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I bolt upright when I hear the shrill cries of the Castle’s alarm systems going off. Immediately my mind thinks the worst as I practically fall out of bed with the loud start, shit, Zarkon, shit, armor, bayard, shit, lions, go . As I scramble to my feet, slamming the button in my room to open the door, I can hear Allura’s voice shouting over the Castle’s com system, “Everybody up! Zarkon is attacking!” 

I can barely think anything other than get to the bridge as I grab my armor from the floor and pull it on with wild tugs, shoving my helmet under my arm and breaking into the hallway in record time. Immediately I see the others in similar states of dishevelment, Hunk is rubbing his eyes as he staggers out with his helmet in one hand like a child holding a teddy bear, Pidge is jumping up and down as she pulls on her boots, Lance’s eyes are wide and he still has his sleep mask on his forehead as an amusing contrast to his armor, and Keith’s already sprinting down the hall towards the bridge with his bayard at hand. I take off after him to see what’s going on as Allura’s voice echoes again over the com system, “The Castle’s about to be destroyed!” 

As we collectively break onto the bridge, Allura stands in the central circle with her hands hovering over the holographic panels before her, the pillars she uses to pilot the Castle are already receding into the ground. Shiro stands beside her with his arms behind his back, peering over her shoulder, but what’s more drawing to me is the quiet. Outward and beyond the glass, we’re still surrounded by empty space, dark and endless… but not a single Galra ship in sight. 

Lance, who seems to have picked up on this as well, steps beside me as he drops his helmet to the ground, “So, ‘the Castle’s getting destroyed,’ huh?” 

Pidge rubs her eyes as she hugs her helmet to her chest, pouting now that we’re out of imminent danger, “Aw man ! I was finally getting such good sleep…”

Allura glances over her shoulder at us where she stands typing at the holographic panel, and I can just barely see her flash an apologetic looking smile before she returns to the screen, flashes of Altean words flying by in a dizzying array like shooting stars. Shiro turns to face us with a serious expression in lieu of Allura, his arms behind his back in a militant fashion as he addresses us, “I’m sorry for waking you up like this, but it’s important that we stay sharp even when we’re not under attack; Zarkon may not be here now, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be prepared for when he is.” 

As the situation slowly hits me I rub my eyes with my free hand, the other resting my helmet against my hip. Okay. This is what we’re doing now. Ngh.

To my left, Hunk hangs his head and pouts sadly at Shiro like a dejected puppy, “So does that mean we aren’t taking a vacation while we’re flying to the Blade of Marmora’s base?” 

Shiro sternly shakes his head. Lance groans beside me with a dramatic huff, but otherwise doesn’t speak as Shiro meets our collective gaze and continues without pause, “We need to keep focused on the mission, and that means we always have to be at our best.” He lets his arms fall as he approaches us as a group, gesturing with his chin towards the elevators, “Get to your lions. I want to start off with some flight drills and combat simulations before we head to the training deck.” 

With a loud yawn, I trudge towards my elevator and rub the sleep from my eyes with my free hand. Over my shoulder, Hunk moans in complaint, “Aww, man! Is this just gonna be like back on Arus?” 

Once my elevator door closes, I pull my helmet on, the nullifying silence seeming to encompass the small space and melting into white noise in my head. The abrupt wake up in junction with the continuous hum of the Castle’s thrusters makes my ears ring a little, and it takes me until I reach my lion’s hanger to really get it to ease. I’m definitely regretting the late night with Hunk last night.

I guess I shouldn’t complain; Shiro’s right, we need to be always on the alert... just in case. I don’t want Zarkon to catch us with our pants down, that’s for damn sure. 

I stride up to my lion where she lays with her head between her paws, but right before I walk in I hear Pidge suddenly call through the com, “Wait, Hunk, Will, I still have your stones in my hanger! You should put them on so we can see how they operate while we’re training.

“Good idea, Pidge.” Shiro answers. I sigh and stumble away from my lion, heading over to the communal hanger. Pidge hands off the Yellow Lion’s stone to Hunk, and when I approach she hands the White Lion’s to me. When my hands wrap around the chain a fresh course of energy soaks into me, like I just drank an espresso shot. Hunk looks at his stone with wide eyes and then he looks up at me with a similar expression and I realize he probably felt the same.

“Wow. I think I’m awake now.” Hunk mumbles before flashing me a grin. I shake my head with a snort before I turn and head back into my hanger.

Silver’s jaws part slightly as I approach to widen the gap between her teeth for me to step through. I walk up the stairs while dragging my feet, and as I sink into the pilot’s chair I have to fight the urge to close my eyes and fall asleep all over again. 

“Hey, Hunk, Will?” I open my eyes as Pidge’s voice comes to me over the com, “Do your pendants do anything when you get into your lion?” 

“Uh… Maybe? I don’t know, what’s yours doing?” Hunk answers quickly with a note of curiosity. 

“I don’t really know. It just kinda buzzed or something, and then my chest got really warm... I don’t know, it’s really weird. ” Pidge reports, her voice is tired but her tone is matter of fact, “Actually, speaking of that, Shiro, can I cop out of Paladin training so I can run some tests on our medallions? Then we can discover what they’re really for and what they really do.” Her words spike in excitement with a sudden burst of energy that comes from potentially sitting out, “And I think I have an idea on what to test first.”

“I know that that’s important, Pidge, but so is keeping our basics skills honed.” Shiro answers in a paternal manner, but after a moment he adds, “Let’s wait until after this exercise, then you can go when the rest of us hit the training decks.” 

“Aww, man! Now I really wish Blue would give me a rock.” Lance complains with a dramatic whine over the com. 

“Training with our lions will help us bond with them more, which is how we’ll be able to get our own stones, Lance.” Keith’s voice is husky and drawn out, he seems to enunciate on his syllables more than usual. Probably a sign that he’s tired. 

“Well, Pidge just said that she doesn’t know what they’re for, so maybe the medallions aren’t from how close bonded we are to our lions! Like, Shiro’s tight with the Black Lion now, and he doesn’t have a stone, and I know that Blue and I have been best friends from day one, so…!”

I tap the remote access to my hanger, furrowing my eyebrows as I let my gaze wander around our surroundings as my lion and I ease out of the hanger. 

I’ll never get over how strange it is to be surrounded by so much nothing. There only thing gripping me to knowing exactly where I am and how much space I’m taking up is only kept relative by the size of my lion, but even from within such a large contraption I still can’t help feel so, so small. This is why I never liked the idea of going to space. I already felt small and insignificant back on Earth, why would I need to feel that on a cosmic level? Sucks, but what can you do, right?

“Alright, team, let’s focus.” My lion and I wade through the emptiness of space as Shiro recalls my attention to the present. I look to my left and right and see our lions as we filter from the Castle, up ahead the Black Lion leads the pack. Innately we congregate around Shiro as he begins to give instructions, “I’ve asked Allura to use the Castle’s defense systems for our training exercise. The main goal is to practice maneuvering in our lions and improving our flight skills. Once we’ve done that-” 

“Sorry to interrupt, but-” Hunk gulps, his voice a little tense over the com, “Did you say the defense systems?” 

I roll back my head a little, leaning heavily against the back of my seat, “ Ugh! This is gonna be just like Arus.” 

I can hear Lance smirking through the com, “Well, at least time there isn’t any gravity, so you can’t drop me again!” 

I snicker and roll my eyes as Shiro sighs with a note of exasperation, “Alright Allura, we’re ready!” 

“Copy that!” Allura’s voice is stark within my helmet, and with the affirmation I turn my lion towards the Castle in preparation. The particle barrier activates in one wide ripple, encompassing the Castle like it’s the center of a illuminous marble.

Beams of white and neon blue light zap from the particle barrier at random points along its surface, projecting outwards like an aggressive pincushion. Quickly I push Silver to action, dodging off to the side right as Pidge shouts, “On your left!” 

“Heard!” I shout back as I weave underneath the Green Lion just before we collide and press away from the Castle at a diagonal. I keep an eye over my shoulder at the projecting beams, putting us at a larger distance so I have a few extra seconds of response time. Okay, this isn’t so bad, I think I can handle this-

“Initiating honing signatures!” Allura calls, and with a sudden turn the projecting fire from the Castle ceases in its supposedly random pattern. Before I can take a breath the bolts renew their attack but with far more accuracy than before; pushing downwards on the controls I force Silver off and racing parallel with the Castle with the firing shots in my wake. Well, this makes my run away from the Castle all but moot . I twist Silver to the side as a blast aims for our muzzle and with a press of my controls we roll as another beam attempts to zap us while we’re flying through our momentum from the first dodge. 

Oh my god. I just did a barrel roll! Without crashing! I don’t remember ever doing that with near as much success- Oh fuck another beam- Okay, shit, focus-

I don’t know just how long this continues up until Shiro abruptly barks, “Alright team, on me, form Voltron!” 

“While dodging the beams?!” Lance cries nervously. I twist the White Lion about with my head craned to keep the impending beams emitted from the Castle in my line of sight as I search for the Black Lion, my arms aching from the continuous motions.

I spot Shiro just off to my right, so I fly Silver in a zig zag to dodge blasts while honing onto his position. 

“We have to be ready to form Voltron regardless of the situation.” Shiro replies with a stressed tone, one that gives me a mental pause until suddenly I hear Pidge let out a loud yelp over the com. I loop through the air to dodge another beam and call out, “Pidge? You alright?” 

“Grhhhhhhhh!” Pidge outright growls into the com in what sounds like pain, and I watch as the Green Lion hurtles through space toward our position with her golden eyes aglow. Pidge begins to speak so fast I can barely keep up, “Okay, that was weird and shitty! My lion got hit earlier because I was slow and I got this image of like, the stone of my medallion and then another stone, a bigger one that’s like, in my lion or something and this feeling of like, protection, kind of like an offering or something so that we could have open barriers, so I was like ‘yeah, sure, no problem,’ but I didn’t realize that this is what it would do! My arm is literally burning , I feel like I just got hit with a hot frying pan!”

I blink in surprise as I try to piece together what she just said before I gasp, “That sounds like what happened to me back on Arus, my lion showed me the same thi- shit!” I dodge my lion out of the way just in time as a shot from the Castle comes hurtling my way, cutting me off midsentence.

Hunk practically squeaks in a kind of funny manner, and I look up as I dodge to the side to see the Yellow Lion barrelling over my head, “I would love to talk about this more when we’re not getting shot at! ” 

“On me! Form Voltron!” Shiro barks. I look below my lion and see the Black Lion plummeting, the others falling in formation behind him in perfect parallel with the Castle’s fire. I quickly speed up to take my place, and as soon as I do I feel the collecting twine of our essences reaching out toward one another. In this mental space I can find and fix myself against Pidge’s and Hunk’s easily, just like back on Taujeer, snatching then weaving our essences together with ease. Immediately I begin to feel a harsh burn in my right arm, a biting sort of pain like I got bit by a dog made of fire. I hiss a bit but hang onto them as I reach out for the other three, indistinct tendrils. But now, as I do so, I can feel one essence, Shiro’s essence, more tangibly than before. But, that’s really all I can decipher is that it’s Shiro. His string, his metaphorical outline is kind of… blurry, it’s not at all as easy to determine it’s him like it is for Pidge and Hunk, I didn’t even realize it was him until my own mind-whatever literally brushed against his. It’s hard to describe, feeling his essence is kind of like a bad interference on a call, like his tendril is a wavy signal going through a tunnel. 

‘Ow! Dude, is that your arm? I can like, feel it like it’s mine, that hurts so bad!’ 

‘Yeah, how the fuck do you think I feel?’

I furrow my eyebrows and touch my arm reflectively, only to be distracted as Hunk and Pidge’s thoughts melt into mine, ‘Is that Shiro?’ 

‘Yeah, that’s him alright; if we can feel him…’ 

I close my eyes and think cohesively to Pidge and Hunk, ‘He said he established a better bond with the Black Lion, so that means he is probably able to join us in this headspace... but I don’t know, it’s kind of faint. Do you think he can hear us?’

‘I can’t hear anyone but you two.’ 

“Evasive maneuvers!” Shiro decrees, cutting into our mental thoughts. It immediately forms a clear message in Hunk’s mind: ‘Engaging thrusters!’ 

I activate the thrusters in Voltron’s back in junction with Hunk to avoid the oncoming blasts from the Castle. Together we soar past it, the blasts continuing to follow us with pinning cover fire. 

“Form shield!” Shiro calls over the com.

I can hear Pidge’s voice in my head, ‘On it!’ 

I frown a little as Pidge snaps the shield into place, absorbing the impact of one of the shots from the Castle which results in an immediate, painful twinge in my right arm. ‘Ow! Pidge!’ 

‘Sorry, it does that when I move, do you want me to stop moving Hunk? Huh? Want me to just let the Castle hit us?’ 

‘You’re mean when you’re in pain.’  

I frown as I keep feeling nothing but radio silence coming from Shiro’s tendril; even though it’s clearly him, it’s like he’s on mute in a video call. I close my eyes and focus all my thoughts into a clear message, ‘Shiro, can you hear us?’ 

“Let’s change the angle.” Shiro commands, “Legs, Will, engage into a downward spiral!” 

I twist Voltron’s thrusters to accommodate as we rush diagonally from the Castle, avoiding the oncoming fire with relative ease, even as the shots seem to grow faster and faster. 

‘I don’t think he can hear you.’ 

‘I’m gonna ask.’ 

I huff indignantly as I press against my controls, ‘I just did that!’ 

Hunk ignores me, instead speaking verbally over the com, “Hey, uh, Shiro? Can you hear us right now?” 

Voltron steadies a little as we peel away from the Castle while dodging missiles from our back, I keep us going steady with my gaze out the rearview as Shiro replies in a slightly confused tone, “I hear you loud and clear, Hunk.” 

“No, I mean like-” 

“What he means to say is can you hear us in your head?” I cut in with an impatient edge in my voice I don’t bother to attempt to morph as I jerk my controls to the side to avoid another shot, “Like, can you hear us thinking at you?” I keep my gaze glued on the hologram to my right at the rearview of Voltron, keeping us out of fire from the attacking Castle. 

“... What? No.” Shiro replies in a somewhat incredulous tone.

“Well, okay, but like, can you sense us at all? Cause we can kind of sense you in our little web thingy, that’s why we thought you could hear us too.” Hunk’s voice climbs another octave for a few words as we barely avoid a shot from the Castle. 

“Can we focus on not getting shot and talk about your weird telepathy later?!” Lance’s voice is stressed and enunciated with a biting, high pitched edge. I adjust the thrusters as we strafe from side to side in the air, continuing to dodge the Castle’s fire while Pidge uses the shield to block any shots that make it our way. 

This continues on for quite some time, until my arms are completely rubber and my fingers ache from clenching the controls. 

‘Oh man, this is hurting my shoulders like nothing else-’ 

‘Tell that to my fucking arm, Hunk!’

‘I wish we had breakfast! I’m so hun-gAH that was TOO close!’ 

‘I’m twisting, Hunk, move with me!’ I think as I roll Voltron to the side to avoid a blast from the Castle, faster than usual with the added help from Voltron’s right foot. Suddenly, with a dull flash the Castle’s fire ends, the particle barrier falling like an inward, reverse ripple in a pond. I ease the power of our thrusters to a standstill, taking a relieved breath at the end of the exercise.

“Princess, why did you stop?” Shiro’s voice is ever so slightly out of breath from barking commands, yet something about it makes me frown. He sounds stressed, like continuing this exercise is as important as last minute studying for a final exam.

“I’m sorry Shiro, but we need to divert power to the teludav while Coran continues with testing the alignment and power distribution.” Allura responds in a charismatic tone over the com sets. 

“Good.” Pidge hisses in such a manner that it causes me to blink several times as we slowly dissolve into our individual lions, “My arm hurts! ” 

“We know!” Hunk and I say in unison. 

“Let’s head back into the Castle,” Shiro’s voice sounds a little begrudging as he talks, but barely a hint; it’s more commanding than anything else. “Pidge, we’ll take a look at your arm when we get inside.” 

I hear Pidge grumbling under her breath as I head back towards the Castle with the other lions at my flank, I hit the remote access button and the doors slide open. 

I walk jerkily out of my lion, out of my hanger, and into the communal center as the others leave their lions to join me. My legs feel a bit wobbly and my arms ache from the constant movements of my lion’s controls but now that I’m up and moving it’s better. As we congregate, my vision immediately hones in on Pidge as she exits her hanger, cradling her arm right arm pressed tight against her chest. 

“How’re you feeling, Pidge?” Shiro asks as he lifts the visor off his helmet, his gaze is neutral yet his eyes flicker with worry beneath his close drawn brow. 

“I’ll be okay.” She shrugs her shoulder a little bit, letting her arm fall beside her quickly, like she just realized she was cradling it, “‘Tis but a scratch.” 

Keith crosses his arms where he stands just to Shiro’s right, his expression confused and questioning as he regards Pidge, “So, is this thing, our lions transferring damage… is that something all of our lions can do? Not just the White Lion?” 

Hunk pulls his helmet off his head with a rush of air, his ribbon tied around his forehead fluttering behind him as he gestures to Pidge, “Yeah, you mentioned that you got this vision of a rock inside your lion’s chest, right?”

Pidge nods, shrugging her shoulder like she’s stretching a sore muscle, “Yeah, it was… kind of weird, I’ve never had her asking me for anything before.”  She turns to look at me with a raised eyebrow, “You said the same thing happened to you, too?”

I nod, taking off my own helmet for some air circulation as I answer, “I think that our lions must have matching stones in their chests, like the stones that they gave us. My lion showed me on Olkarion that there’s this connection between our medallions, and that’s what allows for me to take damage for her, but also for her to transfer energy back to me.” I rest my helmet on my hip, flickering my gaze to Pidge’s arm. It doesn’t appear affected, but her armor is also covering the entire surface. Luckily it doesn’t look like it’s bleeding, otherwise that would come through the material of her flight suit. 

“So, the stones are generally able to transfer damage to us while fighting… but also they’ll be able to heal you if you need it.” Shiro murmurs thoughtfully, holding his chin in his hand with a pensive gaze glued to the floor. 

“Do you think they all can do that?” Hunk’s voice has a slight edge of nervousness to it, biting his lip and tapping his fingers together sheepishly as he glances between Pidge and I. 

“I guess we’ll have to see.” Shiro replies as his gaze lies squarely on Pidge, who reaches into the chestplate of her suit and clasps at the chain hanging around her neck. I can see a dull, lime colored light pulsing a reflection on the black material of her flight suit.

“Wait, hold on a second.” Lance cuts in with a few waves of his hands, fixing me with narrowed eyes and an accusing expression, “If your stone things can heal, then how come your lion didn’t heal you after you nearly died?” 

A sudden, deafening silence fills the room with such startling comparison that for a moment I wonder if I just out of the blue went deaf. I blink at him in surprise, and as his words fall forward his accusatory tone completely dies, instead his voice shifts and becomes rather shy and abashed all of a sudden as he adds, “You know... after we fought Zarkon?”

The silence is tangible. Slowly I shift my gaze to the others for some clue as to what is going on; Pidge and Hunk are both giving Lance accusing looks that I can’t quite decipher, the closest thing I can imagine is that’s what they’d look like if they were to catch him snitching, while Shiro’s gaze drops to the floor and stay there. Everything about Keith is tense; he looks exactly like a spring that’s been pressed down for too long and is going to explode upon being released. Lance seems to have realized this effect several seconds later and immediately his mouth clamps shut, his gaze flickering downward like an ashamed dog after tearing apart a couch cushion.

“Um,” I murmur, flickering my gaze between the others with absolute confusion written in my expression and my tone, “I’m sorry, I what?” 

The others faces quickly morph to ones of complete discomfort, no one is meeting my eyes, not even Shiro; he only closes his eyes and takes a slow breath like he’s meditating. 

Frustrated, I set my jaw and cross my arms, “What, did you all suddenly go mute?”

Pidge clears her throat then, her hand resting beneath the elbow of her injured arm as she finally meets my gaze from behind the rounded glasses resting on the bridge of her nose, “I think that the White Lion… I mean, all of our lions,... were really seriously weakened after that whole thing, breaking into Zarkon’s ship and… fighting him. Maybe the White Lion just didn’t have the energy to give in order to heal you.” 

Lance quickly nods, his mannerisms sparking like an amusement park ride coming to life as he claps sharply, “Well, that answers that question! So, now that all makes perfect sense-!”

My attention completely gives out, my gaze grows listless as I stare at a space just past Lance’s head. 

I nearly died? I seriously almost died after fighting Zarkon? I mean, I was in some serious, deep shit… I knew I definitely wasn’t alright. But I didn’t think… 

Is that why I felt so wild and out of control after I got out of the pod? Is that why the others were treating me so gently afterward?

Is that why Keith felt the need to come to my room and apologize to me?

“Pidge, you should rest up that arm and work on analyzing Hunk and Will’s stones.” Shiro’s voice interrupts my wayward thoughts and snaps me back to the present, pulling my attention to him. Pidge steps towards Hunk and I with her hand out and wordlessly I take off my lion’s stone and drop it into her hand. Shiro’s expression is back to its usual neutrality, his gray eyes are stormy yet firm as he regards the team as a collective, “As for the rest of you, let’s hit the training deck and work with your bayards. After that, we’ll reconvene for some more training in Voltron.” 

The forms of my teammates start moving and on instinct I follow, but I can’t bring myself back to focusing on the present moment. I feel like this simple phrase grabbed my consciousness, balled it up and then defenestrated it into oblivion. 

I barely remember what happened after I blacked out. I mean, it makes perfect sense, I wouldn’t have blacked out if she had been able to heal me, but I think we were both equally as bad off after facing off with Zarkon. But almost dying? Just how close is almost? 

Apparently close enough that the mere mention had the entire team clamming up and changing attitudes so quickly it was like an altitude drop. 

My veins feel like they’re being iced over, my heartbeat is suddenly and violently evident in my pulse points, my wrists, beneath my jaw. 

In the moment I was worried I was going to die. I mean, I’ve had a lot of thoughts that I was about to die damn near since we left Earth; I thought I was going to die when we got captured by Sendak, I thought I was going to die when I was drowning in the shower, and then there as I was blacking out I thought I was going to die but I never really thought of it in this context. I’ve in passing been like, haha, yes, almost died a few times but whatever! After Sendak, I was just relieved it was over, Shiro and Lance were going to be okay. After almost drowning, all I could think about was getting to Shiro. You would think I’m used to the prospect of almost dying by now. This revelation of it being as serious as I expected it to be shouldn’t be that much of a big deal. 

Is it because… Is it because I saw how the others reacted? How quiet they got, how anxious they were to put it to bed and avert attention from it? 

Were they this scared after that ordeal with Sendak and I just didn’t notice? After I almost drowned?

… Is this upsetting me because I didn’t expect them to care?

We walk onto the training deck but I can’t get my eyes to come into focus. I hear the others speaking in animated voices to each other but I can’t hear them… No, I’m not listening. 

In those moments I never once considered how the others would feel if I died. I just accepted it as the price I’m willing and able to pay to protect them, but I never exactly expected… No, it’s not that I didn’t expect it. I just didn’t even fathom that it would be something to take into account. It was just… it was about the others. That’s not abnormal, is it? 

Oh boy, there’s a lot to unpack there. Alright. Best not to think about that too hard. Time to put that in one of those “let’s never open this baby again” boxes in my head and tuck it into a dusty corner to be forgotten.

With grit teeth I rub my eyes and force myself back into the present moment, grounding myself by digging my fingernails into the palm of my right hand, into the scar. Even beneath the gloves I can feel the familiar sharp ache, and it returns me to the training deck.

“-start out with some one on one for you two.” I blink when I see Shiro gesturing towards me and internally I wonder what I just missed as he continues without pause, “Hunk, Lance, I’ll set up a simulation over on that side with the drones so you guys can practice your aim and maneuverability.” Shiro points to the right side of the arena as he marches with purpose towards the panel on the far side of the room to set up the simulations. Hunk and Lance grumble to one another as they summon their bayards, dropping their helmets off to the side of the room and move to do as they’re told. I rest my helmet beside theirs as I move to stand more in the center of the other half of the training deck.

“Can we put up a barrier in between us, though?” I clear my throat to steady my voice with a surprising level of success, gesturing to the middle of the arena as my gaze follows Shiro’s receding form, “I’m not super keen on getting accidentally shot.” 

“It’ll help to provide some realistic conditions.” Shiro states as he taps his fingertips along the holographic keyboard on the other edge of the room, his gaze set and determined, “You’ll have to learn how to keep an eye out and fight at the same time,” He throws his words over his shoulder at me as he turns his head towards Hunk and Lance, “While you have to learn how to avoid hitting the team.” 

“Yikes, okay, no pressure or anything!” Hunk replies with a huff, hefting his bayard at hand in a resting position just at his waist. 

“Please,” Lance jests with a wicked, charming grin that flashes in the light, jutting a thumb at himself with his bayard perched dramatically on his shoulder, “I thrive under pressure.” 

The cavernous space of the training deck reverberates a quiet ring as Keith summons his bayard from his suit, the red blade extending outwards and into a sword. I turn to my right and see him standing in a prepared stance just over my right shoulder, his gaze glued to someplace far away that isn’t remotely here at the Castle. I mimic his movement, clutching my bayard as it extends into a lance as a continual grounding gesture, focusing on the sturdy metal and the reality of its existence. Come on, focus. It doesn’t matter if I almost died a few times. Point is: I didn’t. Zarkon’s just gonna have to try harder than that to get me to bite the dust. 

Shiro approaches Keith and I with an analytic gaze, shifting between us as he crosses his arms over his chest comfortably, “Let’s start off with some sparring, then we’ll join back up with Hunk and Lance for some combined unit attack strategies.” 

Keith nods, his grip on his bayard tightening as he slowly turns in my direction, “Sounds like a plan.” 

I flicker my gaze to Keith briefly before I raise an eyebrow at Shiro, “Are you gonna be fighting, too? Or do you just want Keith and I to beat the shit out of each other until someone wins?” 

Keith’s eyebrow quirks at me in an otherwise enigmatic expression as Shiro nods with a prompt, sharp movement of his chin, his gaze moving to me then to Keith, “I’d actually like to work with you both individually first, give some pointers as we go.”

Keith pauses, his eyes locked on Shiro’s as his sword hand falls ever so slightly lower, “Shiro, are you sure? I mean-” 

“I need to practice just as much as you.” Shiro’s tone morphs slightly, growing more reassuring and parental as he regards Keith with a softer gaze, his crossed arms falling to his sides.

Keith settles, nodding slightly as he straightens to face him instead. I take a few steps backward to stay out of the way, resting the tip of my bayard on the ground to lean on while I watch the fight take place. I haven’t seen Shiro fight hand to hand since we fought Sendak, and that was the sort of fight you can’t really prepare for, especially with Sendak’s prosthetic arm-the-size-of-a-cow bullshit. Watching Shiro fighting someone that’s his level, or at least his size, should be interesting.

Keith holds his bayard aloft with a tentative stance, one that I’ve never seen him have while he trains. He usually leans head first with his bayard pointed outward, but now he’s leaning back, the sword tip raised and aimed more at the ceiling. Shiro taps his wrist and summons the violet-black shield in his suit, and with a once over of Keith’s form he speaks with a harder edge, “Fight me as you would anyone else. You need the practice.” 

Keith frowns, a downward dimple forming as his brow pinches but he complies nonetheless, his stance shifting to one that resembles his normal one more closely, but I can tell he’s still hanging back a little. 

Come to think of it, I don’t know exactly the worth of having us spar with one another. I personally don’t ever go all out when we do fight each other because I’m afraid of hurting them. The way I fight Keith is wildly different to how I fought Haxus when Sendak was taking over the Castle; I went tooth and nail, I held nothing back, and there’s no way that I can possibly mimic that sort of mentality while sparring with the others. I need to learn how to fight effectively when I’m unrestricted, because that’s exactly how I will be if we were to be attacked by any Galra opponent. 

But… I’m sure Shiro has us do it for a reason, even if I can’t see it. Maybe it’s to practice the basics so we can draw upon them when we’re in those all or nothing scenarios? Actually… that makes sense. I guess I should give Shiro a bit more credit. 

With a sharp dash forward, Shiro holds his shield vertically in front of him as a physical battering ram, barreling towards Keith without reserve. Keith dodges to the side just in time before he drops low to the ground, sweeping his leg at Shiro’s to throw him off balance. Shiro leaps with surprising grace over the attack and as he lands he swings one foot with the remaining momentum into Keith’s chest, effectively knocking him onto his back. Keith falls back with a loud huff, but before he can rise up again Shiro plants his foot on his chest and gives him a slight, triumphant smirk from over him. 

“Come on, Keith, I know you can do better than that.” 

Keith furrows his eyebrows and lets out a frustrated breath as Shiro lifts his foot off of his chest and offers him a hand up. As he rights himself on his feet, he runs a hand through his hair and pushes his bangs out of his face with a far more determined expression than before, one that makes my heart feel like it’s about to beat out of my chest. Oh geez. He’s pretty. He has no goddamn right being so fucking pretty while he’s fighting. Why is his frustrated scowl so- 

No, bad Will, bad gay. We’ve been through this.

Shiro raises an eyebrow at him as Keith gets back into position to fight. A stray gold bolt from the left side of the room strikes the wall just behind Shiro and draws my attention away from their fight and instead to the other side of the room. Lance and Hunk are hard at work shooting down circular drones that flood into the deck from fist-sized holes in the wall and whirl about at dizzying speeds, intentionally meant to be hard targets to hit. Hunk cleaves through them with an arc of gold flooding from his bayard, his gaze is surprisingly sharp and focused as he holds his heavy gun with a steady hand on the handle; it looks more like he’s weed whacking a lawn rather than shooting down drones. As a result his gold shots are hitting the wall opposite of them as well as the drones, but fortunately it seems to be largely drones. He’s facing that way on purpose; he knows this, and he’s acting accordingly so he doesn’t hit Keith and I. Lance stands at his back with his smaller rifle-sized bayard at hand, holding the blue underside and firing with stark accuracy at drone after drone like a pivoting automatic bolter. 

They’re… really good at this. I don’t know, maybe it’s just easier for them because Garrison training? I mean, Garrison is technically a branch of the US military, they probably have some form of combat training, right? But I suppose maybe not hand-to-hand combat or anything because when are you gonna need that in space, or at least so they thought… 

I hear a loud thump a few yards ahead of me, snapping my gaze back to Shiro and Keith’s fight. Shiro stands with Keith’s sword at hand, pointing it at Keith with a raised eyebrow, almost a questioning look that reads like come on, are you even trying? Keith is straightening after he appeared to have fallen from the disarmament. His expression is evidently frustrated, yet its darkness doesn’t reach his eyes, they continue to glimmer a dark gray like nothing’s changed. 

“Go get some water.” Shiro jerks his chin off to the side of the room with a firm yet kind tone, turning the hilt of the red bayard towards Keith for him to take. When Keith’s fingers close around the hilt the blade disappears into his suit as he turns, his gaze briefly meeting mine as he passed by towards the side of the room. He taps the wall where a hidden compartment lies, pulling a water bottle from within and tilting his head back to take a drink. 

I get a hard thwack on my back, nearly knocking me off balance as I practically jolt out of my armor at the surprise. I whirl with wide eyes as I take a stumbling step back, peering at Shiro with a utterly confused expression as he gives me a chastising look. His hand falls to his side as he states in a sergeant-like voice, “Never take your eyes off your opponent.” 

“I didn’t realize you were my opponent now .” I huff under my breath, only at the last minute do I make an attempt to hide the snark in my voice to make it sound just a tad more respectful. I grip my bayard steadily in my hand, raising it up in front of me more defensively as I eye Shiro for any sign of his next move. 

Shiro holds his shield up with a determined look that glimmers in his eyes, muted black behind the dark lattice of his shield risen before him, and after a moment he starts to move, shuffling with a slow movement to skirt around me. Quickly I mirror him, keeping my bayard at an angle in front of me in preparation to engage the shield when Shiro attacks… 

Except he doesn’t. He continues to circle around me with his shield at the ready until suddenly he stops after at least a solid minute. He drops his shield hand and gives me a look I can’t quite decipher as he speaks, “In the time that took, your teammates would be overwhelmed by other forces.” 

I blink at him stupidly, dropping my bayard a little from where I hide behind it, “Huh?” 

Shiro rests a hand on his hip, his voice maintaining its hard edge, “You have to be willing to take the first step and attack first. Being cautious has its place, but sometimes time is of the essence and you have to end a fight quickly to get to the others, or get past before reinforcements arrive, or to escape a room before it’s opened into space.” 

I frown a little but set my jaw in determination, letting out a short breath as I grip my bayard tighter, “Alright… I’ll try.” 

“Don’t try.” Shiro answers curtly as he resummons the shield in his suit, bracing behind it as his stance widens in preparation, “Do it.” 

I rake my eyes across Shiro’s form in search for any hole in his defense, anything I can use to my advantage. I could swipe at his legs and try to catch him off balance, but that leaves me open for a punch in the face. But attacking his shield won’t do anything, it’s a shield… or will it? I don’t know, maybe. Damnit, I can’t find anything that won’t leave me vulnerable to a counter-

“You’re taking too long!” Shiro barks with a frustrated huff, “When you’re in danger, when the team is in danger, you don’t have a moment to breathe or think, you just have time to act, so do it! Doing something is better than doing nothing!” Shiro’s shield bobs as he takes a startling step forward as if to goad me, and I find myself setting my jaw with a frustrated growl under my breath. Fine. Fine. I’ll fucking act.

I lash out with with one of the flat ends of my bayard, taking a step forward to get in close once the attack strikes Shiro’s shield to attack from the other side with the other end of the lance. Shiro twists at the last second, putting his shield in parallel with the ground to block both of my attacks before he pushes outward. The hard holographic surface of his shield smacks me directly in the face and knocks me off balance, I hit the ground back first. My grip on my bayard tightens as I slide my palms to one end of the lance and lash out with a full force swing like it’s a baseball bat from the ground upwards at Shiro. His advancement to pin me to the ground is halted to block the blow, but I vastly miscalculate the strength of my hands in this position for as my lance strikes his shield it bounces outward with the same amount of force I put into the blow, knocking it from my hand and off to the side. I turn and scramble for it, but before I can get remotely close I feel Shiro’s hand on the back of my suit, holding me against the ground, grabbed by the scruff of my neck. 

“Better, way to at least take initiative.” Shiro says over my head. He hauls me to my feet with his prosthetic arm on the back of my suit, quite literally like I’m a kitten getting pulled out of trouble by a grown cat. I frown as I’m set back on my feet, bending over and grabbing my bayard from the floor as Shiro continues with the same terse tone, “The strength in your bayard’s form comes from using the entire staff, not from using one end or the other. Use its range the same defensively and offensively.” 

I growl in frustration, my eyebrows furrowing as I tighten my grip on the length of my bayard, “Alright, alright. I’ll try again.” 

“Keep a level head.” Shiro instructs, his shield leveling once again before him, “Don’t let your emotions overwhelm you into acting without thinking.” 

I frown, gritting my jaw and waving my bayard with an annoyed tone that I don’t bother to hide, “Isn’t that what you literally just told me to do?!” 

Shiro sighs, and I watch as his brow pinches for a second before he lets out a slow breath, straightening a little as his face returns to neutrality, “There’s a difference between acting without thinking and acting quickly on your feet.” He squares his shoulders as he drops into a defensive stance, his gaze a mere shadow behind the violet darkness of his shield as he barks, “Battle stance, Lancaster.”

I grit my teeth and this time I don’t hesitate. I charge forward with my bayard at hand, this time as I swing my bayard parallel with my elbow towards his left I grip the sides with both hands to activate the shield. Shiro turns with his shield to block the blow but my shield blindsides him much harder than I realized it would, the force of the momentum from its summons sends him flying a few feet backwards, hitting the floor on his back like he just got sucker punched.

I blink and immediately release the shield, stepping towards him as I hear Keith’s voice, filled with worry, crying out to my left, “Shiro!”

Shiro sits up from the floor, his shield disengaging from his arm as his stormy eyes rise and meet my gaze with an expression I can’t quite read. I let my bayard fall to my side with an apologetic look, holding out a hand to help him up. 

Shiro lifts his prosthetic arm up and grasps my hand, the cold of the metal even felt through my gloves, but as I tug back and upward to help him up he yanks downward, catching me completely by surprise and before I know it he’s on top of my chest with a fist poised over me in preparation to punch. 

I raise my hands to block, I blink once, twice. A dark vision rises from behind my eyelids, a faceless shadow with a violet scratch across where its face should be, screaming, “I wasn’t strong enough, but are you? Are you strong enough?!”  

I jolt as Shiro rises up, pulling me to my feet by the front of my armor as he smiles a little slyly, “Now that’s what I’m talking about, Will… just don’t let your guard down.” His smile dies as he looks at me with such seriousness that it’s chilling, “If I was the enemy, even when they look beaten, don’t ever let your guard down. Don’t give them the chance to take advantage of you.” 

I swallow dryly as Shiro turns away, turning to fix his gaze on Keith. He stands with his hackles raised, one foot stepped out as if he were preparing to race forward and tackle me to the ground for laying a hand on Shiro. His protectiveness is certainly admirable. I pity anyone who harms Shiro while Keith is in the room; if he’s this tense while I’m fighting him, I can’t imagine the lack of mercy he would have for a true enemy. 

“Spar while I work with Hunk and Lance. Tap out if you’re down then reset until I call us all together.” Shiro orders as his gaze flicks from Keith, to me, back to Keith before he turns away and heads towards Hunk and Lance, who stand to the side with water bottles at hand after apparently completing their drone simulation. 

I hear the sliding sound of Keith engaging his bayard and I immediately take a cautious step back away from him, flurrying to raise my bayard in defense. My heart’s racing, I feel like I just got chased by a bear down a hallway as the screaming shadow’s words rip through my skull, some long forgotten dream that got dragged up by that moment. “Are you strong enough?”  

Keith pauses as I jerk into a defensive position in preparation for him to descend upon me like a bird of prey. The look in his eye after Shiro helped me up was cold, I can only imagine how quickly my ass is gonna get handed to me now that he’s got more than enough of a reason to fight . Yet, much to my surprise, he doesn’t move. He pauses, leaning back a little with a what looks like a cautious light in his eye. 

My frustration, already grown from the ass-kicking Shiro delivered, continues to climb upwards as I set my jaw, “Hey, no need to hold back on my account. I’ll try and keep up.” I don’t need you to go easy on me just because I suck at using my bayard. Nothing pisses me off more than thinking you’re gonna hold back out of pity.

“That’s not what I…” Keith pauses, his mouth suddenly clamping shut as his eyebrows draw together with a troubled look, like I would imagine if he were about to sass a teacher but thought better of it at the last second. I raise an eyebrow at him, but before I can question him he clenches his hand around his bayard and the expression is wiped clean from his face. He beckons towards me with one hand, his husky voice level and even, “You need to work on taking initiative, right? So come on.” Keith leans forward into a more aggressive stance, his sword held before him in preparation. More like normal. 

I bite my lip and nod briefly, quickly giving his stance a once over. He likes to overcommit, use that to your advantage somehow. Right. Don’t overthink. Just act. I launch into action, jabbing the flat of my lance’s bladed end towards his left as I take a step closer to attack with the right while he’s distracted. Keith blocks the first strike with ease but the second strike takes him by surprise as I smack the flat of the blade against the back of his armor, ringing dully in the echoing space just below the din of Shiro barking orders at Lance and Hunk over my shoulder. Keith rights himself faster than I was ready for and strikes out with a deft kick, driving me in the stomach just below where I grasp my lance. I stumble back with a grunt, barely raising my lance up in time as Keith descends his blade down towards my head. I push his blade aside and twist, the polearm parallel with my elbow as it strikes him in the shoulder. I can hear the sharp edge of the blade scrape across the hard, smooth surface of his armor, and immediately I falter. I retreat back a step, holding my bayard just below shoulder level as I inspect his shoulder with wide eyes to ensure I didn’t actually wound him. 

Apparently Keith didn’t even notice as he continues to fight like nothing happened, and he takes advantage of my hesitation to the fullest extent. He uses his left hand to knock one side of my bayard upward, screwing up the balance of my hold and causing my bayard to slip. I tighten my hold frantically and try to reposition myself more defensively, swiftly taking a twisting step with crossing feet to face him but not before he swings his sword and takes advantage of the hole in my defenses. I feel the sting of the metal slipping into the weak point in my armor just between where the plates on my shoulder and upper arm meet but I react quick enough to prohibit another attack, I hold up my bayard and grasping either end and shove the large, engaged shield outwards to knock him down. With surprising agility he dodges backwards, just out of reach of my strike and with a roll to the left he lashes out with one foot with the leftover momentum at my knee just as I twist to face him. Immediately my knee gives on impact and I have to release the shield to keep myself from falling with one hand on the ground. Only at the last minute do I hold up my bayard parallel to the ground to block any incoming strikes, but when I look up I see Keith straightening, not yet attacking. I use the brief second and leap to my feet but the move is rushed, completely graceless, I’m off balance as soon as both of my feet are on the ground. Before I can even think about creating a defense, Keith has risen from his low blow from the ground and dashes towards me, clashing his sword hilt into the central metal bar of my lance and shoving me backwards with a quick, concentrated force. Immediately I fall back on my ass with a loud huff, but this time as I rise to my elbows to get up I find Keith’s blade just below my chin. 

Unlike before, I can’t find it in me to be frustrated. It certainly don’t feel like he was holding back, so all’s fair and square, and honestly I feel… Good. I got a good hit or two in the beginning, and I’ll take that as a win. I look up at him with a slight smirk, out of breath as I give him a nod of approval, “Nice move.” 

Keith doesn’t answer. His gaze is steely, glued to something that isn’t my face with such intensity I feel strangely vulnerable. His bayard disengages, slipping back into his suit as he kneels down beside me wordlessly and grabs my forearm, pulling me into an upright position with a surprising about of gentleness, I’m a little taken aback. 

“What?” I ask, looking at him with a confused look but he doesn’t meet my gaze; his eyes are glued to my bicep. His grip on my forearm rises to my elbow as he turns my arm slightly to examine it with an analytic gaze like the side of my arm is a difficult line of code. 

I follow his gaze with growing confusion to see the tear in my suit, right in the chink of my armor where the shoulder meets the arm. It’s just a bare cut, it has already stopped bleeding and merely looks like a cat scratch.

I shrug Keith’s hand off my arm, granting me a shooting glare that I don’t quite understand as I chuckle at him, “Wow, you got a lucky shot there! Nice job.” I clap him on the shoulder with my other hand, sitting up more and using Keith’s shoulder as a steadying point to stand upright. He rises just afterwards, yet when I turn to look at him his expression looks so dark that the amusement dancing on my lips dies out. 

“Keith, it’s just a scratch.” I murmur with a gentler tone, but he doesn’t even seem to hear me, he’s facing the wall over my shoulder. I tilt my head a little to look at him more clearly and fully and his dark indigo eyes snap to mine so quickly it causes my thoughts to short circuit briefly at how violently my heart seizes by just looking at him. Only once I push past the gay am I able to fully examine his expression. It hasn’t changed, he looks like he’s angry but forcing it down so hard that I’m surprised that steam doesn’t come out of his ears at the suppression. What’s he so pissed about? I thought fighting me would relieve any anger he would’ve had towards me for knocking Shiro over, but he looks even more upset than before. 

I poke him with my elbow in a more jovial manner, giving him a bright grin as I cock an eyebrow at him, “You did exactly what you should’ve. We need to practice how to fight in a real fight, right?”

Keith’s expression doesn’t falter, only growing more and more neutral until seconds later any trace of any visible emotion is gone. When he looks away I feel the tension I didn’t realize I had in my stomach relax, I’m able to breathe a little easier as he responds with a curt, dismissive, “Right.” 

Without another word or any change in his expression he turns and heads towards the wall where he left his water bottle, apparently taking an undesignated break. Frowning, I follow after him with hesitant steps. 

Why is he acting so… weird? I haven’t even the faintest clue what exactly he’s thinking that leads for him to behave this way. Does he think I’m so weak that I can’t even take a little cut? That explains why he got so cautious all of a sudden when we squared off, but then he went all out when we did go at it so I don’t think that’s a problem. I figured he would’ve been more than willing to fight me after I knocked Shiro down, and after yesterday… even though we kind of made up last night when I gave him his jacket back, there’s no way he isn’t a little bitter about me giving him shit at the mall for his disappearing act.  

I grab a water bottle from within the wall and eye him curiously with growing confusion. He doesn’t appear at all different than he did when we walked onto the deck today or when I’d join his training regime back on Arus. He really has a knack for keeping any emotions unreadable. I figured it was just his broody demeanor but just now I literally saw him shoving down any emotion beneath the blanket of his visage. I wish I could read his expressions and actions better. The hell’s going on in his head?

“Did I say you could take a break?” I turn towards Shiro as he approaches us, his hands at his sides and his expression neutral, yet his eyes are alight with an unknown energy; he doesn’t look truly upset, no… not with us taking a break, for sure, but something. There’s something there.  

“Hey, hydration is important.” I retort with a snarky grin, the frustration I felt earlier slowly waning as the seconds carry on. 

“Well… get back to it whenever you’re ready.” Shiro hesitates as he flickers his gaze between the two of us but as he turns to walk back towards Lance and Hunk, Keith speaks up to my right, “Um, Shiro?” 

Shiro pauses, turning around to look at Keith with a confused raise in an eyebrow, “Is something wrong?” 

“Oh, no.” Keith quickly answers, his hand holding his water bottle dropping to his side as his gaze skirts around the room, “I just… Maybe we should move on to the multi-target simulation you were talking about earlier. Because we have a lot of work to get to and I want to make sure we have time to do it.” Keith briefly rubs the back of his neck as his eyes continue to scan the floor as if he dropped a Tubman and wondered where it went. As I glance over at Shiro with a lost expression I see his gaze is sharper, a bare shift in his features that minutely hint at quiet suspicion before he nods with the same, soft voice he always uses with Keith, “Yeah, good idea.” He turns over his shoulder, crossing his arms over his chest as he calls to Hunk and Lance, “Alright, fall in. We’re moving on to group work.” 

“I don’t know if I should be relieved or not!” Lance calls dramatically, resting his bayard on his shoulder like every heartbreaking cowboy I’ve seen as he and Hunk stride over to meet us in the middle of the arena. 

“I’ll set up the simulations, but there are some important things for you all to know about fighting in a group like this.” Shiro states, his gaze shifting to each of us in turn as he addresses us individually, “Lance, you’ve got the sharpest eye and quickest reaction, so the best thing for you to do is try to keep your distance, cut down individual enemies as they grow closer to give the rest of us less people to fight when they do get to us.” 

“You know, there’s a reason why they call me Sharpshooter.” Lance smiles crookedly with almost tangible charm, flashing me a wink out of the corner of his eye. 

I can’t help but snort, “And who’s they?” 

Before he can retaliate, Shiro interrupts with his arms crossed over his chest, “Just remember that you’re not a melee fighter; don’t get caught up in hand to hand if you can help it.” Lance purses his lips, perhaps to argue, but he doesn’t get the chance as Shiro turns to address Hunk, “Your bayard packs the biggest punch, but it has less maneuverability; the best strategy for you in a group setting is to block against flank attacks, blast at approaching squadrons and cut through their ranks, thin collective numbers. You just have to avoid shooting into an intermingled crowd, your bayard isn’t built for its accuracy.” Hunk nods solemnly with an intensely focused expression, his hand on the handle of his bayard tightening as his resolve almost visibly hardens. 

Shiro turns his gaze to me, “Will, you’re best suited for defending the team with that shield of yours. Keep to the front against a main body and prevent any attacks coming from the front. Your bayard is wide, you have the most area of effect at close range than the rest of us, so your job is to block and sweep.” 

“Aye aye, Captain.” I jokingly salute Shiro with my bayard planted in the ground, resting my hand on my hip. 

Shiro allows a slight smile to appear on his lips before he continues more seriously, “Just remember to keep your guard up and be aware of what’s going on around you. And don’t hesitate to act.” I nod, mentally noting his instructions. I’m the shield. Literally. I bash and block. That shouldn’t be too hard.

As Shiro turns to Keith, his expression returns to its neutral, commanding state, “Keith, you know where your strengths lie; you’re agile, you’re fast, and you’re decisive. You individually take down opponents up close to keep the rest of the team from getting overwhelmed or targeted, but don’t overcommit; without the rest of the team, you’re more vulnerable and easier to overtake, especially in a situation where there are a bunch of enemies coming from all around.”

Keith doesn’t answer, he only nods with a contemplative, determined expression that sends shivers down my spine. Christ, I’m gay.

“Alright, get ready.” Shiro commands, tapping the holographic panel on the far side of the room before he marches over to us, barking quickly, “Circle up, backs in.” 

I obey, turning until I’m side to side with Lance and Hunk and back to back with Shiro and Keith, watching for the approach of potential enemies. Now the real question is… holograms, robots, or drones?

Apparently, it’s holograms. Out of the wall directly in front of me come blue, humanoid spectures, several at a time until there are nearly a dozen charging towards me at dead sprints so fast I barely have time to react. Immediately I snap my bayard forward and grasp both sides to engage the large shield as soon as the first enemy’s close enough to strike, its holographic sword bouncing harmlessly off of its surface and abruptly reversing its momentum forward. Gold and blue bolts fire past me as Hunk and Lance fire away, decimating the number of enemies approaching our collection. Over my shoulder I can hear the hum of Shiro’s prosthetic arm firing to life and the swing of Keith’s sword passing through holographic enemies. 

“Hunk, cover us! Lance, stick with Will!” Shiro barks.

“Roger that!” Lance cries followed by Hunk’s, “On it!” I swing an arcing slice in front of me as two enemies who managed to survive Lance’s fire charge forward. I manage to strike and dissolve one, but the other dodged out of the way just in time, rolling to the side and rising to my right with its weapon raised. I twist at the last second to duck as the holographic blade whistles over my head, and idly I wonder if it’ll hurt if it hits me. I jab upwards with a swift uppercut of my bayard and rip through the formless figure, turning once its form dissolves to see Hunk cleaving through a new wave of enemies off to the left. At my back I turn and see Keith and Shiro with their shields activated, deflecting more attacks than they’re able to deliver from the sheer number of enemies before them. Lance is blasting the enemies that attempt to join the fight as they emerge with deadly accuracy, the holograms barely form before he destroys them with a shot. 

With a determined set in my jaw I grab both ends of my bayard and dash forward just between Keith and Shiro with my shield activated, knocking back three enemies to their flanks and cutting off half of the possible angles for the holograms to attack the pair by my presence alone. Disengaging the shield I swing one end of my bayard to the left to cut through an enemy focused on Shiro and then to the right to the mirroring hologram fighting Keith, who jabs forward with his sword now that he has the freedom to move. 

“Got your back!” Hunk calls behind me as the loud pulsing of his bayard firing continues like the revolving of helicopter blades. 

After several seconds the holograms have completely dissolved and stopped forming, leaving the training deck empty and silent save for our rapid breaths from the exertion. 

“Great work, team.” Shiro pants softly to my left, nodding in approval as he calls into the empty room, “Next simulation!”

“Okay, Shiro, listen-” Lance pants, his bayard disengaging so he can lean his hands on his knees to pant like a haggard horse, “I know practicing a lot is important, but I think, maybe, I don’t know, what’re we at… fifteen? Fifteen times is maybe enough!”

I don’t have the oxygen to speak. I lean heavily on my bayard as my breath comes in ragged gasps, the muscles in my arms and legs aching and screaming for release as I press my sweaty forehead against the heat of the metal that came from getting clenched between my palms for the past few hours. This is beyond training for skill; this is endurance and survival.

“Yeah, I think I’m with Lance on this one.” Hunk huffs, rolling his shoulder and switching to hold his bayard in his other arm, “Can we just take a lunch break? Or like, post-lunch break? What time even is it? I’m so hungry !” 

“Just a few more rotations.” Shiro’s just as out of breath as we are yet his voice is just as firm and commanding as when we walked into the deck this morning. His prosthetic pulses as his hands unclench from fists, but just as he’s about to raise his head to order the next simulation the com within the training deck crackles. 

“Hey guys, come check this out!” Pidge’s voice echoes up to the high ceilings, immediately filling us all with hopeful relief at potential salvation. 

Shiro regards the ceiling with a begrudging expression, like a teacher when the bell rings and the students already begin to pack up. Finally he turns to us and gestures with his chin, “Let’s go see what she’s found.”

“Oh thank crow. ” Hunk groans in relief, disengaging his bayard all together to hold his stomach with both hands, “Can we get lunch afterwards, though? I think I’m literally shaking I’m so hungry for some food goo!” 

“Alright.” Shiro nods in agreement as we shuffle to the far wall to collect our helmets where we abandoned them on the ground and take one last water break. I grab mine and empty it down the hatch, smacking my lips before moving to grab another from the container only to find it empty. Damn. 

“Be ready to head back to training afterwards.” Shiro states, tucking his helmet under his arm as he moves to lead us out of the deck. 

“Man, haven’t we done enough training for today? My arms are like ramen, I can barely hold my bayard steady anymore!” Lance cries dramatically, waving his arms as if this is evidence to his point. 

“How do you think I feel?” Hunk groans, rubbing his shoulders with his arms criss crossed over his chest, like a mummy’s. 

“Preach.” I grunt as I swing my helmet at one hand carelessly, trudging with dragging feet across the smooth floors of the Castle as we head towards the Green Lion’s hanger. 

“If it helps us get stronger then it’s worth it.” Keith’s voice is huskier with his slowly recovering breath, and as I glance over at him running his hand through his hair and pushing his bangs out of his face I damn near have a stroke on the spot. He has no right to sound so fucking… sexy when he’s out of breath. Sexy? No, it is, it’s downright sexy, even a straight man would agree- 

“Whoa, Keith!” Lance cries with a dramatic gasp, moving to stare with bewilderment as Keith’s clueless expression as he points to his face, “I didn’t know you had a forehead!” 

Keith gives him a deadpan, unamused expression that looks so impossibly done that I can’t help the amused snort that rises from me. I have to clap a hand over my mouth to suppress the giggles and clutch my side with the other as the laughter makes my lungs ache all the more. Once I take a second to collect myself I elbow Lance teasingly in the side, “Quit, laughing makes everything hurt worse!” 

As we stride into the collective hanger headed toward Pidge’s, the doorway from the bridge opens up and Allura comes striding in. Her hair is in one long braid, curled on the top of her head in a bun while donning her battle armor that resembles our Voltron suits save for the highlighted colors being a soft pink rather than our assigned lion colors. 

“Hey Allura.” I greet, grimacing as I move to wave but my arms immediately regret the action. Instead I settle to hug my helmet to my chest as a method of stretching the sore muscles, “How goes fixing the wormholer?” 

“Coran is hard at work.” Allura answers with a brisk nod, taking stride to join our group as she clasps her hands over her heart, her gaze glimmering in worry in the bright overhead lights, “Almost too hard. I worry he’s going to burn all of his energy if he keeps the pace he’s set.” 

“It’s important to get the wormholer back up and running.” Shiro responds with a neutral, commanding look, marching ahead of us as we approach the Green Lion’s hanger, “We don’t want to be caught unprepared.” 

“I know.” Allura replies, holding her chin high as she walks in step with him, “There’s no telling when Zarkon may reappear. Hopefully, it’ll be more difficult for him to track us, now that he no longer has a connection to the Black Lion to go by.” 

As we enter the Green Lion’s hanger, we spot Pidge crouched over one of her three tables cluttered with loads of Altean tech, computers, wires, and all manners of gizmos and gadgets that have begun to spill onto the handful of clustered chairs that sporadically surround her station. She’s changed out of her flight suit into a green hoodie and cargo pants at this point, the sleeve on one side rolled all the way up to her shoulder and illustrating just how huge the article of clothing is on her small frame. The Green Lion sits overhead with her head held high, her tail curled around her tail with her eyes peering straight forward and out of the glass of the massive door into Pidge’s hanger that leads into space, the stars twinkling just beyond like we’re standing in an astrarium. As we walk over, I see a brilliant white light shining across Pidge’s face like she’s working on a fluorescent light bulb over her desk. Upon hearing our approaching footsteps, Pidge turns over her shoulder and grins, her glasses shining the reflection of the light, “Hey, come check this out!”

“What have you found?” Shiro asks with a raised eyebrow, his gaze flickering over Pidge’s shoulder to the light behind her. 

As she steps away, I have to blink to accomodate to the brightness of the light shining off her worktable. It comes from a contraption that looks a little like an Altean coffee maker but without the pot, shining a concentrated white light down where the coffee would usually drizzle. In the place of where the pot would be if this were a real coffee maker is my stone, held in place by a wire contraption to hold it upright in a little stand. The light from the coffee maker-looking machine is bouncing off of its surface, illuminating the entire stone to reflect this bright light like a small star sitting in the Green Lion’s hanger.

“I’ve been running some tests to pick apart the alloys and elements that encompass the structure of our stones, and I’ve found that, while each of our medallions are made of the exact same material, they give off wildly different energy signatures that I can’t quite decipher.” Pidge answers as she turns back towards the contraption, curling her nose to push her glasses up her face.

“And what are they made of?” Hunk asks as he strides forward, bending down to examine the contraption more closely with narrowed brown eyes that appear starry with the reflection of light coming off of my stone. 

“That’s another thing… I have no idea.” Pidge answers with furrowed eyebrows, her hand resting on the table to type a series of commands into a holographic keyboard that hovers just to the right side of the contraption, “I think it’s composed of elements that we’ve never seen before on Earth.” 

“I mean, that’s not surprising,” I mutter, shrugging a little as I set my helmet on one of Pidge’s tables out of the way of her current work, glancing over my shoulder at Allura, “They’re alien, and the lions are apparently weird even for aliens, so...” 

Allura nods in agreement with me as she peers at the holographic screen Pidge works on, her expression pensive and unreadable, “I’ve never seen elemental structures like these before, either. I’ll have to show Coran later, he is more experienced in this field than I.”

“Is that all?” Keith cuts in, his arms crossed over his chest with his gaze flitting between Pidge’s hands on the keys of the holographic board and the contraption illuminating my stone. 

“The thing is, while I don’t know what these elements are, you would think that with the slightly different alloys they would only have slightly different energy signatures.” With a wave of her hand she illustrates a holographic screen before us of a pie graph, showing several slices of varying sizes that encompass the pie with different, what look like Greek symbols attached to each. “The thing is, the energy signatures really different, like, not even related to each other.” She types a few more things into her keyboard and swipes upward once more to illustrate another holographic screen next to the pie chart, this one of three scatterplot line graphs, one white, one yellow, and one green, with colored spikes that are all over the place, all three never intersecting each other.

“I wanted you guys to come here because something weird happened.” Pidge continues, turning now to fully face us as she points to my stone hovering in the contraption behind her, “When I put on my stone while it was hooked up, the energy changed.” She points to her chest where her stone lies over her chest, pulsing brightly like a living heart on the outside of her body, but I notice now that there are wires attached to it, like the wires that now encompass my stone in the Altean coffee maker thing, “I got this weird… energy. Like waking up from a decent night’s sleep. That’s when I realized it was my stone, healing me, just like Will’s did after the explosion back on Arus.” She gestures to her exposed arm, and now that I look at it I realize that that was the arm Pidge was cradling when we landed from training. So... it can heal too. That means all the stones must be capable of doing that.

Pidge’s voice continues as the sleeve falls back down to her elbow, drawing my attention back to her hands, “When I analyzed my stone while I was wearing it, the energy signature completely changed, one that had some corresponding patterns with the previous signature it exhibited but it also has some points of likeness in your guys’ stones’ energy.” She slides her wrist upwards and illustrated a fourth line on the line graph, a darker green than the lime green line that already represents Pidge’s energy signature. Several blue dots pop up, showing where the points line up with the fourth line on the other three lines. 

“So, you want us to put our stones on and see if our signatures change, too?” Hunk asks with a raised eyebrow, plopping down into a chair just beside the device while examining it with a fresh gaze. 

“Yeah, exactly.” Pidge nods in affirmation. With a ginger hand she taps a button on the side of the device and the white light suddenly dies, leaving my stone appearing just as it was before. She pulls it within its wired contraption out of the middle and then holds it out to me with both hands, like she’s cradling an egg, “Be careful not to move the wiring around.” 

I raise an eyebrow and grasp the chain of the pendant slowly, raising it over my head to put it on, “It won’t zap me, will it?” 

“Probably not.” Pidge shrugs in a less than comforting manner as she slides Hunk’s stone where it rests beside the contraption towards him. Hunk lifts his stone and we briefly look at one another and with coordinated movements we slide our stones over our heads. I let it fall to my chest as slowly as I can manage to not jostle the wires.

I don’t feel much different, if a little more awake, but as soon as the pendant is around my neck Pidge’s computer starts to beep loudly and incessantly, flashes of symbols illuminating on the green holographic surface. Immediately she whirls around and starts typing on the keyboard, the symbols’ stream reflects back on her glasses like the information is being presented individually just for her. 

“What’s happening?” Shiro asks, taking a step forward to peer over Pidge’s shoulder at the screen. I watch as the holographic screen portraying the four-line graph shift, pulling up two more lines within it. The spikes begin to emerge, and this time they line up exactly with the fourth, dark green line that Pidge had added to the graph earlier. 

“They’re an exact match!” Pidge cries excitedly, standing more upright as the data streams into the system, “The energy that comes off of our stones when we’re wearing them are the same.” 

“Then why are they different when you’re not wearing them?” Keith asks with furrowed eyebrows as he moves to stand by me, peering at the holographic screens with flickering eyes across the data points with utmost concentration. 

“That’s the question, isn’t it?” I answer, glancing down at the wiring around my stone with pursed lips.

“That’s really weird. I don’t feel super different.” Hunk replies with an equally confused look, glancing up at me while tilting his head. 

I shake my head to answer his unasked question, “Me either.”

Allura tilts her head as she turns to regard Hunk’s stone where it lies against his chestplate, her pointed left ear twitches like a cat’s as she stands poised with a straight back, “Nothing at all? With a change like that you must feel something .”

“So wait a minute, what type of the energy whatevers are the stones matching?” Lance asks with a quizzical look. When Pidge turns to face him with a clueless expression he elaborates while speaking animately with his hands, “You know, in physics with Dr. Evans, she said there were a bunch of types of energy, like electrical, nuclear, chemical… A whole bunch! So which one is the one that lines up with the energy that it gives off when you guys are wearing the rocks?” 

I blink in surprise, slightly baffled, “I took physics last year and have no idea what you’re talking about.” 

“Yeah, no I get you, Lance. You see, that’s another thing,” Pidge answers with a look that’s mixed confusion and frustration, “These energies don’t align with any of the eight types of energy. It’s completely different, and much, much more powerful. It’s-”

“It’s like the other types of energy are easy make mac and cheese.” Hunk cuts in, his eyes wide as he regards the screen, “But this energy’s like… a souffle. It’s on a completely different level, way more complicated, and like, way more intense than the others.” 

Pidge blinks and shrugs, “Yeah, I guess.” She turns around to face Shiro, peering up at him over her glasses, “What’s more, it looks like the baseline for this kind of energy is insanely high.”

“What do you mean?” I ask with a raised eyebrow, looking at Pidge with a completely confused expression. 

“It’s kind of like how the baseline temperature for Kelvin is really low.” Hunk answers for me, gesturing to the holographic panel with a thumb, “The baseline shows what the typical is, so for this energy to have a really high baseline…”

“That means it’s powerful.” Pidge continues, fixing her gaze on Shiro, “Like, all-of-the-other-types-of-energy-combined-make-up-half-of-this kind of powerful.”

Suddenly, something in my memory clicks. “Wait a minute.” I hold up a finger, my breath catching as I snap my fingers, “Wait, do you remember when we were at the Space Base and-” 

“I knew that name would catch on!” Lance cries triumphantly, flashing us a grin with his hands on his hips in a proud, winner’s stance. 

I roll my eyes a little with a hint of amusement as I continue, fixing my gaze on Keith, “You remember, the big glowy chamber? That Galra was refining-” 

“Quintessence!” Pidge gasps, nodding as she jolts, standing more upright, “I remember! The robot I hacked into said that it’s the most powerful energy source in the universe. That’s what I was going to say, I theorize that that’s the energy in our stones.” 

“Yeah,” Keith answers with a muted tone, gesturing with one hand, “But what is it?” Wordlessly, we all turn to Allura.

She returns our collective gazes with an analytic expression, her hands clasped in her lap, “It’s the very essence of life itself; the building blocks of the universe.” 

“Like, carbon?” Hunk asks with a raised eyebrow. 

Allura deftly shakes her head, “It isn’t an element, it is more… fluid than that. It is the bond that brings elements together, it’s the life force that gives soul to the matter it composes.”

“Oh. That’s the word you have for it.” Pidge murmurs thoughtfully where she stands by the device, her hands braced on the table, “It’s the connection that holds atoms together to form compounds. A long time ago, scientists thought that it was magnetic or polar attractions that held elements together to create more complex systems, but with Juvina’s study in 2087 it’s been described as something… more. Something, like you said, that’s fluid, and alters the state from compound to element to compound.”

“So, life force is… can be a source of energy? Like a fuel the Galra use?” I ask with a raised eyebrow, my head spinning at just the amount of repetitions of the scientific terms I barely grasp. I knew I should’ve paid better attention in my science classes.

“I’ll admit, Coran has a better grasp on the science of quintessence than I.” Allura responds as her hands clasp and unclasp in her lap. Her ears twitch downward as she fixes Shiro with a sapphiric gaze, “But he’s incredibly preoccupied with reconstructing the teludav. I don’t want to distract him when he is already working like a ghaltoff.”  

Shiro’s expression is gentle and reflective as he replies, “He’s working around the clock to get it up and running again in case Zarkon shows up. I don’t want to risk distracting him from doing that, we want the teludav back up and running as quickly as possible so we don’t have another situation like in that metallic storm.” 

This mutes us all for the moment, leaving the only sound in the room the dull hum of the Castle’s thrusters. 

“Well, maybe we can just go talk to him while he’s working.” Lance offers, his hands falling to his sides to fiddle with the belt around his narrowed waist as we turn to face him, “Like, we don’t have to show him all the graphs and stuff. We can just ask, like, ‘Hey Coran, you’re doing great on the wormholer thing, but quick question, what’s this quint-nessy stuff, and why do the rocks have it?’”

“Quintessence.” Keith corrects quietly, his arms crossed over his chest as he regards Lance with a neutral expression. 

Lance narrows his eyes at him, and I swear I see a dusting of red under his chin and rising from his neck as he grumbles, “Whatever, mullet, you know what I mean!” 

“I can ask.” Pidge pipes up, turning to face Shiro while pushing her glasses up her nose, “He could use a hand fixing the teludav, anyway.” 

“Alright.” Shiro nods with a pensive glimmer in his gray eyes as he glances to each of us, “While Pidge is on that, I’d like to get back to our lions for some more-” 

“Shiro, please can we have a lunch break first?” Hunk whines plaintively, looking up at Shiro with pitiful puppy eyes from where his sits in a chair next to Pidge’s desk, “I’m so hungry I’m gonna eat a ghaltoff!” 

Allura’s eyes widen at the prospect as she mutely shakes her head, she seems a little paler than before. Huh. That does leave to question what the fuck is a ghaltoff.

“... After some lunch.” Shiro amends with a slight aside, his gaze dropping to the ground for a moment before he looks at Hunk with a gentle expression, “Thanks for reminding me.” 

“Oh, how could I forget!” Hunk, perked up at the prospect of food, rises to his feet and immediately sets for the hanger doors, “Let’s go get this goo!”

Quickly we turn to follow with a fresh pep in our step, and immediately my stomach begins to growl. I didn’t realize how hungry I was until now… And thank God for that. My muscles need a break from the rigorous training regime Shiro’s got us doing. 

I hope he doesn’t do this every day of travel. 

“I’m hungry, too!” Pidge cries as she scurries after us, her sneakers squeaking on the smoothed white floors as we exit her hanger. 

“I’m afraid I should get back to recalibrating the flaxums and monitor the power output.” Allura responds with a regal posture, splitting off from us in the hanger to head for the bridge, “But I wish you luck in the rest of your training.” 

“Oh don’t worry, we don’t need luck when we’re this talented.” Lance flashes Allura a charming smile and a fingergun to drive it home as she walks away, but she doesn’t seem at all phased, merely continuing on her path with a polite smile as if he’d just said ‘Thanks.’ 

“And how talented is that?” Keith quirks a slight smirk as he regards Lance, cocking an eyebrow at him with a teasing lilt. Even though the look isn’t directed at me, it still leaves me weak at the knees nonethesame. That smirk has got to be the most attractive thing I’ve ever seen. 

“More talented than you!” Lance cries indignantly, fixing Keith with a narrowed gaze and a stubborn pout. 

“Can y’all save your fighting ‘til we get some food?” I jest with a slowly growing, wicked grin, “I’d love dinner and a show.” 

Lance and Keith both fix me with matching glares in such a way that I swear the balance of the universe must have shifted to allow for such an in sync moment to occur. Apparently I’m not the only one who noticed, as beside me Pidge immediately breaks into wild laughter that echoes in the empty hall and down the corridor. I find myself laughing with her, and before long the contagious sound fills the Castle as we make our way toward the kitchen for some food. 

Ah, camaraderie.