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 The first thing that Lance noticed about the Yjibry was their ears. Sure, they were freakishly tall, had, like, 90 eyes, and (so far) no discernible nose or mouth, but... these guys had four pairs of ears that fluttered like wings. It was weirdly beautiful, but Lance forced himself not to stare, remembering what Allura had told them before they left.

“Paladins, we need this alliance immensely,” she had stated sternly, “so you all must be on your best behavior. No fooling around.” Although she addressed all of them, she stared directly at Lance as she spoke. It was hard not to cringe away when that jeweled glare was turned on him.

“Don’t worry, Princess. I’ll just turn up the charm,” he winked, making finger guns at her. Shiro glanced over at him in concern. He seemed tired, Lance thought idly, but he still stood in perfect military parade rest, metallic hand clasped in his flesh one behind his back.

“Lance...” he sighed. Allura held the bridge of her nose and scowled.

“No fooling around, Lance,” she said again, each word sharp.

“Yeah, Lance,” Pidge grinned wickedly, elbowing him in the side.

“Whatever, gremlin,” he snapped back, smiling. It hurt a little that they all thought all he could do was goof off and flirt, but hey, it was fine. He was fine. Are they wrong though? Aren’t you just a stupid flirt? Nothing to offer. He put the intrusive thoughts into a little corner of his mind and focused on what Allura was saying.

“The same goes for you all. Pidge, no fooling around or hacking the tech. Hunk, no taking over restaurants and absolutely no vomiting in the potted plants. We don’t want a repeat of the Uhtir incident of the last phoeb. Keith, don’t start any fights,” Allura rattled off. With all of them appropriately chastised, they had boarded their Lions and flown off. Allura had hitched a ride with Shiro in Black. On the way there, they had chatted over the video comms in their Lions’ dashboards, even Shiro and Allura not forcing them into “professional silence”. Hunk had casually mentioned that Pidge looked tired.

“Sleep is for the weak,” she brushed off. Shiro’s face popped up in their vidchat, concerned expression in place.

“That’s not healthy, kiddo,” he said. All of the younger Paladins snorted.

“Whatever, space dad,” Pidge snarked. A blush spread across his cheeks, making his scar stand out. Even Keith snorted. The rest of the trip from the castle passed in banter. Right before they landed, however, Allura's face appeared on the vidchat next to Shiro's.

"Paladins, remember what I told you of the Yjibry. They are master observers of character. If they see any cracks, any weaknesses, they will tell you, and our alliance will be at risk."

"Way to end on a cheery note, Princess," Lance muttered.

Now, Lance gulped, remembering Allura's words as one of the Yjibry stepped forward, steepling their long fingers and smiling. There’s that mouth, Lance thought uneasily. Their eyes closed and opened discordantly.

"Welcome, Paladins," the Yjibr said, sibilant voice making Lance's ears feel like they were stuffed with cotton. He thanked Blue silently for the universal translation that came with their bond. The others all shifted uneasily (except for Shiro and Allura, obviously). "I trust your journey was pleasant?" The alien cocked their head to the side, ears fluttering a little.

"Most pleasant, thank you. I am Princess Allura of the planet Altea and the Castle of Lions, and these are the Paladins of Voltron," she said, posture ramrod straight. All of the Paladins stepped forward one by one and introduced themselves nervously. This was their first official diplomatic mission since Arus, after all, and they all wanted it to go well.

"Welcome. I am Hlifgi, leader of the Council of Royals. It is an honor to meet the last of the Alteans, Princess Allura." The Paladins saw Allura stiffen, but her smile was still perfect.

"We are honored to be here."

"I hate to bring the pleasantries to such an abrupt end, but shall we get down to business?" Another of the Yjibry stepped forward. Their skin was an olivey green, as opposed to Hlifgi's light blue, and their fingers were constantly fidgeting in snarls of nerves.

"Yes, let's," Shiro said, eyes flitting nervously to Allura. Lance watched the whole exchange, fighting to stay silent. No fooling around, Lance, no fooling around.

"Come, we shall go to the audience hall, where we can discuss terms of an alliance," Hlifgi proclaimed, spreading their arms. The Paladins naturally congregated together, Shiro and Allura joining the two Yjibri at the front of the group, the Garrison trio clustered together in the middle, and Keith bringing up the rear sullenly. Lance stopped for a few steps and slung his arm around Keith’s shoulders. The latter stiffened, and Lance let go. I want to be nice, not freak him out, he reminded himself.

(At home he had always been hugging and brushing shoulders and kissing cheeks. The McClain family was crowded and loud and touch-dependent as hell, so he could always hug without asking. He couldn’t do that anymore. That was fine. It was fine.)

“You excited, Mullet?” he crowed, looking around in wonder. The walls of the hall were cavernous, covered in intricately woven tapestries of impossible colors.

“For what?” Keith muttered, resolutely looking forward and away from Lance.

“It’s our first diplomatic mission, Keithy-boy! One step closer to saving the universe,” Lance grinned, “How can you not be excited for that?”

It was a big deal for Voltron. It was true that they had aided planets in crisis before, and had made connections there: the Olkari, the Balmerans, the Taujeerians... but this was the first time that a planet that wasn't in crisis sought them out. The Yjibry were holding fast against the Galra. They had a strong civilization. Their planet was healthy. And yet, they wanted an alliance with Voltron. This could be a HUGE step. 

“Lance!” He cringed at Allura’s voice and shut up. Hlifgi looked between them in what looked like curiosity (Lance couldn’t really tell what their expression was, actually).

“You all seem rather young to be Paladins and diplomatic leaders, Princess,” they remarked, all eyes flitting back and forth.

“Technically, Allura is 10,000 years old,” Pidge said, adjusting her glasses. Allura glared at her for a moment, then turned back to Hlifgi, voice cold.

“We are perfectly capable. The Lions don’t choose their Paladins lightly.”

“Of course not,” Hlifgi soothed. “It’s just…”

“Just what, exactly?” To an outsider, Allura would sound calm, professional. But the Paladins knew better, and all cringed a little.

“You all aren’t exactly a cohesive unit, ” the other Yjibr said matter-of-factly, eyes roving over them. Keith stiffened.

“We work together just fine,” he growled, eyes flashing. Shiro reached over and put a steadying hand on his shoulder.

“You know of my race’s talents, Princess?” Hlifgi asked. Allura nodded.

“You can discern minutiae of people’s characters, personalities, based on behavior.” The Paladins looked between each other uneasily. She didn’t mention that bit, Lance thought bitterly.

“Well... it's slightly more complicated than that. Imagine that the human consciousness is a thread. We can register the snarls, and how that yarn is... woven with other threads. I’ve noticed that there are tensions in your group,” Hlifgi said delicately, “And I will tell you right now, the Council will not form an alliance with a group such as this.”

“Hey, we don’t have any tensions!” Lance cried out.

“You need this alliance just as much as we do, Councilor,” Allura reminded him, stepping back to join the Paladins. Hlifgi nodded.

“We do. I’m just stating facts. Your leader is always on edge, you are always hiding weakness, your Red Paladin is always angry, your Blue Paladin is always insecure about something, your Yellow Paladin is always on the edge of panic, and your Green Paladin is exhausted and terrified. The Yjibry value openness and honesty above all else. Do you honestly believe my Council will form an alliance with a group such as this, with so much hidden strain?” The Paladins halted in shock, hardly daring to breathe. Everyone looked at everyone else, eyes wide. Lance couldn’t summon up his easy smile. Oh Dios, I can’t breathe.

“And how do you propose we remedy these issues?” Allura asked coldly, face betraying no panic or discomfort like the others.

“I’m sure my people could come up with a training program,” Hlifgi replied. “In the meantime, you and the Paladins may retire to your rooms. If you wish, of course. We will come to fetch you in the morning.

“Hold on,” Shiro interjected, eyes narrowed. “We haven’t discussed this. How do we know we can trust you? Why should we do this training program?”

“It is as your Princess said, Black Paladin,” Hlifgi said calmly. “You need this alliance just as much as we do. I suppose you must decide which is more important: your discomfort, or the fate of the universe. I trust you already know the right decision.” Lance wanted to protest, but then Allura said two words with such finality that he shut up. He knew better, after all:

“We accept.”

 

After Hlifgi escorted them to their rooms in silence, the Paladins congregated in Allura’s room. Immediately, Shiro’s civility dissipated, and he turned on Allura, eyes flashing.

“What were you thinking, Princess?” he hissed, metal fist clenching and unclenching at his side. “How could you make a decision like that without consulting us?”

“Do you know what this alliance means to us? To Voltron? To the universe? The Yjibry’s weaponry could make upgrades to the Castle that would even the playing field between us and the Galra, and their observational skills could help you to strengthen your ties with the Lions. This is our first diplomatic mission: I refuse to squander it,” she almost growled.

“You’re putting Voltron at risk for weaponry.”

“Hey, we’re all on the same side here,” Lance said anxiously, then forced himself to take a few deep breaths.

“Advanced weaponry would significantly increase our chances in battle against the Galra,” Pidge remarked. Shiro signed, bringing his flesh hand up to rub his temple.

“What if you all get hurt?”

“We’ve literally gotten shot at by purple space furries while flying in huge metal space lions. I think we can handle a training program.” Pidge’s deadpan tone made Shiro crack a smile.

“She’s right, Shiro,” Keith said, arms crossed over his chest again. Seriously, is that his default position? “We’ve handled worse things before. Besides, if what Hlifgi said is true, maybe this’ll be… helpful,” he muttered, trailing off. Hunk nodded.

“Yeah, Shiro. We all don’t like this any more than you do, but if we need this as much as Allura says we do, then it’s worth the risk,” Hunk said. Shiro’s shoulders fell a little.

“I just want all of you to stay safe. You’re all just kids, ” he murmured. Lance, afraid of overstepping but feeling it was necessary, hesitantly placed a hand on his shoulder.

“You’re not that much older than us. None of us asked for this war, but we’re gonna end it,” he said gently. Shiro looked up at him gratefully, then let out a long breath.

“Fine. But you stay on comms, you say if anything is wrong, and you keep your bayards on you. Got it?” he looked at all of them in turn. They all nodded, even Allura. His smile got a little wider.

“Then we should get some sleep. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?” he chuckled. Everyone groaned simultaneously, even Allura joining in jokingly.

“Okay, space dad,” Lance grinned. Shiro reached over and ruffled his hair. Everyone laughed. As they separated to their rooms, everything didn’t seem that serious. Lance tried to ignore the seed of worry in his head. It’s fine. It’s gonna be fine. I’m fine.

Thoughts chased after him as he got ready for bed in his allotted room, nipping at his heels like wolves. Maybe it’s my fault we’re not a good team, he thought as he pulled on his sleep robe, wincing as the silk glided past the rough texture of the explosion scar.

 

Maybe it’s my fault we’re not a good team, Keith thought as he turned his Blade over and over in his hands, staring unseeingly at the door.

 

Maybe it’s my fault we’re not a good team, Hunk thought as he lay in bed, staring at the ceiling.

 

Maybe it’s my fault we’re not a good team, Pidge thought as she opened her computer, forcing her eyes open, unable to sleep, not yet, not yet, not yet.

 

Maybe it’s my fault we’re not a good team, Allura thought as she combed through her hair, fingers tracing the crown at her forehead.

 

Maybe it’s my fault we’re not a good team, Shiro thought as he looped through the halls, steps keeping memories at bay.

 

One thing was certain: tomorrow was going to be a long day.

Chapter Text

The code wasn’t working, and Pidge restrained herself from throwing the laptop at the wall. This was her language, her area, her arena. It had to work, it had to, it had to. She rubbed at her eyes with one hand and continued typing, green and white binary spinning in front of her eyes. It’s morning , she noticed dazedly, but she didn’t stop, she couldn’t stop. Distantly, she heard a knock at the door, but her fingers continued to fly over the keys.

“Green Paladin.” The sibilant, hissing voice made Pidge’s head snap up. One of the Yjibry stood in the door frame, countless eyes all focused on her. She forced herself not to fidget.

“What is it?” she asked, inwardly cringing at the rude tone. The Yjibr didn’t seem to notice. Maybe he’s been warned about interrupting the Green Paladin’s coding, she thought in annoyance.

“The Royal Council has requested the Princess’s and Paladins’ presence. At your earliest convenience, of course.” (Even Pidge, socially inept as she was, knew that was diplomatic-speak for right now. ) She closed her laptop with a click and stood up. She hadn’t changed into the provided sleep robes (she hadn’t done any sleeping, anyways), so she just brushed herself off. As she reached for her armor, the Yjibr shook their head.

“You won’t need that, Paladin. There won’t be any physical strain on your bodies.” Pidge took in the careful, impassive wording and nodded, gears spinning in her head.

“No physical strain. What about mental strain?” she asked, eyes narrowed. The Yjibr blinked.

“Come along, Paladin. Your companions are waiting.” She knew she wouldn’t get anything else out of them, so she resigned herself to figuring things out on the go. She always did, anyway.

 

The Yjibr (whose name she learned, after gentle prodding, was Oynux) led her to a somewhat barren hall with a single, pristine white door. It had no discernable handle and no real texture, Pidge noted. It just seemed like it was made of… nothing. Oynux stopped, placing one hand on the door.

“Your companions are inside. But first…” The Yjibr brought a thin, silvery diadem and stepped towards her. She instinctively stepped back, and got the full effect of Oynux’s wide smile.

“It’s alright. This is part of the training program. Princess Allura said it is similar to your Castle’s mind-melding.” Internally, Pidge relaxed a little. They had dealt with mind melds before, in early morning mandatory bonding sessions, she thought bitterly. She would have asked some more questions, maybe been a bit more annoying (her specialty), but the situation was tense enough as it was. She was pretty sure Allura was about to have an aneurysm yesterday (if Alteans could even have aneurysms), and she didn’t really feel like inciting her rage again. So she stayed still as Oynux placed the diadem around her head. It was weirdly soft, even though it was made of metal, and Pidge made a mental note to study it and ask about it later. When it was situated, she nodded thanks to Oynux, who smiled again and touched their hand back to the door. This time, though…

The Yjibr’s fingers went through the door. Pidge had seen a lot of weird things in her time at space, but this was the manipulation of matter at a fundamental level. She would never get used to that. So she stared open mouthed as the white… substance of the door became fluid, like a wavering curtain. It was still opaque, though. Oynux gestured with one of their hands.

“In you go, Green Paladin.” There was something like pity in their numerous eyes. Pidge took a deep breath, and stepped forward and through.

 

The room she stepped into was completely empty, walls entirely white. Looking down, she realized that she couldn’t even see her shadow. Wherever she was, it didn’t entirely obey the laws of physics. And the other Paladins were obviously not there.

“You said my friends were waiting!” she shouted into the empty room. Her voice didn’t even echo back to her. Then, she felt the diadem thrum at her temples, and Hlifgi’s voice hissed through her mind like smoke.

“They are here. Reach out to them, feel their presence, and they will emerge.” Pidge frowned skeptically (even though there was no one around to see her legendary glare), and closed her eyes. Even when things don’t make sense, use your brain. Her dad’s voice rang through her head. She took a deep breath. This was just a jazzed-up mind meld, and mind melding was just like bonding with the Lions. So she should try to feel the Paladins like she felt Green. When she had bonded Green more deeply with the Olkari, she had connected to the essence of her Lion. So she thought of the essence of her friends.

Allura. Strong, fierce.

Lance. Funny, kind. Brotherly.

Keith. Ferocious, brave.

Hunk. Kind, comforting.  

Shiro. Stronger than he thinks.

She could almost feel them, joking and laughing and fighting. Then she heard a whoosh.

She opened her eyes.

Behind a thin, translucent layer of white, like gossamer, her friends stood.

“Pidge!” She grinned and stepped forward, then immediately cried out. A stabbing pain lashed behind her temple, hot and red, then dissipated as quickly as it came. Allura and the Paladins surged forward, but ran into the sheet of white, suddenly solid. Pidge shakily stood up and waved her hands.

“I’m fine, I’m fine. Guess I gotta be separate from you guys right now,” she shrugged. Shiro looked like he was ready to break down the barrier, but Keith leaned over and whispered something in his ear. His shoulders relaxed, and he visibly drooped , but put in a smile and looked through to Pidge.

“You sure you’re okay?” Hunk asked, placing his palm on the barrier, not forcefully, but to show he was there.

“I’m sure. The weird crown thing shocked me.” The Paladins and Allura all had the diadems too. Pidge tried not to snort at how the little crown screwed up Shiro’s hair.

“So… what are we doing here? What’s the plan? Why are we separated from Pidge?” Lance asked, fingers tangling together.

“The Green Paladin is first.” Oynux’s voice projected through the room, loud and quiet and too much and not enough.

“First for what, exactly?” Allura had one hand on her hip and eyes narrowed: what the Paladins called “the danger pose” behind her back.

“The training program focuses on weakness: not physical, but emotional. All of you have hidden things from your Paladins that are necessary to share. All of you are suffering through things on your own, without the aid of your team. To strengthen Voltron, to aid the universe as you claim to desire, you must surpass your timidity.” Allura and Keith looked confused. Hunk had begun to tap his foot. Lance seemed to have found something very interesting on his feet. Shiro had gone very, very pale.

“I… I don’t understand,” Allura said, looking up at the corners of the room, as if trying to pinpoint where Oynux’s voice was coming from.

“The Green Paladin is first. Let us begin.”

“Wait-“

“Hold on-“

“What do you mean-“

Their voices were drowned out by a drone, and suddenly Pidge’s vision was filled with white, and she felt herself falling, down and down into a rising tide.

 

She felt herself, her body, differently, as if she was looking down at herself from afar. Slowly, she began to look around. It felt like she was moving through molasses.

And then she felt people, friends, they’re friends, next to her, around her. They blinked groggily and came to themselves.

“Where the hell are we?” Keith asked, and his voice sounded muffled.

Pidge wasn’t sure.

Pidge doesn’t like not being sure.

“Hey, hey, Pidge, it’s okay,” Lance murmured, wrapping an arm around her.

“What do you mean? Of course it’s okay,” she muttered.

The Paladins looked around at each other in shock.

“You… you guys feel it too?”

“Holy sh-”

“Language!”

“Whatever, space dad.”

“Okay, what is going on?” Pidge interrupted, staring around in confusion. The Paladins fidgeted in their places, only Allura seeming calm.

“We can feel your emotions. Vague feelings. So Lance could tell when you were in distress,” Allura said, spreading her hands. Pidge felt a surge of rage and realized that the other Paladins must have felt it too.

“What the hell! That’s invasive, this is my mind, these are my feelings, what the f-”

“Pidge, Pidge, Pidge,” Shiro said, hands raised as if to pacify a wounded animal, “none of us like this any more than you do. None of us want to be in this situation,” he shot a loaded glare at Allura, who looked on impassively, “but we’re here now. We need this, and I know it’s weird and I know it sucks but it’s going to be alright, okay?” His voice rolled over her and soothed her like always. She honestly didn’t know how he did it.

“Okay,” she muttered, taking a deep breath, “okay. Now what?”

“Well… You found us by poking around with our connection. Why not poke around here?” Lance suggested. Pidge was about to shoot it down (she shoots down a lot of Lance’s ideas), but then shrugged, closing her eyes (can you close your eyes if you’re already in a dream state?).  She felt herself reach out, then snapped her eyes open at a familiar voice. His. An image formed before her, and she could almost feel the summer heat, and there were tears in her eyes and she couldn’t stop watching, seeing, reliving.

“Slow down, Pidgeotto!” he laughs, honey auburn hair bouncing around in the sun. A little girl with pigtails in that same hair zooms past him on a bright green bike. The wheels rattle jankily on the sidewalk, and he pedals faster to keep up.

Two things happen at once.

A squirrel runs in front of the wheels of the little girl’s bike.

And little Pidge swerves to avoid it, the front wheel skidding, and she falls onto the sidewalk.

“Katie!” he yells, race forgotten, big brother instincts roaring, and jumps off of his bike, racing over to her side. She is sitting on her butt on the sidewalk, scowling down at her scuffed, bleeding knee. He kneels down next to her, all gangly teenage arms and legs, gentle as can be.

“I’m fine, ” she grumbles, sniffling and angrily wiping away tears.

“It’s okay to cry, Pidgey,” he soothes, “now let’s take a look at that knee.”

Pidge smiles a little, still teary, and lets Matt make sure she was okay.

Before she could even get herself together, brush off her friends, anything, another memory formed before them.

“Dad,” she murmured.

Sam Holt carries his nine-year old daughter on his shoulders as she hoots and hollers, arcade tickets clutched firmly in one hand, robot won at a prize machine in the other.

“You, my dear, are an arcade master ,” he remarks, putting a little bounce in his step as she bounces with him, laughing.

“I’m gonna be a master of lots of things when I get old, like you.” Sam chuckled.

“I don’t doubt it for a second.”

She clutches her eyes shut and shakes her head, as if to dislodge the memory, but it keeps playing behind her eyes, slowly dissipating, slowly, slowly. She faintly feels Shiro’s arms around her, Allura wiping the tears away from under her eyes, and she thinks she is done, but the stupid diadem and her stupid brain have other plans.

“Why won’t you tell us anything?” she screams at Iverson, trying to tower over him despite her much shorter stature. His single eye stares down at her, and she forces herself not to look away. Yeah, tough guy. I’m not scared of you.

“We’ve already told you everything. The press release explicitly stated-

“I don’t care what the stupid press release said! You’re hiding something! Shiro’s been flying for forever! There’s no way he would crash a dingy shuttle like the Kerberos!” she could tell there was spit flying from her mouth at this point, but she didn’t care. Iverson stared down at her impassively.

“Security, please escort Ms. Holt out.”

“I’ll find the truth! I’ll find them! I’ll never stop looking! I’ll never stop, you hear me?” As security leads her out, she makes a vow to herself. Whatever it takes.

“Stop…” she whispered, eyes clenched tight, tears streaming down her face. She didn’t know who she was talking to at that point: Iverson, the memories, the Yjibry, her friends watching… or herself. I’m too weak. She faintly heard sounds of protest around her, but her mind and the atmosphere seemed determined to pull her down into one more memory.

The code is swimming in front of her eyes. Binaries, binaries, ones, zeroes, zeroes, ones… She might be typing nonsense at this point, but she still doesn’t stop. She can’t stop. She can’t. If she stops, then sleep will drag her down, and the nightmares will take her under and drown her. She can’t see their faces again like that. No. She will find them, and then she will sleep. She says their names in her head like a mantra, forcing herself to remember their faces. It’s been over a year, but they’re seared into her memory.

Matt, hair cropped short like hers, honey and auburn, eyes big behind glasses as he shows her something new, as he hugs her before going to sleep, as he rough-houses with her before leaving for Kerberos.

Dad, short cropped grey beard and nerdy jokes, tall gangling limbs that she obviously didn’t inherit, intelligence sharp enough to cut like a knife.

Matt, clothed in purple, leg a metallic, harsh prosthetic.

Dad, toiling in a Galra work camp, arms shaking from the strain, beard long and ragged.

No. No. She focuses in on the code.

Sleep doesn’t matter.

Eating doesn’t matter.

Nothing else matters.

Nothing else matters.

“NO.” Lance grabbed onto her shoulders and knelt down to her. Shakily opening her eyes, she realized that, at one point, she had sat down in this weird void. Allura and the Paladins had formed a protective circle around her, but now, with the memories dissipating, they all seemed to come out of their trance. Lance took one of her arms and helped her up, looking into her eyes.

“Pidge… how long has it been since you slept through the night?” he asked quietly. Pidge looked away from him, but he gently shook her shoulders.

“I don’t know… a couple of weeks,” she mumbled, looking up at him. She could feel their emotions without the stupid diadem: shock, and worry.

“Pidge, that is an immense strain on your body,” Allura said, eyebrows drawn together.

“That’s really not healthy, Pidgey,” Lance frowned. Pidge drooped, then growled, wrenching out of their grips.

“You don’t get it! You just don’t get it! Nothing is more important than this! I have to find them,” she cried out, voice breaking. She angrily swiped away her tears.

“Pidge… they wouldn’t want you to sacrifice your health to find them,” Shiro sighed.

“I don’t care about my health!” she yelled. “I don’t know what’s happening to them, I don’t know if they’re safe, I don’t know if they’re even alive, don’t you get it? I have to know! I promised !”

“Pidge, no-”

“That’s not-”

“No, no, no! It’s better not sleeping than seeing them like that! It’s better not sleeping than seeing them die, over and over and over and over…” And just like that, she ran out of energy. She sank back down to her knees and sobbed.

Arms encircled her, soothing whispers murmuring out. They didn’t try to break her out of it. They just let her cry. So she wept, all of the grief and pain and rage of the last year rushing out.

"What if they're dead? Oh, god, what if they're dead?" she whispered.

"They're not dead," Lance said.

"How do you -hic- know that?" she said, glaring blearily up at him. 

"I just do, Pidgey," he murmured. "If they're anything like you, they never give up."  

You don’t have to take this burden alone, Pidge,” Shiro said quietly, “we all want to help you find your family.”

“You’re not the only one who gets nightmares, dude,” Hunk rumbled behind her, "you can always come to me."

"Same here."

"Me too."

“You don’t have to handle this on your own. We can help… if you let us.”

“I… I don’t want to be weak,” she whispered. She regretted saying it immediately, and blushed, ducking her head down into her knees.

“You’re not weak, Pidge.” Her head shot up at Keith’s voice. He hadn’t joined in the group hug, but he looked at her with intense concern, understanding. “You’re one of the strongest people I’ve ever met.” All of the others nodded.

“I’ve never met someone who understands tech like you do.”

“You can sweep the floor with me at video games.”

“You’re sarcastic as hell.”

“Pidge…” Allura seemed to hesitate, then smiled. “If you would like… That is, if all of you would like, I am sure the lounge can accommodate seven, if the nightmares ever get to be too much.” Pidge gaped at her in shock, and she smiled back.

“That… that sounds great. Thanks, Princess,” she said, cracking a small smile and sniffling.

“We’ll find them, Pidge. I promise,” Shiro smiled a little. “But you can’t keep doing this to yourself. Your health comes first. Physical, mental, emotional. You gotta tell us what’s going on so we can help. Got it?” Pidge mock-scowled, but she actually felt intensely relieved. She thought she had lost her family on the Kerberos mission. Turns out, she had two.

“Got it, space dad,” she grinned, wiping away the last of her tears. That got a startled laugh out of everyone.

“I’m not that old,” he muttered.

“Sure, dad,” they chorused, Allura included.

“So… what now?” Pidge asked, looking around at them. “Are we done? Can we please be done?” Then, once again, Oynux’s voice resounded through the void.

“The Yellow Paladin is next.”

Chapter Text

When Hunk opened his eyes again, he was expecting to be back in that weird void, this time with his own memories broadcasted.

He wasn’t too worried about that, honestly. He knew for sure that he didn’t have trauma like Shiro and Allura, and his family wasn’t taken like Pidge’s, or self-esteem issues like his hermano.

It wasn’t fun to see Pidge sob like that, but he had to admit it was good that she had gotten to let it out like that.

He wasn’t too sure what his memories were gonna show, honestly.

Instead…

When he opened his eyes, he was sitting in his Lion.

Oh, quiznack.

And he was surrounded by Galra ships with massive ion cannons.

Oh, quiznack.

His hands began to shake on the controls, even though the Lion remains steady.

Oh god, I’m gonna be sick.

“Hunk?” Keith’s face popped up on the vidchat, looking confused but still concerned.

One by one, the other paladins popped up too. They weren’t in their armor (neither was he), and they also didn’t seem to be in Lions.

They’re still in the void. I’m alone.

“No, hey, no, you’re not alone,” Lance piped up, reaching out as if to touch him.

“Are you alright, Hunk?” Allura’s voice cut through his panic a little, and he had enough frame of mind to shake his head.

“Hunk, take a deep breath with me. In for four counts… hold for seven… out for eight,” Shiro’s deep voice was comforting. But not enough.

They don’t get it. They don’t get it. I’m gonna die alone. Oh, god, I’m gonna die alone.

“Hunk…”

And just like that, their voices seemed to fade away, swallowed by the panicked dialogue racing through his head. He knew they could hear him, hear what he was thinking, but he couldn’t tamp it down.

I’m never gonna see my family again, I’m gonna die in a war I never asked to fight, the universe needs me, the universe needs me, I’m gonna die alone. My parents will never know what happened to me, I’ll be buried in an empty casket, my body will dissolve in space and I will die alone.

He wrenched out of his seat, leaned over, and vomited all over the floor. The rancid stink filled his nose, and he whimpered, leaning back up. Sorry, Yellow, he thought with a wince. But there was no response, no comforting swell in their bond.

“Stop it! Oynux, Hlifgi, you’re hurting him, stop!” Pidge’s anger clears his head a little. He looks back to the vidchat.

“Hunk, it’s alright. It’s gonna be okay. Can you listen to the sound of my voice?” Shiro asked calmly. Hunk nodded. “Good, that’s good. I want you to breathe with me.” He began taking exaggerated breaths in and out, and Hunk valiantly tried to follow them, but his eyes kept getting drawn to the Galra ships outside.

“Hunk. It’s not real. It’s showing you your fear: it’s not there. It can’t hurt you,” Keith said forcefully. Hunk nodded shakily and kept trying to take breaths with Shiro.

It’s not real. It’s not real. It’s not real.

“It’s n-not real,” he choked out.

“That’s right, Hunk. Can you focus on us? Try to reach us.” Allura’s voice was his lifeline. He focused as hard as he could, picturing the weird not-place where the Paladins and Allura, his friends, were standing.

He took a deep breath.

He opened his eyes.

They were around him, everyone worried, concerned. For him. Lance stepped forward and approached him, gently opening his arms. Hunk shakily stood and gathered him in his arms, holding on like he was a lifeline. I’m okay. I’m okay.

“Hunk… it’s fine if you’re not okay,” Pidge said hesitantly, pushing her glasses up on her nose. Hunk stepped away from Lance and wrapped his arms around himself.

“I am… I’m fine. It’s fine.”

“Can you tell us what happened there, buddy?” Shiro asked softly. Hunk shook his head vehemently, looking down.

“Hunk.” Oh, quiznack. Allura. This was it. I’m not gonna be a Paladin anymore.

“Hunk, look at me. Please.” The note of pleading in her words made him glance up. She smiled at him, sadness gleaming in her eyes.

“There is no shame in being afraid,” she said quietly. His eyes widened.

“I… What?” Real intelligent, Hunk.

“In fact, I think you’re showing incredible strength,” she continued.

“What? How?”

“You are afraid, and yet you still fight. You are afraid, and yet you still commit to defending the universe. I know you miss your family, Hunk, you and Lance. But you both remain Paladins despite it. That shows incredible fortitude and bravery, and I am proud of you,” Allura smiled. He couldn’t do much more than stare open-mouthed back at her.

“I…”

“And I want you to remember something, Hunk,” Shiro interjected, putting a metal hand on Hunk’s shoulder. “You are not alone.” Hunk began to shake his head, but Shiro gently squeezed his shoulder and continued.

“I know sometimes it feels that way, but we’re right here with you. I know it’s scary, and I can’t promise something won’t happen. But we’re a team, and we’re not going anywhere.”

“A family,” Lance said quietly. Pidge echoed it. Hunk smiled a little.

“It’s okay to be afraid. But you have all of us backing you up, protecting you. And you protecting us. Our leg,” Shiro said, eyes twinkling. Oh, god, did I make Shiro tear up?

“I… I know I lectured Pidge about leaving Voltron, when we first started out,” Keith muttered, then looked up, meeting Hunk’s eyes, “but staying here, continuing to fight… I think you’re one of the strongest people I’ve ever met.” Hunk felt like he had to pick up his jaw off the floor.

“You’re not weak. You’re not a coward. You’re our Yellow Paladin, the best one we could ever wish for. You’re brave, and you’re kind, and you’re smart,” Pidge said. There was ferocity in her tone, but it was the ferocity of care, of love. “Besides, who else is gonna prank Lance with me?” she whispered into his ear, grinning wickedly.

“Hey, I heard that! We’re in some weird quantum void, whispering doesn’t work!” Lance huffed, crossing his arms in mock-anger and tapping his foot. They all laughed a little.

“I don’t feel strong,” he whispered, looking down.

“Then we’ll just have to remind you, until you can believe it yourself,” Pidge said, elbowing him gently in the side. He laughed.

“Thanks, gremlin.”

“Who you calling gremlin, Hunk-a-licious?”

“I called myself that one time!

“Alright, knock it off, guys,” Shiro chuckled, rapping their heads gently with his knuckles.

“The Yjibry can’t do sh-... sorry, Shiro, quiznack to us. As long as we’re together,” Pidge hooted, somehow managing to vault and jump on Hunk’s back. He didn’t mind: she wasn’t hard to carry.

“See, this is one of those times where it would be cool to have a team cheer,” Lance grinned.

“I still think saying Voltron makes more sense. It’s faster,” Keith muttered.

Before their banter could continue, Oynux’s voice resounded in their minds, making them all wince a little.

“The Princess is next.”

 

Chapter Text

She is four years old, and she is playing with a telepad, watching as her father comes home. He quietly takes off the crown circling his forehead and slumps forward, an avalanche, into her mother’s waiting arms. She wraps her arms around him and makes little shushing noises.

“A difficult day, then?”

“Less so now,” Alfor murmurs. Her mother looks over at her and smiles, motioning with her hand. She leaps up off of the floor, dropping the telepad, and rushes forward, stopping a few feet away from her father. He looks over at her and smiles a little. She gives a wobbly curtsy, and he outright laughs.

“Where’d you learn that?” he asks, grinning.

“My tutors are making me learn ediget, and that’s how you do a cortsee to a king,” she says proudly. He scoops her up with one arm and presses his forehead to hers.

“Two things. Firstly, it’s etiquette and curtsy.”

“That’s what I said,” she frowns. He smiles.

“Secondly, I’m your father first, and king second. You never have to curtsy to me,” he whispers, and kisses her on the forehead. She leans up to kiss him on the nose and giggles when he looks surprised.

They are holding each other, all of them. It’s a quiet night.

 

She is five years old, and her mother, Melenor, is reaching down to pick her up, lilac white hair flowing around her shoulders like a cloud. She giggles as her mother picks her up, her little hand reaching up to bap her on the cheek. Melenor chuckles and settles her in her arms. She kisses her on the forehead.

 

She is six years old, standing with her father at the head of the Altean royal funeral procession.

Her father has bags under his eyes. His every step seems to take all his energy.

He leans down before her and brushes his thumbs under her eyes. His fingers come away wet.

“Don’t cry, little one. You must be a princess. You must be strong. Can you be strong for me?” his voice breaks a little.

She sniffles once, then nods.

 

She cries in her room, alone, where no one can see her break.

 

She is seven years old, and she is learning languages, so she can be a good princess, a good diplomat. The letters twist and swim before her eyes.

“Why is Galran so complicated?” she groans, looking up at her uncle. Zarkon chuckles and reaches over for the telepad, which shows more complex Galran sentence structure and diplomatic greetings.

“How about we take a break for now?”

Allura scowls and snatches the telepad away.

“No,” she frowns, “I’m going to get this.” Zarkon’s eyes widen, but then he smiles and gently squeezes her shoulder.

“I don’t doubt it.”

 

She is eight years old, groggy and grumpy. It is too early for any sort of activity. Coran chuckles.

“You’re a princess, Allura. You will sometimes be expected to get up early,” he grins, orange moustache twitching a little.

“I don’t want to be a princess,” she mumbles.

Coran’s expression grows serious.

“You are the heir to the throne of Altea, Allura. You were born to do this, and I believe in you,” he whispered, leaning down to lace her shoes.

She was born to do this. She has to do this.

Will anyone ever ask her what she wants to do?

 

She is eleven years old, sitting at dinner with her father and the Paladins. For once, he’s not wearing his crown, or his robes, or his armor. Just his golden blue overtunic, the one that he wears when he can cease to be a royal, once in a while.

“May I have some more yalmor steak, please?” she asks quietly. Blaytz snorts.

“Little one, if you want some food with this lot, you have to either shout or take it for yourself,” he grins, “Here. I’ll demonstrate. Oy, Gyrgan! Pass me the plate of yalmor steak, or I’ll stuff your Lion’s console with jifi grubs!”

Gyrgan makes a sour expression and hands over the plate. Blaytz places a generous slice on Allura’s plate, red antennae quivering with satisfaction.

“That’s how it’s done,” he laughs, taking a sip of nunvill.

“Blaytz, I hope you’re not ruining all the work of Allura’s etiquette tutors,” Alfor shouts from the head of the table.

“Of course not, Alfor. Wouldn’t dream of it.” He turns and winks at her. She giggles behind her hand.

“Ah, Alfor, let her have some fun, let loose a little. For saints’ sake, she reaches my hip,” Gyrgan says in that bellowing voice of his.

“What, are you her father now?” Alfor grumbles. He’s slouching. Allura doesn’t think she’s ever seen him slouch before.

“Please, Alfor. At this point, we’re her uncles at least ,” Zarkon says seriously, the twinkle in his eyes betraying him.

“AHEM.”

“Uncles and aunt. Apologies, Trigel,” he pipes up sheepishly.

Blaytz casually ruffles her hair.

Allura blushes, but her smile is so wide that it hurts her cheeks.

 

She is sixteen years old, sitting at a meeting of father and his advisors.

There is shouting happening. She observes quietly, taking everything in.

“Alfor, you must realize that Zarkon is playing you! We have multiple accounts of Galran forces gathering: battle cruisers, whole fleets! The time to act is now!” Chief Advisor Ralmon yells, pounding his fist on the table. Some water spills out of his glass onto the map in the center. He doesn’t notice.

“I know Zarkon. He’s the Black Paladin of Voltron, sworn to protect the universe. I trust him with my life.” King Alfor’s voice is quiet, but, as always, it holds a force that makes the room go silent.

Allura disagrees with him.

She doesn’t speak.

“Alfor, please, consider-” Alfor’s hand cuts decisively through the air.

“Until Zarkon takes actual, military action against Altea, we do nothing. My decision is final.”

The Advisors, including Ralmon, bow their heads.

“Yes, King Alfor,” Ralmon murmurs, fist clenching on the surface of the table.

 

She is nineteen years old.

Her father is sobbing.

But princesses don’t weep.

He stares down at the broken and burned pieces of blue, green, and yellow armor scattered at his feet numbly, his bayard discarded to the side.

Their bayards are there too, she notices distantly.

She steps forward and puts a hand on his shoulder.

They don’t speak.

What would they even say?

 

She is nineteen years old.

Her planet is burning.

She has never seen her father look so tired as he stands on the deck of the Castle of Lions, watching as ion cannons strike the capital, the cities.

She thinks she can smell burning flesh. She knows she is too far away, but she thinks she can.

“We should have taken action earlier,” she hisses. Alfor sighs, and nods.

“I should have foreseen this.” He seems like he is about to say more when Zarkon’s face flashes onto the screen.

“Zarkon!” Alfor all but roars. Allura can’t recognize the Zarkon of before, with his silly jokes and adoration of Honerva and sweet craggedy smile. This… this husk has glowing violet eyes, cheeks sunken, shadows under his eyes. She doesn’t know this man.

“Your fleet has been destroyed, Alfor. I will be there shortly to claim Voltron,” his gravelly rasp sends shivers down Allura’s spine. But she doesn’t flinch. She doesn’t cry. A princess doesn’t cry.

His face blinks out, and Allura summons her courage, to say what she has been thinking since she was sixteen years old, and her father refused to fight against his old leader, his old friend.

"Father, we must form Voltron and fight before it's too late!" Alfor sighs, looking very, very old.

"It's already too late. We must send the Lions away. We can't risk them falling into Zarkon's hands." Allura feels… something like anger towards her father.

"We can't give up hope!" she yells. She sees Coran bustling about behind her, perhaps firing on the Galra fleet, perhaps coordinating an escape. Her father looks at her, so much pain in his eyes.

"I'm sorry, daughter. If all goes well, I will see you again soon." She sees a spark of light in his hand, the quintessence manipulation he was just starting to teach her, and tries to wrench away.

But she is too late.

She feels herself fading.

“Father…!” she cries. What is she trying to say? Why did you do this to me, why did you leave me alone, why did you leave me alone like she did, I love you, I love you, I love you.

As her vision fades, she sees her father’s mouth forming the words.

“I love you.”

The Paladins are watching a movie in the lounge.

She is monitoring their defenses.

Alteans don’t need as much sleep as humans.

That’s what she tells the Paladins, anyway.

Her vision blurs, but she straightens up and forces her eyes open.

It’s going to be a long night.

 

Princesses don’t cry.

Be strong.

We can’t risk it.

I’m sorry, daughter.

Be calm.

Be calm, be strong, be brave, be emotionless.

She is technically over ten thousand years old, and she will not break.

One task, another. Training, diplomatic excursions, missions, rescues.

Be strong, be strong, be strong.

Has she ever allowed herself to grieve?
Altea is no more, but that must be forgotten in the face of the new threat. She must forget, she must move forward, she must be strong, be strong, be strong.

The Paladins try hard, Alaaran knows they try. She keeps them on task.

She keeps herself on task.

Coran tries to care for her, Alaaran knows he tries, but she will not let him see her break. She will not break. She is not weak. She is all the things her father raised her to be: a leader, a ruler, a Princess, through and through. And princesses do not strain.

She will wake up some nights knowing her body has betrayed her, feeling her markings glow with a remembered happiness, she can feel the arms around her, her mother, her father. Other nights, she will wake up with wet cheeks and puffy eyes. She does not weep when conscious. That would be admitting weakness. Admitting defeat.

She will not break.

She cannot break.

They are depending on her.

The universe is depending on her.

Who can she depend on?

 

She opened her eyes and immediately rubbed away the tears on her cheeks, getting up and brushing off her dress. Every detail in place, she looked around.

They were all staring at her.

“What’s the matter?” she asked flippantly, putting a hand on her hip, “why are you all staring at me like that?”

Nobody spoke.

The void was quiet.

No wind, no rustling.

Just quiet, shocked breaths.

“You weren’t supposed to see that,” she sighed, “but I’m fine. Truly.”

They just kept looking at her.

A few ticks passed, but they felt like vargas.

Without a word, Shiro stepped forward, and opened his arms. He didn’t come embrace her, not yet. He just quietly asked: “Can I? Please?”

Allura stood stone-still, but, try as she might, it was like a magnetic current carried her forward.

She stepped forward, Shiro coming to meet her.

He wrapped his arms around her, gentle as falling snow. She heard soft steps, and felt a smaller form wrap around her, glasses pressing a little into her side. She felt a gloved hand on her shoulder. It was shaking, like a bird about to take flight, but it gradually steadied. There was a larger hand on her shoulder, brown fingers rubbing soothing circles. Someone’s fingers wrapped around her other arm and squeezed gently.

They didn’t speak.

Allura began to cry.

At first, only a few tears slid out, but then she was sobbing, wailing against Shiro’s chest.

They didn’t try to decipher her grief.

They didn’t try to fix her.

They just let her sob.

The Paladins remained quiet, a protective shell around her, and allowed her to break.

After ticks, dobashes, vargas, she didn’t know, she slowly straightened up and wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her dress. The Paladins remained close, but they gave her space.

“You have friends, Princess. You have a family. If you want to, to let us in, we’ll be there,” Lance said, uncharacteristically quiet.

“Thank you, Lance,” she murmured.

“You can rely on us, just like we rely on you. You are so strong, and so brave. But you don’t have to be all of the time. Sometimes it’s okay to just let your hair down… metaphorically speaking,” Shiro trailed off, combing his fingers through his hair sheepishly.

Pidge looked at her then. “And, for the record, bottling things up is not a healthy coping mechanism. Just to make that clear,”

“You can tell us things. You don’t have to… but you can,” Keith mumbled. She gave them a watery smile.

“...Thank you. I… don’t know if I’m ready for that yet… but I’ll keep it in mind.”

“I still think that what’s happening here is a bit intrusive,” Shiro put in, smiling, “but I’m glad that it’s brought us closer.”

Allura smiled.

“Me too.”

They knew what was coming, but when the voice came booming through the void, Keith still stiffened, eyes widening.

“The Red Paladin is next.”

Chapter Text

“I… must violate protocol here,” Oynux’s voice shocked Keith out of his stupor. He narrowed his eyes. He doesn’t like being an exception to the rule: that means he’s done something wrong.

“What do you mean?” Shiro asks. His face is stony. So, not a fan of Oynux, then.

“It can be… difficult to relive traumatic memories or experiences. For you three, I will ask if you wish to do so. I… I won’t force you… but it will mean a termination of our alliance.” Oynux actually sounded regretful, but Keith couldn’t focus on that. Traumatic memories or experiences. He felt his breathing getting faster and faster, his heart hammering out of his chest.

He knew what Oynux meant immediately. How could he not?

He was fully expecting Allura to force him to share everything, bare all, for the sake of the universe, for the sake of the alliance. And if it were anything else, he would. I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.

“Keith, Keith, look at me, please,” he faintly realized that he was almost hyperventilating now, before he feels a hand settle on his shoulder and squeeze.

Someone was touching him.

Someone was touching him.

Fight or flight kicked in.

Getawatgetawatgetaway-

He wrenched away, revulsion crawling along his spine like spiders. He mistepped, he tripped, he was on his knees. The steps coming towards him were louder, the figures coming towards him began to blur into larger, more muscular forms, and he found himself crying, he never cried, “Please don’t hurt me, please don’t hurt me, please-”

“KEITH!” His head snapped up at the voice. His vision blurred, but he still registered a white forelock and wide charcoal eyes. He knew those eyes. He gulped down his mantra and whispered raggedly between too fast breaths:

“Sh-shiro?”

His vision cleared a little, and he saw Shiro’s face more clearly.

He was crying.

“Yeah, Keith, it’s… it’s me. Can you focus on my voice for me?”

He tried, he tried, and his breaths were still coming too fast, and everything was too loud-

“Good, good. Can you breathe with me? In… out… good, good.” He noticed Shiro coming a little closer, hands up as if in surrender. It’s to show you he’s unarmed.

“Keith, buddy?” he whispered, “can I touch your face?”

Keith froze for a second, then nodded feverishly, hands wrapping around himself.

Shiro came closer. He raised his hands.

His palms were cold against Keith’s too-hot skin. The skin-to-skin contact brought Keith back to the ground, and he could feel his breaths slowing.

He all but melted into the touch.

Shiro rubbed his thumbs soothingly over his cheeks.

“I’m… I’m good now,” he whispered, voice hoarse from crying. Shiro immediately moved away.

“No more,” Allura said softly, suddenly vicious and angry as she glared up into the void, “no MORE! How DARE you? We will never have an alliance with those such as you!” Keith could only stare dumbly as Allura raged at the sky.

“Princess Allura… we never wanted to…”

“I don’t care what you wanted. You will not hurt my family again,” she hisses.

Family.

“Please. You MUST understand… Our culture is all about openness… It is not to hurt, but to help. If kept bottled up, these things are incredibly damaging to my species’ health, and I’m sure it has adverse effects for you too… We want the same things. We never… I never meant to hurt him. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” Oynux sounded like he was crying. “If we were to make an alliance with those with unresolved trauma and secrets, the people could start a cultural revolution. We have had millennia of peace: we just want to preserve it. We just want to keep our people safe.” His voice got quieter and quieter, though they could still hear it clearly in the void.

“No. I don’t care, any if you even-”

“A-Allura.” Keith’s voice was scratchy and quiet, but Allura froze and shut up.

“Keith…” Shiro looked at him with so much concern and pain that it made Keith’s skin crawl. He pushed himself up off of his knees and stood, crossing his arms over his chest. The familiar position was comforting.

“I… I think we should do it,” he murmured, looking down at his feet.

“WHAT?”

“Keith, we don’t have to-”

“I don’t think that’s a-”

“HEY!” Keith yelled, eyes snapping up, fingers a little sharper, ears a little more pointed. He took a deep breath.

“I don’t know what your decision is. Lance and Shiro can opt out, if they want to. That’s fine. But I want to do it.” They looked like they were going to interrupt, so he held up his hand. “It’s not like I want to relive those memories. But honestly… if it means helping the Yjibry… isn’t that part of being a Paladin? Putting the universe above your own comfort?” He sighed, raking a hand through his hair. “Besides… maybe Oynux is right. Maybe I do need to let it out.”

“I… I can’t really say no to that,” Allura murmured.

Keith sighed, taking a deep breath, then looked up.

“Oynux… I’m ready.”

“Alright, Red Paladin. And… thank you.”

 

He is five when his dad dies. He stares at the closed casket.

He doesn’t cry.

Pa wouldn’t have wanted him to cry.

Some of Pa’s old firefighter buddies pat him on the shoulder, or offer meaningless, empty words.

It should have been them.

He is alone.

 

He is five when he goes to his first foster home.

They’re nice.

They let him play with their dog.

Then they find the knife he keeps wrapped up in a bundle of socks in his bag. It’s his only bag.

He goes back to the orphanage after that.

 

He is six when he gets another foster home.

They seem nice when he meets them with the social worker.

They reach out their hand to shake his.

He clutches his bag tighter instead.

He sleeps on the couch, since they don’t have a room for him.

A few weeks later, he is asleep, and he hears a bottle being smashed against the wall.

He falls asleep again an hour later, with a split lip and bruises the color of rotten fruit.

He cries in his sleep, and wipes off the tears angrily when he wakes up.

 

He is six when that family decides that he is “too much trouble to handle”.

He comes back to the orphanage with scars and a broken leg.

He says he got them from a bad fall.

Nobody questions it.

 

He is seven.

His foster father is sitting at the table, looking at him. 

“What did you tell the teachers?” His voice is too calm. Keith has learned not to trust that.

He can’t sleep that night. Every position hurts too much.

 

He is nine.

He goes to the hospital with internal bleeding all over his torso.

He gets his own lunch at the hospital, which is okay. There’s one nurse who talks with him sometimes. But she always leaves.

Everyone leaves.

The social workers tsk and tut at him, promising that there will be justice, that he’ll go to a good home, a real home, soon.

He wants to believe them.

He doesn’t.

 

He is eleven.

He got home too late from school, and his foster mother has locked the door.

It’s the middle of January.

He wraps his jacket a little tighter around himself, leans back against the door.

Curls into a ball to conserve his body heat.

He doesn’t cry.

He is numb.

 

He is eleven when he goes back to the orphanage.

One of the new social workers slips him an application to the Garrison.

They don’t speak about it.

Keith fills it out and mails it on his own.

He doesn’t believe in God.

He prays anyway.

 

He is eleven, sitting outside Iverson’s office with a split lip and a busted eye.

The man from earlier… Shiro, that’s what he said to call him, is kneeling in front of him.

“You should send me back to the home already. This place isn’t for me,” he mumbles around his hurt lip, wincing. It doesn’t really hurt that much. He’s had worse. Shiro sighs, eyes pleading.

“Keith, you can do this. I will never give up on you. But more importantly, you can’t give up on yourself.” He reaches out a hand and puts it on Keith’s shoulder.

It’s like lightning is going through his body.

He freezes, then goes completely limp, head unconsciously twisting towards the hand on his shoulder. If Shiro notices, he doesn’t mention it.

 

It gets better for a while.

Shiro sometimes hugs him. Some days, the hugs feel like they’re burning, and it takes all of Keith’s willpower not to claw the hands away and whimper.

Other days, he melts into it like a puppy.

If he breaks, it’s at night, in his dorm, alone.

Nobody wanted to be his roommate.

That’s okay. He’s used to being alone, even if he’s around people.

 

Everyone leaves.

He should have been used to it by now.

He’s not.

The old shack is empty and quiet.

He hunts sometimes, or steals.

He’s alone.

 

He’s alone.

 

Everyone’s touching everyone.

He doesn’t get it.

Hunk bear-hugs to say hello.

Lance is constantly slinging arms around people’s shoulders or jumping onto people’s backs.

Shiro pats people on the back like the space dad he is.

Pidge octopus hugs from behind sometimes.

Coran gives enveloping hugs sometimes, when he’s feeling sentimental, or drank too much nunvill, or just feels like it.

Even Allura sometimes gently hugs Coran.

Why can’t he?

What is wrong with me?

 

He opened his eyes slowly, as if waking up from a long sleep.

Weird, because he never slept in.

Everyone was sobbing.

Even Shiro.

Even Allura.

Pidge and Lance clung together like magnets, both silently crying.

Hunk looked like he was about to break down.

He just stood. What was there to cry about?
“I… I didn’t know… Keith… I’m so sorry,” Shiro whispered, metal hand covering his mouth.

“What are you sorry for?”

Shiro’s mouth opened and closed, but he didn’t make a sound.

“He means we’re sorry that happened to you, that we didn’t know how to help, how to be there for you,” Lance interjected quietly, blue eyes gleaming. “But we’re here for you now. We’re going to help you. I promise.”

“Keith? Can I hug you? Not everyone. Just me?” Keith gritted his teeth and nodded.

Hunk came closer slowly, arms outstretched. He stopped then. Keith understood: Hunk was giving him the option to hug him at his own pace. He walked forward, aware of everyone’s eyes on him, and awkwardly came into the circle of Hunk’s arms.

He clenched his jaw, expecting a strong, overwhelming bear hug.

What he got was gentle arms holding him like he was cherished.

His breath got stuck in his throat.

Nobody had held him like that… since Pa.

A wounded noise wrenched out of his throat, and he felt Hunk try to draw away, but he clung on, burying his face in his chest. Slowly, he drew out of the hug, mumbling a thanks to Hunk.

“Hey, Keith?” He glanced up at Lance’s voice, softer than he had ever heard it. The Blue Paladin’s face was serious.

“There’s nothing wrong with you. What you feel is valid… and it can happen when you’ve been through shit like that.” Shiro didn’t even correct his language.

“Um… what is that, exactly?”

“Well…” Lance thought for a moment. “My little brother had autism, and he and a lot of people can have this thing called touch aversion, where you can’t stand people touching you.” Keith looked away guiltily. “Hey, no, no, it’s totally normal. Your brain just sometimes doesn’t like your body being touched.” Pidge elbowed Lance in the side.

“Dang, Lance, who knew you were so book-smart?” Lance blushed deeply.

“But…” Keith trailed off, “... never mind.”

“Keith, it’s alright if you’re not comfortable, but if you share with us, we can help you better,” Allura said matter-of-factly, making eye contact with him. He appreciated that for some reason.    

“It’s just that… sometimes I… like being touched. Like I have days when I… like… it’s like I need it.” His voice got quieter and quieter, and he stared down at his crossed arms. The words felt like they were forcing themselves out of his mouth, and though, with each one, he felt a little lighter, there was still a chorus in the back of his head. Please don’t judge me, please don’t judge me.

“We won’t judge you.” Oops. Forgot about the whole ‘feeling general emotions’ thing. “That’s… that’s called touch starvation,” Lance mumbled. “It’s what happens when children and some adults just don’t get touched often enough, and they start to sort of... crave it.”

“How do you know that?” 
“How do you think?” Lance laughed, but there was no humor in it.

Keith steeled himself.
Without a word, he walked forward and opened his arms, a silent question.

Lance stepped forward just as slowly.

They clung to each other, and their shirts came away wet.

“Keith… I understand if it gets too much sometimes… But will you try to keep us in the loop? When you panic, when it’s a touch- or no touch-day?” Pidge asked hesitantly.

“I… I can’t promise… but I’ll try.”

“We’re not going to leave you. We’ll be here with you through all of this shit,” Pidge whispered fiercely. Shiro sighed a “language, Pidge” under his breath, but he seemed to realize he was fighting a losing battle. “We’re here for you, Keith.”

“Hey, Keith?” He looked up Shiro’s voice, cocking his head.

“You know none of what happened to you is justified. Right?”

Keith thought for a minute, then nodded. Shiro’s shoulders slumped in relief.

“I…” he cleared his throat, then continued. “I blamed myself for a long time… but then… I got more angry… so I blamed them,” he choked out, blushing.  

“That’s understandable too. Right?”

Keith nodded. “Right. But… I hope I’m more than just angry now,” he said.

“Trust me, you are,” Shiro smiled. “You’re brave, and tough, and secretly goofy, and sarcastic. And a pain in the ass."

"Shiro, language!" Pidge mocked. Shiro ignored her, and continued.

"You’re my little brother. I love you so much. You know that, right?”

Keith’s throat was very tight, but he nodded through a tight smile.

“I know. I… I love you too.” Then, he said something that he had always wanted to say.

Here’s the thing: love doesn’t come easy to a stray.

But he loved them.

“I… I love you all,” he whispered. He looked up at five faces split with massive grins.

“We love you too.”

“Seconded.”

“... Thirded?”

“Me too, bud.”

“In spite of your mullet… me too,” Lance teased, his eyes warm. All of them didn’t hug, but, for the moment, it was warm and soft and good.

Keith looked up.

“Oynux. I… thank you. I feel… better. I... I don’t think I’m okay, but I feel... better,” he whispered, knowing he would hear.

“Thank you , Red Paladin.” Oynux cleared his throat. “Black Paladin, are you ready? Do you wish to proceed?” Shiro gulped, suddenly very pale, but nodded anyway.

The world fell away once more.

Chapter Text

He is six years old, lying on his stomach in his grandparents’ backyard. He looks up at the stars and dreams. His baa-baa and jiji carry him inside when he falls asleep.

 

He is ten years old. He enlists in the Garrison. His baa-baa is smiling through tears and kissing him goodbye on each cheek, and his jiji ruffles his hair and slings him over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. I’ll miss you.

 

He is twelve years old. He gets a letter that his grandparents have passed away. He is doing this for them. He needs to reach the stars even more now. He wipes away his tears and continues studying. They wouldn’t have wanted him to break. They are still with him, after all.

 

He is thirteen years old. He is accepted into the fighter pilot program. He stares at the roster in dumb shock. His face splits into a grin, and he sprints to tell Professor Holt the news.

 

He is fourteen years old. He meets his new roommate, who practically bounces off the walls, makes stupid jokes, wears glasses that make him look like an owl. His name is Matt Holt. He likes him immediately.

 

He is sixteen years old. He and Matt are pelting each other with pillows in their dorm. There’s a knock. Matt jumps up and sprints to the door, then comes back in with a massive package. He tears it open on his bed and grins, taking out fistfuls of candy and snacks. Takashi just smiles sadly, then continues to read. Without a word, Matt throws candy at his chest and smiles back. Takashi doesn’t know why he feels like crying. Instead, he throws down his book and lunges at Matt, bear-hugging him. That’s a good day.

 

He is seventeen years old. He has just broken the world record for fastest flight-sim. I hope you’re proud, baa-baa, he thinks as Matt slings an arm around his shoulder and crows to the sky.

 

He is eighteen years old. He gives the speech at the graduation ceremony. The Holts cheer louder than anyone else, and take him and Matt to dinner after. Katie jumps onto his back like a howler monkey.

 

He is eighteen years old. He has been offered a teaching position at the Garrison. He has never accepted something so fast. Matt is joining the research division, and they both tackle each other when they hear the news.

 

He is nineteen years old. A new young professor comes to say hi to him in his office, introducing himself as Adam West. He has nice eyes. Takashi doesn’t know why Adam’s blushing. He thinks he might be blushing too.

 

He is twenty-one years old. Adam and Matt take him out to karaoke. They all get drunk and sing Celine Dion songs until three a.m. When they get back to their on-campus apartment, they all pass out together on the couch. He wakes up to Adam snoring in his ear and Matt taking a picture while giggling uncontrollably. He flips him off and covers his face to hide his grin.

 

He is twenty-two years old. “Progressive muscular dystrophy.” It started in his right arm. He stares mutely at the silvery bracelet clamped on his arm, indicator lights blinking green. Adam wraps him in his arms and kisses the top of his head. “It’s going to be okay,” he whispers, “we’ll get through this.” Shiro silently begins to cry.

 

He is twenty-three years old, anxiously looking up at Adam, blue velvet box clutched in sweaty palms. Before he can even finish stuttering out the question, Adam tackles him to the ground, kissing his nose, his cheek, his lips, while sobbing out a litany of “yes, yes, yes.”

 

He is twenty-four years old. “Takashi. How important am to you?” Shiro’s mouth falls open. “Every mission, every drill. I’ve been right there with you. But this is more than a mission. This is your life at stake.” Shiro’s jaw sets. “Don’t start that again, Adam. You don’t need to protect me. This is something I need to do for myself.” Doesn’t he understand? He needs to get to the stars. He promised. He doesn’t care about the risks. He needs to. He winces as his bracelet pings, one of the indicator lights blinking red, the others green. He quietly recalibrates the settings, feeling the muscles in his arm slacken as the indicator light turns green again. His eyes snap up, watching as Adam’s fingers tighten on the coffee mug’s handle. “There’s nothing left for you to prove. You’ve broken every record there is to break.” Then he sighs, running his hand through his hair and coming over to kneel before Takashi, taking his face in his hands. His thumbs rub circles on his cheeks. “I know I can’t stop you…” he murmurs, “... but I can’t go through this again.” His eyes are full of pain. Shiro feels himself wilt. “ Please . Let me be enough for you. Let this be enough for you.” Takashi meets his eyes, and he feels the tears running down his face. “I… I made a promise. I don’t know how much time I have left to complete it.” Adam’s face crumbles, but he nods, giving a sad little smile. They hold each other, knowing that, a week from now, they won’t be able to anymore.

 

He is twenty-four years old. He looks up at the purple tractor beam nearing them and roars: “RUN!” He lets the Holts get a head start, but he feels them all being pulled up, up, up…

 

His eyes open at the sound of a guttural voice that he can somehow understand. He looks blearily to the right, eyes opening wide when he sees Matt and Sam’s forms, slumped over on their knees, clearly unconscious. “Please, we come from a peaceful planet! We mean you no harm!” The figure before him slowly turns around, flashing a pointed smile, yellow eyes flashing. “We’re unarmed!” He wants to continue, he needs to keep them safe, but there is pain to the back of his neck, and then… nothing.

 

Matt is quivering with fear in front of him. “I’m… I’m not gonna make it. I’ll never see my family again!” Shiro sees the panic in his tense muscles and in the fingers clutching at his honey hair. “You can do this.” He tries to put as much confidence in the words as he can… but he can feel himself shaking too. The sentry points at Matt and comes forward, and Shiro can’t. He rushes forward, letting out a guttural yell, and grabs the sentry’s weapon, spinning around and facing Matt and the other aliens. “This is MY fight!” He screams out, trying to put as much aggression and anger into the syllables as he can. He’s never even hit anyone before, outside of Garrison self-defense training, but he rushes forward and slams the weapon into Matt’s shin, then leaps forward, tackling him to the ground. “I want BLOOD!” Then he leans close, as fast as he can, and whispers to Matt, eyes filling with tears: “Take care of your father.” The fear in Matt’s eyes clears away, and before Shiro is pulled away, he sees Matt nod once, lip quivering.

 

He fights, but he refuses to kill. When he’s not fighting, he’s sitting in his cramped cell, back against the wall, staring at the door. He doesn’t sleep as much anymore: he gets woken up anyway. Surprisingly, they don’t take away his bracelet. He doesn’t find out why.

 

They try to force him to kill a child. He keeps crying for his mother, antennae quivering. “Please,” he murmurs. “Please.” He stands stock still and refuses. The sentries try to push him forward.

When he continues to refuse, they kill him anyway.

They put his body in Shiro’s cell with him.

 

There’s never enough water.

 

At night, they turn down the heat.

 

“Please… please,” he rasps. They haven’t brought him food or water for almost a week. He thinks. It’s hard to judge time when you’re only doing it by when you wake up and go to sleep, especially when you don’t really sleep anymore. The door slides open, but he doesn’t have the energy to move. He used to try to escape whenever the door opened.

“You will fight, and then you will be fed.”

Die, or survive a monster.

I… I don’t want to die. I… I want to see Matt again. Sam. Keith. Adam.

Shakily, he nods.

 

He kills. Does that make him a monster?

Am I a monster?

 

He starts to forget his name after a time.

There’s only the pit, and blood on the sand.

 

“Champion! Champion!”

 

He vomits when he returns to his room. It dries on the floor.

 

When the guards come to get him, he thinks it’s for a fight. Then, they drag him down another hallway. He tries to struggle away, tries to kick the guards, but they’re sentries. They don’t feel.

He wishes he didn’t feel.

 

Pain.

So much pain.

Things come to him in flashes.

Glowing yellow eyes.

Sawing, hacking pain.

He looks down at his right arm and sees a monstrosity.

What have I become?

 

They chuck him back in his room. He lies there for a long time.

Slowly, he drags himself to sit against the wall.

He stares at the door, then begins to silently weep.

 

Time blurs.

 

A Galra named Thace helps him steal an escape pod.

 

He wakes up bound to a table.

Not again, not again, not again.

He feels himself talking, trying to convince whoever has him now.

Then he feels himself falling into sleep, feels a needle in his vein, not again, not again.

Please. I wish I never said yes.

Let me die.

Please.

 

Things are different.

Are they better?

He trains against the gladiators, and when the blue and white robots morph into purple soldiers with narrowed, yellow eyes, he fights through gritted teeth and screams.

Black helps sometimes. When he flies, he still gets that feeling in his gut, where his stomach flips over and adrenaline courses through his veins and everything is lighter and better. But he gets it while facing down Galra ships, and every shot he takes kills. He never stops killing.

 

Patience yields focus.

He wakes up screaming, edges of a nightmare already fading away. Gnawing, serrating pain. A dry throat from not drinking anything for a week. Blood under his nails. A scar burning on his face, blood trickling down. He can taste it.

He’s not weak.

He’s not weak.

Slowly, shakily, he gets up from the bed and sits against the wall opposite the door.

He stays like that until morning.

 

He feels like he’s always on.

He makes perimeter checks every night.

When he can’t sleep, he walks up and down the hallways.

He’s a guard dog who no one bothered to put down.

 

Take deep breaths. In, out, in, out.

It doesn’t help.

It doesn’t help.

He can’t breathe, he can’t breathe.

The walls are purple instead of white and blue and there’s not enough air, there’s blood in his mouth, under his nails, on his arm, his monstrous arm, he’s a monster.

 

He doesn’t deserve this. He’s a washed up Garrison officer who can’t get through a mission without breaking down in his room after. And they look up to him.

I don’t deserve this.

I should have refused, and starved to death in that cell.

Sometimes, he chases away that thought, tries to stay positive, like he tells the Paladins. After he wakes up screaming at night, sweating, still feeling his arm sink into flesh… he believes it.

 

“Shiro… oh, Dios, Shiro I’m gonna touch you now, okay?”

Whose voice was that?

No one talked to him. He was Champion. The only one who ever talked to him was the witch, whispering things in his ear and her nails sunk into his skin. This didn’t sound like Haggar.

He whimpered anyway.

“Ranbou shinaide kudasai, ranbou shinaide kudasai, ranbou shinaide kudasai,” he whimpered out, over and over. Please don’t hurt me, please don’t hurt me, please don’t hurt me.

“Shiro, I can’t understand what you’re saying. It’s okay, it’s okay.” He felt a hand settle on his shoulder, and he flinched away violently.

“Shiro… Takashi… it’s okay, it’s okay.” I know that voice. He looked up from his knees.

“K-keith?”

“It’s me, Takashi, it’s me. Can I touch you?” That sounded bad. He shook his head violently, rocking back and forth, metal nails digging into his flesh arm.

“Shiro! Shiro, you have to stop hurting yourself, please, please...” He felt narrow hands wrap around his metal arm and pull it away. It took all of his willpower not to lash out.

“Shiro, remember the breath counts you taught me? Can you do them with me? In for four… hold for seven… out for eight…” He could hear Keith’s exaggerated breaths and tried his best to follow them. He kept his eyes scrunched closed, afraid that if he opened his eyes, he would see purple forms with gleaming yellow eyes.

“Good, good… c-can you open your eyes for me?” It’s Keith. It’s Keith. Keith is safe. He opened his eyes, and Keith slowly came into focus. He was sobbing, but he gave him a smile.

“There you are,” he murmured. Shiro gave a weak smile and wiped off his face, then stood up.

“Sorry you guys had to see that,” he said, running his hand through his hair. He was surprised to see the Paladins’ and Allura’s mouths fall open. Lance stepped forward, tears streaming down his face.

“Shiro… you have nothing to be sorry for,” he whispered, shaking his head.

“I’m sorry you have to have someone like that as your Black Paladin,” he said quietly, honestly.

“What the fuck, Shiro?” Pidge hissed. Shiro was too shocked to correct her language.

“Why the fuck would we want anyone else as our Black Paladin? You’re the bravest, strongest person I know, Shiro. You saved my brother from the gladiator pits. You’ve saved us more times than I can count. So yeah: what the fuck , Shiro?”

“No more hiding this shit, Kashi,” Keith growled, brows drawn together. “You tell us if you’re struggling. You don’t get to suffer alone anymore.”

Shiro winced.

“I… I don’t want you guys to see me like that,” he whispered.

“Shiro. You went through hell. You have people who want to help you. Please. Please let us in.” Hunk’s voice was pleading.

“We don’t think less of you. We love you and care about you. Flashbacks, scars, and all,” Keith whispered. He somehow always knew what Shiro needed to hear. And he began to sob.

“I… I don’t deserve this,” he sobbed out, covering his face with his hands.

“I’m going to hug you now,” Allura said. He nodded once, still hiding his face.

He felt arms encircling him and a head on his shoulder.

“You deserve everything, Shiro,” Allura murmured, rubbing his hand up and down his back. “You care for us so much. Let us care for you.”

Shiro sank to his knees, Allura’s arms around him, and nodded, sobbing out: “Thank you. Thank you.”

Chapter Text

 

“Blue Paladin, are you ready?”

Lance flashed a smile to the barren sky, all teeth and charm.

“I don’t think that’s necessary. I mean, we all know I’m not the source of the tension, so why bother? Besides, I don’t have any traumatic memories to sift through, anyway.” He was surprised that the Paladins and Allura didn’t all laugh along with him. Pidge stared at him from behind her glasses, eyes narrowing.

“Don’t you think that creates a bit of an unfair dynamic, Lance?” she asked. Her voice was completely neutral. Oh, I’m in danger.

“Besides, if you don’t have any memories you don’t want us to see, why not just show us?” Lance’s stomach dropped.

“I… I really don’t think… It’s okay, really. We still need time to get all the details of the alliance sorted, and I still need to find some hot Yjibry babes,” he winked. No one rolled their eyes, or snorted at his antics. It’s not working.

“Why do you keep doing that?” Pidge growled, taking a step forward. Lance felt his face fall, and struggled to get his smile back up.

“W-what do you mean?” Pidge took another step forward. He took another step back.

“You realize that we can feel your general feelings? Well, we should be able to. But when I try to reach out to you here, it’s like hitting a wall. What are you hiding? What, too chicken to show us?” He knew it was just her way of showing concern, but it still hurt.

“Lance… we’ve all shown parts of ourselves we wanted to hide. We won’t judge you. You know that, right?” Shiro’s voice was very quiet, and when Lance looked over at him, his brows were furrowed together in concern. Why is he concerned for you? He pushed the thought away, away. Shiro’s eyes widened. So he had marked the difference.

“I… it’s fine. It’s no big deal,” Lance laughed, running a hand through his hair and looking away.

“It seems like sort of a big deal, hermano,” Hunk said.

“Blue Paladin. Remember that the alliance depends on this,” Oynux’s voice boomed. Was that… pity? Lance flinched and looked down at his shoes..

“I think you’re wrong, Oynux. I don’t think anything I could share would help the team,” he whispered, voice cracking.

Maybe it was the weird situation.

Maybe it was all of them staring at him.

Maybe it was the pressure of the alliance, the universe, everything in that moment resting on his shoulders.

In Voltron, in team-building exercises, in mind-melds, he had learned to tune out and push down the intrusive thoughts that constantly nipped at his heels. He had grinned, flirted with anything that moved, put on airs of being rivals with Keith, tried to “woo” Allura. Voltron, the universe didn’t need his issues weighing it down.

It was a good distraction.

But, for a moment, his mask cracked.

And he heard Allura and the Paladins gasp.

Couldn’t even keep your feelings in check long enough for a stupid mind meld. What kind of a Paladin are you? Worthless, worthless, worthless-

He hurriedly straightened up and crossed his arms over his chest, trying to look nonchalant instead of defensive, and failing miserably.

Their faces were… horrified.

“Sorry, don’t know what came over me,” he smiled weakly.

“I’m afraid I don’t understand…” Allura murmured, confused, concerned.

You don’t deserve their concern. You don’t deserve anything.

“Nothing I show you will help the team, don’t you get it? It’s just my stupid personal shit. I can handle it, it’s no big deal.”

“Lance, mental wall or not, we can feel something from you, and it’s not happy. Please, let us help,” Hunk pleaded.

“It’s none of your business,” he hissed. They don’t really care. They just care about the alliance.

“Lance…”

“Lance. Look at me.” He felt Shiro’s finger under his chin, and he tilted his head to meet his gaze.

“Nothing you show us will make us judge you, or hate you, or kick you from the team. You care so much about us. Let us care for you,” he parroted, giving a half-smile. Lance could only stare at him open mouthed. Chuckling a little, Shiro tapped one metal finger against his temple.

“General thoughts, remember?” he smiled sadly. Lance took a deep breath. His shoulders wilted a little.

“What if what I show you will hurt the team?”

“Fuck the team. If it’s hurting you, we want to know,” Pidge said matter-of-factly.

“Blue Paladin. Are you ready?” Oynux repeated.

Shakily, Lance nodded.

 

They have found the Blue Lion, they’re in a weird castle with blue and white robot technology everywhere, and nothing makes sense.

When a woman with pale hair and pink crescents on her cheeks falls into Lance’s arms, she looks disoriented, scared. Without thinking, he catches her. She looks around, dazed, confused, fearful.

Now, Lance prides himself on his sense of humor. Whenever one of his younger siblings got hurt, whenever his Mami was tired out and overworked, he was right there to pick up the slack, with cheesy one-liners to make whoever was looking sad, or lost, or upset, a little happier. To make them laugh.

This woman… at least, Lance thought she was a woman, but she also had pointed ears, so clearly an alien, and maybe aliens were different… this woman was obviously upset.     

He’s scared too. He’s far from home, and he doesn’t know her.

“Hello,” he attempts, making an obviously ridiculous face.

“Who are you? Where am I?” She’s still disoriented, but she’s looking at him now.

“I’m Lance. And you’re right here in my arms,” he cooes, quirking his eyebrows and making an overly flirty face.

All of the people in the room, including alien lady, look vaguely disappointed and annoyed.

It’s fine, though.

 

“I remember you. You’re a cargo pilot.”

 

Stupid, worthless, good-for-nothing.

 

They continue training.

It’s hard, but Lance finally feels like he’s doing something important

He misses his family, sure.

He misses his Mami cradling him in her arms after a panic attack, taking deep breaths with him until it no longer feels like the world is pressing down on his lungs.

He misses Sylvio and Nadia, his niece and nephew, running into the house when he’s in a depressive haze and bouncing on his bed, watching TV with him when he doesn’t have the energy to move.

He misses his twin, Rachel, not putting up with any of his deflections or fake smiles, immediately asking him what was wrong. If she couldn’t figure it out, if she couldn’t fix it, she would still sit with him, still hold him close.

He misses his family.

But he’s defending the universe, so it’s not that bad, right?

 

“Focus, Lance! This is no time for goofing off.”

 

Seventh wheel, nothing to offer, dumb.

 

“Leave me alone, Lance,” Pidge grumbles under her breath as he peers over her shoulder. He nervously checks the pad Coran gave him. It’s way after midnight Castle Time, and, to the best of his knowledge, Pidge hasn’t eaten. Or slept. Or drunk any water.

He doesn’t know anything about coding, he can readily admit that, but it looks like she’s just been retyping the same line of code for the past few minutes, getting frustrated when it doesn’t work.

“Pidgey… what ya doing?” Pidge growls in frustration and shuts her computer, turning to glare at him.

“You wouldn’t understand even if I told you, Lance! Go help Coran, or something.”

Okay, that stings a little, he’s not gonna lie. He takes a deep breath in and out, like his therapist taught him when he was little.

“Pidgey, Coran’s in bed. Everyone is. Do you… maybe wanna go to bed too?”

“I’m fine ,” she snaps at him. It takes a lot of energy not to flinch back. He doesn’t deal well with people snapping at him or being rude. But he’ll deal if it means getting Pidge to go to sleep, or at least drink some water.

“Maybe it’ll make a bit more sense after you take a break. Maybe drink something?”

She seems like she’s about to refuse, but then she grudgingly nods. He hands over a hydration pouch that she drains greedily. She hands it back to him and rubs her eyes.

“I think I’ll go work on it in my room,” she mumbles around a yawn.

He keeps his smile of satisfaction to himself.

 

“The amount of information in your brain could fit in a paper airplane.”

 

Seventh wheel. Seventh wheel. Seventh wheel.

 

At home, everyone touched everyone.

Kisses on the cheek to say hello.

Tackles to the ground from tiny kids.

Pillow fights, wrestling matches.

Hugs to say goodbye, hugs to ask what’s going on.

Everyone was tactile.

Everyone was loud, always screaming or laughing or talking.

Out in space…

It’s quiet.

And the castle is very, very big.

Hunk gives great hugs, but Pidge and Keith are either too busy or somehow evade.

Shiro… he doesn’t want to approach Shiro about that. He’s got stuff of his own to deal with.

Dios, he wouldn’t even think of hugging Allura.

Coran… he didn’t know Coran all that well.

It’s fine, though. He’s an adult now. A Paladin. Paladins don’t need hugs.

At night, he cradles his pillow and tries not to cry.

 

Placeholder. Placeholder. Placeholder.

 

He tries to tell someone once.

About the aching pit in his stomach, the gnawing pain that just won’t go away.

“You ever notice how far the planets are from each other, Coran?”

Coran doesn’t seem to get it. He just waves it off, flippant.

“Yeah, but I mean, like, they’re really, really far away…” he trails off, pointedly looking away from Coran, out at the stars.

“Like, say, Earth,” even saying the name of his home planet brings tears to his eyes, “... it’s so far, I can’t even see it. The blue oceans, the white clouds, green grass… I can’t see any of it.” He ducks his head down into his knees and takes a few gasping breaths, as quietly as possible.

A hand lands on his shoulder, and he tries not to curl towards the touch.

“You miss Earth.”

“Miss” is an understatement, he thinks.

 

“Not now, Lance. You wouldn’t understand anyway.”

 

Who would even care if you were gone?

 

He does it almost unthinkingly.

Voltron needs Coran.

He knows more about the Castle of Lions than anyone, he pilots the ship with Allura, he runs the medical bay.

Lance… Lance is just a placeholder. They could find someone better than him in a heartbeat.

When he sees the bomb about to go off, he jumps in front of Coran, pushing him out of the way and shielding him with his body.

If he’s worthless, he might as well save someone. Anyone.

He needs to protect them. Even if they don't care as much about him...

He'll defend them to the death.

 

“Sorry, not right now, bud, I’m busy. Maybe later.”

 

Wouldn’t it be easier if you just took an escape pod and flew away? They could find someone better than you.

 

He wakes up from a nightmare, screaming, and fights to get his breathing under control.

In, out. In, out.

StupidworthlessidiotwishIwas dead wishyouweredeadstupidworthlessstupidseventhwheelstupidassholeidiotdumbfuckingasshole-

He grabs his headphones and jams them over his ears, turning up the volume of the Altean not-quite orchestra that Coran programmed onto the little player.

It helps drown out the torrent of intrusive thoughts in his head.

It takes him half an hour to come down from the panic, and then he washes his face, tries to conceal the bags under his eyes, tries to stop his hands from shaking.

When he goes out, Allura screams at him for missing the alarm.

“Lance, these alarms are designed to train you for crisis! If you can’t respond properly in a drill, how will you respond properly in a real attack? You never take things seriously, do you? It’s like you don’t even want to be a Paladin!”

He takes it silently, quietly promising to be better.

Nobody notices that his hands shake, as long as his shots still hit their targets.  

 

“Just… follow my lead. Don’t do anything unless I say so.”

 

It’s hard to get out of bed.

It’s like there’s a lead weight on his chest, and moving is too much, and waking up is too much, and sometimes he wishes he could sleep forever, because wouldn’t that just be… easier?

But there’s a universe out there of people who don’t have that option.

There’s a universe out there that needs saving.

And for some reason, he’s one of the few who can help.

So he has to get up.

But it’s not easy.

And, on days when they’re cruising through empty space, with no missions, on the way to the nearest distress beacon…

It’s that much harder.

 

The rest hits Allura and the Paladins as a wave: insecurity, anxiety, depression, bottled up fear and intrusive thoughts and a need to protect, to please, an overwhelming love for them that he both feared and knew wasn’t reciprocated.

When they came to themselves… they saw Lance curled up tight around his knees, hiding his face. He was shaking. Crying. His breaths didn’t hold the too-fast shallowness of panic, but they were choppy and interrupted by sobs.

It was Keith who approached first.

Slowly, gently, he sat next to Lance.

And, just as gently, he circled his arms around him, putting his head on his shoulder.

“I’ve got you, buddy,” he whispered as Lance sobbed. “I’ve got you.”

Lance’s cries slowly tapered off, and he looked up blearily as Keith released him.

“‘M sorry,” he mumbled, sniffling. Allura and the Paladins sank to their knees around him.

“Lance… what are you sorry for?” Hunk said, just as quietly. The phrase had been repeated many times in the past few minutes (hours?), but it now held pain. regret. “It’s us who should be sorry.”

Lance’s head snapped up again.

“W-what? No, you guys are perfect… I’m the one who c-can’t hold my shit together…”

“Lance. It’s obvious from your memories that we’ve said some really hurtful things. And even though none of us meant them to be cruel or hurtful in any way, ” Shiro said quietly, but firmly, with nods from all the others, “doesn’t mean that it was in any way okay or justified.”

“I’m sorry I treated you like you were constantly goofing off, like you couldn’t take things seriously. Like you were… less dedicated than me. I never meant it. Ever ,” Keith said, “But that doesn’t mean it was okay. I’ve… I’ve never had anything like a brother, besides Shiro, and he’s older and like a mentor… you were like… someone I could bicker with, but I always knew that we were alright in the end, because we were that close… I’m sorry I didn’t make that clear. I’m gonna be better about that,” he promised, reaching out and squeezing his shoulder.

“But-”

“I’m sorry too, hermano,” Hunk interjected, not letting Lance dismiss their apologies. “I’m sorry I ever made it seem like whatever baking or tech thing I was doing was more important than hanging with you. You’re my best friend. My brother,” he smiled weakly, looking at Keith, “and I’m sorry that I didn’t show you how much I care more often.”

“No, guys-”

“I’m sorry too,” Pidge said. “I just… you’re so much like Matt that I always snap at you like him… but I need to do better in showing that I appreciate you, love you. You’re my big brother too. And, for the record… thanks for taking care of me like that. I never thanked you enough for it before but… well, we all know now that I’m not the best at taking care of myself. And you’re not stupid. Just because you don’t get code doesn’t mean you’re unintelligent. I’m snarky, and snappy, and I can’t do diplomacy for shit, but you’re so good with people, it’s ridiculous. And you’re caring and kind and great…” she trailed off, then nudged Allura when she couldn’t continue talking around the tightness in her throat.  

“I… I’m incredibly sorry, Lance,” she said seriously, making eye contact with him. He fidgeted, but didn’t look away. “I… I was placing all of these expectations… of the past Paladins… on you all, and on you especially. You… you contribute so much to the team, and I’m sorry that I didn’t realize how much your humor and kindness lift us up until now. I will do better with that. I promise you. And…” she twiddled her thumbs sheepishly, “I’ll do better about letting all of you in. Being more vulnerable. We’re Voltron… but we’re a family too.” They were all teary now, but Shiro cleared his throat.

“Lance… I’m sorry that I kept trying to discipline you… I took the incredible and unique insight that you bring to the team for granted. In all honesty... I saw myself in you. I keep forgetting that we’re all just kids fighting this war… Even me, even Allura, ten thousand year sleep and all.” He looked at Lance directly and put his hands on his shoulders. “Lance, you are not a placeholder. You are incredibly valuable to me, to us. You’re our Blue Paladin, and we don’t want another. We want you.  And we’re going to keep reminding you of that, when that little brain gremlin in there won’t shut up,” he smiled, tapping Lance’s temple with a metal finger.

“You are so strong, Lance. I know that dealing with this stuff alone isn’t easy. Believe me, I know,” he smiled sadly. “But you don’t have to deal with it alone anymore. You are good enough. You are valid. I promise.” All of the others nodded or echoed it, rubbing Lance’s back or squeezing his shoulder.

Lance took a deep breath, and gave a watery, hesitant smile. Shiro opened his arms, cocking his head, and Lance launched forward, hugging him firmly and laughing a little through his tears.

Shiro looked at everyone in turn.

“We haven’t been good enough about being open with each other, about showing each other how much we care. This isn’t just for Lance: it’s for everyone. We’re a family, right?”

Everyone nodded without hesitation.

“Then we need to remember each other’s limits and issues, and not push our own down.”

Lance drew back and hesitantly glanced around, gulping.

“M-maybe, we could each, like… say what bothers them? So it’s all officially out in the open?”

Shiro smiled.

“That’s a great idea, Lance.” He took a deep breath. “I’ll start.”

“I get flashbacks sometimes.” Keith nudged his shoulder and gave him a deadpan stare. Shiro chuckled. “Okay, I get flashbacks a lot. I have nightmares, and… um… maybe if everyone could… give me a call on the comms for the night? To let me know they’re safe, good, happy?” He looked up from where he was staring at his hands.

“Absolutely, Shiro,” Allura smiled.

“Maybe you could talk to one of us? When you’re feeling guilty about the gladiator ring, or you just came down from panic, or something? I think it would be good for you,” Pidge murmured.

Shiro took a deep breath, then nodded.

“I’ll try,” he said.

“For the record, Shiro? We’re all glad you made the choices you made. You’re not a bad person for wanting to survive,” Keith said quietly. Everyone nodded, and Shiro teared up a little.

“Thanks, guys,” he whispered, wiping his eyes. “I’ll try to remember that when it’s… bad.”

“I’ll go next,” Hunk said.

“I… um, I panic sometimes. I guess baking is like… one of my coping skills, or something. And like… I don’t know…” he trailed off.  

“Okay. So let’s try to be more perceptive of when Hunk is anxious or panicking, and talk him down or distract him when that happens?” Pidge ventured. Hunk nodded.

“Sounds perfect,” he smiled.

“I guess that means I have to go,” she grumbled. “Fine. I… stress out a lot about finding Matt and my dad. So I like… forget to eat, and sleep, and drink, and stuff.”

“I think what Lance has been doing is actually perfect for when you get in that frame of mind,” Shiro said. “Maybe redirect your attention or remind you that you need to take care of yourself to take care of them?”

“...yeah,” she sighed, running a hand through her hair.

“I… um… I guess talking with me would be good… when I have nightmares about that stuff,” Keith mumbled. “And like… I can say when it’s a touch or no-touch kind of day?”

“Sounds great, Keith. And we’ll all ask before hugging you or anything.”

“I… I suppose I need to work on… not bottling things up so much. I might need to cry onto a few people’s shoulders,” Allura smiled ruefully. “And I’ll try not to distance myself from you all like I used to.”

“Lance?” Lance took a deep breath in and out.

“Um… I was diagnosed a while ago with like… anxiety and depression, I guess…” He trailed off, but the others all nodded encouragingly at him. So he continued. “So… I like… get these spirals, where I can’t think about good things… and it’s sometimes hard to get up and stuff… so if I’m slow getting to exercises or training or something… It’s not because I’m lazy… I really am trying,” he got quieter and quieter as he spoke. “And… I get these thoughts, a lot… that I’m not good enough. So…”

Pidge latched onto his side like an octopus. That forced a surprised laugh out of him.

“Thanks, Pidgey,” he mumbled, hugging her back.

“Then we’ll work harder on making fewer deprecating jokes, and not seeming like we don’t care, because we’re so wrapped up in our own heads. Because we do care, and we swear, we don’t take you for granted,” Shiro said, wrapping an arm around Lance’s shoulders. “And we’ll check in. A lot. And you bet your ass,” Shiro coughed at his own use of a curse word, but continued, “that we’ll remind you how much you mean to us.” Everyone nodded. Slowly, with nods and hesitant requests of if it was okay, they all came together, arms around each other, and just sat together. If there weren’t any dry eyes around, well… nobody mentioned it.

“You guys are the best,” Lance mumbled, sniffling. Pidge gave a wet laugh.

“So are you, dork.”

“Thanks, gremlin,” he retorted. Everyone giggled.

Things were going to get better. They promised it to themselves, and to each other.

Chapter Text

With the details of the alliance finalized, they flew their Lions back to the castle, which had stopped at a local Balmera to exchange crystals. Keith could feel the exhaustion in his bones as Red settled into her docking bay. Together with all the other Paladins, he trudged back to the lounge. They didn’t say anything to each other: they just flopped down bonelessly onto the couches.

“Ah, Princess, Paladins!” Coran exclaimed, twirling his mustache between his fingers. “It’s good to have you back! So, how did the mission go?” Everyone looked at everyone else. No one really wanted to answer the question. Keith growled in frustration.

“They had us do a team bonding exercise to work out tension, and it basically ended up with all of us sharing our deepest, darkest secrets.”

Coran didn’t seem shocked at all.

Wait, what?

“Ah, I remember the Yjibry’s mind-melding technology. Quite superb, actually: they worked on our mind-melding headsets back in the day. Anywho, shall I fix you all up with some food goo, or is it straight to bed?”

“...”

“...”

“...”

It was Lance who broke the silence first.

“You… knew?” He didn’t sound angry so much as confused.

“Of course! Back in the day of the Paladins of old, Zarkon, Alfor, Trigel, Blaytz, and Gyrgan went through the same team bonding exercise you speak of. They resolved many issues,” he sighed wistfully.

“Coran… you knew we were going to the Yjibry. Why didn’t you tell us?”

“Well, let me ask you a question, my dear boy,” Coran smiled, “did it help?”

They all glanced at one another.

“Yes,” Lance admitted. “It did.”

“On that note… Coran, if there’s anything you would ever like to share with me… with us,” Allura corrected, smiling fondly at the Paladins, “we would be happy to help you. With anything.”

Coran looked decidedly shocked, but he smiled nonetheless.

“I will keep that in mind, Princess. Thank you.”

“Now,” Allura said, clapping her hands, “Paladins, Coran, I believe I was promised a… what do you call it… sleep-under in the lounge?”

Shiro chuckled. “It’s sleepover, actually.”

“That’s what I said,” Allura grumbled indignantly.

They ended up making a blanket nest.

It was a good night.

 

Hunk was woken up by a scream.

For a moment, he thought it was him, thought he was dreaming of crashing and purple ships and an empty casket: but after a moment, he realized that his face was dry, his breathing fast, but not panicked. And then, he heard another scream. It sounded terrified.

Without thinking, he rushed out of his room, and he met a few others in the hallway, all in various states of wakefulness and concern.

Shiro’s door was closed.

The only reason that Hunk was the one to enter was because he got there first.

When the others made to enter, he stared them down flatly.

“I’ll go in first. I don’t think crowding him will help. If I need help, I’ll let you know. Okay?”

They all reluctantly nodded and took a few steps back.

He cracked the door and stepped inside.

It was completely dark, save for the faint blue veins of light running along the walls from the Altean circuitry.

“Shiro?” Hunk whispered. All he got back in response was a pained whimper.

Hunk’s vision wasn’t great, so he fumbled around with the light switch.

“Shiro, I’m gonna turn on the light switch so I can come and help.”

No response. He flicked on the light.

Shiro was curled up in a ball, trembling.

His warm grey eyes were glazed over, fixed, unseeing, on the door.

He was mumbling under his breath.

“Ranbou shinaide kudasai, ranbou shinaide kudasai, ranbou shinaide kudasai.”

Hunk stepped closer, slowly, carefully, hands up to show he was unarmed, harmless.

How was he supposed to help?

Oh, god, how was he supposed to help.

Hunk took a deep breath. In and out.

He sank down to his knees beside the bed.

“Hey, Shiro. You’re in the castle. You’re safe. It’s early morning, we have training in a few hours. I was gonna make a space omelette for breakfast for everyone with these things I thought might be eggs that I nicked from Yjibr, with some of that blue leaf that you liked mixed in. Didn’t you say they reminded you of shiso? Anyways, it was good.” He didn’t really try to bring him down from the nightmare. He just surrounded him with comforting white noise.

“I’m gonna reach out and put my hand on your knee, okay?” Shiro seemed a little more responsive: shaking, but a little more aware. He nodded slightly, still rocking back and forth, staring at the door. Hunk saw tear tracks streaming past his scar.

He carefully set his hand on Shiro’s knee and rubbed his thumb back and forth. The Black Paladin stiffened, then relaxed slightly.

“Tomorrow, we’re gonna set course away from Yjibr. Allura mentioned something about a break, maybe visiting an empty space zone and watching the formation of a nebula. I know you’re a huge science geek, so that should be cool.” He kept his voice quiet, soft, calm. Slowly, Shiro’s eyes cleared, but he didn’t speak. It was still very early.

“Hey, Shiro? I couldn’t really sleep last night… is there any way I could stay with you till morning? I’ll bring my own mattress and stuff,” he asked quietly. He had slept fine.

Shiro didn’t say anything, but nodded. As Hunk made to move away, he put a hand on the Yellow Paladin’s shoulder and mouthed thank you.

 

“Hey, Mullet.” The nickname was thrown out kindly, an inside joke between friends. Brothers. It made Keith smile a bit, even though his hands were shaking.

“Hey, Lance?”

“What’s up, buddy?” Lance asked, turning around fully. He must have noticed Keith’s near panicky state, but he didn’t say anything.

“C-could… could I…” Keith’s throat was very dry. But there was an ache in his bones and he needed something, anything.

“It’s okay, Keith,” Lance murmured, smiling a little. “You can ask.”

“Could I have a hug?” The words were barely whispered, but Lance seemed to hear anyway.

“Rough day, then?” he asked, eyebrows drawn together.

Keith nodded jerkily.

“Of course, bud,” Lance whispered, smiling.

He opened his arms gently, and Keith launched forward, clinging to Lance like an anchor. He felt Lance’s arms circle him gently, ever so gently.
“Thank you,” he whispered, eyes wet.

“Any time, Keith. Any time.”

 

“Hey, Allura!” Pidge chirped, sandwiched between Hunk and Lance. Keith was hesitantly leaning against Shiro, who was sitting on the floor, leaning against Hunk’s knees. Coran was bustling about, setting up some sort of projector.

Allura’s head snapped up from her telepad. She had been looking over the castle’s defense systems. Checking, double checking, rechecking.

“Coran found this weird Altean crime drama from, like 30,000 years ago. Wanna watch with us?”

Allura hesitated for all of a second, heart melting at the open love on her Paladins’... her family’s faces. She spied that there were two little intricate braids in Pidge’s hair.

“...fine. But only if whoever braided Pidge’s hair braids mine as well.” Lance grinned sheepishly.

“You sure?” he mumbled.

“As the Princess, I demand it,” she said with mock authority, purposely screwing up her face into the most arrogant, overly snooty, and clearly joking expression she could.

Lance grinned and made a bow from his seating position.

“Your wish is my command, Princess,” he laughed. She settled down between his knees and let down the bun atop her head, sighing in satisfaction at the feel of thin fingers in her hair.

“Coran, we all set?” Hunk grinned, passing Allura a bowl of snacks.

“All set!” he parroted, settling down next to Allura , mice perched on their shoulders.

She didn’t really remember what the crime drama was about. But she remembered laughing, and showering Lance with praise for his exquisite braiding technique.

 

“I… I miss them,” Coran choked out, head bowed. He didn’t look young and chipper, like normal. His shoulders sagged with tremendous weight.

“I do to, Coran,” Allura whispered, allowing herself to sob. She wrapped her arms around him and let her head sink down onto his shoulder, just like when she was small. “I do to.”

They held each other, and the universe didn’t seem quite as large.

 

“Deep breaths in, and out. It’s okay. It’s okay.”

Hunk mimicked Shiro’s soft voice, and felt his heart settle.

“Come on, Shiro. We got a universe to save,” he smiled shakily, and urged Yellow forward.

 

“Pidge.”

Just one more line of code.

Pidge.

One. More. Line.

Keith’s face appeared in front of her.

“Dinner. Water. Sleep,” he murmured.

She wanted to protest. But her limbs felt like lead. And she knew he was right.

“Dinner, water, sleep,” she mumbled back.

“Thanks, Keith,” she whispered.

“No problem. Gremlin.”

 

“Shiro, no...”

“Shiro!”

“SHIRO!”

Keith sprinted up the ramp of the Black Lion, which had opened without hesitation.

He felt himself sink down to his knees.

“He’s gone,” he croaked. He felt empty.

“Keith. Can I?” Lance’s voice. A tether. He nodded.

Arms were around him then. Allura, Coran, the other Paladins.

They all held each other, and wept. `

 

“D-do you think Blue hates me now? Maybe I am just a filler Paladin.”

“Lance. NO. Red is the choosiest of all the Lions. She is stubborn, and fast, and fierce. Blue doesn’t hate you: she recognized a change in your bond. Reach out to her. You can still feel her.” Allura’s voice was soothing. He still felt himself crying, but he reached out tenderly with his mind.

Blue. Fainter, not the same as the brilliant red warmth coursing through his mind. But still there. Still full of love. He gave a watery smile.

“Thanks, Blue.” He turned to Allura. “Thanks, Princess,” he mumbled. She wrapped her arms around him and pulled him close.

“You’re welcome, Lance. You deserve it,” she smiled.

The Red and Blue Lions roared in unison, a roar of strength. Of love.

 

He was so thin.

His long hair, streaked with white, was greasy.

His breaths were ragged, lips cracked.

His thigh was bleeding heavily beneath his purple prisoner’s jumpsuit.

But they would protect him. They always would.

They gently carried him to a pod, clothing him in a white medsuit.

Nobody spoke.

They quietly set up shifts, grabbed couches and pillows from the lounge. Set them up in the medbay. And waited.

 

“...What are you saying, Keith?” Allura’s voice was quiet, and Keith’s shoulders shook.

“Keith, look at me.” He tentatively looked up. Allura’s eyes were full of care, and trust.

“I believe you. I just want to know, alright?” He took a deep breath. In, out.

“I communicated with Black,” he whispered, looking down at his feet. But he felt his team, his family, around him.  

Deep breath in. Deep breath out.

“That’s not Shiro.”

Chapter Text

“So… what do we do?”

“We wait. And watch him. Maybe he can lead us to the real Shiro.”

“For all intents and purposes, though… he is still a person. He may not be Shiro, but… he clearly feels pain, and he knows us. So, unless he instigates… don’t attack. Don’t be needlessly cruel. Alright?”

“Alright.”

 

It was eerie how similar he was to Shiro. The big things were all the same: the scar, the metallic arm, the stern, space-dad tone. But…

He cuts his hair differently . Hunk had been the one to notice that at a late night meeting.

He wears his shirt differently. That was Pidge, whispered hesitantly from where she had curled up against Allura. They were all shaken. It had been months , and they thought that they had gotten Shiro back. But it wasn’t Shiro.

Where was Shiro?

What was he going through?

For now, they had decided to allow “Shiro” to stay on as the pseudo-team leader, directing things from the castle with Coran.

“Until he shows true malicious intent, we watch, and wait,” Allura had said, meeting everyone’s eyes individually. “If we change his role too drastically, it could alert him that something is wrong. He may be sentient, but that doesn’t mean we should trust him fully yet. Not until he proves himself.”

 

Then “Shiro’s” first headache occurred.

 

They had gotten back from a mission, a small skirmish with a few Galra cruisers. Lotor’s fleet had helped, and, with Zarkon still seemingly out of commission, it had ended quickly.

There had been a brief hiccup during the mission, though: Red hadn’t properly responded to Lance. Allura said it was most likely due to quintessence interference from one of the main enemy ships.

So Lance didn’t think too much of it. Honestly? He was really proud of his progress with Red. It had been a hard few months, but she was responding to him better than ever, and their bond was strong.

After docking their Lions in the bays, the Paladins had all headed back to the lounge to meet Coran and “Shiro” for a debriefing. Everyone was joking around and giggling a little.

The joking stopped abruptly when they got to the lounge.

“Shiro” was standing, spine rigidly straight, arms crossed in front of him, eyes narrowed.

He was tapping his foot. Lance gulped.

“What was that?” he seethed, taking a step forward. Lance forced himself to meet “Shiro’s” eyes.
“What do you mean, Shiro?” Lance asked hesitantly, drumming his fingers against his armor.

“You know exactly what I mean, Lance. ” The tone made Lance flinch. He had been getting better with his self-esteem issues these past few months, the team reminding him that he was valued, loved. But being hissed at by a near-perfect replica of his icon wasn’t helpful.

“Shiro” took another step forward.

“What was that with Red? You could have tanked the whole mission. It’s like you don’t take anything seriously. Do you even want to be a Paladin?” Distantly, Lance felt himself looking over “Shiro’s” expression. There was no love, no affection, no features of the space dad they had all gotten so close to in their time up here. There was only rage.

Shiro would never hurt me.

Shiro would never hurt me.

But that’s not Shiro.

He flinched back as “Shiro” raised his arm, which had begun to flicker purple. He couldn’t move, his feet as heavy as lead. And then there were figures in front of him.

“How dare you speak to Lance in that manner?” Allura hissed, hands quivering in fists. “Shiro” blinked in confusion.

“I… what?”

“It doesn’t matter if you’re the leader, or whatever. You can’t talk to him like that,” Pidge growled. Despite the fact that she was a good foot shorter than “Shiro”, she seemed to tower over him. Lance’s shallow breaths echoed in his ears.

He felt a hand on his shoulder and looked over to see Keith standing next to him.

Thank you, he mouthed. Keith smiled a little, then glared at “Shiro”.

“I think you have some soul-searching to do, Shiro,” Keith said calmly. His tone made the name a weapon. “About what your place on this team, in this family, is. And whether you want to be honest with us about what’s going on.”  

Shiro just stared, dumbfounded, at them all.

Sighing, Keith turned away, murmuring reassurances to Lance.

Then, they heard a groan.

They all turned back to see Shiro clutching his head, face contorted in pain.

For a split-second, nobody moved.

“Shiro!” Lance surged forward, sinking down in front of “Shiro”, who had fallen onto his knees, grimacing. “Talk to me, talk to us, what’s happening?”

“It hurts,” “Shiro’s” normally calm, soothing voice was cracked, weak.

The Paladins and Coran exchanged glances.

“It’s okay. We’ll figure this out,” Lance murmured, putting an arm around Shiro’s shoulders and rubbing his back. “It’s gonna be okay.”

 

“Attention, Paladins of Voltron and rebel fighters.”

A face appeared on the vidchat of the Lions, and Allura heard sharp intakes of breath and curses from the other Paladins and Matt’s crew on the comms.

He had pale purple skin and pointed ears, long white hair cascading down his shoulders. Violet eyes peered out from yellow sclera, clearly marking him as at least partially Galra.

She felt the Paladins preparing to attack through the Lions’ bond, and whispered into their separate comms.

“Wait. Please.”
She didn’t know why… but there was something… intriguing about this man.

She felt the Paladins relax slightly. Still on edge. But trusting. Of her.

“I know we’ve had our differences in the past, but…”

“Yeah, that’s an understatement,” Keith snorted into their private chat. If this was the same man who had been heading up the strange ships that had been alternately helping and firing at them… there were more than a few differences there.

“I think it is time we had a discussion.”

A… discussion. With the Galra fleet that had been pursuing them with unclear intentions all this time.

Allura had to admit, that was a bit of a shock.

“I am sending you the details for a channel on which myself or one of my generals is always active. Should you choose to reach out, don’t hesitate to call.” His face blinked out.

For a few moments, the comms were silent.

Then Keith’s voice rang out, confused, apprehensive, but not dismissive.

“Well… rebels, Paladins. Let’s meet back at the Castle to debrief.”

 

“I’m just saying… with everything on our plate right now… do you really think it’s a good idea to take this risk?” Lance’s voice was hesitant, his hands shaky. He was still working on being open with the group, on voicing his own opinions honestly. Keith’s steadying hand in his helped, though.

(It always warmed his heart a little that, whenever Keith was suffering the effects of his touch starvation, or when he was trying to ease himself into a normal relationship with touch, he turned to Lance. Now, it wasn’t unusual for them to hold hands or be hugging. It made Lance happy.)

“Honestly, I have to agree with Lance here. We still haven’t figured out what’s up with… “Shiro”. Do we really want to reach out to a Galra and his generals?” Keith asked, looking around at all of them.

Matt sighed, running a hand through his hair.

“Keith, you guys have to know that not all Galra are evil. I mean… the Blade of Marmora is a huge example. Look at everything they’ve done for the war effort,” he said. “I don’t think we should dismiss this guy this readily. I mean… it’s obvious he has resources. And if he really does want to help, like he helped back at Naxzela… maybe we should hear him out.”

Keith took a deep breath in and out, then turned to Allura.

“Princess, you’ve suffered at the hands of the Galra. What do you think?”

“I… I think we should talk to him,” Allura said. “But I don’t think we should go in blindly. If he proposes to meet in person, if he wants to form an alliance, anything like that… we should have backup in place in case things go poorly.”

“Okay. What does everyone think of that?”

There were nods and murmurs of agreement from everyone. Keith smiled a little at the support and love from their little group.

“Then let’s try.”

 

“How is he doing?” Hunk asked, fingers lacing together as he stared through the window into the medbay, where Shiro was lying on a cot, staring up at the ceiling. His eyes kept darting around, his metallic fingers tapping a rhythm on the bed.

“He was quite receptive and allowed me to perform scans on him… I discovered some… abnormalities there.” Coran seemed about to continue, but Keith cut in.

“How about we hear him out first?”

Coran nodded, but his expression was steely.

“Alright. But only through the observation window. I refuse to let him hurt any of you.”

“Will do, weird space-uncle,” Lance chuckled, trying to lighten the mood. It got Coran to smile.

The Altean stepped forward and smartly rapped his knuckles against the glass. “Shiro’s” head snapped over, and he sat up, running a hand through his hair. Keith was struck by how similar that gesture was to Shiro, his Shiro.

“I believe I owe you all some explanations,” “Shiro” murmured, staring down at his hands.

“Yes. You do,” Allura said, eyes narrowed. There was no inflection to her voice. Completely neutral. And completely scary , Lance thought.

“I… Coran did some scans… and it explained some things.” He took a deep breath in, and out, then looked out at all of them.

“I’m not Shiro,” he said, then stopped, as if bracing for impact.

There was no response from the Paladins, from any of them.

“Shiro” blinked.

“You knew… didn’t you?” his voice was raw, wounded.

“We’ve known since you came back. The Black Lion told me,” Keith said, staring the man down.

There was no remorse in the man’s expression: just pain.

“Why… why didn’t you tell me?” he whispered, eyes filling with tears.

Lance blinked. That was not the reaction they expected.

“I… we… you didn’t know?” Even Allura was at a loss for words.

The man shook his head vehemently, getting up on his feet. His eyes were pleading.

“No, I didn’t, I swear, I didn’t. I knew something was wrong, but… I thought I was… me- I thought I was him,” he broke off. He was visibly shaking. Lance ached to go to him, but he couldn’t. Not until they knew it was safe.

When nobody spoke, the man in the medbay sighed and continued.

“I… I thought I was Shiro. Except… I would have trouble with really distant memories… I thought it was an aftereffect of being with the Galra again, or… something from the Black Lion. But then… I started getting these headaches…” he trailed off, his eyes filling with tears.

“Coran… we need to get in there.”

Coran immediately shook his head.

“I can’t allow that, Keith. Not when he’s a danger to you.”

“LOOK at him,” Keith shouted, waving an arm at the man in the medbay, who was slowly curling more and more in on himself. “I don’t care that he’s not… that he’s not Shiro. He’s hurting, and we need to help. Even if he tries to hurt us… we can take him. Together. But I won’t let him sit there alone,” he growled, tilting his chin up. His eyes flashed yellow.

Coran put his hand to his temple and sighed.   

“Fine. Do you all have your bayards in case of emergency?”

Everyone nodded.

They went inside.

The man didn’t react.

Keith stepped forward carefully and sunk down before him.

“Hey, hey, it’s alright. We’re here. You’re okay. It’s gonna be okay. We’re gonna figure this out,” he said softly, voice gentle. Lance’s heart ached, and he stepped forward too.

“Shiro” looked up at them. It was clear he wasn’t having a panic attack or a flashback: his breathing was even, his eyes not glazed over.

“I… I… I’m so sorry ,” he whispered, his voice broken. “I never want to hurt you. Any of you. I swear,” he said. Although he addressed the group, he was looking at Lance.

Lance was still a little afraid of him, true. But, Shiro or not, this was a man in pain, asking for forgiveness, for help. He gave him a small smile and nodded. “Shiro’s” shoulders relaxed a little.

“You mentioned headaches,” Pidge said gently, looking at him. He nodded, still crying, and continued.

“I keep getting these… headaches… they’re like… stabbing pains, and when I get them… it’s like I black out. And then there I am a few moments later, and I’ve yelled at someone, or my arm is powering down, and… it’s scary. I’m scared ,” he whispered.

“So… I started, like… trying to figure out what was happening,” he murmured. “And I would get these… flashes. Visions. Of her.”

For a few moments, no one spoke. He didn’t seem like he was going to continue.

Keith hesitantly reached out and put a hand on “Shiro’s” knee.

“Her?” he prompted, brows drawn together in concern. “Shiro” nodded.

“H-H-... Haggar,” he whimpered out, ducking his head.

“And… I tried to reconnect with the Black Lion. I thought that… I don’t know. She could give me answers. But she wouldn’t let me in. When I tried, it hurt .” He finished, then shrugged, giving a pained laugh. “So I made my own conclusions. I’m not Shiro. I’m… I’m sorry.”

And then he began to sob.

Nobody spoke.

“Hey… can we touch you?” Keith murmured. The man’s head snapped up, scar pink and inflamed from the flush spreading across his face. Eyes red, he nodded frantically, sniffling.

Arms circled around him. Everyone shushed and hushed and held him, making little noises of wordless comfort. His sobs slowly, slowly tapered off.

“I’m… I’m sorry we didn’t tell you. I’m sorry you were in so much pain,” Lance whispered. “Shiro” shook his head.

“I understand. I would’ve done the same thing.” There were a few moments of silence, then Shiro looked around at them all, eyes latching onto Coran.

“So… what now?” he asked. He was trying to put on a stoic expression, Lance noticed, but he felt his hands shake where they were lightly touching the side of Lance’s leg.

“I… I did some scans, my boy, as you know,” Coran said, smiling a little. And that was all it took. The small “my boy”, the smile. “Shiro” relaxed fully in their arms.

“Your body is identical to Shiro’s, prior to the battle with Zarkon, except for two things,” he sighed, tapping his temple with his finger.

“On the memory and sensory cortexes of your mind… a shadow showed up on the scan. This wouldn’t be that unusual; however, this has never happened with our scans before. So I analyzed your brain’s quintessence,” Coran continued. His tone was matter-of-fact. “And found traces of druid magic. Now, I can’t deduce exactly what is happening in your mind… But there was another thing on the scan that proved you weren’t Shiro. Your muscles.”

“Shiro” cocked his head in confusion, and Coran continued. Lance began to understand.

“Shiro had a condition he told me was called progressive muscular dystrophy. I gave him medications for it… but it was not curable. I just… extended his time,” Coran said weakly. This wasn’t a shock to the Paladins: they had known Shiro had a condition after the events on Yjibr. It hurt to know that he had only confessed to Coran after being scanned, though.

“Anywho… your muscles show no sign of degeneration or weakening, as Shiro’s did. From this, I can conclude that… your body is not Shiro’s. Most likely… it is a clone.”

“Shiro” shuddered.

“D-do you have any guesses as to… the headaches? Things like that?”

“Well…” Coran mused, tugging on his mustache, “I would imagine, from what you’ve said, that Haggar cloned Shiro while he was in captivity. For what reasons, I can’t say. But when Shiro disappeared after the battle with Zarkon, perhaps Haggar thought it was the perfect time to implement a spy in Voltron.” All of the Paladins curled closer around “Shiro” when he shook again. “But,” Coran continued, holding up a finger, “cloning isn’t that simple. In order to remotely control you… she would have had to implement a parasite, as your body is basically Shiro’s. I believe that is the source of your headaches, my boy, and the lapses in memory and control you have experienced.”

“So… so… it wasn’t… my fault?” his voice was quiet, hesitant. Lance tightened his grip on him and spoke vehemently.

“No. It wasn’t. You said it yourself: you would never hurt us,” he whispered, resting his head on “Shiro’s” shoulder. The man blinked, then smiled through his tears.

“Th-thank you,” he murmured.

“I have two questions,” Keith said. Coran waved his hand, ceding the floor.

“First. How are we gonna get rid of the parasite? I don’t want it hurting my family anymore,” he asked, squeezing “Shiro’s” thigh.

Is my heart melting? Wow, my heart is melting, Lance thought, smiling a little.

“I would imagine that, since it’s quintessence based, we’ll need to aid of either Princess Allura or the Lions,” Coran said. Allura cocked her head, thinking for a moment, then slowly nodded.

“If it’s a quintessence interference, I should be able to eliminate the parasite using my own and your quintessence,” she said, looking at “Shiro”. He nodded.

“Thank you, Princess.”

“Alright, then. Second question. What do you want us to call you?”

“Shiro” blinked.

“Well, we can’t call you Shiro, because I’m pretty sure that would make you uncomfortable, right?” Keith asked kindly. The man hesitantly nodded.

“I… in one of those visions… they called it Operation Kuron,” he proposed, but he wouldn’t meet anyone’s eyes, and he seemed even more twitchy than when Keith mentioned calling him Shiro. Pidge looked at him frankly.

“It’s your name, man. What would make you comfortable?” she asked, poking his bicep. He chuckled, then thought for a moment.

“Well…” he hemmed. “I… I remember that Shiro used to love the name Ryou… I don’t know why. But it feels… good,” he said, looking up hesitantly.

Lance grinned.

“Ryou it is,” he crowed, nudging him in the shoulder.

“Welcome home, bud,” he whispered.

If they all cried a little after that, well… that was their business.

Chapter Text

 

“Are you certain you’re ready for this, Ryou?” Allura asked. He was lying on the long couch in the lounge, the Paladins and Coran sitting around him in support. His hands were crossed over his stomach. He grinned, trying to lighten the mood.

“A little stroll through my mind? Of course I’m ready, Princess,” Ryou said, giving a thumbs up.

Allura gave a little exasperated huff.   

“I’m glad you’re so enthusiastic about this,” she grumbled, rolling her eyes.

To be honest, he really wasn’t. After experiments with both the Lions’ and the Princess’s quintessence manipulation (in which Black continued to completely shut Ryou out), they had decided that the safest and best bet was to create a sort of mindscape, using the Lions’ astral plane as a basis.

“So, basically, Ryou’s gonna have to fight the evil parasite in his own brain, and then you’ll wash out the rest of it with quintessence?” Pidge had said, eyes narrowed in skepticism behind her glasses.

“That about sums it up,” Ryou had said, looking anywhere but at the Paladins. He had had another of the headaches that morning, and they had been forced to lock him down in the medbay. It hadn’t been a pleasant experience.

He had felt a hand settle on his arm then, and looked up to see Keith.

“It’s not your fault, you know. We’re fine. What’s important is that you come out of this safe. We care about you , Ryou, not Haggar’s stupid experiment,” he had whispered.

That had ended in another group hug. Ryou had decided then that he really liked group hugs.

He was scared, sure. From his limited memories of being… born, he didn’t much enjoy people digging around in his brain.

But he wanted the parasite gone more.

He wanted his friends… his family, safe.

He felt Allura’s hand lightly settle on his forearm and turned his head to look at her.

“You’re sure?” she asked, giving a hesitant smile. He smiled back, and looked around at all of them. Hunk, Pidge, Keith, Lance, Allura, Coran… they were his family. They were all here for him.

He took a deep breath.

“I’m sure.”

 

It seemed like hours later when Ryou opened his eyes. He was exhausted , his limbs heavy. He slowly looked around.

Pidge was nestled on his knees, curled up almost like a cat.

Keith was holding onto his arm and gently snoring.

His head was in Hunk’s lap.

“There you are.” He looked up blearily at Coran’s voice, and almost giggled at the sight before him. Coran was effortlessly holding Allura in his arms. All of the Princess’s stern poise was melted in sleep, and she looked like what they all were: a child, white hair splayed across her face.

“How are you feeling, my boy? You remained unconscious after the ritual was complete: gave us quite a fright,” Coran whispered, beaming behind his mustache. Ryou smiled a little.

“I feel… good. Sleepy,” he murmured, eyes drooping.

“Not surprising, considering what you’ve been through. Rest, Ryou,” Coran smiled, “we’ll be here when you wake up.”

And, with a small smile and a mouthed thank you, Ryou drifted off again.

 

“We’re being hailed,” Allura called from the bridge. Hunk glanced up. He and Pidge had been teaching Ryou how to play different card games. Apparently, while major memories were still present, minutiae like card games, favorite foods, TV shows, were all absent. So the past few weeks, they had been experimenting to see what Ryou liked and disliked. Today: they had learned that Ryou was terrifyingly good at poker.

Hunk overdramatically stretched and got up, sticking his tongue out at Pidge when she rolled her eyes at him. He took a few steps in the direction of the bridge, then turned around.

“C’mon, Ryou. I really don’t feel like incurring Allura’s wrath right now.”

Ryou shifted uncomfortably on the couch, shuffling the playing cards between metal fingers.

“I don’t think I would be… helpful,” he mumbled, looking very interested with the cards.

Hunk felt a pang of pity and scoffed, taking a knee next to the couch and forcing Ryou to make eye contact with him.

“Ryou: you’re as much a part of the team as anyone. Now come on,” Hunk smiled, extending his hand. Ryou looked down at it in shock, then smiled and took it, eyes wide and gleaming.

“O-okay,” he grinned. “W-wouldn’t want to make Allura mad.”

 

When they got to the bridge, Allura was staring down the comm screen, her face flat in diplomacy. As Ryou, Coran, and the Paladins filed in, Keith came up next to Allura and put a hand on her shoulder. (It was a point of pride to Lance that he could do that now without flinching or shaking.) The Princess turned to him and smiled slightly, nodding in acknowledgement.

“Keith,” rumbled the screen. His head snapped up to see a square faced Galra with a jagged scar and somehow intimidating braid.

“K-Kolivan,” he stuttered in surprise, running a hand through his hair and coming to stand at parade rest as his family stood behind him. “How are the Blade’s operations?”

Kolivan’s expression didn’t change.

“They fare well… we have new intelligence to share, however.”

Keith looked around, and, after seeing the approval of the team, nodded at Kolivan.

“Proceed.”

“Firstly… on the topic of the clone.”

The team collectively bristled.

“You mean Ryou,” Allura said, voice still carefully neutral.

“...Yes, Ryou,” Kolivan corrected himself, and the team relaxed.

“We have been looking into Haggar’s experimental facilities, as you asked. And we have found one that is said to… specialize in cloning. It seems to be the origin of Operation Kuron.”

Ryou’s shoulders stiffened, and Lance sidled closer to him.

“You okay?” he murmured. Ryou hesitantly nodded. Lance didn’t push.

“We need to destroy it,” Ryou finally whispered, looking up at Kolivan. The Galra arched an eyebrow, then looked to Keith and Allura.

“Seconded,” Allura said coolly.

“In that case, before that can occur, we have two other matters to attend to. Blade Krolia, come forward please.”

Another Blade, slightly shorter than Kolivan, came forward, face hidden behind the Marmorans’ expressionless glowing mask.

“Velnire was one of the operatives of the facility, and, as such, is uniquely qualified to assist you in its destruction. Does that appease you?”

Allura nodded with a glance at Keith and the others.

“We appreciate the help… but this is a more personal mission to our team. We would appreciate it if Velnire sent the intelligence they have gathered remotely, so that we may conduct a smaller operation.”  

Kolivan nodded, betraying no opinion of Allura’s words. Then, for a moment… Lance could have sworn that Kolivan, stony-faced leader of the Blade… looked uncomfortable.

“The next is a matter of some… delicacy,” Kolivan said carefully, looking out at all of them with those unsettling golden eyes. “We have reliable intelligence that reports the mobilization of Lotor’s ships around… Marmoran and Coalition bases and planets.”

Allura went rigid, all diplomacy gone.

“Just for their protection, I’m sure,” she said quietly. Lance flinched at the steel in her tone.

Kolivan shifted from side to side. The other blade, Velnire, remained motionless, and spoke.

“The ships are converging without communication with the Coalition, the Blade, or, judging by your expression, Voltron itself, of the movements or their intentions. They are thus being treated as unknowns. Until their intentions are known, they must be regarded as potentially hostile,” Velnire said, distorted voice still decidedly female.

Somehow, Allura managed to keep her composure.

“Our first priority is to destroy the clone facility,” she said shakily. “Velnire, please send us the information you have gathered on the laboratory. Until Voltron communicates with Lotor directly about his intentions or we have a chance to discuss this further, he is still being treated as an ally. I… I trust Lotor. Signing off,” she rushed out, hurriedly turning off the comms. The team watched as her shoulders shook with the force of her breaths.

“I… I-I’m sorry I made the decision without consulting you all,” Allura murmured, turning to face the team. She was staring at her boots.

“Allura.”

“I-It was foolish, and rash of me, I know…”

Allura ,” Lance said, coming forward and taking her by the shoulders. The others stepped forward too. There was no judgment: just concern, care.

She looked up and met his eyes.

“Do you think we should do this?” Keith asked.

Allura’s eyes filled with tears, and, for a moment, they looked like shattered jewels.

“I… I don’t know what to think,” she whispered. “I… I l-l… Lotor is d-dear to me. He is one of the few Alteans remaining… he connected to Oriande and the spirit of the White Lion with me… I can’t… I can’t dismiss him so readily.”

“Allura… Lotor helped bring down Zarkon and find my father,” Pidge said quietly.

“I’m not saying I like him,” Lance grumbled. It brought a smile to Allura’s face (which had been his only goal). “But he’s been good for the Coalition. And to you,” he smiled, looking into Allura’s eyes.

“Take it from someone who knows a thing or two about impulse decisions,” Keith smiled, “your team is with you every step of the way. Even if those decisions don’t always turn out as planned, we love you. We trust you. And if this is the way that will make you the most comfortable… we’ll do it.”

Allura’s eyes widened.

“Th-thank you,” she whispered. Then she looked to the figure at the back of the group, who had been silent for a few minutes now.

“Ryou?” she said quietly, stepping towards him. “This must be difficult… What do you think?”

He looked up, taking a few deep breaths. He felt Hunk’s steadying hand on his shoulder.

“I… There are bad memories there… It’s where I was… made. And I was made… to hurt you all. But… there might be information about Shiro there. I want to do this. I need to do this,” he whispered, staring forward into empty space. Allura put a hand on his other arm.

“Then we’ll be right there with you,” she murmured, smiling. He smiled back, mouthing thanks.

“After the mission, we can invite Lotor for some… explanations,” she continued carefully, eyes narrowed. Regardless of his answers, the team could feel that Lotor’s dishonesty would have repercussions.

“Well, then. Time for bed! Ryou, Princess, Paladins: an important mission means an early slumber. That’s what my Grandpa Wimbelton used to say, right before he would take an excursion through a Weblum’s intestinal tract. Off to bed, all of you!” he chirped as Lance stuck out his tongue in mock disgust and Pidge tried in vain to cover up a yawn.

As they all filed out, Lance heard Coran whisper nervously to himself:

“Tomorrow’s going to be a big day.”

 

“Ryou.”

His eyes snapped open, and he stared around frantically. The last thing he remembered, he was falling into a restless sleep, pretending not to be nervous about the mission tomorrow. And now…

“Ryou.”

He was in a white void… and he was looking at himself.

But his haircut was different.

His shirt was different.

The eyes were different to.

“Sh-Shiro?” He wanted to ask questions, so many questions.

“What is this place? Where are we? You… no one has seen you in months .”

“Everything is fine. Just let me explain,” Shiro smiled a little.

“Patience yields focus,” Ryou mumbled plaintively.

The weird spectral Shiro laughed.

“Well… I’m not you, and I’m not feeling patient or focused.”

Shiro gave a little exasperated hug.

“That’s the whole point of the phrase…”

Shiro ,” Ryou’s voice cracked. He couldn’t help it. “Where have you been?

Shiro sighed and ran his hand (his metal hand. It was like looking in a funhouse mirror, jeez.) through his hair, then gestured around.

“Since my fight with Zarkon, I’ve been here.”

Ryou had asked the team about it, and had managed to gather a few details in the last couple of weeks. It was still an open wound for them: Ryou knew they were happy to have helped him and welcomed him into the family… but they loved Shiro too.

“When you… disappeared?” Ryou asked, remembering the muttered detail from Keith.

“Yes. I didn’t know where I was, or how much time had passed…” Shiro trailed off then. Ryou reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. His twin looked down at it in shock, as if surprised he could feel it. And then his eyes filled with tears.

“I… I’m sorry,” he mumbled, rubbing at his eyes with the palm of his flesh hand. Ryou shook his head.

“No… I get it, I think. Losing more time… it must have been hard.”

Shiro smiled ruefully.

“I would say you have no idea… but you do, don’t you?”

Ryou fidgeted in place.

“I’m so sorry for…” But Shiro was already shaking his head, a small smile on his face.

“None of what happened was your fault. I know you love them, same as I do.”

There was more to be discussed there, but they both looked at each other and put it aside. They needed to protect their family first.

“My… my physical form was gone… and I existed on another realm.”

Shiro took a deep breath in.  

“I died, Ryou.”

Ryou choked a little. On his spit. Real smooth.

Shiro smirked, and continued.

“But the Black Lion… she somehow… retained my essence… My consciousness.”

Ryou looked around, eyes wide.

“Holy sh… Is that where we are? In the Black Lion’s consciousness?”

Shiro smiled, eyes twinkling.

“I would keep you longer. But I think you should be waking up soon,” he winked.

“Wait. One more thing,” Ryou said, holding up his hand.

He looked directly into Shiro’s eyes, and felt a spark, as he saw himself as Shiro must. It was a weird sensation. The astral plane is trippy.

“How do we get you out of here?”

Shiro grinned.

“I have a plan.”

 

The Paladins had assembled on the bridge.

Coran had prepared the Castle’s weapons and defenses, just in case.

Everything was in place.

And Ryou wasn’t there.

“If we want to act on this intel, we should do it fast,” Allura said, not angry so much as confused. Ryou was never late: he prided himself on being punctual.

“I’ll go check on him,” Keith offered. He tucked his helmet under his arm and jogged to Ryou’s room, then knocked quietly. Keith knew how much he himself hated having his privacy violated.

No response.

He knocked again, a little louder.

“Ryou? Can I come in?”

No response.

Keith didn’t know why, but he started to get nervous. Ryou was a light sleeper (for reasons they were working on with him), and it was pretty late in the day.

Screw it .

He cracked open the door.

Ryou’s room was dark, and Keith could barely make out a bundle of blankets on the bed, white tuft of hair sticking haphazardly out. The first time Pidge had found Ryou sleeping that way, she had taken dozens of pictures and laughed her ass off. Now, though, it just made Keith worry more.

He stepped forward cautiously and reached out, gently shaking Ryou’s shoulder. Normally: not a good move. With all of this weird space family’s issues, waking someone up from a dream where bad things could be happening or touching them without making sure they knew it was coming was a sure way to get an accidental punch in the face and make the person wake up with a panic attack. But… Ryou hadn’t responded to Keith asking. That wasn’t normal. At all.

“Ryou… come on, man, wake up,” he said. Keith gingerly reached out and uncovered Ryou’s face.

Ryou’s eyes were fluttering, and his mouth was moving. Keith let out a little sigh of relief when he saw that Ryou’s expression was confused, concerned, but not panicking, not afraid.

“... consciousness…” Keith could barely hear as Ryou mumbled, even leaning closer.

“Ryou. Ryou ,” he said, shaking his brother’s shoulder more forcefully.

With a gasp and a jolt, Ryou woke up, eyes slamming open. He snapped up and, on reflex, shook of Keith’s hand. At least he didn’t elbow you. That’s never fun . Keith leaned down to look into Ryou’s eyes. They were glazed and a little far away, but he still didn’t seem panicked.

“Ryou,” he said one more time. Finally, Ryou’s eyes snapped to him. And, weirdest of weirds, he grinned and opened his arms. Keith cocked his head and shrugged, nodding a little. (The team had come up with that silent question after Keith had gotten nervous about asking for touch when he needed it. It felt nice.) Ryou launched forward, standing up and folding Keith into his arms.

He awkwardly patted the taller man’s back, chuckling a little.

“I’m happy to see you too… but dude, we’re really late. We gotta go,” he jerked his head to the door. Ryou shook his head frantically, still grinning, and took Keith by the shoulders.

Keith . I know where he is.”

Keith had to admit, he was confused.

“Uhh… cool?” he shrugged, chalking it up to a weird dream. Ryou shook his head again. His eyes gleamed.

“No, Keith. I know where he is, and we have a plan.”

He took a deep breath.

“I know how to get Shiro back.”

 

“You WHAT?

“Pidge, calm down.”

“Jeez, why does she seem taller than Ryou, she’s the size of a hedgehog-”

“YOU SAW SHIRO? When? How? Is he okay? Where has he been? Holy shit, oh my god…”

“I think… I think he’ll want to explain all of that to you in person.”

He’s alive ?”

“...He’ll tell you everything, I promise.”

(If they noticed the pause, nobody mentioned it.)

Listen . We have a plan. It’s about the clone facility.”

“We’re all ears.”

 

“...Oh my god.”

“We can do this.”

“We’re gonna get him back. I promise.”

 

The body in Hunk’s arms looked so small.   

But Pidge couldn’t stop looking at it.

It was Shiro.

She didn’t want to remember what had happened at the cloning lab.

How Haggar had activated… dozens of clones, eerie replicas of Shiro’s face, scar scrunched in anger. How they had all rushed the team. How Ryou, despite his obvious panic, had activated his arm and struck down… himself. Over. And over. How the team had knocked one body unconscious… how Haggar had disappeared with a grating, echoing laugh.

And now…

The body with Ryou’s haircut, jagged scar tracing over the nose, was lying on the couch in the lounge. The only real difference was the purple, glowing port where Ryou and Shiro’s metallic arms were. Ryou had mumbled out a memory of having the arm… attached when he… woke up. No one mentioned it again.

Now… Ryou and Keith were clinging to each other, Ryou faintly shaking.

Hunk had an arm around Pidge and Lance. Nobody spoke.

And Allura had her hands on the body’s forehead, palms pink and eyes faintly glowing behind closed eyelids.

Finally, she looked up.

“This… this is very strange,” she murmured. “There is no parasite, like we saw in Ryou. But… there is no soul, either. No quintessence. Just a cold brain and an empty shell.” She gave a full body shudder. “I think… you and Shiro are right, Ryou. As… disturbing as this is… it should work.” She smiled hesitantly, making eye contact with Ryou. He forced himself to smile back, and Pidge reached over to gently squeeze his arm.

“Then let’s hop to it,” Coran smiled. He nodded to Hunk, who smiled back nervously and picked up the body. It was easy to forget sometimes just how strong Hunk was, but he still cradled the body so gently . Like it was fragile. Because it is. He is.

 

Her hands glowed a brilliant purple where they were placed on the black lion.

 

She placed them on the sides of the body’s face.

 

Ryou felt his breath howling in his chest, trapped and pounding.

 

Shiro’s eyes, opened, glowly slightly, hair a brilliant white. He arched up.

“You… you found me,” he murmured weakly, eyelids drooping as he leaned heavily against Keith.

Shiro’s eyes found Ryou’s. He mouthed a thank you. A wire strung taught.

“Rest, Shiro,” Allura whispered, eyes filled with tears.

Keith held onto his brother as if he would break, eyes wide, disbelieving.

Shiro’s eyes closed again as he whispered:

“It’s good to be home.”

 

The alarm sounded in the middle of the night, and Lance shot out of bed, already in a cold sweat from a nightmare. He scrambled up and pulled his armor, not bothering to take off his sleep clothes. He dashed out into the hallway, sprinting to the bridge. The sound of footsteps told him the others were on their way too.

When they reached the bridge, Allura was standing strong in her battle suit. Lance felt himself relax a little when he saw that she looked more puzzled than angry. If the Castle was actually being threatened, she would be livid.

“What’s the situation, Princess?” Ryou asked, arms crossed over his chest. With Shiro still in the pod, having fallen into a deep sleep a few minutes after his soul was transferred into the clone’s empty body, everyone was on edge. His twin most of all.

“A ship of Galran make has boarded us… but it appears to be from the Blade.”

“Then… why sound the alarm?” Keith asked, fiddling with his luxite knife. Allura gave him a deadpan stare.

“Even from an ally, being boarded in the middle of the night with no warning or signal isn’t… ideal. Is it now?” Keith shook his head sheepishly.

“No, it isn’t.” Everyone chuckled, the mood slightly lighter.

Hunk sighed.

“I guess we’re going down to give them a welcome greeting, right?”

“Hey, you’re learning!” Lance grinned, lightly hitting him on the shoulder.

They walked down, continuing to joke and laugh, even Allura. Ryou remained silent, but they got him to crack a smile a few times. Progress , Lance thought.

When they got to the hanger, the Princess turned to them.

“How do you say it? Gay face time?” Allura asked.

Pidge snorted loudly.

Game face time. But, honestly, that’s accurate too.”

“PIDGE!”

And then the doors slid open.

Nobody spoke.

Lance could hear air rushing through the Castle’s vents.

Two women stood before them.

A Galran woman with glowing red armor, twin, sharp marks on her cheeks, extending to the corners of her eyes. She was tall, taller than Keith, pointed ears showing beneath short blue and violet hair. Her face was stern, cold. She had one hand on the head of a huge blue-white wolf, mane glowing.

And, next to her…

Stood an Altean, balled fists quivering, trying to make herself seem taller.

The Galran woman’s eyes softened as she looked at the Paladins, settling on Keith.

“An… Altean?” Coran asked, tears in his eyes. There was so much disbelief there, painful, jagged hope.

“My name… is Romelle… there are some things that you need to know.”

 

Allura closed her eyes, her shoulders jolting, and began to sob.

“I… I thought I could t-trust him,” she gasped out. “I thought I could trust h-him.”

Arms circled her, her head slumped onto a shoulder, her eyes drooped.

“You have a family, Allura. We love you, and we’re going to get some answers.”

A smile wobbled onto her lips at Keith’s barely contained anger.

One way or another: she needed to speak with Lotor.

 

“Keith… may I speak with you?” The Galran woman, Krolia, seemed… nervous. Her hands were fidgeting, her brows drawn together.

“Is something wrong?” He really needed to set up the rendezvous with Lotor. It was difficult for him to keep the anger pounding in his ears on the back burner until he could get his hands on that slimy, purple little… he took a deep breath.

“No, everything is alright,” Krolia said, inclining her head. “I just… wanted to tell you something.”

Keith cocked an eyebrow.

“I’m all ears.”

She hesitated.

“I think it would be best if I showed you, first.” She extended her hand. “Might I see your Blade?” Immediately, Keith tensed, handle clutched possessively in white knuckles.

“It’s… important to me.”

Krolia shook her head, smiling slightly.

That’s the first time I’ve seen her smile.

“I just need to hold it for a moment.”

Reluctantly, Keith gave it to her, handle first.

She closed her eyes.

The knife glowed a brilliant violet and extended into a sword.

Eyes wide, Keith looked up at her.

“How did you summon it?” he asked rapidly, stepping forward. Krolia didn’t move. She closed her eyes, opened them, looked at him. There was so much pain there.

“Because it used to be mine. Before I gave it to your father.”

Keith stood stock still. He couldn’t think. He couldn’t move.

Finally, he whispered through numb lips.

“You’re my… mom?”

And then there were accusations and apologies and... 

And Keith sobbed, face pressed into his mom's, his mom's, shoulder. 

And his heart felt a little more full.

 

It was over.

The Castle was gone.

And so was Lotor.

Allura… Allura felt numb.

She just kept replaying the last words she spoke to him, over and over and over.

“You’re more like Zarkon than I could have ever imagined.”

And she meant it.

Both like the Zarkon of the war, bitter, corrupted, power-hungry, depraved.

And like the Zarkon of her past. Kind. Intelligent. Humble. Sweet.

She stared blankly at the stars from where she sat against Blue’s paw.

She was purring, sending waves of comfort.

It wasn’t enough.

The stars were usually beautiful to Allura: a rich tapestry of all she wanted to see, all she wanted to learn. The people she wanted to help. The places she wanted to go.

But now… they just made her eyes ache and her heart feel like a weight in her chest.

“Allura?”

Romelle.

The two had taken to talking late at night now. Romelle would tell her about the colony, the fields of waving blue cotton and her village’s festivals. Allura would tell her about the Altea of old, the twisting spires of the palace, the choirs with their strange dual-toned singing in odd hours of the night, echoing through the streets. It was dark, so no one could see them cry.

Neither of them mentioned Lotor.

But now…

She just couldn’t.

She couldn’t reminisce about good memories, about better times. It didn’t feel like she would ever have better times again.

“Not tonight, Romelle… I… I can’t.”

Romelle sank down onto one knee in front of her, earrings tinkling slightly in the breeze of the barren planet they had made camp on.

“Are you alright, Allura?” It was strange to hear someone else speak in clean, untranslated Altean, besides Coran. Romelle’s voice was soft and light, like music.

Her mind kept drifting from topic to topic, but she forced herself to smile and pat Romelle stiffly on the knee.

“I’m fine.”

To her surprise, Romelle’s face soured, and she rolled her eyes.

“Pardon me, Princess, but that’s dingur droppings.”

Allura’s eyes widened. Even among the Paladins, Coran, Ryou… nobody spoke to her that way. They just… didn’t. She wouldn’t have minded, but she supposed she was still a little intimidating.

Romelle was, apparently, not intimidated.

“Bottling up your emotions and pretending to be fine is not a proper solution to anything,” Romelle chided, staring Allura down.

“I… I…” Allura didn’t know why it shocked her so much.

But suddenly, she just couldn’t make herself smile and nod like a good little diplomat.

She let out a long, shuddering breath.

Romelle sighed.

“It’s different, of course. But… he was my hero. He saved us. I trusted him.”

She didn’t have to say his name of course. Allura felt her eyes fill with tears, and she tilted her head up, watching as the stars spun in her blurring vision.

”I suppose... some people d-don’t get their happy ending,” Allura murmured. Then, she let out a jagged sob.

“I t-thought h-he could be my family .”

It was a cold and quiet night, but Romelle’s arms were light, and warm, and the night was a little less bitter and dark. They cried onto each other’s shoulders. Her hair tickled her nose where her face was pressed into her hair.          

“It’s going to be alright. It’s going to be so much better than alright. I promise,” Romelle whispered in her ear. She smelled like juniberries.

It was a better night, then.

 

“No… Oh, god, no, please…”

Ryou was drowning. There was purple in his lungs, in his veins, there were golden eyes staring at him from a cruel purple face, shrouded in shadow, jagged red marks arcing down the cheeks. And then the eyes were his own, his own face contorted into a knife’s edge grin.

He could feel tears on his cheeks, or is it blood , and he was drowning.

And then his family was there in front of him, Pidge bleeding, Allura choking, Lance’s eyes glazed open, milky and cloudy. His hand was flickering purple and covered in blood, their blood.

Let me die, please, let me die…

“No, no, let me die, let me die, let me die.”

“Ryou?” a voice, then, strikingly familiar yet slightly different, rasp of stone on stone, soft and warm and calming. But it didn’t help, it didn’t help, he was drowning, oh, god, he was trapped.  

“Ryou… oh, shit, I’m gonna touch you now, okay? It’s gonna be okay, hey, hey.”

And then there were hands on his shoulders… but gentle, nothing like the clawed and ragged touch that was the only thing he knew, was supposed to know, and he arched up, panting, still seeing purple. But… this purple was deeper, warmer… There was a thrum of calm there.

I’m in Black. I’m in Black.

His breath was clawing at his throat, and he clutched his chest, his vision clearing a little to see Shiro, eyes wide in worry.

He seemed to understand, because he took Ryou’s left hand and placed in on his chest, taking exaggerated deep breaths.

Slowly, Ryou felt his pulse stop eating at his veins, felt his breath settle down into the realm of normalcy. And the emotions were too much, switching from one to another to one to another.

He let out a harsh little sob.

“I’m sorry, I’m so s-sorry,” he choked out.

Shiro wrapped him in his arms. (For some reason, his twin’s arms were never panic-inducing. Always soothing, always grounding.

“It’s okay. I’m here. It’s gonna be okay.”

 

“A-Adam… no… no …”

Shiro’s jaw heart from gritting his teeth.

Iverson had left to give him some privacy.

And he was sitting on the ground in front of the memorial wall, shaking his head back and forth vehemently, clutching his face in his hands.

He could taste blood in his mouth from where he had bit down on his tongue.

No …”

He stopped moving slowly, like a wind-up toy that had run out of juice.

He had been through a lot.

And, through it all, he had held onto this tiny thread.

I just want to see Adam again . I just want to hold him again .

And now…

Even that stupid notion was gone.

Shiro let out a humorless bark of a laugh in the midst of his panicked sobbing.

He had really been stupid enough to think that he deserved that tiny bit of light at the end of the tunnel.

This is my fault.

I brought the Galra to Earth.

Sendak invaded Earth because of me.

Adam is dead because of me.

His heartbeat felt like lead and dust.

“Shiro, dork, are you there? You in here? They need you in the briefing room…”

The voice trailed off.

Soft footsteps came closer to him, but he just continued rocking in place and pulling at his now-white hair, breaths rattling in his throat.

Before another question was asked, an “are you okay?” or “what happened?”, Shiro slapped the wall where Adam’s stupid officer portrait was, a tiny block in a sea of lost faces.

“…Oh…”   

His twin sank down next to him, a comforting, tethering weight pressing against his flesh shoulder. A head leaned against his shoulder, and his rocking slowed.

Ryou didn’t speak.

They didn’t need to.

After a few minutes of jagged sobs and Ryou gently rubbing his arm, Shiro mumbled out:

“I deserve this.”

And, just like that, Ryou’s mask of comforting placidity fell away, and he turned to Shiro in a snap, defensive brother.

“What the fuck do you mean, you deserve this?”

Shiro’s breath hitched.

“I-it’s m-my fault the Galra c-came here… i-it’s my f-fault Adam d-died. I-if I hadn’t escaped… if I h-had died in the ring… he w-would be o-okay.”
“Shiro, no.” Ryou’s hands came to rest on his and gently pulled his fingers away from tugging at his hair, then came to rest on his shoulders.

“Listen to me. Is it my fault that you were in the astral plane for as long as you were?”

Shiro’s head snapped up.

“O-of course not, you l-little shit.”

“Then how the fuck does blaming the victim help? In any situation? How are you different?”

Shiro made to interrupt.

“Sendak’s a fucking monster, Shiro,” Ryou growled, “and I swear to you, he will pay for this. But you can’t blame his actions on yourself. This was not your fault.”

“Besides,” Ryou smiled a little then. “From what I remember, Adam wouldn’t have taken too kindly to you sacrificing yourself for him or trying to protect him from his duties. Would he? What was the phrase he used when you used to do that? You told me once, remember?”

Shiro gave a watery chuckle, shocked out of his stupor.

“H-he would quote H-Hercules at me. ‘I-I’m a damsel, I’m i-in distress, I can h-handle this.”

He looked down at his hands then, one white and laced with blue, one pale and scarred.

A tear plopped down onto the prosthetic.

“We d-deserved a happy ending,” he whispered.

They canceled the debriefing that day.

 

“Be with the ones you love.”

Shiro and Ryou had taken the day for Shiro to get his twin to try weird foods he liked and learn more Earth things.

Allura and Romelle were exploring the barter markets.

Hunk was busy cooking up a storm for Shay and Pidge’s family.

And Lance… was sitting on the Black Lion.

He didn’t honestly know why.

But he had gotten some sort of… signal from Red to go here, basically the equivalent of her pushing him in the back and growling “go”.

So here he was.

It was a beautiful sunrise, to be fair.

And then he heard footsteps.

He looked back and saw… Keith.

Keith, wearing a black button down, beloved mullet tied back in a horsetail. Scar from the fight with Haggar and the clones tracing his right cheek.

A bouquet of blue and red flowers in his hands.

Lance wanted to make a funny joke, or say a pickup line.

But all he stammered out, heart sinking, was:

“Oh. Who are the flowers for?”

Keith’s eyes widened, and a blush spread across his cheeks.

He looks beautiful.

Shut up, traitorous bisexual disaster brain .

“I… I didn’t want to pry. It’s just… you’re all dressed up, so you must be meeting someone special,” Lance managed a grin.

Keith actually rolled his eyes.

“You’re an idiot. You know that, right?”

Lance winked impishly, heart stuttering at the affection in Keith’s voice.

“It’s my specialty. You didn’t answer the question, though.”

Keith growled, shoulders tensed, and stuck out his arm.

“They’re for you, dumbass,” he grumbled, looking away.

Oh.

Wait.

What just happened?

Lance couldn’t move. He couldn’t speak. And Keith saw, and blushed more.

“I… I am so sorry… holy shit, I’m gonna go throw these away, maybe ask Krolia to send me to a Blade outpost thousands of phoebs away-”

“Keith…”

Keith’s mouth snapped closed, eyes wide.

“…They’re beautiful.”

Lance took a deep breath, and looked Keith square in the eyes, smiling.

His heart felt too full, a good sort of ache settling there.

“You look beautiful, too.”

Lance didn’t know the sunrise could get better, but with slightly chapped lips brushing his cheek, he realized it could.    

 

“This one suits you,” Romelle grinned wickedly, picking up a full body green robe, probably built for a Balmeran three feet taller than her. Allura groaned.

“I’m so flattered ,” she grumbled.

“Actually…” and Allura’s eyes widened as Romelle cautiously drew out an intricately woven handkerchief from her dress pocket.

Little juniberries were sown in violet thread around the borders of the pink silk.

“I don’t… don’t know about the traditions in Altea… but in the colony… when we want to… show that we care for someone… we give them a handkerchief. As a little token,” Romelle rambled, the bit of cloth twisting in her nervously twitching fingers.

Allura felt a smile growing on her face.

When Romelle looked up and met her eyes, she positively beamed.

Allura launched forward and kissed her full on the lips, laughing, smiling.

“I take that… as reciprocation?” Romelle gasped breathlessly, laughing too.

It was a clear blue sky, it was early in the morning, and, with Romelle in her arms, Allura decided that she deserved this. That she was worthy of this.

So she kissed her again and bought her an Earthian dessert, her fingers loosely interlaced, soft and warm.

 

“I can change the Quintessence in your vessel. Your… your son helped me learn how to transform it from a destructive force into a life-giving force. But… you must take this leap.”

Honerva’s eyes widened, dark skin sallow in the bright light of the Quintessence field.

“That would require… incredible amounts of Quintessence. More… more than I can give,” she stuttered out, voice rasping.

Allura took a deep breath, thoughts flashing through her mind.

Her father would have sacrificed himself, never thinking of himself. Never thinking of the family he was leaving behind.

Allura didn’t have that luxury.

He hadn't either. 

She could do more good alive than dead.

And, besides… I have a few people to stick around for , Allura thought to herself. She thought of her Paladins, her family , Coran, Ryou… a girl with white blond hair in a braided crown atop her head with a smile in her voice and a soft voice.

“I… I have an idea.”

Allura closed her eyes and breathed deep. She reached out through the bond that she and the Paladins shared. That Shiro still shared. She felt the thrums of Voltron, and sent her idea down.

The response was unanimous.

Do it .

There was a great roar.

And Allura opened her eyes to see them.

A huge lion with a golden coat and warm honeyed irises, padding around Hunk and nudging him with his massive head.

A small green lioness with a sleek emerald coat, intelligent eyes drinking in Pidge as she curled tight around her.

A blue lioness, eyes as warm and fathomless as the ocean. She first gently nuzzled Lance. Then she came to rest under Allura’s hand.

A red lioness, warm maroon tongue lapping at Lance’s hands as he gave a little, wet laugh.

And a huge black lion, mane threaded with silver and white, who wrapped around Shiro and Keith and gave a deep, rumbling purr.

Are you sure?

We are.

Honerva, looked up, eyes wide in understanding, and nodded.

As Allura channeled the Quintessence through her, she linked hands with her family. Feeling their spirits pounding, helping her contain the raw force.

Before them flickered, as if in a mirage…

A white haired prince.

A young Galran emperor.

And a huge, white Lion.

Allura bowed.

Honerva stepped forward with the Lions, eyes wide in awe.

Thank you ,” Allura murmured, squeezing her family’s hands.

And there was a brilliant flash of light.

 

“What… what the…”

“No way…”

But Shiro didn’t hear their explanations.

Shiro didn’t care.

There had been energy, and a sense of restoration, a seized spirit trapped in limbo.

And Shiro opened his eyes to Adam’s face.

His brown skin was scarred with burns along the right side of his face down his neck. The body seemed to flicker for a moment before settling into a real physical form, as the small trace of the Lions’ Quintessence that had remained after their sacrifice filtered into and solidified Shiro’s fiance.

One of Adam’s eyes was glassy and blind.

The other was piercing and intelligent as always. And when Adam saw him, Shiro was bowled over by the force of his whisper.

Kashi?

There weren’t any words then, just Shiro rushing forward.

Just Adam intercepting him.

Arms around each other.

Sobbing.

Screaming.

Kisses pressed beneath both eyes and hands clasping cheeks as if to ensure that the other was real.

The sky was piercingly blue.

And their family…

They were whole.