology swimming in her eyes. She knew Hunk hated being thrust into danger once more, but she had his trust to guide him to safety.

To solidify the strength in his heart for her, Hunk returned the favour, removing Pidge’s helmet with kindness in his eyes. At their feet, their helmets fell, hitting the dry ground.

They were once more at the mercy of the harsh atmosphere, but their spirits were renewed. Pidge held out her hand once more, needing her anchor to this world as she navigated the Past.

She trusted Hunk to keep her grounded, as always.

“Ready to do this?”

Hunk grinned, taking Pidge's hand and pointing to the beyond. “Oh, yeah. Let's do this.”

 

xxx

 

Behind the rocks, Lance and Allura saw the Lions.

Forced to the ground by a gravitational beam from the hunter’s ship above, the Paladins knew their Lions could not be freed by sheer force of will, especially in such an unforgiving environment.

That only left one choice - to free them by force.

But first, the Paladins in Blue and Pink needed to draw a new threat away, to buy Pidge and Hunk time to infiltrate, to get them out of the lethal air.

 

“We can do this,” Allura assured Lance, a tight smile on her soft lips. “You can do this, Sharpshooter.”

Touched by the nickname, Lance shot a smirk of his own before returning to the task at hand. Luring and firing would be tricky, but he had Allura's faith and failure was not an option.

He nodded. She leapt from her safety behind the rock.

The drones attacked. Lance shot.

Then they both ran, drawing the drone horde to them, and away from the cruiser and their Lions.

“It's working!” Lance cheered, firing rounds at drones foolish enough to get close to them. “We're winning!”

 

xxx

 

I've failed them.

Every tick without word from the Paladins was like a dagger to his heart. He wanted some signal, some sign, that they were safe, and not being hunted down like wild animals.

His frightened mind over enthusiastically filled in the blanks, giving more nightmare fuel than he ever wanted.

His fingers itched to reconnect with the lowlife masquerading as Keith, to demand they reveal where the Paladins were, to give them back. He knew it was foolish to entertain when it could jeopardise the entire mission, but to Shiro, they accomplished just as little standing there, driving themselves crazy with the uncertainty.

 

Veronica stared over, a sympathetic gleam in her eyes, as Acxa stood close by, sensing her friend’s unease.

Then Shiro felt guilty. Veronica's brother was out there, fighting for his life. And the Holts were without Pidge. Coran's unusual quietness showed he worried for Allura, the Princess he saw as his daughter. Hunk’s own family were still on Earth, but his absence was deeply as felt by his space family.

 

Shiro steadied his breathing, knowing that losing his mind did little to help in a room of anxious hearts. When he spoke, Shiro's kindly voice filled the entire Bridge, drawing the attention of all to him.

“Everyone,” Shiro began, aware of his quickly his heart fluttered inside his chest. “I know this situation is precarious, but we must stay strong. They need us, and as challenging as this ordeal is, we can succeed.”

Shiro gave each of his crew members a strong stare, infusing them with his own hope. They had to remain hopeful, positive in the safety of the Paladins. The alternate did not bear thinking about.

“We will succeed,” the Captain reassured them. “Scan the nearby planets. Let's see if we can find a potential location that is within our perimeters. That broadcast might be encrypted, but we can at least make a head start. And keep those communications open in case they get in touch somehow.”

As Shiro gazed worryingly into the stars ahead, his whispering voice seemed less reassuring to his own ears.

“Our plan will succeed… It will…”

 

xxx

 

Within the Galra cruiser, an Olkari technician smirked, amusement twinkling in his narrowed eyes.

Their plan had deviated, for the most part, but things still proceeded as expected. While their stubborn Leader clearly had a single minded motivation, the Olkari had no baser desires to satisfy.

Why else when everything he ever truly wanted was within his grasp? With his thirst for knowledge and drive for a challenge, he had everything he needed, and more.

 

A signal from below had been lost, and the Olkari smirked.

Oh, dear. His precious comrades had been knocked offline. Rather than fret over the situation, his lips curled into a mischievous smile, simply sending out more drones to tackle the problem.

There was nothing that couldn't be remedied without a keen mind and the wonders of technology.

Especially his technology.

 

The Olkari technician watched proudly as his creations took to the skies, drawn to fresh meat. He then let his mind drift to the customised collar invented to subdue unruly beasts. His arrogance swelled, knowing that no other mind existed in the galaxy to rival his.

Then there was the fools aboard the Atlas, unaware of his genius and flawless impression of the Paladin Leader. Most of all, the Captain, a slave to his own heart, easy to manipulate.

That had been his Leader’s idea, but his machines allowed it to happen.

Emotions were troublesome things, untrustworthy and meddlesome in their nature, not the sort of flaw that the Olkari believed in. His own people trusted in bonds, the connections of nature, but his unwavering belief only existed for his machines, for algorithms and for himself.

Nothing took him unaware with a meticulously prepared mind, and his beautiful machines.

 

“Hands up.”

Without turning, the Olkari sneered, confident in his own success. He indulged the inferior beings barking their demands, knowing he still had a few tricks up his sleeves.

“I must admit I’m impressed,” the technician confessed, smirking to himself. “Breaching the Bridge so efficiently. Might you indulge my curiosity? However did you do it?”

A different voice piped up. “Oh, you know , a little of this, a little of that. I’m sure a smart guy like you can figure it out.”

 

Slowly turning his head, the Olkari caught sight of two humans by the door, and he recognised them from the briefing even without the colour coordinated armour. ‘ The Yellow and Green Paladin. Of course, the brains and the mechanic.’

His inquisitive stare dipped, catching sight of the firearms in their hands, most likely pilfered on board. Without their suits or their bayards, the two had infiltrated the ship, secured weapons for themselves and avoided every security measure between the entrance and the Bridge.

How impressive .

 

His narrowed stare penetrated the two Paladins, a menacing glee radiating in his egotistic depths. “My, a child of Holt. To what do I owe the pleasure?”

Along with Hunk, Pidge kept her newly acquired gun trained on the Olkari. Her heart tensed, pointing a weapon at another intellectual, an Olkari that lost his home, and whose people taught her much.

The Paladins wanted to save lives, not take them away. For her friends, her family, Pidge had to succeed.

“Call back your drones,” she ordered, gesturing to the control panel with her weapon, her focused eyes never leaving the Olkari. “Release our Lions, and whatever you’ve done to tamper with the communication with the Atlas, undo it.”

Hunk took over, sharing responsibility in the tense situation. “It’s over. Surrender now, and things will be much easier for all of us.” He pleaded with hopeful eyes. “You don’t want to do this.”

Rolling his eyes, the Olkari barely suppressed a chuckle. ‘ Ah. The speech. The Boss wasn’t lying.

A flicker of irritation ruffled through Pidge, annoyed that Hunk’s attempt to gain a peaceful solution was dismissed. “What’s so funny?”

A long sigh ghosted past his lips, the Olkari finally turning around to face his captive audience. Nothing betrayed the absolute assurance of his advantage.

“Ah, forgive me,” the Olkari answered, an unsettling playfulness dancing in his voice. “It’s just all this fighting against fate, the natural order of things. After all, aren’t we all nothing more than just…” He grinned, emphasising every last word. “... cosmic dust?

 

From behind the Olkari, a black triangular prism ascended, pulsating with green veins. Pidge hesitated, taken aback by the levitating technology, born of Galra and Olkarion life. She gasped, remembering a similar machine that became her friend for a time.

“...Rover?”

The emerald heart within its center began to glow, and Hunk wasted no time spurring into action. The Yellow Paladin ran towards Pidge, calling out her name, as the surveillance drone fired.

“Pidge!”

 

xxx

 

“Allura!”

The sharpshooter surveyed the silent woodlands where he and Allura took out the wave of drones they lured from the ship. Crackling black metal sizzled on the ground at his feet, victims of his precise marksmanship.

After the quiet settled in, Lance realised that Allura was gone, and panic overshadowed any relief he should have felt at beating the enemy horde. She had been fighting alongside him, her lasso a lethal striking force and her speed effective in giving Lance the opportunity to shoot distracted drones.

Even when another hunter came across them, drawn by the sounds of gunfire and likely the trackers, they were knocked out by the power of impeccable Paladin teamwork.

But she was gone, and Lance feared the worst.

“Allura? Where are you? Talk to me!”

 

Suddenly, Lance felt a hand upon his shoulder, and he spun around, a startled shout bursting from his throat. He had just about summoned back his bayard when the tall, brooding figure forced his hands down.

Crap! Another hunter?

Lance gulped, taking in the tattered cloak, the bandana obscuring their face with the exception of that strong stare penetrating deep inside him. Any instinct to fight back faltered, and he let his bayard vanish, knowing what this hunter wanted to do with him.

He sighed, raising his arms in surrender, while the hunter forced them behind his back, and began to escort him back to the ship.

“Yeah, yeah. You got me,” Lance shot back, rolling his eyes, letting himself be manhandled towards the cruiser. “Just my luck.”

The hunter smiled, relieved that something went right during this unpredictable mission. “Keep walking, Paladin.”

 

xxx

 

“Stay with me, Pidge!”

Firmly shaking Pidge’s shoulder as they kept cover behind a nearby unit, Hunk saw the trouble in his fellow Paladin’s eyes, and the faint tremor in her hands when she held the gun. While they were safe for the time being, there was little they could do in such enclosed proximity.

And the plan fell to pieces as a result. Hunk knew they had to do something to save their friends who were still outside, running from bounty hunters and machines. ‘ Come on, Hunk, think! Lance, Allura and Keith are still out there, probably being shot at to give us this chance! And we need to get Shiro here! Think, think, think!

 

Suddenly, Pidge blinked, re-calibrating her composure before turning to face the very unit they took shelter behind. Her fingers traced against the hard surface until she felt the edge of an opening, gently prying it open.

Within the shell of metal was an entire network of wires and electrical nerves, which Pidge suspected might find their way to the control panel the Olkari stood by, determined to protect. She nudge Hunk, gesturing for him to have a gander, trusting in the young man whose dreams of being a mechanic gave them an advantage.

With a firm nod, Hunk faced the exposed system, deliberating on where to start before carefully reaching in. With the drone recharging and ready to fire at a moment’s notice, Pidge took a grounding breath, knowing the perfect way to give them time.

 

“You’ve gave us a run for our money,” Pidge began, appealing to the Olkari’s ego. “That first drone we saw told me as much. Olkarion and Galra technology. Only a mastermind could pull that off. Why is a smart guy like you hanging around with a bunch of space pirates?”

Hunk hissed, recoiling his finger and whimpering. Pidge froze, worried her foil had been busted, but once the Olkari answered, they both sighed with relief, knowing they were still safe. For now.

“For the challenge, one might say,” the Olkari said, holding off the drone. He drank the praise like a fine wine, feeling that someone finally acknowledged his genius, from a Holt no less. “Most were approached for their mindless braun, but myself…” He laughed, admiring his reflection in the surface of the hovering drone. “My intellect was very much in demand, and it is not everyday one can experiment with technology that is difficult to acquire.”

 

Working his magic on the network, Hunk tugged a cable lose, shrugged when he was unable to decipher what he did, then continued. Pidge bit her lip, wondering if she was in over her head with this bluffing game, but a gentle tap on the shoulder and a smile from Hunk warmed her heart.

You’re doing great ,” Hunk mouthed to Pidge. “ Keep it up.

 

Pidge grinned, her confidence and curiosity invigorated. “You customised the scanning system behind the drones, didn’t you? To lock onto our suits and bayards? Very impressive, hacking that sort of information.”

Another wiring was forced out of commission, and from her corner behind the unit, Pidge saw the visuals on screen displaying the outside of the Bridge vanish. Getting there.

“What can I say?” the Olkari gloated, his back to the control panel slowly losing power with every pluck of Hunk’s fingers inside the internal workings. His appreciative gaze flicked between the drone on stand by, prepared to fire on his command, and the peering Paladin from behind the unit. “Child’s play, really. Only a fool would pass up such an opportunity. It’s not every day that such classified information falls from the sky into the hands of one that knows exactly how to wield it.”

 

Suddenly, Pidge turned to Hunk, slowly dawning comprehension shared between the two. Knowing that she was not the only one gleaming something terrible in those words, Pidge took a deep breath, mouth run dry, before asking another question in the guise of banter.

“Ha,” Pidge laughed weakly, unable to tear her shocked eyes from Hunk. “Must’ve been some fool, letting that hot info dump drop by accident.”

Without missing a beat, the Olkari hummed. “Oh, it was by no accident, I assure you. Need I remind you I was handpicked for my mental acuity, and that unique code was giving quite willingly. They knew that only I could utilise such delicate information for this mission.”

At that terrifying moment, Pidge and Hunk felt their collective hearts nearly give out, their suspicion given life. If what the Olkari said was the truth, then the threat existed beyond their current dilemma.

 

Relishing in the confusion he caused, the Olkari twisted the dangling ends of his brown hat. “I do believe it is my turn to ask a question, Paladins of Friendship. Whoever do you think I got my intel from? My Boss might have a beef with you, but someone gave me what I needed to give life to her plan.”

Hunk’s hands halted by this point, horrified at what he was hearing. Once more, he mouthed at Pidge, wanting to be wrong so badly. “ Is he saying what I think he’s saying? ” Pidge’s lips parted, but nothing came out, her lips quivering.

The Olkari said himself the information was classified, leading to one unbearable conclusion that neither of them had the courage to put into words.

The haughty technician sowed the seeds of doubt with one last torturous delivery. “Paladins of Voltron, defenders of the universe, and saviours of the galaxy. How deeply do you trust those closest to you?”

 

With a snap, Pidge threw her head back around the unit, unable to control herself. “ Who-

Without warning, the Bridge door opened, and the drone turned its attention towards the two entering. One was Lance, his blue armour reflecting the orb of the drone upon his heart, and drawing Pidge’s attention immediately. She nudged Hunk, who peered around the other side of the unit, but wisely kept quiet.

Behind the captured Paladin was a hunter, hands firmly secured around Lance’s wrists. The Olkari sighed. “Took you long enough with all my gadgets at your disposal.” He stared over at the unit, flicking his wrist dismissively. “There’s two more behind that, no thanks to you-”

 

Suddenly, Lance launched at the Olkari, who was taken by surprise, with the hunter in close pursuit. The Paladin pinned the technician on the floor, face down, one knee pressed against the the Olkari’s back, hands firmly holding him down.

“Don’t just stand there, you lumbering fool! Do something!” the Olkari barked out at the hunter, struggling against Lance’s hold.

From the corner of his vision, the suppressed technician saw the hunter kneeling down, peeling away the bandana to reveal piercing blue eyes and a face he knew did not belong to any on his team.

“You-”

He hissed, grunting and squirming below Lance, as the hunter shortened before his very eyes, completely changing in appearance. With a flash of her hands, the shapeshifter smiled.

“Enjoy the magic trick?” Allura asked sweetly, as she leaned in, ready to bind the used bandana around his mouth to silence him.

But not before the Olkari called out to his stationary drone, one last trick up his sleeve. “ Cosmic dust .”

 

From above Lance and Allura, the drone whirred to life, readying its beam to defend its master. Unaware of the threat, the two Paladins were taken aback, but not nearly as much as the sight of a small body hurdling into the drone, smashing it against the nearest wall.

The couple blinked, perplexed by what they saw. On one side of the room was Pidge, hastily disassembling the drone that nearly took out her friends. From the direction she flew from was Hunk, standing to attention, arm still stretched out.

“Hey, guys,” Hunk greeted. “Glad you’re alright.”

 

Lance let out a shaky breath, beaming cheerfully. “Man, are we happy to see you guys! We were worried about you, but -” He let out a sharp laugh, still reeling from the heroic rescue. “You saved us!”

Getting to her feet, satisfied in the drone’s disassembly, Pidge raced over to the control panel, ready to take over from Hunk’s DIY job from earlier. But not before returning the smile of appreciation to Allura and Lance. “We saved each other.”

Flexing her fingers, Pidge hammered away at the system, attempting to undo everything the Olkari had inflicted upon them. “First things first, let’s hail the Atlas.”

Frustrated by his defeat, the Olkari flailed on the floor. “You think this is the end? You know nothing, Paladins of Voltron! Nothi- ” A prompt strike from Allura knocked out the technician, her patience clearly done after all this nonsense.

 

“Coordinates sent.”

 

xxx

 

“Coordinates received!”

Veronica’s announcement broke the darkened mood that plagued the Atlas’ Bridget. She turned to Captain Shirogane, her sapphire eyes shimmering with tears. Her screen revealed a flashing beacon highlighted on her map. “That’s where the ghost protocol is emanating from!”

By her side, Acxa gave Veronica a small smile, squeezing her friend’s shoulder encouragingly. “We’ve found them.”

Shiro closed his eyes momentarily, thankful for this sign at long last, and preparing himself for the next stage. He cleared his throat, staring over at Veronica. “Thank you. Set the Atlas for those coordinates, and let’s get there ASAP.”

Shiro turned to Curtis, who averted his wary blue gaze. Remembering how harshly he had spoken to the young analyst earlier, the Captain lowered his voice, his eyes softening. “Curtis, prepare the electromagnetic pulse. When we arrive, we have to be ready to disable their technology, and rescue our Paladins.”

After a beat, with Curtis looking over his shoulder, Shiro gave him a small smile. “We need you, Curtis.”

Returning the smile and his own attention to his monitor, Curtis enabled the system, readying their greatest weapon for when they approached the planet. He nodded, his words lighter at his superior’s faith in him. “Yes, Captain.”

With one last order, Shiro blessed his crew with the determination to complete this mission. “Let’s get our friends home.”

 

xxx

 

Thankfully, the Atlas did not have far to travel, and by the time they penetrated the oppressive atmosphere of the planet, Shiro had already suited up in preparation for heading outside. The MFE pilots, Veronica included, were instructed to ready for launch, taking to the skies in case the Paladins were scattered.

Once the Galra ship descended, rendered powerless from the electromagnetic pulse, Shiro wasted little time in deferring command to Coran and leaving the Bridge. What surprised him was Acxa following close at his heels.

“You don’t have to come, Acxa,” Shiro said, never slowing down his brisk pace. “This could be dangerous.”

“That’s exactly why I’m accompanying you,” Acxa shot back, keeping up with the Captain. “And this is something I have to do.”

 

Inside her awakened heart, Acxa saw Keith, lost on that hostile planet somewhere with his friends. She remembered her own near death experience in the belly of the Weblum, and that Keith had saved her without question, then again, when they faced the combined might of Zethrid and Ezor.

Her talks with Veronica had opened her eyes, and rekindled a long forgotten desire inside her, to fight alongside others and rebuild the trust that came with a close knit battle group. And to repay what Keith had done for her.

 

Without probing further, Shiro accepted her offer, the strength in her stare reflecting the conviction in her heart. Without words, their ambition to save the Paladins emboldened their resolution.

Together, Shiro and Acxa set out to save the Paladins, no matter what the cost.

 

xxx

 

Within the Galra ship, Shiro felt himself transported back to his imprisonment.

Everything inside the hold’s dark and oppressive interior reminded the Captain of claustrophobic prisons, the stinging binds upon his wrists and ankles, the blinding light that partnered the searing pain of experimentation, and the blood on his hands.

A fluttering heart and laboured breathing accompanied his journey along the glowing hallway towards the Bridge, and Shiro resisted the urge to scream. Only the sole instruction of finding his friends guided him forward, his shining light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.

Acxa saw Shiro cradling his prosthetic arm, haunted by visions that came to life within the brooding Galra corridors. Though she knew only little of Shiro’s suffering, her intimate knowledge of what the Galra were capable of at their worst gave her an idea.

She spoke softly, something inside her chest aching at the sight of Shiro’s distant eyes, haunted by his own personal nightmares. “We’ll find them. They are strong, as are you.”

Surprised by her attempt to comfort him, Shiro managed a weak smile, fighting the flights of fright surging through him. Thoughts of the Paladins kept him moving forward, and Acxa saw that in him.

“Thank you,” Shiro whispered, touched by her kindness. “We will find them together.

Acxa stared at Shiro, then kept her steadied focus ahead, unaware of the curt lift of her lips as they headed onward.

 

xxx

 

“Shiro!”

The Bridge door had only just opened when Shiro was knocked to the floor by Pidge tackling him. Once he registered who was hugging him, a tremor of emotion rippled through him and he threw his arms around the young Paladin.

“Pidge! Thank goodness!”

His relieved voice cracked, his throat tensed, and his eyes pricked with tears. He had held onto the hope that his friends were safe, but to have one of them in his arms, breathing and saying his name and very much alive, broke his demeanor.

Once Hunk, Lance and Allura joined the fray, huddled over Shiro, hugging him enough to last entire lifetimes, all bets were off, and the first tear fell. ‘ They’re safe. They’re here. My friends, my family.

My everything .’

 

Hunk sobbed, holding onto Shiro from behind. “I knew you’d come! You always come though!”

“For you guys?” Shiro’s light laugh bubbled when Lance ruffled his hair playfully. “Nothing in the entire universe can stop me.”

“Thank you, Shiro,” Allura said, smiling at the former Black Paladin before gesturing over to Acxa. “This is something of a tradition. You may join in if you like?”

“No, you have to join in,” Lance added with a smirk. “Resisting is futile.”

 

Acxa observed the curious spectacle briefly, worried that her presence was an interference in such a personal ritual. But if they were requesting she join in, to refuse would cause offense, would it not?

Awkwardly, Acxa kneeled down, attempting to mimic the others by securing her arms around the unified Paladin mass. She let out a sigh, focusing on the moment different to any other bonding tradition she knew of.

Unpleasant was not a word she could think of to describe it, if the strange warmth blooming in her chest was any indication.

 

Once the embrace had dispelled, Shiro finally asked the question that brewed incessantly in his mind since he entered the Bridge, trying not to let his worry get the best of him.

“Where’s Keith?”

Chapter Text

“...Keith’s still out there. He… He volunteered as decoy, and we haven’t heard from him.”

 

In an instant, Shiro’s face fell, absolute disquiet claiming his earlier comfort. After an endearing reunion with his friends, he was delivered the terrible news from Pidge, still hugging him tightly, but he barely processed who exactly spoke.

Everything sounded muffled, like being submerged beneath murky, suffocating water. The only crystal clear thought his buzzing mind elucidated was the worst situation possible for one of his own.

Keith was still out there, being the bait, and he had not been seen since.

 

All that relief, all that emotion, chilled, and Shiro looked at every Paladin present, reading the same uncomfortable truth. Since splitting up, no one had caught sight of Keith, nor Kosmo, his guardian wolf.

That surge of panic from aboard the Atlas returned, his fear of loss vocalised by a strangled sound scarcely restrained by his hand covering his mouth. The others felt his vulnerability, strong and supportive Shiro’s hopes and fears, as readily as if they were their own.

Pidge leaned her head against Shiro’s chest, wishing she could comfort him like all the times he raised her from despair. Lance and Hunk shared worried glances before returning their sympathetic stares upon Shiro, who never moved. Allura kneeled by the older man’s side, patting his back.

“Keith is still out there,” the Altean whispered soothingly. “I am sure of it.”

Equally perturbed by the news, Acxa moved in to squeeze Shiro’s shoulder, wanting to offer more to reassure him that Keith was most likely still out there somewhere, still alive. However, Acxa read Shiro's internal nightmare, and understood that until the Paladin returned home safely, nothing could comfort him.

 

Finally, Shiro gently eased Pidge from her hold, then got to his feet. Something hard resigned in his dark eyes, even as he spoke with an eerie calmness to Pidge.

“Find Keith's signal,” Shiro said quietly. “We’re getting him home.” He then stared down at the Olkari who slowly began to stir only to find a towering threat above him.

Get up.

 

xxx

 

Upon hindsight, Fentress questioned why she had chosen to take part in this mission.

Her fellow bounty hunters were drawn by greed, by the thrilling challenge, and in the Boss’ case, vengeance. But for Fentress, something much stronger attracted her, and even now, when nerves were frayed by the loss of contact with her team, her spirit strong stayed strong.

Through the aggression of her Boss and the knowledge that they faced off against the Paladins of Voltron , she tried to back down, but never could commit to her bluff.

She remembered sitting by the campfire with her leader, endowed with the truth behind the mission, and why hunting the enemy down was necessary. The Lions were a sweet bonus, the other pesky Paladins too, but Keith was the top priority, the golden prize.

They had classified information gift wrapped to them, by a trusted source, and they had to see this through. Once the Boss unveiled her face, Fentress saw , and understood.

 

Sleeking along the crown of the volcano, by her order, Fentress calculated her surroundings. The tracker pinpointed the Paladin Leader’s whereabouts by the edge, a single flashing blip completely still.

Then she saw the gleam of red behind a boulder. A Paladin helmet and armour, burning in the glow of the lava flow belching from the mouth of the volcano.

Readying her gun, the hunter approached slowly, every step like a feather upon the ground. She knew she faced a notorious adversary, a skilled combatant with a determination that rivaled that of her Boss.

 

‘For her ,’ Fentress repeated, directly behind the unaware Paladin, raising her weapon into the air.

 

With a precise strike, the weapon clashed against the helmet, knocking the Paladin over. Satisfied that Keith was rendered unconscious, Fentress skirted around the boulder only to freeze.

The helmet had been knocked clean off, with no head protruding from the armour. In fact, there was not a body inside the uniform at all.

The shock of the discovery dulled her senses long enough for Keith, clad in his skin tight light suit, to thunder towards her, repaying the favour with a punch of his own.

Darkness consumed Fentress before she hit the dirt.

 

xxx

 

Back aboard the Atlas, Shiro's patience ran precariously thin.

By his side, Acxa was the calming water to his ignited flame, doing her best to get some answers, while waiting notifications from the MFEs taking flight in the hopes of finding the missing Paladin more quickly.

Hunk, Pidge, Lance and Allura were ushered to the medical bay at Shiro’s insistence, leaving the rest in his and Acxa’s hands.

 

The Olkari, meanwhile, seemed less interested in the heightened emotions, and more intrigued by the Atlas itself, a marvel in strength and defensive capabilities. Even while handcuffed with two crew members at his back, dissuading him from trying anything funny, and a smouldering giant practically in his face, he was not at all phased by his capture.

“Sophisticated hacking and jamming abilities,” the Olkari noted, observing the entirety of the hold. “Impressive. It's nice to find others on my level.”

Bristling at the arrogance, Shiro gritted his teeth, practically hissing at the braggart before him. The sarcasm dripped from the Captain’s words, as he channelled every source of self-restraint he had not to shake the answers out of the the time-wasting, know-it-all -

“Yeah. It's terrific.

 

With a gentle touch on the shoulder, Acxa conveyed that losing his temper - while understandable - would do very little to get answers. Feeling her quiet support beside him, Shiro closed his eyes and tightened his jaw, exhaling harshly as he often did to prepare himself.

For Keith ,’ he reminded himself. ‘ This is for Keith.

He opened his eyes, demanding answers with an assertive glare. “Where's your leader?”

A menacing glee spread across the Olkari’s face, savouring the little bit of power he held. “I don't know. I lost her signal when your minions attacked.” His lips curled into a cruel smile, sweet poison dripping from every word. “But she's out there, somewhere, hunting down the Paladin you call ‘Keith.’

 

Anger detonated inside Shiro, a severe reminder to all present how deeply his heart beat for his found family, especially Keith. Akin to his rage encountering Warlord Lahn’s insolence, the Captain forced himself into the Olkari's personal space, took him by the vest, and made good on his earlier idea by shaking him vigorously.

“Listen, you lowlife ,” Shiro snarled, crackling with fury. “You better start talking without the little ego trip, or I'll make you talk.”

For the first time, the Olkari showed real fear, bug-eyed and spluttering incoherently, determined to save himself from being subjected to whatever threat Shiro had in mind. “I’m telling you, you fool, I don’t -”

 

Watching the situation spiral out of control, Acxa dashed towards Shiro, trying to force his hand down. She knew this wasn't him, but the distress talking. Spinning her head towards the Olkari, the only thing between him and a wall of unbridled rage, she made a demand of her own.

“And who exactly is your leader?”

Choking from the tight grip, the Olkari croaked, narrowing his spiteful glare at Acxa. Every broken word fought its way from his throat. “ An - old friend... of yours.”

 

Acxa's eyes widened, knowing there was only very few companions close enough to be considered friends, and two of them were beyond this world. She came to a chilling discovery, everything falling into place.

Shiro stared at Acxa, desperate for answers, his hold never yielding. “Who is he talking about? Who’s after Keith?”

Glimpses of an explosion fractured Acxa's mind, the sight of two former generals lost in the searing heat. She had assumed that no one could survive a blast from such close range, but she realised then she had been foolish.

There was nothing more indestructible than a vendetta, and the Paladins were drawn into that grudge like helpless moths to a flame. And Keith was the true target all along, trapped in a carefully crafted game of cat and mouse.

Everything about the plan bore all the markings of one former ally, someone she never expected to see again so soon.

 

“It's her…”

 

xxx

 

Crawling into the crown of the volcano with all his might, Keith struggled to find those strong pulses of energy that drew him in the first place. Even his friends were absent from his sensory mapping, increasing his worry. Within minutes of traversing the unforgiving heart of the Earth, the suffocating heat, and the oxygen deprived atmosphere, he knew he had little time.

His priority was Kosmo, then they could return to the others.

 

As he clambered over the last obstacle, Keith halted, greeted by a towering figure overshadowing him. He knew instantly that he faced the leader of the bounty hunters, and Kosmo’s captor.

The faintest pulse emitted from behind nearby rocks, and a low whine found its way to Keith's ears. His heart lurched, hearing the pain and discomfort in his friend’s noise. A weak bark followed, and Keith realised that Kosmo knew he was here for him.

Hold on, boy ,’ Keith tried to tell him, keeping his focus on the threat in front of him. ‘ I’m coming . I’ll save you .’

 

Before Keith could get to his knees, a sharp hiss erupted from the helmet obscuring the hunter’s face, and with one hard toss, the protective gear was thrown to the ground, a gauntlet heralding battle.

A Warlord with Galra blood running through her veins, large protruding furry ears, and a deep scar consuming one half of her face. On that same side, a single white eye contrasting her other golden one, illuminated in the hellfire before them.

Keith gasped, his unsteady voice managing to say her name, a shiver of disbelief hollowed his voice. His dizzied mind knew her, a relic from his past thought lost in an explosion of his own making.

 

“...Zethrid?”

Enraged, Zethrid barrelled at Keith, an anguished roar that possessed the intensity to fracture time itself.

You took Ezor from me!

 

xxx

 

From the skies, Veronica got wind from Acxa that Lance, Allura, and the others were safe, and she sighed with relief.

Her little brother, little Lancey Lance, was safe.

 

Messages of happiness from the other pilots flooded her communication, and it took everything she had not to succumb to tears of relief. Veronica felt her heart lighten, but she knew that they were not out of the woods yet. Keith and his little dog were out there, with Shiro still burdened by the pain of not knowing, of fearing over the worst while trying to keep a brave face for everyone else.

Acxa volunteering to accompany him brought a smile to Veronica's face. She knew her new friend tried her best, and was proud that Acxa strived to make the most of her life with the Coalition.

With Veronica, if she didn't drive Acxa away, of course.

Comforted by the presence of her sniper rifle aboard the MFE jet, she kept her sharp stare ahead, towards the volcano, the last place they had to check.

 

Suddenly, James’ alert declaration told everyone what they had been dying to hear. “Visual on Keith. I repeat, visual on Keith. And he’s not alone.”

As her fellow pilots soared towards the peak of the volcano, erupting with a thick black smoke, Veronica diverted, as planned, playing a different role in the rescue.

“Don't worry, Keith,” Veronica muttered, swiftly descending to a stable landing point. “We're on our way.”

 

xxx

 

Narrowly evading the lethal punch that fractured the dry ground, Keith rolled out of harm’s way, but not completely out of danger. Zethrid followed in close pursuit, throwing fist after fist at the Paladin, determined to make him hurt .

The Warlord needed this, no matter what her underlings said. No matter what Fentress said.

Her mourning heart desired revenge for her lost Ezor, a dark black hole extinguishing every blissful memory of her until nothing remained. Every passing day was like being plunged into darkness, a solar eclipse where no salvation of light could hope to exist.

Her Ezor, her reason for life, was gone, and Keith was responsible.

 

As Keith drew out his Mamora Blade, extending into a longer sword to defend himself, Zethrid did not hold back. She saw the fear in the Paladin’s eyes, face to face with an opponent with nothing to lose, and he tried to strike back.

Regardless of her gigantic size compared to her opponent, Zethrid dodged the slice as her fist obliterated the rock behind Keith, causing him to flinch. Seizing the opportunity, she tightened her grip around Keith's wrists, and squeezed hard .

Keith's scream of agony echoed inside the volcano, along with Kosmo’s distressed barking.

 

Satiated by the sweet sound, Zethrid released her grip as she thrust her boot against his stomach, launching him perilously close to the rocked edge hanging over the bubbling lava. She cornered him, blanking out the wolf’s desperate howling.

She could deal with the mutt later. She needed Keith right now.

Struggling to his feet, Keith’s needy breaths came out as desperate wheezing, his lungs tightening with every inhale. “You… You’re angry at me, I get that, but leave the others out of it…”

Incensed by his ignorance, Zethrid clenched her fists, her anger renewed. “You. You took away everything from me! That’s why! My face will be the last thing you see!”

 

Zethrid charged, and in a last act of desperation, Keith did as well, readying his shimmering Blade. One fought for vengeance, the other fought for survival, the Earth’s blood casting a hellish red glow upon their clash.

As Keith swung his Blade, reluctant to take a life but determined to save Kosmo, save his family, Zethrid opened one of her fists, then crushed Keith's hand with its mighty strength. Keith screamed, fearing his hand broken from the force of her strength.

That is when Keith saw Kosmo, from across the crater, his worried face visible from behind rocks by a path leading deep into the stomach of the volcano. He barked, and before Keith could tell his dear wolf to escape, to get away, Zethrid's other fist connected with the Blade, knocking it out his hand.

 

“No!”

 

Watching helplessly as Krolia’s Blade skipped across the ground, returning back to its original form, Keith feared losing that precious connection to the woman he thought dead for all those years.

And Zethrid saw that panic, glancing between a frenzied Keith trying to pry himself from her and the Blade. A flash of hot anger burned in her heart, her other strong hand lashing out to crush his throat, lifting him completely off the ground like he weighed nothing at all.

Already finding difficulty in breathing from the CO2, the volcano's suffocating heat and thick smoke, Keith desperately clawed at her tight grip, his lungs burning with every difficult breath.

“You sentimental fool,” Zethrid snarled, storming over to where the blade had landed, dangling Keith with her dangerously close to the edge overlooking the lava pool. “A Blades’ play thing?” When Zethrid landed her foot on the weapon, Keith’s struggles intensified. “Does this little thing mean that much to you? You know nothing of true loss, boy. Nothing!

With a slow tormenting slide of the boot, the blade edged closer to the edge, and Keith's choked cries grew desperate. His hands, once trying to secure his breathing, now beat down upon Zethrid’s fists, her arms, whatever he could reach.

“N-No! Sto - op!”

“Nothing compared to what I’ve lost! If this pathetic little toy breaks your heart that much,” Zethrid growled, forcing the weapon of sentimental worth nearer to oblivion. “Then you’re in for a world of hurt, little boy.

 

With one hand, Keith desperately reached out, regretting his inability to will the Galra blade to his hand like his bayard. Tears pricked his eyes, visions of his Mother and Father flashing before him, as he felt everything around him growing dark.

‘Mom. Dad.

I’m sorry.’

 

Before the darkness consumed him, Keith felt the choking grip around his throat released, his trembling body pressed against Zethrid. He felt coldness being forced against his temple, and he realised what was happening to him.

Zethrid was holding him at gunpoint, her strong arm preventing him from movement.

He cracked a bleary eye open, delirious from the lack of oxygen, recognising two blurry forms ahead of him. His normally delicate sense of hearing felt muffled, like being submerged in the deepest ocean, unable to catch the sounds of sleek ships soaring overheard, training their vision on Keith’s captor, waiting for an opening.

 

But what he did hear was a muted cry, his own name, called by the figure with white hair, attempting to run towards him.

Everything was still a blur, but one thing of greatest importance in his entire life sharpened. His whole world, his everything, coming to save him like he believed.

He mumbled, barely forming the name of the man he treasured. “...Shi...ro...?”

 

xxx

 

“Keith!”

 

Without thinking, Shiro rushed in, his heart speaking before his mind in the moment, only for Acxa to hastily pull him back. The Captain turned to her with a questioning look, only for Acxa to shake her head softly.

Without words, she communicated the danger of rushing the rescue without a plan, that it placed Keith at death’s door, and that was the last thing Shiro wanted, right?

Shiro bit his lip, then turned to Keith, his heart nearly bursting from the raw emotion. He saw the way Keith’s head dipped, the long lost distance in his foggy eyes, and how listless he appeared.

Keith was succumbing to the effects of the planet’s toxic atmosphere, and a fierce fight atop a volcano where the oxygen was much more lacking. Shiro and Acxa had their protective suits, with helmets to ensure a steady flow of oxygen to the bloodstream.

Keith had nothing, and struggled to stay conscious.

Keith ,’ Shiro thought, praying the other man could hear his words. ‘ Stay awake. We will save you.

 

Under his breath, Shiro said his last words to Acxa before the negotiation took place, his determination loud and clear. “Talk to her. But the moment she acts against him, I’ll save Keith. No matter what it takes.”

Understanding the unspoken implications of his declaration, Acxa gave a small nod before stepping forward, prepared to face her former ally and save Keith. She only hoped that Shiro stayed calm enough to permit her the chance to do this for them.

“Zethrid,” Acxa announced, her strong voice resonating in the crater. “Don’t do this!”

 

xxx

 

The first thing Veronica heard from her sniping spot was Acxa’s voice.

As her friends encircled the volcano from above, carefully monitoring the situation, Veronica snuck in from the far end, taking advantage of the distraction to secure herself behind rocks. As she stared around her hiding place, she realised that no opening was available at that moment.

Zethrid held Keith firmly close, and the slightest movement placed the Paladin at risk of being shot. The tension only magnified when her threatening gestures of the fun at Keith’s head and a few choice words were followed by Acxa lowering her gun, attempting to appease the captor.

Shiro, however, kept his firm stare upon Zethrid, his prosthetic arm twitching in anticipation. Made sense a warrior skilled in close quarter combat opted for his fists in a tense situation.

But would it work in a hostage conflict? Did he trust in an opportunity presenting itself? He wouldn’t do anything that placed Keith in danger.

Veronica noted that Shiro had a plan in mind if all else failed. He had to.

 

She hissed under her breath, watching and waiting for an opportunity, as Acxa tried to talk her old friend down.

That strength and determination through such a harrowing ordeal captivated Veronica, that heart to still offer hope and a chance to someone that needed it. She smiled lightly, knowing she placed her faith in the right friend.

A sudden small whine drew Veronica’s attention towards the lower path, and she gasped softly. Curled up beneath a boulder was Kosmo, panting harshly from the heat and struggling to stand.

Kosmo ,” Veronica whispered, hurt by the sight of the poor wolf.

 

xxx

 

“I knew you’d come,” Zethrid boomed, her hardened glare burning into those before her. She pressed the mouth of the gun harder against Keith’s head, and he groaned in discomfort. Shiro’s heart to leap, his fingers tensing, every muscle screaming at him to move, move, move .

But he stayed where he was. Level-headedness and clear thinking felt like distant dreams in this stressful situation, every tick a threat to Keith’s safety. “ Let him go , Zethrid. That’s an order.”

The Warlord ignored his words, a passing memory clouding her gaze. “You will finally feel what I felt.”

That anguish was not lost on Acxa, who was determined to save Zethrid from herself at all costs. “It’s over, Zethrid. You’re surrounded. Release Keith.”

Zethrid spat, insulted by her naivety. “Do you think this deters me, Acxa? Your sweet words?” Her glare shot into the distance, her broken heart voiced. “I welcome death now that my Ezor’s gone.”

 

As she suspected and feared. Slowly, Acxa removed her helmet in an act of solidarity. “Zethrid, my sister . I know you hurt. Ezor hurt too.” She suppressed a tense sigh. “As did I. We were bound together by a desire to find unity in a cruel world. You know that.” Acxa’s blue eyes saddened, remembering her lost sisters. “Narti… and Ezor did too.”

“Stop!” Zethrid barked out.

The strong arm around Keith’s neck tightening, and he gasped out, his frightened eyes shooting open, seeking out Shiro. The Captain raised his Altean arm, shouting out Keith’s name in fright, his heart breaking with every shred of pain inflicted on him.

Zethrid- ” Shiro warned, wanting to trust, but unwilling to let Keith become a needless casualty.

“Hear my words!” Acxa demanded, never backing down and trying to bring a sense of calm to the strained encounter. At any moment, everything could descend into blood and regret. She had to try. “Remember how we first met, Zethrid. We were all so full of hate and rage, half-breeds rejected by the Galra.” She saw the hesitance in Zethrid’s eyes. “Lotor was just like us, but he led us down a painful path, a never-ending cycle of destruction and loss. Against those that hurt us.”

Acxa held out her hand, pleading with Zethrid to take it. “Now’s your chance to break that cycle with me, Zethrid.”

 

As Zethrid shook her head, reluctant to accept Acxa’s help, Keith kept his focus on Shiro, mouthing his name over and over again. The Captain could only watch as the life slowly slipped away from the other man.

Suddenly, Shiro flinched, a sharp pain burying into his brain at the worst possible time . He screamed inside his mind, trying to fight off the inconvenience of one memory superimposing onto the present, but to no avail.

Before Shiro, reality shifted, the harsh volcanic glow replaced by an eerie purple light and the blinding reflection of steel. Keith was still there, but he was now below him, Shiro’s own hands trying to force his arm blade into him.

 

No! Not now, please!

 

Shiro had seen this haunting vision before, reminding him that he had blood on his hands before, and that he nearly took Keith’s beautiful life, a bright star extinguished from the night’s sky.

What was new to Shiro was the Keith’s words after his attack, forcing him to the ground. Words Shiro had never heard before, had forgotten when his consciousness awakened in the body of his clone. Those pained eyes, those parted lips, and then those three words.

 

I love you.

 

In a blinding white flash, Shiro returned to the present, but his heart and mind still lingered in the past. As he stared at Keith, his mind kept repeating those words over and over again, the reality crashing down upon him.

 

He loves me.

 

Keith loves me.

 

And I forgot. I forgot everything.

 

Then I pushed him away. I hurt him.’

 

Unaware of Shiro’s mental trauma, with one last attempt, Acxa beckoned Zethrid to her, saying her last words to convince her. “Please, join us, Zethrid. Ezor would not want this.”

In an instant, everything changed. Zethrid snapped to attention, infuriated by the sight of Keith reaching out to Shiro, who stared back with pathetic yearning. She squeezed harder, and Keith instinctively clawed at the bulking arm, choking.

“Keith!” Shiro cried out. Charged with emotion from his revelation, he raised his arm, and clenched his teeth. “Release him now , Zethrid! Last chance!”

“Please, Zethrid!” Acxa felt her sense of control in the situation evaporate in the blink of an eye. “Don’t let the grief control you!”

“It’s too late! All I have left is revenge!” Zethrid declared, raising the gun ahead.

 

And it was then Acxa realised her greatest mistake, her horrified eyes following the gun’s natural line of sight behind her. At Shiro, where her hateful glare had always been.

 

Now you will feel how I felt.

I welcome death now that Ezor’s gone.

 

The pieces of the puzzle came together all too late for Acxa, who assumed she and Keith were the targets. They had triggered the explosion in their escape, the one that took Ezor’s life. But Zethrid’s true targets, a reflection of her own lost love, were Shiro and Keith.

She wanted to make Keith hurt by taking away who mattered to him most.

 

The weight of Shiro’s impending mortality was second to the flicker of relief that came from Keith no longer being held at gunpoint. For a time, Keith was safe from Zethrid’s aggression, and Shiro took the brunt of that hatred.

Coming to the same bewildering conclusion that Acxa was, that Shiro was a part of the plan, that only strengthened his guilt-laden complex that he hurt Keith, caused him pain. Keith was in danger because of his association with him.

Shiro slowly lowered his arm, almost ready to declare himself a captive in Keith’s stead. Anything to save the man that he only now knew returned his love.

 

Any faint relief he felt at the gun no longer being held against his friend was snuffed out by the sight of Keith screaming his name, and struggling to break from Zethrid’s grip.

“Shiro, no!

In what felt like slow motion, Zethrid raised the hand holding the gun, readying it to strike Keith’s head. Driven by his love, to safe Keith from further harm, Shiro bolted forward, breaking from Acxa’s attempt to hold him back, his prosthetic arm reaching out to his endangered friend.

 

Keith!

 

Zethrid’s fist fell, close quarter range, until a burst of light erupted nearby her head, taking her - and everyone - by complete surprise. Flickering particles shimmered in the air around the perplexed Warlord, followed by a painful grip forcing her arm upward, away from Keith.

“What the-?!”

Ensnared fangs, aggressive growling, and penetrating golden eyes, Kosmos secured his bite around Zethrid’s arm and refused to let go. As disorientated as the creature was, the loyal wolf dug his claws into the threat upon his friend’s life.

Kosmo gave Keith an opportunity, permitting him to scramble from Zethrid’s grasp and towards his friends. Determined not to miss the golden chance, Shiro ran towards Keith, his arms held out for him.

 

“Keith!”

 

As the Paladin collapsed in his arms, Shiro held Keith close, his entire body showered with relief. The fear and panic he harboured lifted when Keith mumbled over and over again the words that resonated most strongly.

“You saved me,” Keith panted, gazing gratefully into Shiro’s emotional eyes. “You saved me…”

“As many times as it takes,” Shiro answered, captivated by Keith’s relieved eyes, and reliving the same words that he had forgotten. He lifted the helmet from his own head and secured it over Keith’s head, offering his own oxygen to him.

He placed a supportive hand on the side of Keith’s helmet, stabilising his unstable balance. “Please, Keith. Let me save you again…”

 

Before Keith could respond, an awful sound echoed inside the crater, followed by Kosmo flying overhead towards a hard rock wall. A horrified cry left Keith's lips, saying his canine friend’s adopted name for the very first time.

Kosmo!

Mere inches from crashing against the jagged rocks, Acxa swooped in, carrying the injured wolf from harm’s way. She gazed fondly at the creature, recalling a distant memory of Narti and Kova.

“Fear not, Kosmo,” Acxa whispered, darting away with the grateful creature. “You’re safe now. And Shiro has Keith.”

 

Another inhuman roar deafened Keith's ears, and he turned to face Zethrid's gun once more aimed at them. Every instinct inside him ran upon one command, to protect Shiro.

He tried to get to his feet, to push Shiro away, to do something please , but his strength had all but left him.

The gun fired, a laser shot speeding towards them.

Keith teared up, wallowing in the heaviness of costing the man he loved his life.

 

Suddenly, a large white projectile shot from Keith's side, towards the gunfire, absorbing the energised blast, and hitting Zethrid straight in the face.

The shock of the moment stunned Keith, his reeling mind barely processing that Shiro had tenderly placed him down, and walked forward, confident since Zethrid had dropped her gun from the blunt force punch to the face. The solid white force that struck Zethrid returned to Shiro’s side where an absent limb had once been.

‘His arm…’

 

From his place on the ground, where a worried Acxa and Kosmo joined him, Keith never saw Shiro's burning expression, consuming his once gentle eyes. He flexed his prosthetic fingers, aiming the bulking arm at the Warlord, fearless and furious.

No one ,” Shiro announced with a dark edge that caused even Zethrid to flinch. “ Hurts my friends.

 

Recovering from the intensity of his statement, Zethrid charged, and Shiro welcomed her, shifting into a defensive stance. Behind them, Keith, Acxa, and Kosmo watched helplessly from a distance as the two fighters clashed.

One after the other, punches were exchanged, neither combatant showing any signs of weakness. One empowered by hatred and grievance, the other emboldened by friendship and awakened love.

A hard slug to the cheek staggered Shiro, but he stood his ground, and responded in kind with a hard hit of his own. As sympathetic as he was to Zethrid losing her love, Shiro was not prepared to let his guard down.

Not when his own loved one was in danger.

 

Zethrid reeled from a hard strike to the cheek, but recovered quickly, throwing another punch the Captain’s way.

Their fists banged together, held in a heated exchange, driven by their own empowered hearts. Zethrid bared her fangs, not ready to back down, while Shiro clenched his teeth, giving everything he had in keeping the threat at bay.

“You understand, pup,” Zethrid snarled, pearled mourning penetrating deeply into Shiro's own obsidian heart. “Why I can't back down.”

Exhaling sharply, Shiro acknowledged Zethrid's broken heart. As driven as he was to protect Keith, his Paladin heart touched on that prolonged grief like a darkness that no light could ever hope to illuminate.

“And you know know why I can't yield either,” Shiro shot back, unyielding.

 

The faintest flicker of knowledge softened Zethrid's angry face, because deep down, she did understand. That had been the entire plan, after all, to gouge an deep wound in Keith's heart, to take away the one person that mattered most to him.

The eradication of Voltron was simply a pleasant bonus to the whole scheme.

Her greatest victory in her miserable existence was to inflict on Keith what he did on her, the loss of everything that truly mattered.

Zethrid studied her enemies, understood their weaknesses, and exploited them. She had another trick up her sleeve, a tight curl of her lips preluding her next exploit.

“As expected, a worthy challenge from the Champion.

 

Shock burst through Shiro, that one name from an enemy stealing the very air from his lung and the energy from his body, his nerves frazzled. Galra. Prison. Champion. Pain. The paralysis was temporary, but long enough for Zethrid to kick Shiro hard . The blow to the stomach sent Shiro tumbling backwards, grunting in pain.

Keith screamed, struggling to get out of Acxa's arms while she demanded he stay put. She didn't want Keith to risk becoming more hurt, or distracting Shiro and unintentionally getting him killed. Acxa knew what Zethrid was capable of.

As Zethrid stormed at Shiro, taking advantage of his hunched over frame, Keith let out an ear-piercing wail, helpless at the sight of everything that mattered in his life dangerously close to the edge.

Shiro!

 

Zethrid jumped into the air, raising her joined hands into the air and sealing her fists together in preparation of a crushing blow to Shiro's head as she landed.

Directly into a last chance uppercut from Shiro's Altean arm, knocking her perilously close to the edge one the opposing side.

Convinced that his punch knocked her out cold, Shiro wiped his forehead, staggering from such an intense bout, every nerve still tingling from the adrenaline burst. He turned to Keith and Acxa, who shared similar relieved expressions.

Acxa gave him a small smile, her saddened eyes lingering on get fallen comrade, while Keith gazed at Shiro with emotional exhaustion. Even the weakened Kosmo wagged his tail from Keith's side.

 

Shiro let out a sigh, walking towards his friends, ready to get Keith back aboard the Atlas to rest. And maybe, just maybe, to share a few choice words of his own.

Drawn by Keith's soft and loving eyes, his lips parting from a beautiful smile into a shout, and Acxa running towards him with a frightened look.

Shiro turned, and there stood Zethrid, a dagger in hand, aimed at his throat.

 

Struggling to get to his feet, Keith cried out, realising with horror that Zethrid had in her hand the Blade that meant the world to Keith. His Mother’s Blade, an extension of his life force threatening Shiro's own life. Even without activating, a luxite blade was sharp and lethal.

And once that Blade struck him…

Shiro’s beautiful life would be cut short by his own inherited blade. Keith’s haunted face contorted in absolute agony, knowing that neither he nor Acxa could make it in time.

 

A shot rang out. Zethrid stumbled backwards, dropping the weapon. Pain seared through her arm, and the luminous sliver from the Blade evaporated when it fell from her grasp.

Clattering to the ground.

Her lumbering frame span from the force of the bullet burying into her arm, until she no longer felt the ground beneath her feet. For a bewildering moment, Zethrid became aware of the sensation of being suspended in mid-air, nothing holding her weight. Below her, the lethal lava welcomed her.

 

‘Finally. Ezor.’

 

Acxa kept running, throwing everything she had in reaching Zethrid in time. She passed Shiro, who only just regained his composure after being startled by the gunfire and his own panicked state of mind.

No. Acxa had to make it. She had lost too many comrades, too many close to her. Zethrid was her only connection to her old life, and she had a chance to bring her battle sister to a new life. With her. With Veronica, and the Paladins.

Zethrid!

Acxa threw her entire body over the edge, clasping one of Zethrid’s hands and halting her descent. The only thing preventing Acxa from tumbling was her lower half pressed against the surface overhanging the volcanic pit, and Shiro’s strong arms secured around her waist.

 

Slowly, Acxa and Shiro pulled back, determined to draw Zethrid back from the brink of death. Thankfully, the Warlord gave no struggle, allowing the two to lift her from the edge and to safety. It was then that they realised Zethrid had lapsed into unconsciousness, most likely from prolonged exposure to the toxic fumes yawning from the volcano and the planet’s atmosphere.

After retrieving her discarded helmet from nearby, Acxa kneeled down to her former ally, placing her salvation upon Zethrid to provide her some much needed oxygen. She then began to secure a make do wrapping from a torn part of Zethrid’s cape to soften the blood flow.

 

“Hey there.”

Stunned, Acxa stared upward to find Veronica standing by her side, sniper rifle in one hand and a dangling leathered strip in her other. Upon closer inspection, she identified it as a... collar with strange vines snaring it?

“Is that a…?”

“Maaaybe?” Veronica hinted with a mischievous smirk and a wink. “Guess dogs like me after all.”

 

Not too far away, Kosmo whined happily, pawing at a sitting Keith, clearly happy to be reunited with him. Still weakened from the overall ordeal, Keith wearily wrapped his arms around Kosmo, embracing his furry friend after the fear of nearly losing him.

“Kosmo,” Keith admitted weakly, burying his face against the affectionate wolf. “You’re Kosmo. My Kosmo.”

The space wolf licked Keith’s injured hand when Shiro approached, dropped to his knees and embraced both of them in a big, warm hug. Immediately, Keith surrendered to Shiro’s protective arms, the enormity of everything evaporating, and leaving only Shiro.

“You saved me,” Keith repeated, staring up at Shiro’s wet eyes. “You always do…”

Cradling Keith’s head, supporting his faint body, Shiro managed a choked sob, resting his head against the glass of the helmet, their gentle eyes melting together. “Of course. You mean the world to me, Keith. I’ll always save you. As many times as it takes. And don’t you worry, Keith. The others are safe on the Atlas.” Shiro smiled proudly. “You did great.”

“Ah.” With a weak smile, in the arms of his guardian, Keith eventually fell asleep, overcome from the life or death ordeal, and all the emotions that came with it.

Acxa shared a conspiring smile with Veronica. When helped onto her feet, Acxa’s grateful gaze conveyed all the gratitude that words alone could not.

 

xxx

 

Cheering erupted as soon as the rescue team boarded the Atlas, their Paladins safely returned. While Acxa, Veronica, and several crew members took Zethrid to the containment cells, Shiro carried Keith in his arms, his heart far lighter than it had been since that morning.

Kosmo limped behind Shiro, gazing up at his two trusted pack members, wagging his tail slowly.

 

Making his way to the medical bay, Shiro observed Keith’s sleeping face, exhausted by the aftermath of everything that had taken place. What had touched his heart was knowing that Keith only succumbed to unconsciousness when informed that the other Paladins were safe.

Only then had he closed his eyes, the sight of his hero’s face being the last thing he saw.

In an empty ward, Shiro carefully placed Keith on the bed, lifting the young man’s head tenderly to remove the helmet. It was only in the quietness of the medical bay, alone with the man that risked everything to save his friends that he felt tears pricking his eyes.

 

Shiro knelt down beside Keith’s bed, remembering that unexpected memory, those powerful words.

 

I love you.

 

His metal fingers lovingly brushed strands of dirty hair from Keith’s face, letting him appreciate the man he almost lost. The sensitive soul that he had punished for his own misguided attempts at protection.

Like Adam.

 

I love you.

 

The touch on Keith’s cheek lingered, that scar forever a reminder of his crimes against the Paladin’s heart. That guilt that convinced him to distance himself from the loyal soul, resulting in the broken heart of the man who loved him.

Because Shiro only just remembered those words. I love you.

 

I love you.

 

I love -

 

The Captain buried his face against the bed sheets, ashamed of the emotion pouring from him in ugly, wracking sobs.

 

xxx

 

After being tended to by Atlas medical professionals and secured in a cell along with the Olkari technician, Zethrid sat in the corner, alone with her thoughts.

After everything that happened, everything she was prepared to do to avenge her fallen love, why was she spared? Why did Shiro and Acxa save her?

Wincing from the throbbing pain deep in her bandaged arm, Zethrid mentally cursed her own weakness. If she were stronger, she would have succeeded in her mission. If she were stronger, she would have made her sweet Ezor proud.

If she were stronger, Zethrid would be with Ezor, together.

 

A voice intruded her dark thoughts, and she stared up to find Acxa and her pathetic bleeding heart. She dipped her head once more, unwilling to engage in conversation, not when the pompous Olkari was already driving her mad.

“You waste your time, Acxa,” Zethrid said dismissively.

“I know you’re angry,” Acxa spoke softly, contrasting Zethrid’s resentment. “But I refuse to give up on you. And I know someone else feels the same way, someone who asked to see you.”

 

Standing aside, Acxa gave way for another prisoner to come before the energy powered cell door. Zethrid raised her head, her eyes widening at the sight. Even the Olkari raised his brow, uncharacteristically surprised by the presence.

Standing on her feet and staggering towards the cell entrance, Zethrid furrowed her brow, and for the first time since her conflict with Acxa, a tremble of emotion flickered across her face. In handcuffs, an eyepatch obscuring one eye, stood Fentress. Her sole onyx eye softened at the sight of her Boss, her shoulders relaxing.

Loyal Fentress, who stayed by Zethrid’s side despite her concerns.

Faithful Fentress fretting over the fate of her comrades after losing contact.

The same Fentress, who listened and understood Zethrid’s heartfelt admission, awoke from unconsciousness and asked only for her Boss.

 

As Fentress entered, she gave Zethrid a small bow of the head, taking her seat beside her Olkari companion. Even from the outside of the cell, looking in, Acxa saw a flicker of hope for her former battle sister, only if she embraced it.

Fentress wasn’t giving up on Zethrid. Perhaps her Olkari companion wasn’t either.

But most importantly, Acxa herself wasn’t. She had a chance at a new life, if she reached out to take it.

 

xxx

 

It took little time for the other Paladins to learn of Keith’s safety. After Shiro just about managed to compose himself, sitting on the edge of the bed and holding Keith’s pale hand warmly, the ward door crashed open, revealing four teary-eyed friends draped in their own hospital gowns. Shiro jumped, shocked by the sudden intrusion, but he eventually relaxed upon recognising Lance, Hunk, Pidge, Allura, and even Coran peering in.

Their emotional eyes gazed upon Keith, still sleeping soundly, while Shiro pressed a finger to his lips, requesting silence. He sat up, lowering Keith’s hand tenderly on the bed before giving way to the Paladins.

“Go see him,” Shiro whispered, “but let him rest. He’s still recovering, okay?”

 

As the Captain stood by the door, he took one last look at the bed, surrounded by the relieved faces of loved ones. Pidge already nestled herself on Keith’s right, murmuring how glad she was that he was alright. Lance sat to the left, arms crossed, blessing Keith with a grateful smile that he would never see.

At the foot of the bed, patting Keith’s leg over the sheets, was a blubbering Hunk, with the paternal Coran placing a comforting hand on the Yellow Paladin’s shoulder.

“There, there, Hunk,” Coran hushed softly. “Dry your eyes. Keith is alright. He just needs rest, that’s all.”

“Yeah,” Hunk sighed with relief, wiping a hand across his face. “I’m just so glad, you know? For Keith, and for Shi…”

Hunk’s words trailed off when he turned to where Shiro once stood only to find him gone. Confused, he gave a curious look to each and every one of his friends, none of which seemed to register when Shiro exactly left.

“Huh, that’s weird,” Hunk muttered, rubbing his chin. “I could’ve swore he was just there.”

But one of the Paladins had seen him depart, her observant gaze witnessing strained emotion across his face before he turned and left, leaving his loved ones to tend after Keith.

 

xxx

 

Outside the ward, Shiro broke down. The arm pressed against the nearby wall shielded his face from sight.

Unable to shake away the pure emotion that those three little words gave, Shiro caved in to the reality that today, Keith could have been killed. Shiro could have lost Keith forever, the fault of not being able to save him until too late crushing his heart.

A soft hand touched his shoulder, causing him to jolt from his self-imposed barrier, only to find Allura’s kind face. Even with such a good friend before him, sensing his anguish, Shiro struggled to gaze upon her, ashamed.

 

“That obvious, huh?” Shiro laughed bitterly, averting his eyes to instead take in the captivating sight of stars passing by the window stretched across the entire corridor. “He’ll be alright. I know he will, but it was touch and go there.”

Shiro sighed, only meeting Allura’s sympathetic stare in her reflection. “How are you keeping, Princess?”

As she strode over to stand by Shiro’s side, Allura gave a small, amused laugh. “All this time and you still call me ‘Princess?’ I have a name you know, Shiro. Or is that ‘Captain?’”

Indulging in a soft laugh of his own, Shiro finally turned to acknowledge his Altean friend. “Allura.”

“Shiro,” Allura said back humorously, smoothing her orange ward gown. Then her smile fell. “And I am fine, just a little… overwhelmed, I suppose.”

Concern flooded Shiro’s face, his gentle eyes catching the troubled wisps in Allura’s own. “That’s understandable. You’ve been through a lot today. I’m just glad you all pulled through.” He smiled. “Like I knew you would.”

It was Allura’s turn to smile, shyly peering at the floor. “Thank you, Shiro, but it was your… divine intervention, shall we say, that ensured our survival. You came for us exactly as we believed you would.”

 

His grateful smile slowly tightened, his attentive eyes aware of the unspoken burden in her sapphire softness. “Allura… It’s not my place to ask, but is everything alright? You seem like something’s on your mind.”

‘Been on your mind for some time,’ Shiro thought to himself, catching subtle signs of discontent in the Princess bearing a burden of her own.

Surprised by Shiro’s perception, Allura gently shook her head, her curled bangs flowing naturally with the motion. She closed her eyes, pondering some secret within. “It is nothing, really. In the grand scheme of things.”

“If you are troubled, then it is something.” Shiro encouraged Allura with a strong stare, the warmth enveloping her. When she stayed silence, he continued with gentle persuasion. “You know I can’t force you, but you can tell me anything in sworn secrecy.”

 

A sad sigh left her soft lips, her sorrowful eyes opening. As troubled as her heart and mind felt, it was liberating to know someone acknowledged her troubles. A pure soul like Shiro never judged anyone, only seeking to understand and help those in need.

“Am I… wrong? Wrong to be so unsure of myself these days?” Allura bit her lip, staring at the ward where her friends were. “Perhaps I am selfish, fearful of being alone. Losing one thing after another, and clinging to a small semblance of belonging to fill that emptiness.”

A single cold tear trailed down her cheek, a waver in her voice. “Oh, what you must think of me, Shiro. After everything you have been through, and here I am, feeling sorry for myself.” She huffed, stamping her foot. “I have tried not to dwell on it, for we have more pressing priorities, but in the quieter hours, I fall prey to my own thoughts.”

 

Startled from her melancholy composure, Allura felt her breath catch as Shiro brushed the tear away, the metal fingers surprisingly warm. His hand fell, though his reassuring stare lingered.

“Allura, you're a strong young woman,” Shiro hastily added, “in Altean years. And as you've said, you've lost a lot since I've met you. You shouldn't be so troubled by what your heart wants when you've sacrificed so much.”

Allura smiled softly. “Thank you, Shiro. I fear that, perhaps, I… closed a fist I should have opened. Maybe then…”

 

The Princess’ soothing voice trailed off, with Shiro’s mind clouded like a dense fog. Even as he perceived Allura before him, something - or rather, someone - that did not belong there manifested in a flickering purple aura.

Blinking rapidly did nothing to dispel the illusion, only sharpening the face of the one Shiro never saw, but his clone did. An exiled half-Galra of royal lineage, with flowing white hair and pointed ears.

Shiro saw Allura and Lotor, standing close in one memory after another, a hand lingering upon one’s back, or a sentimental smile.

Sometimes, Lotor smiled tenderly, and Allura returned the intimate gesture, their Altean markings pulsating in recognition of their shared lineage.

 

By the time Shiro came to, dazed by the memories, Allura trailed off, humming mournfully. “That chapter is closed. Decisions were made, for the best, and… that is that.”

Losing one thing after another…

Clinging to a small semblance of belonging…

 

Those words suddenly made sense in Shiro's perception. He placed his strong hands upon Allura's shoulders, wishing he could shoulder her burden in her stead. “Listen. You have nothing to feel bad about, okay? No matter what, no matter how painful it's been, you've always done the right thing. Don't feel as though you're unworthy of happiness or you have to give everything up. After everything you’ve lost, you deserve every bit of happiness in the world.”

After a thoughtful moment, realising the depth of his words, Allura smiled. “You will always be a Paladin at heart, Shiro, shouldering the weight of us all, and protecting us when we need you most. You truly have the biggest heart, worthy of a Paladin of Voltron.”

Allura’s touching words warmed Shiro’s heart, only for him to turn back to the starscape beyond, that dark cloud passing across his face. His voice was a distant whisper, bereft of any confidence or reassurance. “I sometimes wonder…”

 

“Shiro?” Allura tilted her head, her snow white soft hair cascading down her shoulder. “Something is bothering you. Has been bothering you for some time.” She touched Shiro’s arm, gazing upward at the Captain’s tense face, her heart breaking at the sight of tears threatening to escape. “I understand your desire to place others first, from the fear of causing them pain. But in the end, you are still hurting someone.”

A stifled sound from Shiro assured Allura that she was on the right path. With a gentle squeeze on the arm, her soft voice continued the attempt to heal her friend’s spirit. “You are hurting yourself, Shiro. And in turn, those who care about you hurt because they love you.”

Shiro bowed his head, his white streak of hair shielding his stinging eyes. With a hand pressed against the window, almost as if to assist in keeping him upright, his strained voice answered, every word impacted with hurt he held back.

 

“I thought -” Shiro shudders, breathless as if he were back on the fire planet. “I thought I was doing what was right by him. I wanted to keep him safe, but he was always saving me.” A cruel smile contorted his lips. “Putting himself in danger for me. Over and over again.”

Fleeting memories impaled Shiro’s mind, shards depicting Keith falling, Keith charging Sendak, Keith evading his strikes, Keith held at gunpoint by someone who knew how to use their hearts against each other.

And Sendak’s eternal words, condemning him a monster , unworthy of love.

 

Before Allura spoke, hoping to comfort him, Shiro’s heart wrenching sob beat her to it. She slowly reached her hand up to brush away his fringe only to halt at the sight of absolute anguish. A tear streaked face greeted her, quivering lips clenched in a desperate attempt to quell the sounds of distress.

Oh ,” Allura gasped, tears clinging to her lashes. “ Oh , Shiro.”

“First Adam, then Keith…” Shiro’s hurt bubbled inside his throat. “I wanted to protect them, and I hurt them. I pushed Adam away, and he’s gone. And now Keith, I...” With one last push, Shiro cried out his last words before surrendering to his vulnerability before Allura. “ Why do I always hurt the ones I love?

 

Without missing a beat, Allura wrapped her arms around the tall man, bringing him close into a warm hug. Shiro’s initial tension melted as the sweet-hearted Paladin Princess comforted him, a hand on his back gently rubbing his shuddering frame as he cried.

“Oh, my dear friend,” Allura whispered, slowly running a hand through his smooth hair. “You have such a kind heart, so tender and so strong. But you have resigned to that strength by yourself for too long.”

Shiro said nothing, simply holding onto Allura, his strong rock in his weakest hour.

“You should tell him…” Allura suggested, her long fingers cupping his chin and lifting his head slowly, allowing their gentle eyes to meet. “You deserve happiness too, Shiro. And I am sure that Keith would very much like that too.”

 

Something inside Shiro stirred at those words, and he buried his head against Allura’s shoulder, caressed by her soft hair. He said nothing, but his little nod spoke for him.

‘I’ll tell him ,’ Shiro thought to himself. ‘ When he wakes up, I’ll tell him.

And Allura’s gentle touch on the back of his neck sang her own song of promise. ‘ And I shall think about my own, too.

 

The two embraced, the stars shooting along the ebony velvet, two friends recognising the troubles in each other and reaching out.

 

Completely unaware of a presence lingering at the corner, observing the scene before slowly disappearing from sight.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

A single shadow lurked across the Atlas.

Bleeding along the pristine halls, it swallowed the glowing light in passing, leaving not a trace of its existence behind. Even the hallowed sounds of anguish barely suppressed by a hunched form swept past in a mysterious silence.

A crew member strolled past, unaware of the threat, then shivered from an unseen chill.

Nothing remained of the presence that bore witness to Shiro and Allura. No one caught sight of the shadow delivering itself into the safety of the nearest sleeping quarters.

Alone, the shadow climbed to the being that sustained life, melding with them completely until they were one and the same in the darkness.

Collapsing in shelter, away from prying eyes, the shadow’s host reflected on what had happened, then fell to the floor, suffocating in the cold waters of unconsciousness.

 

xxx

 

Even in slumber, Keith felt… disturbed .

Although he had been asleep since his return to the Atlas, Keith was overcome with a gnawing sense of dread, tossing and turning in the ward bed. This bad feeling he had come to sense with growing lucidity these past moons grow stronger.

Keith felt like he was suffocating, drowning beneath the oppressive waves of a stormy ocean. That feeling, that energy , weighed on him like a thick miasma, and he was powerless.

Succumbed to sleep, Keith had been unaware of the visitors drifting in and out of his room, including his fellow Paladins who made a steady recovery, and waited for their Leader to awaken.

He was even unaware of Krolia, his own Mother, sitting by the edge of the bed, holding her son’s hand…

 

...

 

Her son.

Her beautiful little star, always burning so brightly, fell against the cool pillows once more, shifting uncomfortably in slumber.

 

The sight of Shiro carrying her flesh and blood into the hold had been the most harrowing moment of her life. Spared from death at the hands of Zethrid and her mercenaries, but fluttering between consciousness and darkness where no light might penetrate.

The only good thing she still had left, the living legacy borne of her love for Keith’s father. She lost her soul mate; she could not lose Keith too.

 

In quiet contemplation, Krolia raised her head only when the ward door opened. She expected one of the Paladins, most likely Shiro, whom she suspected harboured the deepest affection for her son.

In came Acxa, visibly tense, caught off guard by Krolia’s watchful eyes. Her hands rested behind her back, a peculiar action that did not avoid notice. Initial Galra instincts urged action, fighting back against a potential threat.

Victory or death.

 

As Acxa frowned, feeling hot under that defiant glare, Krolia’s soft voice took her by surprise.

“Acxa, correct?”

The young Galra flinched. Keith’s Mother, despite her reputation as a rebellious freedom fighter, spoke without a trace of distrust. She acknowledged the warrior in her presence, the blood from which Keith’s Galra heritage burned brightly.

Speechless in the face of such a fighter, Acxa twirled the hidden object in her hands almost playfully before remembering why she came by.

She knew she had to. Veronica had pushed her into it, commandeering her towards meeting the Great Krolia face to face. This encounter was inevitable given the circumstances surrounding her son.

The guilt Acxa held onto was suffocating. She wanted to do right by those closest to her from then on.

She let out a small exhale, then unveiled what she had been concealing behind her back. Something that Krolia recognised instantly.

 

‘My Blade.’

 

Fixing Acxa with an observant stare, Krolia took notice of the uncertainty brewing in her blue eyes, like a sapphire storm right in the heart of her. Those slender fingers held the dagger with a protective reverence, a determination to keep the weapon safe.

With her free hand, Krolia carefully retrieved her precious blade, the very weapon she bequeathed to her son. It served as a link between them, a connection that time and space itself dared not break.

Strangely enough, she never considered the loss of her own blade upon Keith’s return. All she sought was the safety of her little star, carried in the great arms of the man who saved him.

Finally, after an eternity of silence, Acxa broke it.

 

“...I wanted to come sooner,” Acxa tried to explain, “to return this…”

Touched by the gesture, Krolia held the blade to her chest, nurturing a sentimental rush of memories. She closed her eyes for a moment, lost in vivid nostalgia of her little star in her arms as a babe.

‘My Keith, little star…’

Those ruby red eyes, once hardened by difficult choices, softened, weakening Acxa’s courage further. Before Krolia could speak, Acxa once more beat her to it.

 

“I felt helpless,” Acxa finally admitted, staring regretfully at the unconscious man in bed. She wanted to talk down Zethrid, win back her old comrade, but she failed.

She failed the Paladins, she failed Shiro’s trust in her, she failed Keith.

Shiro had saved Keith. Veronica had saved Keith.

Acxa endangered him.

Pinching her soft blue lips with her fangs, Acxa became overcome with an emotion she had never experienced in a long time.

Helplessness . Her heart felt logged in her throat, an uncomfortable sensation that pricked her very blood. It was suffocating, like being submerged beneath the crashing waves, unable to breathe.

 

Krolia’s motherly nature, spurred by the young Galra’s distress, compelled her to touch Acxa’s hand, squeezing it gently.

“You were there for my son,” Krolia said quietly, unable to resist a tender glance at her child. “And you tried to help your sister, who had fallen to anger and despair.”

Acxa stayed silent, merely listening.

Krolia continued, eager to appeal to her. “Do not lose heart, little one. You no longer need to feel isolated or alone.” Acxa blinked, surprised by the power in those words. “You gave your friend the choice to live again, to trust. I think you should give yourself that same choice, Acxa.”

 

To live? To trust? Acxa’s heart trembled at the thought. She had been convinced, for the longest time, that she had a life with trusted companions closer to family than she ever felt from her blood kin.

Zethrid, Ezor, Narti, and Lotor. They had all been her found family, united by their status as half-breeds rejected by the purity driven Galra society. Their pain, their anger, and their loneliness gave them a common connection, and for once, Acxa felt like she belonged.

But everything collapsed like a house of cards so soon after. Even before the Paladins intervened, Acxa swallowed her questions in the name of trust, but that only lasted so long.

Lotor changed, and Acxa did too.

 

Glimpses of everyone she came to know since becoming a part of the Coalition appeared in her mind, with their smiles and kind eyes.

Krolia and Kolivan. Shiro. Hunk. Pidge. Lance. Allura. Coran.

Veronica and her friends.

Keith.

 

“In time…” Acxa sighed softly, watching Keith briefly before returning her attention to the Great Krolia, who still reached out to her. “Perhaps I can…”

 

xxx

 

Lance skittered along a lonely corridor, anxiety pricking his heart.

Everything felt like such a mess, even after surviving a life or death ordeal. Pidge drifted in and out of consciousness, Shiro was an absolute wreck trying to stay strong for everyone, Keith was still in a coma, and Allura…

Allura seemed… preoccupied lately, and not knowing why worried Lance greatly.

‘Something’s bothering her, I just know it, but… what?’

He had been on his way to visit Keith, wondering if he was even close to waking up, when he past the door to the Bridge. He happened to glance in, and saw someone standing where Shiro normally did. Curiosity compelled him to enter and investigate, surprised when he realised who was all alone inside.

 

“...Curtis, right?”

 

Startled, the Communications Officer span towards Lance, frightened blue eyes seizing something deep inside the Paladin’s soul. Perhaps he was naturally a jumpy sort, given Lance can barely recall a time he heard Curtis speak that wasn’t work related.

‘Not exactly Communications material, ’ Lance thought, strolling over to the man.

Finally, Curtis acknowledged him. “...Yes. And you’re Paladin Lance?”

“Just Lance is fine.”

When Lance smiled, something in Curtis eased, permitting him to return the gesture. He turned back towards the front window, captivated by the liberated stars of the universe.

 

“Nice night,” Curtis said, then corrected himself awkwardly. “If it’s still night, that is.”

Lance laughed softly. “Yeah, in space, no one can tell the time. Drove me crazy when I first came out here.”

Back on the Castle Of Lions, almost a lifetime ago. It blew Lance’s mind to think how far they’d all come since that first day, piloted into space by a renegade robot cat, who came to be his Lion for a time.

‘Blue. It’s funny, missing someone who’s right there…’

 

A sigh corrupted the silence, Curtis’ quiet voice snapping Lance from his thoughts. “Always feels like night out here…”

“This your first time out in space?” Lance asked, only for his suspicions to be confirmed with silence. “I remember that feeling. My first time was being catapulted into the universe inside a flying Lion. Man, those were the days.”

Curtis stayed silent, so Lance continued. “I remember missing home so much. My family. It was tough, being so far away from what I knew, even if that was my dream someday. To explore space.” Sadness softened his features, reaching his reminiscent gaze. “And for the longest time, I felt… like a letdown.”

That caught Curtis’ attention, and Lance knew his earlier hunch about him was correct.

“Sometimes, I still do if I’m honest. I mean, I’m surrounded by all these awesome heroes, who are all amazing and have so much going for ‘em. Pidge is really smart, Hunk’s a great mind too and great with people, Allura…” Lance sighed. “She’s so strong after everything she’s been through. And Keith, he’s… not the big jerk I kept thinking he was. I always saw him as my rival, someone I had to beat, but the truth is… I think I was worried.”

“About what?” Curtis asked, observing the Paladin with curiosity.

“That I’d never be anything close to the kind of pilot he was.” Lance cringed, hating how he sounded. “Iverson said it himself. The only reason I got in was because Keith dropped out. Even when he was there, he was a total space ace.”

The stars cast their watchful glow into the abandoned Bridge, entrapping Lance and Curtis under its spell.

“Between Keith and a legend like Shiro,” Lance whispered, keeping his steady gaze upon the planets ahead. “I never stood a chance.”

 

Lost for words, Curtis trembled, his own thoughts filling in what he dared not speak. A train of torment wreaked havoc in his mind, reminding him of everything he wrestled with since his humble beginnings in the Galaxy Garrison.

‘I never stood a chance either.

My fault. It's all my fault.’

He remembered Shiro quietly holding onto his grief, and that only resigned Curtis to a cold, terrible thought that had plagued him deeply.

 

“...It’s my fault.”

Lance stared at him, confused. “What is?”

‘Everything,’ Curtis wanted to confess, darkness blistering his aching heart, but he kept himself in check.

“Back then,” he began, averting his bubbling blue eyes. “I didn’t act on the decoy quickly enough. If I had… you all wouldn’t have been out there for so long.”

Lance shook his head. “Hey, don’t beat yourself up, man.”

Distressed, Curtis shook his own head harder. “No! It’s true! I’m always messing everything up! Even before-!”

 

It was then Lance saw the dark rings under Curtis’ shimmering eyes, tinged with bloodshot spider veins. Did a mistake trouble him that much?

But Curtis couldn’t shake that burden of responsibility weighing him down. “...I was new to the team, afraid to say anything. I should’ve known something was off about that message, should’ve backed Mr Holt about notifying everyone about the possibility of an invasion…”

Even if he had been following orders under General Sanda’s watch, Curtis always remembered the aftermath. The Empire came, bringing their tyranny and endless capacity to harm with them.

All those portraits on screen, the lives of their crew, blinking out.

And one of those deceased souls had been Adam.

“Because of me, they… Adam…”

Lance flinched, blinking rapidly. ‘Adam? Shiro’s ex?’

 

Falling to his knees, Curtis buried his face against his hands, blaming himself for causing such raw pain to someone he admired. Shiro’s heartache. Shiro’s tears. They were all born from the inexperienced Officer’s actions.

“The Captain must hate me,” Curtis lamented, rubbing his red tinged eyes.

Lance felt for the poor guy. “Shiro? Nah, that guy couldn’t hate anyone. And that wasn’t you, man. That was Sanda’s call.”

As confident as Lance’s kindly words were, Shiro’s scolding voice deafened him, swallowing him with shame.

‘No,’ Curtis kept telling himself. ‘I did that. First Adam, and… Keith.’

Lance continued, shifting closer. He felt that negative blue energy in the air, suffocating everything, but he had to help Curtis. “Listen. You’re being too hard on yourself. Shiro’s not-”

 

Then, when Curtis raised his head, Lance went quiet.

The Officer’s brooding gaze, that confliction, reminded Lance of someone. Someone he spoke to upon the Black Lion many moons ago. It was the exact same look Keith had when he fretted about Shiro not coming for him.

And all the small glances his rival shot Shiro when he thought no one noticed.

‘Oh. He’s…

Oh, no.’

Putting all the pieces together at last, Lance sighed, suspecting difficulties on the horizon. An insecure guy crushing on a hero like Shiro? He certainly didn’t blame him because it was Takashi Shirogane.

Who wouldn’t fall for him?

And he knew full well what that was like, liking someone absolutely incredible, and feeling completely out of their league. The heart was a thundering beast of complexity and contradiction, and no one helped who they fell for.

 

Eventually, he cracked a small smile. “Don’t worry, Curtis. Everything will be okay, but blaming yourself whenever things go wrong and holding it against yourself makes it harder. After all, you figured it out eventually, right? I’m sure things would’ve been way worse if you hadn’t.”

Slowly, Curtis shrugged. “...I guess.”

Grinning, Lance nudged Curtis playfully. “And you think I haven’t made mistakes before? And I’m still a Paladin at the end of the day. They haven’t tossed me out yet.”

A small smile crept upon Curtis’ lips. His wet gaze fell upon the tiny crystal that empowered the Atlas. That single strong source of power, channeling an entire ship.

He wondered if he too could be like that someday.

 

When Curtis’ gaze met Lance’s once more, a sense of peace passed between them. “Thanks, Lance. But you know, you really need to follow your own advice too.”

Before Lance could respond, a big yawn erupted from him. “ Wow, ‘scuse me. Thought I’d caught up on my beauty sleep.”

A flicker of worry softened Curtis’ eyes. “You have been through a lot. Why don’t you catch up on some rest?” He nibbled his lip, then resigned himself. “I could check in on Keith for you?”

Grateful for the offer, Lance smiled towards Curtis. “Thanks, but I’m alright. Don’t think I could turn in without knowing Keith’s okay.”

 

Resigned to a nod, Curtis watched as Lance shuffled wearily out of the room, leaving him with his unrest. The young man stared back out towards the universe, falling back into his sense of uncertainty now he was alone again. Even his whisper was a ghost trail in a boundless sea of stars and infinite possibilities.

“Give Keith my best…”

 

Meanwhile, Lance slowly proceeded down the hallway, unable to get Curtis' sorrowful blue eyes out his mind, and how painfully obvious his crush was to anyone but him. It made him realise how similar Keith and Curtis were in that regard, and Lance shook his head. Seemed like the Atlas really was the Ship of Dreams.

'Poor, poor guy,'  he Blue Paladin thought, unsure of who fit that description most.

 

xxx

 

Lost in the mists of time, among juniper fields and snow white clouds of a forgotten world, the recovering Allura sat in bed, trying to find answers to her questions of discord.

After attempting to confide in Shiro, and sharing a private respite from the loneliness their troubled hearts brought, the Princess returned to her quarters, overcome with tiredness. She had hoped to rest, but her mind kept her awake.

As did an animated friend, who joined her.

 

“Where’s Lance?” Romelle inquired playfully, cheeks flushed with life.

Allura’s reaction was not what she expected. Her pensive sapphire stare lowered to the floor briefly, then she met Romelle.

“He’s visiting Keith,” Allura answered, trying her hand at a smile most convincing.

It failed.

 

Romelle frowned, crossing her arms, and leaning in, her golden hair falling from her shoulders like a waterfall of pure starlight. “Allura? Is everything alright?” She playfully nudged her friend’s side. “I’m afraid you’re a poor liar.”

 

Caught in the act, Allura succumbed herself to Romelle’s question and place as her closest confidante. “It’s… hard to say. Everything has been so turbulent lately.”

When Allura quietened, Romelle simply sat and awaited her words, resting her head upon propped up knees. Whatever was on her friend’s mind, she wanted to help.

Allura sighed softly, recalling her prior talk with Shiro. “Do you remember those days when you believed you were alone? After Altea…” She trailed off, tormented by the loss of her home.

Empathising with that overwhelming sense of loss and the instability that followed, Romelle nodded, her eyes softened. “Yes. I did have my brother, but those were frightening times. We didn’t know if we were the only ones left.”

Before Lotor came , she wanted to say, but wisely omitted.

 

Relief united them, connected by circumstance even before they came to know one another. It eased Allura’s sadness a little, wishing her people did not have to experience further hardship after losing Altea, all they knew, but that they were not alone.

“I understand that too,” Allura said quietly, reminiscing of the early days awakening in the Castle of Lions, falling into the arms of a stranger with even stranger ears, and being thrown into a destiny she sometimes felt too much.

“For so long, I believed Coran and I were the only ones,” the Princess lamented, reaching out to take Romelle’s milky hand in hers. “We awakened to everything we had come to know and love gone. Coran, bless him, has been by my side come what may, but…” She blinked, determined to stay those tears. “I missed Altea, I missed my people, I…”

Allura dared a glance at Romelle, only to be touched by her unwavering violet vision. Those warm eyes encouraged her to speak, even if she was unsure of how to voice her difficult thoughts.

 

“Do you... think me selfish, Romelle?”

“My dear Allura, why ever would I think that?” Romelle’s eyes widened in surprise.

Regretfully, Allura confessed. “I have you, my sweet Romelle, I have Coran, I have the Paladins, everyone I have come to know in the Coalition, including the people I once thought lost, and…”

“Lance?” Romelle added with a small smile.

Allura hesitated, then nodded. “...Yes. Lance, and his family who welcomed me with open arms. Even so, I cannot help but feel as if I am a single speck in the universe, burning out, as everyone continues to exist around me.” She sniffed, clutching the bed sheets around her. “How can I speak of feeling alone when I am not the only one who has experienced loss?”

She remembered Shiro, mourning for Adam, and aching for Keith, then a small sob left her quivering lips.

 

Soothingly, Romelle interjected, patting her Princess’ hand. “Because you have lost much, and it’s understandable to feel like this. Sometimes, one can feel lonely, even when they are not alone. It is a most painful feeling, but… we are here for you, Allura. You do have a family.”

As Allura bit her lip, trying to hold in the tears, Romelle rested her head upon the other Altean’s shoulder, trying to comfort her. “You have shouldered such a burden, and been strong for so long. Please, let us shoulder it with you.”

 

Those gentle words enveloped Allura’s heart until she could take it no longer. She bowed her head, her snowfell hair tumbling from her shoulders, as she let the tears cascade down her cheeks.

She confided so much, but her greatest secret still remained locked inside, with even Allura wishing she could deny the reality creeping in with every small moment. With the sense of foreboding that accompanied her draining fatigue was a familiar face she tried not to think of.

Only a rich voice beckoned her into the darkness of her own subconsciousness, someone she knew Romelle did not wish to entertain.

Why did he still linger there in the shadows? Why did the warmth and the colour of the Atlas fade a little more each day? What sort of sorcery of the mind was this?

As another tear trailed down her face, Allura realised she felt like a single star in the night’s sky with this terrible crushing guilt, magnifying her sense of unease. She was not alone, surrounded by countless dazzling stars, but she still felt so lonely.

And it made her so incredibly sleepy.

 

“Rest, Allura,” Romelle whispered, easing the Princess back into bed. She knew something weighed on her friend, but she did not want to force her into confessions. “We shall free our people from Honerva’s spell. And you won’t bear the burden alone. Not anymore.”

 

xxx

 

Inside Keith’s slumber, he saw the Atlas.

He watched helplessly as the giant ship was swallowed from the inside in the blink of an eye. Everyone he came to know and love were devoured by the hungry shadows, sparks of light snuffed out.

Sweat poured from his brow as he tossed and turned, trying to reach out for the man standing on the Bridge, unaware of the shadows creeping towards him from behind.

And Keith himself was unaware of the dark presence lurking at the door, bleeding malevolence into the room...